Whether in the ancient library of Alexandria or the famed public recitals of pre-Islamic poetry in the Gulf, culture in the Middle East and beyond thrives when people come together.
That is in part why Covid-19 has been devastating to the arts. Incomes dried up, museums, concert halls and theatres closed and the usual forums for collaboration went away. A recent report by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi and Unesco shows how people in the sector were among the hardest hit by the pandemic.
Fortunately, things are changing as the pressures of Covid-19 lift. Abu Dhabi's Culture Summit 2022, which started on Sunday and will run until October 25 at Manarat Al Saadiyat, is a good example.
The event hosts international and regional experts who speak as part of panels, workshops and individual presentations. This year's event falls under the the "A Living Culture" and will look at the role of collective, inclusive culture and how to profit from it.
Inaugurating the event, Mohamed Al Mubarak, chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, said conferences such as the Culture Summit Abu Dhabi should not be taken for granted, as they are opportunities for people to continuously learn from one another.
In attendance are famous names from across the sector, including comedian Trevor Noah, renowned architects Frank Gehry and David Adjaye, Emirati diplomat and author Omar Ghobash and even the world's first ultra-realistic artist robot Ai-Da, which can write, draw, paint and speak.
The event is international, but not forgetting its Middle Eastern base. Alongside performers from across the world, regional acts such as Lebanese singer Jahida Wehbe, Iraqi musician Naseer Shamma and a Kabul-based Sufi dance and performing arts group will take centre stage.
A list as diverse as this shows quite powerful culture and the arts are as global conveners. It should not be forgotten that these conversations have an important political purpose, too.
Afghan culture, for example, is set to be explored in a special session. The new Taliban government has been hostile to creativity and diversity of thought. It is only small consolation given all that the country has lost recently, but Abu Dhabi can offer some of the country's artists a temporary home and stage.
Culture is, after all, a particularly effective way of bringing marginalised people to bigger audiences. In a recent interview for The National, Reem Fadda, curator of the summit, elaborated on how the city can give exposure to artists who have recently lost it, or never really had any in the first place. "Abu Dhabi can be an equitable platform for these voices ... Diversity is still an urgent issue in the world, and coming from here, we feel that moving forward and trying to create that equitable balance in representation is essential.”
Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island is a home for this spirit. Mr Adjaye will deliver a keynote speech on his work on the island's Abrahamic Family House, a complex that houses a mosque, synagogue and church side-by-side, serving as a monument to religious tolerance. It will be completed in 2023.
Culture thrives during and in the aftermath of hard times. The medieval bubonic plague is considered a factor behind the emergence of the Renaissance era, empowering a new class of artisans who could demand more of their employers in a hugely diminished workforce. It also compelled people to think intensely about life's deepest questions – more than 25 million died, after all.
We do not yet know the effect that Covid-19 has had on the world's most gifted creative circles, but it will certainly be huge. That is why this year's Culture Summit is going to be special. It will be an early window into new artistic movements and themes to come.