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Folklife Puts the Spotlight on Oman

The 39th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival kicks off today on the National Mall and, for the first time in the history of the event, an Arab nation will be featured as one of the festival’s main exhibits.

“Oman: Desert, Oasis and Sea” will showcase the richness and complexity of a country that draws its culture from both the traditional Arab world, as well as from India and East Africa, with which it has a long history of trade, event planners said.

U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, Richard Baltimore III, approached the Smithsonian about an Oman program shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to festival director Diana Parker.

Aside from reaching out to the Arab world, Baltimore “thought that with the richness of the culture in Oman it would be a great thing to have as part of the festival,” Parker said.

“Anybody can recommend a program,” Parker added. “If we can find cultural specialists that we can work with, and we can come up with the funding to do it, we will proceed.”

Now, after nearly four years of work between the Smithsonian Institution, the Embassy of the Sultanate of Oman and cultural experts, the festival hopes to “provide an opportunity to focus on Arab culture at a time when it is much misunderstood around the world.”

“Ironically, the very summer after 9/11 was” the Silk Road, an exhibit with participants from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, Parker recalled. But the aftermath of the attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York clouded the exhibit, she added.

“I think we all feel a special need to get it right,” Parker said of this year’s program. “I think we all would like to start getting people to begin thinking about each other in human terms. And we hope we can accomplish that at the festival.”

Rich Kennedy, the Oman curator, said the exhibit’s focus will be on the cultural adaptation to a unique geographical environment. More than 100 craftspeople, musicians and cooks will provide insight into how generations of trade infiltrated a largely Arab-Muslim nation, Kennedy said. “Some of the features — the desert camp with the camels — I think will be of particular interest,” he added.

Like Oman, the festival’s other three programs will allow attendees to immerse themselves in activities such as dancing, cooking, harvesting and even wilderness survival skills.

The festival’s “Nuestra Musica: Music in Latino Culture” program returns for its second consecutive year. An evening concert series will showcase a variety of musical styles and cultures from Latin America.

“What we’re focusing on this year is how music is used to build communities in Latin America, and how immigrants use music to create a community in a new place. And that is new from last year,” Parker said.

In “Food Culture USA,” attendees will learn how food has long served as a bridge between Americans of different backgrounds. “We’re looking at the impact of immigrants from other parts of the world on what we eat,” Parker explained. “I mean, look around you; 40 years ago you couldn’t have a Chinese restaurant and an Italian restaurant in the same town, let alone the same street.”

Food Culture will also explore a return to what organizers called seasonal craft. “One of the themes of the festival is called passing it on. There we’re looking at ways chefs and cooks are handing down traditions, in their own kitchens and even in their homes,” said Stephen Kidd, co-curator of “Food Culture USA.”

The “Edible Schoolyard” part of this exhibit will allow visitors to plant and harvest their own food, and then learn recipes to prepare it.

“Forest Service, Culture and Community” will combine the occupational aspects of working in the Forest Service — which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year — with the unique artistry of the forest service communities.

Participants will get a chance to build a house out of energy-efficient materials provided by the agency’s Forest Products Laboratory, as well as see an Alaskan totem pole maker at work.

As far as how the 39th festival will stack up to years past, Parker said the only thing that’s for certain is that no two are ever the same. “Honestly, they’re like kids,” she said. “These things take on their own personality and the mature as the festival goes on.”

The festival, located between Seventh and 14th streets on the Mall, runs from today to Monday and June 30 to July 4. Festival hours are 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. each day.

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