Active Culture

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Co-conductor and cellist Karim Wasfi with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra in Baghdad in May. Chris Hondros/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Hondros/Getty Images

I was the number one fan of cultural relativism when I took Intro to Human Rights and Ethics and International Development.
That was my sophomore year of University. I had gone to junior high and high school in Jerusalem so I thought I knew what I was talking about when it came to being an American in a foreign country. I dressed conservatively when I was in East Jerusalem (where I lived) and the West Bank*. But all of my supposed expertise was thrown into question when I ended up living in much more conservative Amman, Jordan for the spring semester of my junior year at University. Even in black pants and a muted top I stood out while walking across Jordan University campus to class. I tried tweaking more and more of my wardrobe to blend into the background. But I was never successful — I just ended up looking like an American without a sense of style. Eventually I gave up trying to blend in. It was an impossible task to begin with. But I didn't don tube tops and mini skirts either. I tried to find a happy medium: maintain a sense of style, and identity, but avoid insult.

I know this is a seemingly small and silly story (and its about fashion!), but its my brush with cultural relativism, and for that matter, cultural imperialism. It's an experience that I think about a lot when I'm trying to figure out how I feel about sharing or exporting American culture (and yes American culture includes how we dress!).
Today we are talking to Melik Kaylan, culture contributor to the Wall Street Journal, and Karim Wasfi, co-conductor and director of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, about culture in Iraq and just how much of American culture we should share with Iraqis. Have you ever had to make a decision about how much of your culture you brought to the table? How did it make you think differently about sharing culture? Tell us your story!

*If you ever need a tip on how to dress coolly — and I mean that in both the fashion and temperature sense — while keeping your arms and legs covered I've got solutions.

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Can NPR explain to its listeners why on the anniversary of 9/11 TON has chosen to do a show on Iraq?
Last time I checked Iraq had nothing to do with the 9/11 tragedy, except in the minds of the most partisan Republicans. What's up with this, Neal?

I am a New Yorker, and lived through those attacks, and this show is an insult to me.

Sent by John | 2:08 PM | 9-11-2008

I have a question. How do you think the dangers and violence in Iraq and its current situation has effected the music played by the orchestra?

Sent by Amy | 3:11 PM | 9-11-2008

I learned a bit about the hardships that musicians face in Iraq from a brilliant documentary called Heavy Metal in Baghdad (www.heavymetalinbaghdad.com). The documentary follows the band ACRASSICAUDA from 2003 until 2006.

Sent by Lory Gil | 3:41 PM | 9-11-2008

I AM ONE OF FEW ITAQIS IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY ARRANGING AN EVENING WITH SAFFAR'S IRAQI MAQAM ON NOVEMBER 1, 2008. WE BELIEVE IT IS ONE WAY TO INTRODUCE THE IRAQI HERITAGE TO NON IRAQIS AND LET IRAQIS ENJOY THIS BEAUTIFUL TRADITION.

Sent by VAL WARDA | 3:53 PM | 9-11-2008