About 4,500 kilometers away from Saudi Arabia, a small country tucked away in an isolated Arctic corner of Europe with fewer than 5 million people has focused on its cultural achievements and promoting cultural interaction with the Arab world, particularly Saudi Arabia.
That nation is none other than Finland, where a growing interest is now seen among its people to learn more about the Arab culture, learn Arabic and interact with the Arabic-speaking world.
They have already set up a Finnish-Arabic Society, launched a magazine called “Marhaba” to focus on the exchange of Arab and Finish art, recently began a project to translate the famous Finnish epic into Arabic and have lined up several programs of cultural exchange.
They are also talking to the Saudi Commission of Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) and King Saud University (KSU) as well as many other Gulf organizations to undertake joint cultural projects and forge closer ties in the field of art, architecture and museology.
This is in the interest of both nations. Finland is not only the largest manufacturer of digital cell phones, it ranks top on the design and innovation front. Finland today excels and occupies the entire spectrum of design, and hence Helsinki has been designated as World Design Capital 2012, said Jarno Peltonen, chairman of the Helsinki-based Didrichsen Art Foundation and Museum who is currently visiting the Kingdom.
Besides being an ardent lover of art and culture of the Arabian Peninsula, Peltonen is also president of the Finnish-Arabic Society and a prominent figure in the world of art and architecture of Europe.
Peltonen, whose book “Journey Through the Arab world” is under publication, is also a major advocate of Finnish architecture and design. Arab News spoke to this cultural ambassador in the presence of Finnish Ambassador Jarno Syrjala. Peltonen explained the design trends, educational trends and new cultural renaissance taking place in Finland.
Peltonen said an ambitious project to translate and publish the national epic of Finland the “Kalevala” into Arabic has also been launched. Once published, the epic will be distributed among schools in Saudi Arabia. Kalevala, which has been translated into 90 languages so far, is one of the most significant works of Finnish literature, which played an instrumental role in the development of the Finnish national identity and the growing sense of nationalism that ultimately led to Finland's independence from Russia in 1917.
Peltonen, who spent five days in the Saudi capital talking about cultural interaction between the Arab world and Europe, particularly with Finland; that he was looking forward to developing new creative collaborations with local Arabic arts and engage audiences in new ways.
“I'm excited to visit Riyadh, emboldened and with a fresh perspective, yet also with a sense of coming to a place known for rich Arab culture and heritage…I grew up in and have always been passionate about the art and culture of Arab world,” he added.
Referring to his talks with SCTA officials, he said he expressed his interest in sharing the Finnish experience in the field of city planning. Peltonen, who also delivered a key lecture at the department of architecture at King Saud University, said he held wide-ranging talks with faculty members and students on issues related to architecture. He pointed out that a plan to send a group of Finnish architecture experts and museologists to the Kingdom was in the pipeline.
Asked about the areas of cooperation identified so far, he said some potential fields include the teaching of architecture, museology and design works. Finland is responsible for a quality of design that is admired throughout the world. Finnish artists occupy the entire spectrum of modern design from heavy industry to fashion, and sculpted glass to icebreakers, said Peltonen, while referring to the Finnish contributions in the world of art and culture.
He said a stroll through the center of Helsinki takes one past design shops, such as Arabia, Marimekko, Artek, filled with products reflecting imagination and superior quality; they are functional yet colorful, tasteful and elegant. He said the excellence of Finnish design has caused many people to wonder how such a relatively remote country could turn out such an abundance of attractive things.
These things can also be brought to the Kingdom, said Peltonen, adding the Finnish-Arabic Society established in 1963 works on increasing awareness about the Arab world.
He said the Finnish-Arabic Society produces the magazine “Marhaba” every year, which is distributed in libraries, museums and schools, to educate Finnish society about the Arab region. “I have a feeling that the interest in Arab culture is increasing now more than ever,” Peltonen says.
“Our plan is to distribute the next issue of this magazine in Saudi schools and institutions also,” said the Finnish campaigner, adding that he seeks to contribute to introduce the newest trends in the field and revitalize exchanges regarding architecture and design between Saudi Arabia and Finland. To this end, he noted that the Finnish-Arabic Society has been organizing regular lectures on subjects related to the Arab world. The society, he said, has been inviting Arab ambassadors posted in Helsinki to interact with Finnish people on the subject of art and culture.
He said Finnish design demonstrates how the marriage of the decorative arts and technology has resulted in one of Finland's major resources. Finnish art and design incorporated into general objects like chairs, textiles, glass and tableware by renowned Finnish design icons such as Kaj Franck, Alvar and Aino Aalto, Maija Isola, Kaarina Aho and Tapio Wirkkala, alongside Ittala, Arabia, Marimekko, Mobel, Suunto and others.
“Finnish design offers a practical solution to a problem,” writes curator Peltonen. “It has many functions, it is made of materials of quality, and is designed with longevity in mind.” He said that these achievements led the world to recognize Helsinki. The capital of Finland has now been chosen as “World Design Capital 2012” by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, said Peltonen, adding the Finnish capital has become increasingly more multicultural.
Referring to the activities of the Finnish-Arabic Society, he said the influence of Arabic and Islamic culture is growing in Finland, where Islam is a minority religion. The society, he said, was playing a constructive role in this context also. He pointed out that the first Muslims to go to Finland were Tatars, who immigrated to the country mainly between 1870 and 1920. Since the late 20th century, the number of Muslims in Finland has increased rapidly due to immigration.
Nowadays, there are dozens of Islamic societies and communities in Finland. There is also an indigenous Finnish Muslim community besides a number of mosques, said Peltonen. There are several clubs and museums with remnants of Islamic culture. The Didrichsen Museum of Art and Culture, which is located by the sea on the western side of Helsinki, is among them. Didrichsen is one of the world's largest privately-owned museums.