WASHINGTON (AP) -- Lebanese dancers, a Shakespeare production from Kuwait portraying Saddam Hussein as "Richard III" and incredible wedding dresses from the Arab world are showcased in an unprecedented arts festival opening at the Kennedy Center.

The $10 million, three-week festival, "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World," began Monday. It will feature 800 artists from 22 different countries including Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Somalia and Sudan. Organizers say that makes it the largest presentation of Arab arts ever in the United States.

The hundreds of visual and performing artists, hailing from well-established theaters and more isolated places, "are excited that America is going to take their cultural work seriously," said Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The goal, he said, is "to get to understand Arabs as people, as opposed to Arabs as political entities."

A 120-member children's choir from Syria struck Kaiser during some of his travels as the perfect fit for a U.S. audience, which may hold negative political images about Syria.

"When you see beautiful little children singing," he said, "it's very hard to think of those children as being evil."

Tickets are in high demand, with some performances selling out quickly. Some people have posted messages online saying they're willing to pay any price for certain shows. The festival's exhibits, though, are free, as well as many other performance each day. The events run through March 15.

One of the hottest-selling tickets is a production from the only professional theater group in the Palestinian territories, the Al-Kasaba Theatre in Ramallah. "Alive from Palestine: Stories Under Occupation," a play that sparked controversy for its portrayal of Israelis in 2002 when it was presented at Yale University, features characters emerging from a pile of newspapers to tell their stories.

"The message of the play itself is that we are people like anybody else in the whole world," said George Ibrahim, the theater's artistic director. "We don't like to be a number of injured and dead people. ... We are just artists saying to the American people, please see our side."

Kennedy Center officials, who staged similar festivals focused on China and Japan in recent years, said they heard some complaints about including the Palestinian group but maintain it will promote dialogue.

Exhibits will feature traditional and contemporary art, as well as an "Exploratorium," with a film showcasing Arab contributions to math, science, medicine and astronomy before the Renaissance in Europe. "I didn't realize that algebra was an Arab word — al-jabru," Kaiser said.

The exhibition of bridal dresses will show the region's intricate textiles, with wildly varying designs, colors and jewelry.

"It's going to be something everybody can relate to, whether you're interested in Arab culture or not," said festival curator Alicia Adams.

Another striking installation — a walkthrough kaleidoscope created by Lebanese artist Lara Baladi — has an ever changing selection of images to convey a sense of "universality," Baladi said.

When planning for the project began five years ago, it seemed daunting. The United States was engaged in two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and U.S. prestige in the region was suffering.

"I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know whether artists were going to want to come to America," said Adams, the center's vice president of international programming. "But I was pleasantly surprised that ... they weren't angry with the American people, but they were certainly angry with the Bush administration."

The League of Arab States, representing 325 million people in Africa and Asia, partnered with the center to help coordinate the festival. Funding was provided by the HRH Foundation, individual contributors, and the nations of Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

Organizers said they were careful to separate the center's political connections in Washington from its artistic selections. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example, was recently appointed to the Kennedy Center's board but was not involved in the planning, nor were members of the current administration.

"We didn't know who the president would be. We made our commitments to the artists about a year ago," Kaiser said. "That was done on purpose. It took politics out of the selection process."

Still, it helped to have a new president taking charge as some artists prepared for a trip to Washington.

"They knew that our government was going to change," Adams said, "so I think that gave them some hope."


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