When the first festival to celebrate Arab culture was held in 2011, it was suffused with the elation of the Arab Spring.
“Shubbak; A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture” coincided with the fall of tyrannies, the rise of hope that everything was changing for the better, but today, what is the role of the third “Shubbak”? Only weeks after the massacre of holidaymakers in Tunisia, the troubles confronting the Arab world are more disruptive, more intractable and more perilous than ever.
Artistic director Eckhard Thiemann puts it simply: “‘Shubbak’ proves the power of art and culture, that’s why it is important. Artists can say very complex things very simply and simple things in a complex way. That is the opposite approach to the way we come up with the opinions we read in the media. It is not necessarily a counter view but it brings the complexity of human experience into focus.”
Many of the events, which include dance, theatre, visual arts, books and film, inevitably reflect the tumult of the countries the creators and performers have left behind. As the festival chairman Omar Al Qattan wrote two years ago: “These global wanderers carry their pain with them wherever they go, creating work against the odds.”
But, says Thiemann: “Not all our work carries pain. The art is expressed in different ways — some is very serious, some very celebratory, some provocative, some very subtle and very personal. It is important for us to give artists the freedom to express themselves and their concerns just as we do because we have a very different relationships to our own world and we can very often carry different emotions at the same time.”
But why London as the hub for that focus? “The idea of ‘Shubbak’ was first mooted in 2010 and designed to be a one-off but the Arab world became so poignant and so relevant that an independent charity was set up to make it a biennial event in the city,” says Thiemann.
“London has the most global connections in the arts with the Arab world and it has long-established communities who have called London home for many years. Of the 130 contributors about 30 are from London. We have a huge number of artists, students, tourists and, of course, refugees. Some of the contributors have left their homelands to pursue their artistic ambitions in freedom. There is a new generation coming here, all with different identities.”
New generations mean fresh interpretations. The dance group Badke perform a version of the traditional dance, the dabke. The performers, all 10 from Palestine, with backgrounds in modern dance, hip-hop and even circus as well as dabke, bring a fierce joy to their act but the relentless energy is as if they are trying to fight for fellow countrymen living under occupation and violence.
Similarly, “When The Arabs Used To Dance” by Tunisian choreographer Radhouane El Meddeb harks back to the heyday of popular Arab cinema in the 1960s and 1970s when Egyptian cinema particularly evoked the spirit of Hollywood with song and dance and sultry screen sirens.
Films of a more contemporary nature have been selected by the Palestinian director Michel Khleifi. He has chosen his own films as well as those by Palestinian and the Arab movie makers.
In “Fertile Memory”, two Palestinian women struggle to defend their rights while “Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel” traces the journey he made with fellow film-maker Eyal Sivan in the summer of 2002. They called it “Route 181” after the United Nations Resolution 181, which partitioned Palestine into two states in 1947.
He has also selected a triple bill of documentaries entitled “Visions of Palestine”, which includes “Ma’loul Celebrates its Destruction”, which tells the story of a Palestinian village in Galilee which was destroyed by the Israeli armed forces and its inhabitants expelled in 1948. The ones who live there are allowed to visit only once a year when they have a picnic on the site of the destroyed village.
The politics, the predicaments, that many Arab countries face, is inextricably woven into the art. In “Another Day Lost”, Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj has assembled what appears to be a random collection of little boxes scattered on the floor or on a platform. The boxes are made up of pages from books he found in a Cambridge bookshop where he teaches. Images are juxtaposed, such as birds, their eggs, snatches of poetry, musical notes, medical notes, letters in Braille, different colours and textures.
Each box represents a tent in refugee camp where everything is makeshift and from which there is no escape. Around the edge, like a fence or the bars of a prison, used matches are lined as if in a tally to mark the passing of the days.
On July 11, the day the festival opened, there were 1,579 matches ringed around the five versions of the installation scattered around London; by the end on July 26, there will be 1,593. Each match represents a day lost since the beginning of the Syrian uprising.
“We are immigrants in our own lives,” says Kourbaj. “We start from the womb and we have scars but the difference between us and the Syrian refugees is that they have visible and invisible scars — of permanent and continuous loss. We have lost our homes, the land, the people and the families. Millions are waiting out the war in camps and abandoned buildings. They are citizens of a tent.”
An exhibition at the Mosaic Rooms in West London is not burdened by the awareness of such tragedy. Called “I Spy with My Little Eye”, it brings together a group of artists who were born after the Lebanese civil war in 1975 but who have a connection of some sort with Beirut. For the most part the result is work that is quirky and often clever with no reference to strife.
Geörgette Power’s enigmatic video which might be set in an airport (or not), remains untitled and unexplained. It could be about the fluidity of global cultures while Mirna Bamieh’s huge, projected slow-motion yawn, “A Brief Commentary On Almost Everything”, gives the viewer five minutes to draw their own conclusions as to what might be going on behind — not the opening and shutting mouth, but the eyes. George Awde is one of the few who have made work that springs directly from the contemporary situation with his photographs of Syrian boys living in Beirut. So has Aya Haidar, though she dismisses the thought that she might be considered as overtly political as, say, Issam Kourbaj.
“I do prefer the personal over the political,” she says. “When I say political I mean in the sense of shouting at the barriers or burning the flags of the US, Israel or Cuba. I’m not didactic. Much of my inspiration comes from being with my mother and grandmother when they were sewing and knitting.”
In her series “Soleless”, Haidar, who moved to London in 1985, has taken her old shoes and embroidered on the soles the images of a small boy who has been blown up by a bomb and in “Return to Sender”, the piece she is showing in the “I Spy” show, she has taken actual letters sent to and from the UN offices in Beirut and pinned them on a nondescript office notice board.
They need a close look; the words, addresses and titles on the buff envelopes have been re-worked to undermine the purpose of the organisations — thus the National Association for the Violation of Rights for Disabled People, The United Nations Stalls Development Programmes in Jordan.
In his four plays, “Nahda”, playwright Sevan K. Greene is looking at politics in a personal way that “erases the media’s theatre of terror”.
“I am trying to make people rethink how they perceive Middle Eastern people and culture and make them understand what it means to be a contemporary Middle Easterner because I think a lot of people’s assumptions are based on old ideologies.”
The four short works that make up “Nahda”, which are being staged at the Bush Theatre in the West of London, look at the confusion of a second generation children of refugees about their identity, British Muslim soldiers who have returned home from fighting in the Middle East and are wrestling with the dilemma of having to kill their cultural brothers, the West’s obsession with consumerism and five generations of Arab women using social media to gain recognition for their part in the Arab Spring.
“For me, especially as I am a refugee [from Kuwait after the first Gulf War], I am interested in how war effects people,” says Greene. “I always look at the political through the personal because I don’t fancy myself as the one who is knowledgeable about politics. If I want to watch how politicians speak I will watch a debate on TV but what interests me is how things affect people.”
Richard Holledge is a writer based in London.
Literature Festival, The British Library, 96 Euston Road, July 26
Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat, a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, will read from some of her intriguing works such as “The Stone of Laughter and The Tiller of Waters”.
The new generation of writers will be highlighted in a discussion chaired by cultural commentator Bidisha with Syrian author Shahla Ujayli, Omani writer Jokha Al Harthi and controversial Yemeni author Ali Al Muqri.
Drawing your Attention: Comics and the Graphic Novel in the Arab World is a discussion chaired by Paul Gravett, co-curator of “Comics Unmasked”, with pioneers of the form, including Lena Merhej of the Samandal collective in Lebanon, Andeel of Egypt’s Arabic comic magazine “Tok-Tok” and Libyan-British manga-influenced comic writer and artist, Asia Alfasi.
Elias Khoury, author of a number of award-winning novels, including “Gate of the Sun”, discusses his writing and inspirations with academic and critic Marina Warner. Khoury will also read from a selection of his novels.
Echoes and Reverberations, Hayward Gallery Project Space, Southbank, until August 16.
Newly commissioned and existing artworks from six contemporary artists who examine oral and aural history and the roles they play in shaping and recalling history. For example, Jumana Emil Abboud is inspired by Palestinian folk tales in “A Happy Ending part II: Two Skins”, while Joe Namy investigates the traditions of the harmonium in space, breath, time.
The Mix, Rich Mix, Bethnal Green Road, July 25
International Arab music in the festival finale with Egyptian jazz-rock fusion band Massar Egbari and Palestinian electro-dabke band 47SOUL.
Some of the events have been put online to broaden the festival’s appeal beyond London. They include:
Hello Psychaleppo, aka Samer Saem Eldahr, creates the new video “Shahba” (another name for Aleppo) by mixing original video footage from his hometown, sampling the music of the city’s singer Nehad Najjar, and blending it with his own illustrations to pay homage to the city that formed him.
“Top Goon Reloaded: Intimate Diaries of Evil”, created by Masasit Mati has a new episode of the no-holds-barred satirical puppet theatre.