The UK’s biggest celebration of Arabic arts and culture celebrates its 20th anniversary

The UK’s biggest celebration of Arabic arts and culture celebrates its 20th anniversary
This summer marks the landmark 20th birthday of the groundbreaking Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. (Photo courtesy: Gadsden Hayton)
Updated 29 June 2018

The UK’s biggest celebration of Arabic arts and culture celebrates its 20th anniversary

The UK’s biggest celebration of Arabic arts and culture celebrates its 20th anniversary

LIVERPOOL: Historically, Liverpool has attracted international attention for many reasons: most famously as the breeding place of the most successful band ever, The Beatles, home of England’s second most-successful football team, Liverpool FC, and as the site of venerable horse race the Grand National. But today it also deserves to be celebrated as a leading promoter of Arab art and culture.

This summer marks the landmark 20th birthday of the groundbreaking Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF) — both the UK’s biggest and longest-running annual celebration of Arabic culture. Kicking off on July 5, the anniversary event is expected to welcome around 35,000 people over an 11-day program — encompassing everything from music, dance and drama to exhibitions, workshops and family events — all curated with the intention of celebrating Arab artistic achievement, stimulating dialogue and breaking down barriers and preconceptions.

Stealing all the headlines so far is the opening weekend’s enviable music lineup, starring Palestinian “shamstep” supergroup 47Soul, Golan Heights’ blues-y brother duo TootArd, Syrian sufi singer Bachar Zarkan, and Emel Mathlouthi — the inspirational Tunisian singer-songwriter and iconoclast who ranks among her generation’s most distinctive voices. 

“Emel had been on our wish list for a number of years,” festival head Anne Thwaite told Arab News. Meanwhile, 47Soul are apparently back by popular demand, after thrilling Merseyside audiences two years ago, as is percussionist Simona Abdallah.

“People have continually asked us when 47Soul are coming back,” explained Thwaite. “They reached across diverse cultures — the sense of celebration and energy they brought was incredible.”

More solemn messages are likely to be communicated in the festival’s stage offerings, which include “The Shroud Maker” — a Gaza-set satire by novelist Ahmed Masoud, which Thwaite said will enable audiences “to get to a different level in understanding the challenges (of) living in Gaza” — and the pioneering “At Home in Gaza and London,” which uses a mix of live-streaming and recorded video to simultaneously unite performers separated by 3,000km. “If that works — to be able to be in the presence of a number of performers from Palestine, live, will be exceptional,” Thwaite said.

On display throughout the festival will be “Tented Dreams,” a selection of art painted by residents of Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, resorting to the only canvas they could find — the tents they call home. The exhibition also features work by celebrated Syrian artist Mohammed Amari, who tutored many of the other refugees.

“Mohammed was a volunteer arts teacher in the camp, he facilitated the sessions for the refugees to create the art,” Thwaite explained. “It’s a nice backstory — but some of the work is also beautiful, and it’s moving that it’s on the original tents as well. It was out of necessity, not decoration — it was part of the fabric of their existence while they were there in those camps. It’s that experience of being able to see art on the very fabric (with) which people have lived.”

Reaching between and beyond Liverpool’s diverse communities is a key cornerstone of the festival — the organizers estimate less than a third of the expected attendees will be of Arab origin.

“I hope the festival has helped (remove prejudice),” Thwaite said. “Going back 20 years, it was unique, it was the premier — now there are more and more (Arab events in the UK), which is fantastic.”

Today the LAAF’s scope may be dwarfed in budget and brawn only by London’s biennial Shubbak, which has hosted four editions since 2011. But the LAAF has existed more than twice as long and held five times as many events.

The 2018 festival may prove the most important in a decade, colored as it is by several timely milestones. Aside from celebrating its own 20th birthday, this edition of LAAF also falls on the tenth anniversary of ongoing celebrations marking Liverpool’s recognition as England’s first, and only, to be named European Capital of Culture (Scotland’s Glasgow was honored in 1990).

However the festival also falls in the shadows of recent one-year commemorations for a string of terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, which claimed a total of 40 lives in three separate incidents between March and June 2017.

“Many communities have suffered, felt the pain of the situations and events from last year in London and Manchester,” said Thwaite. “To experience the diversity and people coming together as we don’t see any other time is wonderful — dancing together, singing together. It’s a process that’s deeply needed. Otherwise we have communities that can quite easily be segregated.”

Such sights would have been unimaginable to Taher Qassim two decades ago, when the newly arrived immigrant helped put together a one-off weekend of Yemeni music and belly dancing in his newly adopted hometown. At the time his modest goals were to preserve Middle Eastern traditions in his children’s generation, which began with the founding of the Liverpool Arab Centre.

“We were all about the kids, they would come to us and say ‘We don’t want to be called Samir or Layla.’ They wanted English names.  So we said, ‘We have to do something about this,’” remembered the 65-year-old festival founder and chair, who holds an MBE from the Queen for his work representing minorities.

“Before moving here, I had a vision that the Arab community would be very much integrated and do amazing things in the city. Instead I found hardly any Arab presence. People were afraid to write the name of their shops in Arabic script.”

This realization inspired a slow broadening of ethos and audience, and in 2002 the group’s flagship annual event was extended to last a week and rebranded as the LAAF. However, the radical reinvention nearly didn’t happen — 9/11 happened as preparations for the relaunch were underway, forcing the organizers to reconsider the festival’s future.

“When 9/11 happened, we almost stopped completely,” Qassim said. “Part of the group felt we would be targeted — by the right wing, by terrorists, by whoever — it was fear of the unknown. We were scared of violence, very seriously scared.

Thankfully, these fears were not realized — the greatest threat came from a lone woman who attended an exhibition with a can of paint and apparent nefarious intent – and the festival’s ambassadorial goals were realized at a pivotal time, helping fuel dialogue and build bridges in the aftermath of tragedy, as it continues to do today.

“We had a big debate and the majority said, ‘If we don’t do it now, we’ll never be able to do it again,’” Qassim explained. “It was a real turning point and the bravest decision we ever made.”