‘Shubbak’ and the Sudden Interest in Arab Art(ists)

The emails come in at a regular clip: Hello, I’m so-and-so from such-and-such publication, radio show, or TV program. Can you put me in touch with an Arab author from Tunisia/Egypt/Syria/Libya?

But it isn’t just reporters who want first-hand experience with cultural laborers from the Arabic-writing world. Regular people in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. want to ask questions of “real Arabs,” too. Some non-journalists, such as the group behind Poetic Portraits of a Revolution, have come to Egypt to “bring back” poetry and photographs to a U.S. audience. Other festivals and events, such as the prestigious Hay Festival, have brought Arabic-language authors, including Kamel Riahi, Youssef Rakha, and Mansoura Ezz Eldin, to Anglo attendees.

It’s a fad, sure. But, fad or no, why shouldn’t talented young authors like Kamel, Youssef, and Mansoura should have a higher profile?

They should. Certainly, there has long been a debate over whether money is better spent bringing authors to events or on subsidizing translations. More money tends to go to the former—to bringing “real, live” Arab authors to audiences in Europe and the U.K.—which I suppose is more exciting than the publication of a book.

At the recent events,  it’s unsurprising that people have been asking authors like Youssef, Mansoura, and Kamel not about their novels, but about the Muslim Brotherhood, revolutionary Egypt, and how things have changed in Tunisia.

I don’t celebrate this sort of anthropological or forensic interest. However, these questions are more interesting than “do you write with a pencil or a pen?” and “which character is your favorite?” and “do you like chocolate ice-cream?” Still, here’s to hoping that at least some of the audience members who come to London’s Shubbak—twenty days  in July celebrating Arab music, poetry, dance, theater, literature, and more—are interested in the Arab poetry, dance, theater, music, and literature. Or at least become interested upon arrival.

Also: I recently asked Munira Mirza, Cultural Advisor to the Mayor of London, a few questions about the festival. An excerpt from the Q&A:

ArabLit: You  wrote: “In conceiving this festival over two years ago we had no idea how  topical it would be.” I assume that attendance will be much higher than it would’ve in the absence of political uprisings. How else have politics changed the festival?

Munira Mirza: The focus of the festival has remained  the same  – working with London’s cultural organisations to present the  very best of contemporary arab culture. However, the huge political  and social changes that have occurred have meant of course that there is a  greater interest in the content of the festival and in the artists  participating – we have responded by ensuring that there is ample  opportunity for artists to discuss their work and enter into a level of                 engagement with the audience.

AL: The Guardian said the festival was “hastily reprogrammed”  around political events.

MM: No. That is not the case. The  programme has been developed over a period of time with a number of  organisations.

AL: There has been criticism  from some in the British Iraqi community that there are no Iraqi artists.  However, the young and excellent poet Basim al-Ansar is (somewhat oddly)  part of the discussion of Gulf nomadic oral traditions. How did organizers try to balance  nationality, ethnicity, gender, age, political “relevance”, etc.?

MM: We’ve  actually had very positive feedback from arab artists and community groups  about the festival. Many artists welcome the chance to reach a wider  London audience. There are no exclusions and we encouraged artists and organisations from all arab countries to participate. Naturally, some countries have greater connections to London organisations than others and so will find it easier for artists to come over. Basim Alansar is participating in an important series of  four poetry evenings, programmed by Poet in the City, which will be hosted  at City Hall. More artists are being confirmed. Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid is a guest of honour at our reception.

The programme has been developed by and with the organisations in  London who are presenting the programme. The brief was to consider arab  contemporary culture at this time. In fact the artists represent  considerable diversity, nationality, age, gender, art form,  styles.

AL: Will there be attempts to document the festival as it  happens, through the blog, twitter, youtube, or will you leave that to  festival-goers?

MM: Shubbak has created its own facebook, flikr and  twitter pages so  we’ll be documenting interest and input as it rolls  out. These avenues are a really important way for us to communicate with a  wider audience.

Note that ArabLit will have coverage, at least, of the joint reading by International Prize for Arabic Fiction winners Mohammed Achaari and Raja Alem on July 9. If you’re attending Shubbak and would like to share your impressions, well, let me know. For more, check out their website.

Marking ‘The Freedom Hour’ at the Liverpool Arabic Arts Fest

Meanwhile, in Liverpool, the fifth annual Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival is set to run from July 2-9. Organizers just announced that daily, from 1-2 p.m., the festival will observe a “freedom hour.”

From the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival (LAAF) email:

The Arab world is experiencing major political upheaval; The Freedom Hour provides a platform to debate and discuss issues of freedom, self-determination, political agency and the role of culture that influence the current affairs of the region.

Every day between Saturday 2 July and Saturday 9 July, we have invited a number of speakers to provide a short ‘provocation’ which can be discussed and debated with the audience. Chairs of the panel discussion include; Eckhard Thiemann, Curator, Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival; Taher Qassim, Chairman of the Board, LAAF and Bryan Biggs, Artistic Director, The Bluecoat.

Each Freedom Hour will commemorate an individual, who has sacrified their lives or safety in the pursuit of freedom in the recent uprisings.

All events are free and are scheduled to take place at the Bluecoat, School Lane, in Liverpool. Find out more on the LAAF website.