This year, people from around the world can attend the events of the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, free:
By Annie Webster
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF) is going online. Between the 9th and 18th of July, its virtual 2020 program will celebrate Arab arts and culture, bringing together an array of film, music, literature, dance, and spoken-word poetry which, for the first time, will be accessible to international audiences. All events are free to register, although donations are welcome and will go toward supporting the festival’s artists.
The UK’s longest-running annual festival of Arabic culture, LAAF was co-founded in 1998 by the Liverpool Arabic Centre and the Bluecoat Centre for Contemporary Arts, and it has taken place each July since 2002. It is the highlight of a year-round program of events designed to bring Arab cultural productions to Liverpool and beyond.
Since 2002, the festival has grown year on year to become the UK’s largest annual celebration of Arab culture, attracting large Arab and non-Arab audiences to some of Liverpool’s most lively cultural sites. Previous years have seen art installations at FACT (the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology), concerts at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, and theatrical performances at the Unity Theatre. Last year, more than 3,000 people gathered at the festival’s finale, hosted at Sefton Park Palm House.
While COVID-19 means the festival cannot go ahead in its usual form, this year’s digital program promises to bring together an even wider range of artists from across Arab-majority countries and their diasporas. One panel titled “Writing the Palestinian City,” scheduled to take place on July 13, will see a panel of three writers connect virtually from Jerusalem, Gaza, and Reykjavik to explore their processes of writing about Palestine’s urban environments in both fact and fiction. This discussion, which has renewed urgency in light of current events in the West Bank, will be chaired by Ra Page, the founder of Comma Press.
Other literary events will include spoken-word performances by Lisa Luxx, a poet and social activist of British Syrian heritage who is the LAAF 2020 Artist-in-residence, as well as a workshop with award-winning Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat, winner of this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the “children’s literature” category, and an evening with Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith in which he will read and discuss his most recent book, Arabs: A 3,000 Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires.
A number of female-directed short films will also be available for the duration of the festival. Curated by Sheyma Buali, the BBC Arabic Festival Director, this selection of films by Dina Naser, Katia Jarjoura, Yassmina Karajah, and Mariakenzi Lahlou celebrates women directors in contemporary Arab cinema while also exploring the far-reaching consequences of war in settings such as Gaza, Syria, and Morocco.
An array of music will also be on offer. Walead Ben Selim and the Moroccan musical collective N3rdistan will launch the festival with a live performance that promises to incorporate rock, trip hop, electro and “ancestral Arabic poetry.” Syrian-born electronic music producer and visual artist Samer Saem Eldahr will bring Hello Psychaleppo to audiences with a live performance of what has been described as “Electro-Tarab” or “Massive Attack meets Abdel Halim Hafez.” And the Moroccan group Daraa Tribes will return to LAAF to offer a “fusion of ancestral tribal music and Saharan Blues.”
This is a challenging time for organizers of festivals, particularly those such as LAAF which focus on participatory events as well the capacity for the arts to bring diverse communities together and speak directly to one another in new and compelling ways. While a digital program might at first seem to be at odds with these values, it is also a new opportunity for widening participation, increasing access to these events, and showcasing the achievements of this initiative.
For the full LAAF program and links for event registration, visit: https://www.arabartsfestival.com/2020festival/.
Annie Webster is a PhD Student at SOAS, University of London. She holds a BA (Hons) in English and Related Literature from the University of York and an MSc in Arab World Studies from the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral research explores stories of creative destruction in post-2003 Iraqi literature, looking at texts in Arabic and in translation.