The digital events of the 2020 Liverpool Arab Arts Festival now become an ongoing archive of performance and discussion around literature and the arts: 

By Annie Webster

Like many other cultural events, this year’s Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF) went digital. In April, the organisers decided to move the festival online in response to Covid-19. Despite this difficult decision having to be made only a couple of months before the festival was scheduled to take place, its organizers rose to the challenge to produce a diverse program of more than 17 free events which brought together more than 50 artists, musicians, writers, performers, and cultural commentators from across Arab-majority countries and beyond.

The festival usually prides itself on participatory events, with performances drawing large audiences to diverse locations across the city of Liverpool over the course of ten days, but in this new format audiences were invited to a series of virtual evening gatherings. Not only did this create an increased sense of intimacy during the events, it also altered the temporality of the festival by allowing audiences to participate live, view recordings of events at their own leisure and, perhaps most significantly, to return to these events and reconsider their contents through the creation of a digital archive with many of the events still available to view online.

This digital format also made the festival more accessible. The program was available to audiences around the world, with all events free of charge, although donations were welcome and will be used to support artists contributing to next year’s festival. This format also widened participation; festivals such as LAAF are increasingly facing visa issues when attempting to bring artists from Arab-majority countries to the UK, but through this year’s digital program they were able to bypass this complication and bring together participants from Gaza, Morocco, Jerusalem, Tunisia, Kuala Lumpur, London and Liverpool itself, gathering them in the shared discursive spaces generated through virtual panels. Language barriers were also skilfully navigated in these online events, most of which were held over zoom, with interpreters moving between Arabic and English, with BSL interpreters further widening access to events.

Music & film

Perhaps the events that were most transformed by this digital format were the musical performances which punctuated the festival. The opening act by Nurdistan saw Walead Ben Selim and Widad Broco perform what has been described as “electro-urban” music in a ruined structure in Morocco while being cheered on by audience members from Bristol, Brazil and Shrewsbury in the comments. Live sets by Hello Psychaleppo and Jacques Malchance replaced the collective experience of music performance with close camera work which created a more intimate mode of performance and exposed the rhythmic maneuvers involved in such technical music.

Meanwhile, Daraa Tribes’ live performance from the Sahara Desert on the roof of Kasbah Ait Isfoul in Morocco offered an alternative setting from Sefton Park Palm House where they performed at the festival last year as their electric guitars echoed across the landscape, a reconfiguration of the legendary rooftop concert performed by the Beatles, Liverpool’s own most famous band. This event has previously been reimagined in the context of the Middle East by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz in his project The Breakup (2010) which explores the breakdown of Middle Eastern relations through the break-up of the Beatles and in which the Palestinian band Sabreen performed on a rooftop in Jerusalem overlooking the Dome of the Rock.

Throughout the festival a selection of short films were available by Arab female filmmakers. Selected by Sheyma Buali, the BBC Arabic Festival Director, four films explored the consequence of war and political violence on individuals and communities. In her ten-minute film titled One Minute (2015) Jordanian-Palestinian director Dina Naser gave a visceral insight into the 2014 Gaza War when a woman named Salma who lives in the Shujaiya neighbourhood goes from receiving amusing texts from a friend to belatedly receiving an evacuation message from the Israeli Army and is left with one minute to flee her home with her young child. Filmed almost entirely in darkness, and with very few words, it gives a sense of political and personal claustrophobia that is momentarily pierced with a passage from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “I Am Not Mine.” Rupture (2017) by Yassmina Karajah, another Jordanian-Palestinian screenwriter and director, follows the adventures of four young Arab children who have relocated to Canada over the course of one day as they try to navigate their new surroundings and negotiate language barriers in their new community. In her surreal film The Calling (2017), which is set in the afterlife, Moroccan filmmaker Mariakenzi Lahlou follows a woman who arrives at what seems to be a military prison with the hope of freeing her parents and is shown the impossibility of this task by a glass blower who resides in the prison. Yet perhaps the most poignant film for a digital festival was Only Silence (2017) by Lebanese-Candian filmmaker Katia Jarjoura, which follows the trials of a young Syrian women who has fled to France but desperately tries to contact her mother and young brother in Syria over Skype, begging them to leave the country, but very rarely managing to get through to them over dodgy internet connections.

In addition to making these films available, LAAF also organized a panel chaired by Sheyma Buali with three of the directors, providing an opportunity to bring these filmmakers into dialogue with each other to discuss their processes, motivations, personal experiences, cinematic influences and other projects while also interrogating the concept and category of “Arab female filmmakers.”

‘Writing the Palestinian City’

Writing the Palestinian City was another event which brought together a geographically disparate group of artists who imaginatively congregated in the urban spaces of Palestine. Hosted by Ra Page, the Founder of Comma Press which published Palestine+100 (2019) and The Book of Gaza (2014) and will soon release The Book of Ramallah (2020), it brought together Palestinian authors Maya Abu al-Hayat, Mazen Maarouf, and Talal Abu Shawish with Mohammed Ghaleiny interpreting. Each author brought distinct perspectives and personal experiences to the process of writing about Palestine: while Shawish grew up in Nuseirat Refugee Camp and lives in Gaza City, Beirut-born al-Hayat spoke about moving from Tunisia to Nablus in her youth and her current existence between the cities of Jerusalem and Ramallah, while Maarouf spoke about being a second-generation refugee and his experience of growing up in Beirut while never being allowed to consider it his own city. Shawish read from his short story “Red Lights” which was translated from Arabic into English by Alice Guthrie, al-Hayat read from her autobiographical piece “My Vertical City and My Horizontal Escape” (which Comma Press has temporarily made available online), and Maarouf read from his story “Jokes for the Gunman,” translated by Jonathan Wright, before going on to reflect on the importance of unnamed cities in his writing. This discussion of the ways in which fact and fiction are so often disorientatingly entangled in representations of Palestinian cities was fruitfully expanded by contributions from the virtual audience through questions which compared these circumstances with other locations around the Arab World.

Intimate histories & creative destructions

A more intimate encounter was offered in the conversation held between renowned Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith and Irish novelist Denyse Woods, although this was also held across international borders and time zones with Mackintosh-Smith in Kuala Lumpur and Woods in Cork while they were introduced by Taher Qassim, the Founder of LAAF, in Liverpool. They discussed Mackintosh-Smith’s most recent book, Arabs: A 3,000 Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires (2019), his own personal experiences in, and attachments to, Yemen, the idea behind writing a book of such epic proportions, and the scholarly footprints in which he is following by producing such a history. While Mackintosh-Smith is often described as a “travel writer,” he suggested that he prefers to think of his books as “time-travel books” as they often explore the strange things that time does and the particular complexity of Arab history. Deconstructing the concept of a coherent historical narrative through reference to Nizar Qabbani’s poetry and Ibn Khaldun’s model of history, they collectively interrogated the rationale behind the book which uses the Arabic language, not Islam, as the unifying strand of Arab history and used some of the earliest records of the language as its starting point.

Moving from ancient history to contemporary art, a new feature for this year’s festival programme was a series of three artist-led events titled Artists/Ideas/Now coordinated through Creative Destruction, a new arts initiative founded by Zoe Lafferty which ‘routes its work in the use of culture as a form of resistance and using art to fight for change, connecting creativity, activism and politics.’ The first panel collected artists under the theme ‘Art, Identity and Solidarity’. It gathered together three female artists – Jordanian feminist theatre-maker and performer Shereen Zoumot; Tewa Barnosa, who is a Libyan Tamazight artist and cultural manager focusing on the ways in which different forms of calligraphy can be used in artistic practice; and Fidaa Zidan, who was raised in an Israeli-Druze family and has become involved in social theater work in Jenin through the Freedom Theatre. Debating the challenges, motivations, conflicting identities, taboos and definitions of home in their personal and professional experiences, these three female artists initiated themes that were discussed in subsequent panels in this series.

Conflict, Colonialism & the Climate Crisis

The final event in this series, and one of the last events of the festival, was the panel “Conflict, Colonialism & the Climate Crisis.” While the first two thematic strands of this panel are widely understood to be entangled, this event made an urgent and compelling case for the ways in which the climate crisis has to be viewed through the prism of the first two phenomena, particularly in the context of the Arab World. Scholar and activist Anahid Kassabian chaired the session and was joined by Doreen Toutikian, a cultural producer and entrepreneur with a background in human-centered design who founded the MENA Design Research Center; Faisal Abu Alhayjaa who recently directed ‘Atuwani’ at the Freedom Theatre in Jenin; the playwright, essayist and children’s author Sabrina Mahfouz; and the multi-media artist Samah Hijawi.

Water emerged as a key them in this discussion: Abu Alhayjaa urged the political potential of comedy in unexpected contexts, for example raising awareness about the climate crisis and the challenges of accessing water in Palestine; Mahfouz read a sobering extract of her play A History of Water in the Middle East(2019) which described the long-lasting legacy of colonialism on the environment of Yemen and its people; and Toutikian described secret underground governmental projects in Lebanon that had sought to empty landfills into the sea. In a more surreal watery turn, Hijawi described a postcard image she created titled Jerusalem Dives (2012) in which she imagined that an earthquake along the fault lines running through the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea caused Palestine to “slip” under water so that Jerusalem is transformed into a site to visit underwater by deep sea diving. This panel also served as an informal launch for the theme of next year’s festival, which will be focused around the legacies of colonialism and the climate crisis.

While Covid-19 and this new digital format has inevitably presented challenges to LAAF, it has also transformed the nature of this festival and created an archive of resources readily available as a means of revisiting this celebration of Arab culture again and again. Hopefully this archive of digital delights will continue to entertain and engage audiences around the world but will also encourage those audiences to attend the festival in future years in its home city of Liverpool.

Donations to LAAF can still be made here and 100% will go towards artists and commissioning new work for LAAF 2021.

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.

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