Liverpool Arab Arts Festival highlights the lighter side of the Middle East
LIVERPOOL, England - Liverpool was the first city in the United Kingdom to be awarded the title European Capital of Culture in 2008. It is also home to a sizeable Arab population, particularly Yemenis who were the first known Arab community to arrive in Britain, settling in Liverpool in the early 1900s.
But in a place that prides itself on the enduring legacy of The Beatles, and is keen to continue changing and shaping popular culture, an alternative to the fab four is needed. And one cultural draw growing in popularity and stature is the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival (LAAF) which took place from 15-24 July.
Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, it is a celebration of all things Arabic. The festival showcased stand-up comedians, talks, film, live music and spoken word across different venues and spaces throughout Liverpool.
Under the theme of "Undocumented" - it explored the various ways art can provide a deeper insight into the human experience of lives devastated by war, displacement and conflict. It opened with The Queens of Syria, a play written and performed by an all-female cast of Syrian refugees, while the one-man-show Love, Apples and Bombs by Hassan Razzulrazak brought social commentary to the stage with his award-winning style.
A screening of the critically acclaimed Palestinian film Speed Sisters, highlighted the five-woman-team taking to the racing circuits of occupied Palestine, and Arabs Are Not Funny, the stand-up comedy show originally from London, had the crowds roaring in laughter.
Taher Qassim MBE, the chair and founder of LAAF, is a Yemeni who has been living in Liverpool for 20 years. Qassim, who launched the first Arab Arts Festival 15 years ago, proclaimed this year’s event was already the most successful to date with “the depth of the programme of the ten days being very rich”.
Speaking to Middle East Eye, Qassim explained how it all began. “Many years back, we were invited to a venue called The Bluecoat, in the centre of Liverpool, where they needed translators for a Palestinian singer who played there. A couple of meetings later following that show, we organised a weekender where we put on some singers and dancers. In 2001, between the Liverpool Arabic Centre and the venue, we launched the first Arab Arts Festival officially.”
It turned out to be a hit with the Liverpudlians who wanted to know more about Arab culture. From there, they went from strength to strength. But why put on an Arab arts festival in Liverpool?
“When I came here in 1995, there was a large Yemeni and Arab population in Liverpool,” says Qassim. “But I quickly realised there was nothing like this festival happening at all. So we decided to do something about it and then we found the response very positive from the public, politicians and officials.”
Liverpool is also a city with a long history of socialism and internationalism – so much so that it had voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU in the recent Brexit vote.
According to the Liverpool Echo, 58.2 percent of voters backed Remain, with more than 118,000 people giving the EU a vote of confidence. Put simply, Liverpool is an island of Labour red in a sea of Conservative blue where there is an increasing right-wing majority throughout the country. Regardless of the 52 percent that opted to vote to leave the EU, Qassim is slightly anxious about the effect it might have going forward in future installments of the LAAF.
“We have our concerns about what the Brexit vote means because we don’t know what the future holds for us as a country,” Qassim reflects. “We don’t know how it will affect us in terms of the festival itself, so we’re really going into the unknown herein terms of whether it will be good or bad for us.
"I think that in terms of the impact it will have on artists based here or visiting the UK, then I do think they will face difficulties. It puts us in an uncertain position.”
On Saturday evening during a performance of Arabs Are Not Funny, when the Welsh-Egyptian stand-up comedian Omar Hamdi uttered the name Jeremy Corbyn, the audience erupted with cheers so loud that the approximately 150-seat capacity Bluecoat sounded like the O2 Arena. Moments before going on stage, MEE spoke to Hamdi in his dressing room, who said that he had no concerns that political correctness or censorship would stop him from saying what he wants in his act, particularly with a socially conservative Arabic audience.
“When I perform onstage, I’m very mindful of the crowd I play to at Arabs Are Not Funny in a spiritual, psychological and mental sense.” says Hamdi enthusiastically, sitting on the edge of his seat. “But that doesn’t mean that I’ll censor myself, as I believe in freedom of speech. In theory, I’ll talk about anything that’s relevant. In practice, the reaction I’m looking for is laughter."
Fortunately, the audience were in hysterics shortly afterwards as Hamdi, Ella al-Shamahi and Bilal Zafar touched on topics regarding relationships, Arab upbringings, and in the case of Zafar, a joke tweet about a Muslim cake shop that went horribly, horribly wrong, inviting tweets from oblivious English Defence League supporters and even the controversial right-wing newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins to react, but to a hilarious comedic effect.
Earlier on that day at the nearby World Museum, storyteller Alia Alzougbi shared traditional Arabic stories in front of adults and small toddlers alike, but not before teaching the natives a few Arabic words such as Marhaba (hello) and Ahlan (welcome). Alzougbi colourfully proceeded to tell the tale of a man from Baghdad with stinky slippers who could not get rid of the smell, despite dousing himself with expensive rose oil, whilst encouraging the young kids to interact with sound effects and cracking jokes.
The finale of LAAF on Sunday was held in a setting that befitted the grandness of the occasion, with a family day held inside Palm House – a large greenhouse space in Sefton Park, around three miles from the city centre. Surrounded by palm trees and plant life, and despite the queues to get inside, the audience were treated to live performances from the critically acclaimed band Sweden via Egypt and Iraq-based Tarabband; the Palestinian Diaspora electronica-infused foursome, 47Soul; a hypnotic whirling Dervish/Sufi performance by Mahmoud Pharoun; and the Yaz Fentazi Trio, playing a fusion of classical Arabic, Shaabi and Gnawa.
47Soul’s lead singer El Far3i believes that a festival such as LAAF is vital not just for the city of Liverpool, but also for the UK. He also went on to praise the great job the organisers of the festival were doing, as well as their ambitions in the near future.
“I think it’s amazing that there’s a Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and I hope it keeps growing. I hope that in the coming years it can become something really big and to see artists perform here go on to bigger and better things in terms of popularity,” El Far3i enthuses. “As for ourselves, we want to expand our music and band to bigger audiences worldwide.”
Hopefully, it will not be just 47Soul that makes a name for themselves, but also the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, as it seeks to be a beacon of light leading the way on how all Arab cultural events should be run not just in the UK, but throughout the world.