The Liverpool Arab Arts Festival opens this weekend and amid the packed programme of music, art, theatre and cinema, there are also new commissions. Ben East talks to Alia Alzougbi as she prepares for the world premiere of Damascus Stories
Alia Alzougbi's Damascus Stories the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival
It sounds like a tall story in itself. In the Damascus cafe Al Nofara, an old man sits, his audience rapt. His only prop as he tells his magical folk tales is a stick, which he uses to describe a horse, or a snake. But the cafe, says the performer and producer Alia Alzougbi, is always packed.
Alzougbi, who has Syrian heritage herself, has refined this storytelling technique, once prevalent across Syria, for Damascus Stories - which has its world premiere at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival this month. Together with the musician Louai Hennawi, she has adapted five short stories, translated from the extensive bibliography of the late Syrian author Ulfat Idlibi, for the contemporary stage.
"There's a lot of nostalgia to Idlibi's stories, because she was writing about Damascus 200 years ago," Alzougbi says of the source material.
"But that's not to say there's not a lot of humour here too. One story addresses the idea of fasting and Ramadan, looking at how people would be quite hedonistic up until Ramadan, turn pious for a month and then straight afterwards, they would frolic again.
Damascus Stories is a new commission from LAAF, a promising development for a festival which has grown from a small weekend event to a 10 day-long extravaganza of music, theatre, film, dance, art and food from across the Arab world. One of its aims this year is to look beyond the "face the newspapers want us to see", and Alzougbi's commission certainly meets that brief.
"It's important to recognise that although Syria is in the news every day, it's made up of normal people with a culture, tradition and way of life that is incredibly effusive and interesting," she says. "These stories are lovely reflections on the human condition."
Which is not to say that Damascus Stories is all lighthearted. The timely last tale - and Alzougbi's favourite, she says - is concerned with a feudal lord's despotic rule.
"You know, with this recent idea of an 'Arab awakening', there is this notion in the West that Arabs are finally finding their voice and rising up against their rulers," says Alzougbi. But it's actually been going on for centuries - and there are folk tales that substantiate this. We've been awake for a very long time, actually. "
Alzougbi and Hennawi have been adapting Middle Eastern folk tales for modern audiences for a number of years now, and she says the soundtrack to the piece is a crucial element in capturing the feeling and atmosphere of Damascene life.
"It is all about trying to make people think about the kind of place Damascus was - and is," she adds. "Maybe the next time someone is thinking about switching off the TV when they see another explosion on the news, they'll remember the beautiful Damascene house we describe in Idlibi's story and think just a little more deeply. That would be success, for me."
Five other things to catch at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival
1) In 2011, The National highlighted the potential of Katibe 5, a rap crew who grew up in the deprived Burj El Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp in southern Beirut. Since then, their melodic, often mellow brand of hip-hop with its nods to traditional Arab sounds has won them fans throughout the Middle East. This is their first visit to the UK (tomorrow, Epstein Theatre).
2) The LAAF doesn't hide away in the city's arts venues. As part of the simultaneous River Festival, there's a 30-minute taster of this year's extravaganza, featuring Katibe 5 and Egyptian dances from the Funoon Aljazeera Dance Company (Sunday, Pier Head). Before that, there's a family day with live music, dance, workshops and food (June 8, Sefton Park), and a Tunisian Street Experience in Liverpool City Centre runs for the duration of the festival.
3) At this year's Oscars ceremony, 5 Broken Cameras was shortlisted in the Best Documentary category. Shot by the Palestinian farmer Emad Burnat, who initially bought a camera to record the birth of his youngest son in 2005, it follows life in Bil'in, a village affected by the West Bank Barrier. Because his cameras were destroyed, Burnat received new equipment, some of which was paid for by Liverpool art charities - making this screening (Sunday, Bluecoat) all the more relevant.
4) The Algerian-French choreographer and dancer Nacera Belaza brings Le Trait and Le Temps Scelle to Liverpool (June 11, Unity Theatre). Belaza's dancing, a combination of both Algerian traditional dance and contemporary choreography, is world-renowned for her investigations into how the body relates to music.
5) Opening as the trailblazer for LAAF last month, the photography exhibition I Exist In Some Way (Bluecoat, until July 14) also continues after the festival week is over and is a fascinating look at identity through the lens of 12 Arab photographers. It includes the Emirati artist Lamia Gargash, who recently spoke to The National about her work.
Liverpool Arab Arts Festival runs from Friday until June 16. Visit www.arabartsfestival.com