x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

An audience for all things Arabic

This month Liverpool, the 2008 European Capital of Culture, hosts the sixth Arabic Arts Festival.

Coal, Frankincense and Myrrh: Yemen and British Yemenis, an exhibition by the British photographer Tim Smith is one of the highlights of the sixth Arabic Arts Festival.
Coal, Frankincense and Myrrh: Yemen and British Yemenis, an exhibition by the British photographer Tim Smith is one of the highlights of the sixth Arabic Arts Festival.

Think of Liverpool, the port city on the north-west coast of Britain, and the first thing that springs to mind might be The Beatles. Or maybe football. But it's safe to assume that it probably isn't Arabic culture and heritage. But, as the sixth Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival, which is currently underway, demonstrates, not only is the north-west's Arabic-speaking community thriving, but it is serving as a model for integration and social and cultural exchange. Since its launch in 2002, the annual festival has blossomed into the UK's sole major celebration of Arabic life. A citywide celebration, it sees colourful displays of music, art, film, theatre, dance, fashion and food from across the Arab world, drawing consistently large crowds and brightening up this bustling city. This month, Liverpudlians can enjoy a smorgasbord of treats, from the sounds of modern Rai, as performed by the massively-popular Algerian singer Khaled to the Palestinian singer Reem Kelani's cool jazz. From Arabic food tasting sessions and cookery demonstrations to theatre, a major film cycle and cutting-edge contemporary art exhibitions, the festival sets out to present all aspects of Arab culture, in an accessible, fun and informative way. It also actively seeks to counter negative media stereotypes of Arabs.

This year, the festival is set to be even bigger than usual as its host city is currently in the midst of a renaissance, occasioned by its status as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. The past six months have flown by in a whirl of activity, from gigs by Paul ­McCartney and Ringo Starr to myriad grassroots projects celebrating the unique blend of inhabitants and traditions found in the area. Organisers point out that one of the UK's oldest settlements of Arabic immigrants is still here, a community that has grown from the small groups of Yemeni sailors who originally settled here in the 19th century.

The festival revolves around the region's pre-eminent arts centre, the Bluecoat. The Bluecoat is a notable entity, a multifaceted cultural hub which has just emerged from a major overhaul and relaunch earlier this year (marking yet another phase in its remarkable 290-year history). It is housed in a Unesco-listed building and is, for the next few weeks, the epicentre of all things Arabic. The festival's manager, Ngozi Ikoku, is based at the Bluecoat, and is at the centre of this dynamic series of happenings.

"How did it all start?" he asks. "Well, the Bluecoat and the Liverpool Arabic Centre started working together around 1999 to programme one-off events and they soon realised there was an audience for them. Then they moved on to doing a weekend event. In 2002, there was an official festival and that's been the case since." The event brings together a variety of ­nationalities, but it is Yemeni culture that dominates proceedings.

"The Yemenis came to Liverpool in the 19th century," explains Ikoku. "They were working on the merchant ships, and when the shipping industry died off, they moved to the steelworks. That was really when you get the critical mass of the Yemeni community moving over. So, we are the largest Yemeni community here [in the UK] and we have the first mosque that was built in this country." Amid the impressive film programme (co-curated by BAFTA and taking place at the FACT cinema), a weekend of Yemeni films is planned to highlight the country's tiny but rapidly growing film industry. Largely sourced from last December's First Yemen Film Festival in London, screenings include the poignant Last of the Dictionary Men, a documentary looking at the first wave of Yemeni settlers to establish a community in South Shields, in the north-east. (This was recently presented at the Newcastle Baltic Gallery, along with photography by the Third Line Gallery's Youssef Nabil.) There is also a showing of Bader Ben Hirsi's 2005 drama, A New Day in Old Sana'a, which is frequently taken as being the first bona fide Yemeni feature film.

Meanwhile, the other elements of the season offer up a number of highlights: the Syrian director Abdullatif Abdulhamid's 2007 melodrama Out of Coverage is a Bergman-esque study of love, loyalty and betrayal, while the Lebanese director Phillipe Aractangi's Under the Bombs is a raw story of a mother trying to find her son amid the chaos of war and destruction in the 2006 Lebanon war. The film schedule is capped with a gala screening of Lawrence Of Arabia at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall to commemorate the centenary of the director David Lean's birth. An impressive line-up, and one that deserves as wide an audience as possible.

An impressive array of visual arts complements the films at the festival. Again, Yemeni themes abound, predominantly in Coal, Frankincense and Myrrh: Yemen and British Yemenis, an exhibition by the British photographer Tim Smith, who has spent much of the past 25 years documenting the lives of Yemenis both in the UK and at home. In his images, Smith documents the remnants of the country's tradition as a trading post and pivotal hub of the British Empire in years gone by. "It's a wonderful exhibition," enthuses Ikoku. "His photographs are just stunning."

Meanwhile, contemporary art from the rest of the Middle East and North Africa is represented by an expansive exhibition,New Ends, Old Beginnings, which takes work by over 11 Arab artists, ranging from Egypt's Lara Baladi and the UAE's Tarek al Ghossein to the Turkish artist Can Alkay. The exhibition covers diverse topics such as the chaos of war-torn Baghdad, the booming tourism and prosperity of the UAE, the conflicting senses of identity felt by many Egyptians and the cultural ramifications of post-conflict reconstruction work taking place in Beirut. An exhibition such as this is invaluable in giving a broad sense of the issues and questions facing Arab citizens and reflects perfectly the festival's commitment to generating understanding and empathy among visitors.The work ranges from the enigmatic to the abruptly outspoken.

The curator November Paynter say: "It investigates the Arab region through artistic responses to many layers of local and everyday culture, which is a perspective that the world's media often overlooks or avoids. They ­prefer ­instead to present images that shock and manipulate viewers." The highlight of the festival, according to the pre-event buzz, however, is a play, RIOT, a critically lauded production based on real events which tells the story of an uprising by Yemeni sailors in 1930s northern England. Using the clandestine relationship between a young Yemeni seaman and a local girl as a perspective point, a charged narrative unfolds during which a police officer is stabbed, leading to the deportation of over 20 Yemenis. An eerily prescient tone is set, placing the troubles and conflicts faced by today's immigrants and host communities into a historical context.

Using a blend of fact, drama, satire and black humour, the play has been lauded for its tight, focused approach to a sensitive and polarising issue. "The Arabs were blamed for high levels of unemployment at the time," says the playwright Peter Mortimer. "They were [made] scapegoats. The play tries to understand what caused this riot." Ultimately, the purpose of the event is to benefit local society as a whole, both Arab and non-Arab. During the month, thousands of visitors of all backgrounds are expected to attend and as in previous years, organisers hope they will leave with a refreshed and engaged approach to Arab culture. And this has very much been the case in previous years: Ikoku has seen substantial positive benefits from the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival since its launch. "We've seen an empowerment within the local Arabic community since the festival has grown; the sense of pride and self-esteem among the community about where they come from and who they are. And then for non-Arab visitors, the feedback we get, we get people coming back every year, learning more about, say, the music or cuisine - then at the other end of the spectrum we have the people who say, 'Well, I just didn't know that the Arab world was made up of these countries and what rich cultural ­heritage they had'."

The Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival runs until July 27, various venues, Liverpool, UK. Check www.arabicartsfestival.co.uk for full details and updated information. @Email:amohammad@thenational.ae