x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

England festival does Arab culture proud

Razanne Carmey, the director of Liverpool's Arabic Arts Festival is keen to showcase art that "celebrates the triumph of the human spirit against adversity".

The Palestinian ballet dancer Ayman Safiah. Courtesy Arabic Arts festival
The Palestinian ballet dancer Ayman Safiah. Courtesy Arabic Arts festival

As a small showcase in the famous English city, Liverpool's Arabic Arts Festival had relatively humble beginnings in 1998. But its steady growth to the point at which it could attract global Arab stars such as the Egyptian singer Mohamed Mounir - and international audiences of more than 200,000 people - has been one of Arab culture's major success stories. Last year, with the nascent Arab Spring firmly in the ascendancy, perhaps its greatest achievement was to offer a daily "freedom hour", where current affairs, freedom and culture could be discussed.

The freedom hour remains for 2012. But there is a sense that the festival is again changing. With Arts Council England funding confirmed for the next three years, the new boss - the London-born Palestinian Razanne Carmey - has programmed ballet and comedy for the first time. "This year, we want to surprise people," she says.

And to that end, the arrival of the Palestinian-American comic Maysoon Zayid (July 14) represents the spirit of this year's festival. The stand-up and actress, who has appeared on everything from the popular cable channel Comedy Central to Law & Order, has not only had to battle Islamophobia in the US, she also has cerebral palsy.

"She's a quite remarkable woman," says Carmey. "In founding the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival, which was a response in part to the atmosphere in that city post September 11, for me she represented what is beautiful about the transformative possibilities of art. She took a very tough experience and made it into something beautiful."

Carmey is keen to showcase art that "celebrates the triumph of the human spirit against adversity". So it's no surprise that one of the hottest young talents of the festival is a Palestinian ballet dancer who admits that he may be one of a kind. And that's because he's a man.

"I couldn't even buy a leotard in my hometown," smiles Ayman Safiah. "If I went to a store and say I wanted ballet shoes, I would be looked at strangely because I was a boy; it was not acceptable. Some people thought it wrong that an Arab man should wear tights and go on stage topless."

But, in a classic Billy Elliot-style story (in fact, Safiah admits to the film being "life-changing" for him), Safiah stayed behind after his dabkeh classes and sneakily watched the girls practising ballet. He tried some of the moves himself, and was spotted by a ballet teacher who couldn't believe his natural talent. Before he knew it, he had a three-year scholarship at the prestigious Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, and performs at the Royal Opera House this month before bringing his own composition - "a representation of my life so far" - to the festival on July 14.

"Dabkeh is in our tradition, I understand that," he admits. "But I love Swan Lake, I love Tchaikovsky. I just try to explain that just as dabkeh has its costumes, so does ballet. It's all art, it's all one language."

Safiah's broad approach mirrors the ethos of the festival. The film strand features nine movies, including Pia Getty's new documentary set in the Middle East art scene, Axis of Light (July 9), and Egypt's Oscar entry El Shooq (July 11). Nadim Sawalha brings his new play about Khalil Gibran, Rest Upon the Wind, to Liverpool and there's an intriguing exhibition of satirical cartoons from the Arab world (July 6-15). The world premiere from the Alif Ensemble, a blend of traditional and contemporary sounds conceived by the Iraqi oud player Khyam Allami (July 15) is a fitting end to the festival - Allami's band are drawn from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Palestine.

"We've also got street markets, workshops, a Libya Day, a Yemen Day," beams Carmey. "You know, I spent the first seven years of my life between Yemen, Egypt and Somalia. For 10 years after that I moved between Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So it's lovely to have the chance to draw on all these impressions and investigate further what it is about these Arab countries that teases out such remarkable art."

The Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival (www.arabicartsfestival.co.uk) runs from Friday to July 15.