The tenth annual Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival's theme ties in perfectly with the events of the Arab Spring.
Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival: from strength to strength
After the huge success of last year's Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival, its manager and driving force, Ngozi Ikoku, was naturally full of ideas and enthusiasm for the tenth annual event this year. An independent curator, Eckhard Thiemann, was hired for the first time to ensure the festival remained distinct, and a theme was decided upon.
In January, most of the programme of art, music, dance and a new film strand had been signed off. There were artists booked from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. And then the Arab Spring kicked off.
Ikoku, sitting in the summer sunshine outside The Bluecoat arts centre in Liverpool, smiles ruefully. "We had a big discussion about how events in the Middle East and north Africa might affect the festival. We talked about what work might be interesting and what might have become irrelevant.
And the conclusion we came to was not only would it be impossible to predict what the situation would be six months on, but that a lot of the work actually did discuss these issues anyway. Culture, after all, is often an international language to express ideas and we were already seeing a lot of powerful work inspired by the difficulties in parts of the Arab world."
Indeed, Thiemann had already been toying with a theme for the festival of "history and change". Perhaps there is an element of hindsight at play here, but the inclusion of one particular film is particularly prescient. Ahmed Abdalla's film Microphone is set in Alexandria, and mixes fact and fiction in its story set in the underground arts scene of the Egyptian coastal town before the events of earlier this year.
It's not exactly hard to conclude that the frustrations of the young, technologically savvy bands - who in the film find the mere act of playing music for people and expressing themselves frowned upon by the authorities - would find their natural home in the action in Tahrir Square. In fact, its star, Khaled Abol Naga, was there himself.
Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival has a happy knack, then, of being in the right place at the right time: last year, much of the work was about counterbalancing the negative stories of war and terrorism by emphasising that this was a celebration of Arabic arts and culture.
One of this year's most fascinating exhibitions, My Father's House, comprises nine different photographers' visions of shifting cultural identity in the Gulf states. It has previously been displayed at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation and at venues in Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
But there is something striking about its arrival in Liverpool in 2011 - not least because one of the contributors is the Oscar-nominated war photographer Tim Hetherington, who grew up not far from the city and died on an assignment after a mortar blast in Libya earlier this year.
My Father's House will naturally be experienced very differently by a westerner unaware of the many facets of Middle Eastern life - also documented here by the Dubai photographer Lamya Gargash - than it would have been in Sharjah. A gallery visitor, for example, expresses audible delight that Hetherington's wide-angled shot of Shibam in Yemen is of old, towering mud structures rather than just another stock image of a modern, concrete city. When I mention to Ikoku how much I enjoyed the exhibition, she literally notes my reaction down.
"It's interesting, I had shy away from saying I want us to educate people because that sounds a bit patronising," she says. "But I'd love people to come away thinking a bit differently, and that perhaps, in challenging their perceptions, they may have changed a little bit. The festival is about making sure there is a platform for Arabic artists, but also about bringing people together to work through differences and celebrate each other's culture."
Which basically sums up the music of Syriana, who, later that night, take to the stage with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This isn't just a group, it's a concept. They even have a mission statement of sorts: "a place where themes of tolerance, liberty and hope come wrapped in Arabic rhythms and played through a western filter". Which is a pretty apt description of their current album Road to Damascus, a sumptuous blend of electric guitar and oud, strings and Arabic percussion.
"Syriana is a fusion, there's no point in pretending that's it's pure Arabic music," admits guitarist Nick Page, who was also a member of the groundbreaking world music band Transglobal Underground.
"But maybe from it other things will come. I think, for some people, Natacha Atlas singing on the Transglobal Underground record was the first time they'd heard an Arabic lyric, and perhaps from that they went on and listened to more Arabic music. That not only makes me proud, it's what you do it for."
The double bass player and composer Bernard O'Neill is adamant that the Syriana project wasn't simply cultural tourism. Both O'Neill and Page have a long relationship with the Syrian qanun player Abdullah Chhadeh, which led to the formation of the band and the idea of recording with local musicians in a house in the middle of Damascus, rather than a posh studio in the English countryside.
"It was crucial we went there," he says. "You have to go and engage, because people and musicians are at ease in their own environment. You get something different out of them. We were advised not to go by the Foreign Office in the UK, but we walked home from a restaurant every night at 2am, completely unmolested. Now, this was two years ago, but you couldn't do that in Liverpool tonight, could you? We just enjoyed this incredible hospitality and sense of possibility."
From those recordings, relationships were built and the Palestinian/Jordanian oud player and singer Nizar Al Issa and the Egyptian percussionist Sherif Ibrahim now work and tour with the band. Al Issa's vocals on a track called Al Araby are both hugely evocative - particularly with the additional backing of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra - and thought provoking.
"The reaction from Arab audiences to that song is incredible," confirms O'Neill. "The words basically say 'I am an Arab, I was born an Arab, and treat me as a human being rather than the colour of my skin or my culture'."
Ikoku agrees. "Some of the most interesting feedback we get is from people saying 'I am so proud to be Arabic'. They genuinely don't know that they do have artists who are so well versed in their field."
And with funding secured until 2015, and a programme which this year includes the Booker-shortlisted Libyan author Hisham Matar, the prominent Egyptian artist Wael Shawky and, Ikoku's favourite, a "Freedom Hour" of daily debates about the Arab world, the Liverpool Arabic Arts Festival is certainly going from strength to strength.
"It feels like a real achievement to make 10 years," says Ikoku. "Ten years of sheer determination and hard work, where the scale and focus have dramatically changed. We've come a long way. But what's really clear is that, even though Arabic arts and culture doesn't feel so marginalised now, the festival is as necessary today as it was when we first started."
For more information, visit www.arabicartsfestival.co.uk