Arts Liverpool's seventh annual Arabic Arts Festival aims to 'arabise' its audience.
Best of both worlds
This summer, the city of Liverpool is decorated with 120 sculptures of a strange beast, a mixture of a lamb and a banana. There are differing views on what these lamb-bananas signify - it could be the union of diverse cultures, or the dangers of genetic engineering. These humorous sculptures - each decorated by a different sponsor - are the lambassadors (there's no escape from lamb-related puns in Liverpool) for the city as the European Capital of Culture 2008. One is called "lamsa" - meaning touch in Arabic - and comes with Islamic floral and geometric designs, as interpreted by local school children. Lamsa is the symbol of the vibrant Arab community in Liverpool and the mascot for the city's two-week Arabic Arts Festival, now in its seventh year.
The festival opened with the arrestingly titled show, Arabise Me, put on by two young women who delight in calling themselves "part-time Arabs". The name was dreamt up by Leila Mroueh, who is Lebanese-Iranian and came to London as a child to escape the war in Beirut. She has cut her teeth on the popular end of Arabic TV, including Big Brother productions. Her partner, Mahita el Basha Urieta, an independent curator who is Spanish-Lebanese, raises the intellectual tone. She likes to use words like "determinism" and "cerebral", while Mroueh's signature words are "wicked" and "juiced up".
They met at a picnic on Hampstead Heath in London in 2000 and, making use of their different takes on art, went on to form Ziyarat, an artistic collective which aims to project "a fresh and thought-provoking image of the Arab world". They have turned the question of where their real identity lies - normally a source of much anguish - into a celebration of the joys of being able to move at will between the warm bath of Arab family life and the freedoms of the West.
Speaking before the performance at Liverpool's Bluecoat arts centre, Mroueh described how she became a part-time Arab. "I went to Arabic school in London on Saturdays but I pretty much got kicked out. They wanted to teach me using very forceful methods and it did not work for me. Saturday school in the 1980s was a gruesome place." It was her father, a publisher, who planted the idea that she could benefit from both cultures.
"It all started when I had a conversation with my dad. I was complaining about having to stay in and bond with the family on Saturday night while all my friends were out having a good time. He said to me, 'Actually you are very lucky - you can take the best bits of both cultures, and chuck out the bits that don't work for you'. I thought that was amazing." Being a part-time Arab, she says, means "we choose whether we turn up at 50 weddings and how we do all the social and family obligations. We don't have to look a certain way, we don't have to behave a certain way. It makes us really adaptable."
Urieta - the cerebral one - adds: "Wherever we are, we relate to Arab culture, but also to the London or Spanish one or whatever environment." She too is Lebanese-born, but lived between Beirut, Spain and Tunisia."Our cultural background is extremely fluid, and it may seem a bit bizarre to some people at times." If the local Arab community in Liverpool (said to be 10,000 strong and many of them of Yemeni origin) came to Arabise Me in order to get in touch with their roots with a bit of classical oud playing, some folk dancing and patriotic poetry, they were due for disappointment.
As for me, I have a deep loathing of folk dancing, and tend to fall asleep at poetry readings. Having spent many years in the Middle East, I was enthused by the prospect of being Arabised without having to use a dictionary. The hottest item on the programme did indeed involve an oud, but not in a way that any of the audience had ever witnessed. This was a hip-hop act, with the Lebanese rapper Rayess Bek accompanied by Yan Pittard, a Cairo-trained Frenchman, on the oud. You can rap in any language these days - even Esperanto - but Arabic raps are still a bit of a rarity.
The use of the oud - the Arab classical instrument par excellence - raised some eyebrows, as if a Stradivarius violin was borrowed for a dance mash-up. No one had seen the instrument bashed to a hip-hop beat, but the young crowd loved it, particularly when the singer launched into passionate lyrics like "What are we waiting for to bomb Iran?" More unsettling for the older generation was the dance performance by London-based IJAD, whose driving force is Argentine-Lebanese. No one knew what to expect, but it certainly did not involve traditional embroidery or swords. As the female dancers performed Wanna Play?, a dance which, according to the programme, "explore[s] personal journeys in an alluring and fast-paced urban environment", two teenage girls of Iraqi heritage sitting next to me burst out into fits of giggles.
The giggles spread to the older generation, clad in austere black and hijab, sitting in front. When the dancers started crushing apples with their bodies on the dance floor, half a dozen ladies filed out. A Kuwaiti engineering student in hijab offered a gracious interpretation: "It's a Lebanese show - that's what they like in Lebanon." But some of the more conservative members of the audience clearly felt that the show was more de-arabising than arabising.
The chairman of the Arabic arts festival, Taher Ali Qassim, a distinguished representative of the 130-year-old Yemeni community in Britain, defended the show. "People tell me this is not Arabic culture. But if artists want to put this on, who am I to censor them? This is Liverpool, after all." Both Urieta and Mroueh recognise that contemporary dance is tough for any audience, and this was a challenging piece. "We did not promise to offer Arabia on a plate," said Mroueh. "We needed to make a bit of a splash for the opening night."
Mroueh said they were not in the business of offering "Arab ethnography". "We support the work of talented artists who are part-time Arabs. This is part of what we do." The Arab diaspora experience is growing every year. It used to be confined to Palestinians and Lebanese, but now includes Iraqis and young people from countries such as Egypt, which cannot provide jobs. Moving abroad is nothing new, of course. When Europe's population was growing in the 19th century, millions left for the Americas. But now there is a difference: in the past, if you emigrated, you never saw your home country again. Now you can return by plane, or keep in touch electronically so you never actually have to decide where you belong. Hence the rise of the part-time Arab.
This dilemma is portrayed by Rola Haj-Ismail, who I thought was going to be a stand-up comic, but in fact turned out to be a sit-down-and-chop artist. She performs while wielding a kitchen knife to chop great bundles of parsley to make tabbouleh, the Lebanese national dish, which she turns into a metaphor for Arab family life. Born in Lebanon and brought up in Australia, she is a foreigner in both places. In Australia she does not know whether she is Australian, Lebanese, a feminist, a leftist, or an Arab. In Beirut she has to cope with the impossibility of ever becoming a proper Lebanese madame, with regular courses of Botox and a couple of Filipina maids. "The live-in maid is quite a phenomenon in Lebanon. Whether you are rich, poor, working class, middle class, you can afford to have a live-in maid," says Haj-Ismail in her one-woman show.
"I'm struggling with the mental adaptation to having someone in my house who is not my friend, nor my family. Who I see everyday, all the time, but have to pretend is not there. Who I can't treat as my friend or family, but who I see more that any one else." Not wishing to surrender to the constraints of Arab family life, she never learns to make tabbouleh. But is it right, she asks, to get the maid to prepare tabbouleh for you - especially a dish which tastes good only when it is eaten in a family setting. And how can she enjoy being so close to her family when her maid - a mother of four - is so far from hers? These questions do not trouble the true Lebanese madame, but the free-spirited Aussie cannot feel comfortable.
Her touching one-woman show reaches a happy end in Qatar, a place with so many nations coming together that she at last conquers her fear of cooking. The audience gets a bowl of the chewy green ambrosia, to eat on a lettuce leaf, and a little bag of burghal - cracked wheat - to make it at home. The next stops of Arabise Me are likely to be either Dubai or Madrid. It will certainly give cheer to the part-time Arabs all over the world.
But there will always be people who contest that the part-time Arab should be celebrated. Some of the Arab diaspora in the UK, particularly the newer arrivals, have a rather limited view of what an Arab is - Islamic, jealous of family honour and protective of the classical Arabic heritage. They no doubt see the part-time Arab as a lamb-banana, a mongrel creature unknown in nature which, deprived of the sustenance of its centuries-old heritage, will disappear.
Did the evening Arabise me? It did in a way. When I got home I found my sachet of burghal had spilt all over my laptop computer and spare shirt. I will never get all the burghal out from under the keys. So I suppose, whenever I go through those supersensitive sniffer machines at airports, the trace of burghal will be logged, and I will be identified as an Arab, or at least one of the growing ranks of part-timers.