London's month-long celebration of contemporary Arab art had a crowded programme that drew enthusiastic audiences.
Shubbak proves a popular window on Arab art for Londoners
As a crowd surges into The Idler, a quirky west London venue, Mona Deeley, the founding director of Zenith films, watches in satisfaction. The noise of conversations between local Londoners and groups of Arabs is growing to a crescendo. Although this is very much an off-the-wall setting for screening little-known Palestinian and Syrian short films, Deeley feels that her company is benefiting from the general upsurge of interest in Arab culture engendered by Shubbak, the London-based Arabic arts festival that drew to a close on Sunday.
For the past month, the London festival had been showcasing contemporary Arab art in its many forms and, according to Deeley, who has long been a part of the London visual arts scene, participating in the citywide event will inevitably lead to new things. "We usually take part in Bafta once a year," she explains. "And that is one big bang. But having a number of smaller events like this with a chance for discussion afterwards has a far wider impact, and it's something we're going to do more of in the future."
The films are shown under the umbrella title Vanishing Spaces, with subjects ranging from the building of a dam that destroys community life to the culinary difficulties of getting the right ingredients to make a popular dish - mloukeihe. The 10-minute film Soup Over Bethlehem by the Palestinian Larissa Sansour encapsulates the problems posed by the Israeli occupation for a middle-class West Bank family when it comes to getting dried herbs to give the dish flavour - or going in and out of their country via Israel.
Themed as a window on contemporary Arab culture, it might seem strange that no event of this sort has taken place before in the British capital. But Shubbak made up for lost time with more than 70 diverse events scattered across a huge variety of venues. From the Victoria and Albert Museum to the Free Word Centre in Farringdon, the festival covered everything from photography to theatre, from architecture to a mock Tahrir Square at the Barbican.
In the case of the latter, it was an evening featuring the artists who sang, played instruments and recited poetry in the centre of Cairo during the demonstrations, creating the background soundtrack of the movement for change.
The Arab Spring is also at the centre of the work of Tarek Shahin, who until recently had a comic strip in The Daily News Egypt. "My four-panel strip is, to some extent, inspired by Doonesbury," he says, referring to the syndicated American strip by GB Trudeau. "It's a story about individuality, and the topics are not exclusively Egyptian."
For Shubbak, Shahin presented a thought-provoking evening recorded for the Little Atoms online radio show. The audience was appreciative of Shahin's skill in encapsulating complex issues into four humorous boxes. The strips were projected behind him on a giant screen. Shahin has just published a book of the collected strips titled Rise: The Story of the Egyptian Revolutionas Written Shortly Before it Began.
Shubbak also offered opportunities for Londoners to meet and talk to some of the big names of the Arab world. The author and veteran activist Nawal Al Saadawi, now almost 80, held a seminar in the Serpentine Gallery in leafy Kensington Gardens. In another of the gallery's rooms a quirky collection of pamphlets, magazines, books and comics was assembled by the Bidoun library.
"We have tried to get every book in print with the title The Arabs," says Babak Radboy, the creative director of Bidoun. "The library moves around. We're next taking it to Cyprus and Stockholm." At each stop, more books are added. One of the criteria is that the books cost under US$5 (Dh18) each. "We're more interested in why a book was produced," Radboy explains. "We have some of the most obscure written material about the Arab world. And our collection is always being added to."
But while literature was high on the agenda, there were plenty of other art forms. As the festival drew to a close, A Glimpse of Arab Contemporary Choreography at Sadler's Wells brought two extraordinary performances to the stage. In I Dance and I Feed You, the larger-than-life character Radhouane El Meddeb cooked a couscous with panache, underscoring the artistry of both the kitchen and dance stage.
Then there was the effortless grace displayed in the Sufi-inspired The Scream. Created by choreographer and dancer Nacera Belaza, the piece saw two Algerian sisters take to the stage accompanied by an eclectic selection of music ranging from Maria Callas to Nina Simone and ending with traditional Arabic chants.
It was a diverse and high-quality debut for Shubbak, and it has left everyone eager for more next year.