The Arab Arts Focus (AAF) programme made waves at the 70th Edinburgh Festival Fringe last month, despite numerous challenges caused by visa rejections by UK.
The programme, that ran between 4 and 27 August, showcased stories on stage from Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Morocco, through 10 theatre and dance performances curated by an esteemed international selection committee, in addition to a series of seven talks.
Most of the plays ran throughout the month-long festival, with some of the performances getting a half-run, across three of the renowned festival’s most distinguished venues.
AAF was brought together through a collaboration between the Tamasi Collective, Scotland’s Kenmure Productions, and Orient Productions and the D-CAF festival, both founded by Ahmed El-Attar.
While AAF has been a fixture of every edition of Cairo’s D-CAF festival, this is its first year to go international, finding the perfect place to launch under the auspices of the Fringe, one of the biggest arts festivals in the world.
Performances from the MENA region have made it to the Fringe's previous editions, yet this is the biggest collection of shows, offering a more intense presence of Arab art, revealing its diversity, catalyzing its development, and allowing for a wider understanding of the region.
“We hope that this creates room for underrepresented narratives to facilitate the possibility of future exchanges and collaborations between artists and institutions from the Arab world and those from Scotland and the UK,” El-Attar said in a press release.
Rolling with the punches
Perhaps Arab artists are no strangers to challenges, often performing under difficult economic and political circumstances.
It was still disheartening that the AAF programme suffered because of inexplicable visa rejections from the UK Home Office, despite being backed with institutional support and the proper paperwork.
“A total of 25 got their visas. However, 22 people had theirs rejected. Seven of them applied twice and only two got it on the second attempt,” Basma Hamed, Orient Production’s marketing and PR manager told Ahram Online.
The biggest number of rejections were from Egypt, followed by Palestine and Syria.
“Seven production team members were refused, including the technical director. One of them didn’t even get a reason for the rejection, and with others there were claims that the documents were not there, even though we provided more than what was asked for,” Hamed says, adding that they were troubleshooting until the last minute to make things work.
The issues cost them several changes in a programme they’d been working on since the start of 2017, and a lot of money between re-applying for visas or bringing new people on board at the last minute.
The performances were a means of sharing stories on what’s happening in the Middle East, away from media depictions and stereotypes. It is ironic that the visa rejections issue is in itself a telling story, highlighting the background struggles Arab artists face in trying to have their voices heard and their art seen.
Performers weaved this into Chill Habibi, a laid back cabaret-inspired show staged every night with different sketches, mixing theatre, comedy, dance, and music from Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Morocco, and Scotland. Among the sketches were people reading out visa rejection letters.
“One of the highlights was when [award-winning British actress] Emma Thomson dropped in to watch Chill Habibi, after the local PR met her in Summer Hall at the festival and invited her. She even read one of the letters,” Hamed said.
Thompson’s presence added a brighter spotlight to the already hot topic of visa issues and attracted attention from the international press, all denouncing the Home Office for stifling opportunities for artistic exchange.
Resilience becomes relevant
One of the dance shows was particularly hit hard. ‘The Dance Double Bill’ had three people's visas rejected: dancers Hamza Damra and Nagham Saleh, and choreographer Yazan Iwidat.
Egyptian choreographer and dancer Shaymaa Shoukry was in luck when dancer Mahmoud El-Haddad was already in Europe, and on such short notice cancelled his flight to Egypt to be the replacement for Saleh.
Together they created a new dance, ‘The Resilience of the Body’, in four days. An excerpt of the original dance ‘Mayohkomsh’ was screened, as was the full performance of 'Running Away' by Iwidat and Damra.
“The silver lining is that this show got nominated for the Total Theatre Award, chosen from among 3,500 shows and 200 dance performances,” Hamed said.
For Shoukry, this whirlwind of events was even more surreal and serendipitous.
She was working on ‘The Resilience of The Body’ at the Cairo Contemporary Dance Centre as a solo, and never planned for it to be performed internationally.
“That’s because it’s very much related to Cairo and frustrations experienced there. But it turned out to be very artistically relevant to what happened; it’s also about an inability to express, what we do if we can’t change, what is possible in this stage, post-dreams,” Shoukry told Ahram Online.
This worked better than having El-Haddad perform Mayohkomsh instead of Saleh.
“Nagham’s solo was like a portrait of who she is. If El-Haddad just copied it, it becomes a flat remake, which is not interesting to me. I like things to be coming from within, working with the dancer and having an artistic exchange,” Shoukry says.
The two had previously worked together and knew that their styles were very different.
“I had to share my artistic vision with a replacement in just four days. El-Haddad would never have been my first choice, but I’m so glad we did this together because his energy, enthusiasm and openness to try new things, made this a very special and positive experience,” she adds.
'The Resilience of The Body' also received the Summer Hall Award, which is granted from the board members of Summer Hall, whom Shoukry says were very attentive and supportive to the AAF throughout the Fringe.
According to Hamed, Fringe-goers could be heard talking about AAF at the other venues and shows, a testament to the impression the programme left.
All shows at the festival are reviewed and rated real time. “Jogging [from Lebanon] took five stars, some shows took 3 to 4 stars, Chill Habibi took 4 stars, which are all very good ratings,” says Hamed.
Other shows within AAF critics and media hailed include Taha, a monodrama interweaving the work of the revered Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011) with his compelling biography.
Some performers, emerged with new opportunities and contacts, fulfilling one of the AAF’s aspirations.
“I got invited to hold the performance at Dancing on The Edge Festival in Holland, so I’ll be doing that in November. But I still wish do do it here [in Cairo] as intended,” Shoukry says.
As sensitive to context as she is, the choreographer sees this frustration she had attached to Cairo is palpable “everywhere.”
“What is holding us back here is holding us back everywhere, anywhere we go. They [at the Fringe] were very eager and curious to receive us, but faced censorship in some way. Because if you limit who comes in to you, eventually you are censoring on the inside too,” adds Shoukry.
As for future plans for AAF, Hamed says the goal is to run it in alternating years between Egypt and abroad.
Despite encouragement from the Fringe to return again, it is hoped to hold it in a different country each time, to expand its outreach.
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