'Art is not an intruder on society': Rana Yazaji, Syrian cultural activist and Al Mawred's director

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 7 Apr 2016

Syrian cultural activist and managing director of Al Mawred Al Thaqafy talks about her passions and how, following the months-long transition to Beirut, she navigates this renowned regional NGO to thriving shores

Rana Yazaji
Rana Yazaji (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)

For Egyptian art followers, audiences and cultural players, the Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy) does not need introduction. Founded in 2004, the Culture Resource made an impact on much of society using arts and culture as it's fundamental denominator. To many, this remarkable NGO was recognised through the many musical activities taking place at the El-Genaina Theatre in Al Azhar Park, Cairo, as well as other locations. When not direct beneficiaries of them, cultural players are aware of the large variety of Al-Mawred programmes aimed at supporting Arab artists, creating a dynamic exchange of practice and thought, and providing cultural and artistic services to broad segments of society, etc.

For a whole decade, Al Mawred's regional office, managed by Basma El-Husseiny, was located in Cairo. On 9 November 2014, however, Al Mawred announced suspending all activities in Egypt and moved to Beirut. Though it was not exactly out of the blue, Al Mawred refrained from any  immediate clarification. Many understood however that the Law on Associations presented a few weeks earlier by the Ministry of Social Solidarity to Egyptian NGOs, when 10 November was set as a deadline for the associations and foundations to register under the new, more restrictive regulations or be subject to investigation and possible prosecution, was the trigger of the relocation. Many have since wondered about the future of the institution -- and what will be the consequences of its move out of Egypt.

At that point, however, little was known about Rana Yazaji, a young cultural activist from Syria with a rich portfolio of achievements, who was appointed Al Mawred's managing director only a month before the Egypt activities were suspended. While confronting the challenges ahead of her, dealing with the consequences of the abrupt relocation, Yazaji also managed to use the months-long transition to navigate the institution to thriving shores.

"Though it was a surprise, in a way we saw it coming. Being always sensible to the changes taking place around us, and watching the situation, we were already thinking what would be best for the organisation. We had to consider the fact that our aim was not only to keep Al Mawred going but also to ensure that it continued growing," Rana Yazaji explains.
She adds that even before responding to Al Mawred's call for the director opening she was already in the process of leaving her war-torn home country.  

"Starting 2013, I was already going back and forth between Beirut and Damascus. With Al Mawred, the process of my involvement began in May 2014. Finally, I took over as managing director in October," she clarifies.

A well-grounded culture player

With such a heavy responsibility on her shoulders, Yazaji's composure is striking. She has a well-grounded mind and an intense capacity for discernment especially when she talks about the most challenging processes that involve the hardships experienced by the Arab culture players and the role that Al Mawred can play in the whole regional equation. Charmingly humble though, Yazaji begins to unveil her rich portfolio:

"Though my family is not directly linked to the arts, we had a huge library at home. I grew up in an environment where books are cherished. In fact, reading and writing was my first connection to creativity," Yazaji goes on to recall her years at the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus, followed by her work in the theatre as assistant director, a dramaturg and "once as an actress -- in a joined Syrian-French production where I replaced someone in a small role. I was terrible," she laughs.

Yazaji’s involvement in theatre included working with the Syria Trust for Development, a non-governmental, non-profit organisation, in projects reaching out to rural communities.

"This is when I saw the reality of my country, which was so different to life as I knew it in Damascus. Coming from large cities, cultural players often make assumptions about rural communities and think they might not respond to art. We tend to be worried that those communities might not participate or interact with us. What happened was exactly the opposite. We worked with children and adults, made plays with locals and toured the villages with the performances. People were very responsive, many followed us from village to village.”

She adds that for many years she kept receiving letters from children who lived in the villages visited. Yazaji emphasises how this experience demonstrated her that underneath a simple social fabrics are a lot of deep truths -- and how easy and natural, in fact, is the process of unveiling them.

"Art is not an intruder on society, on the contrary. Art has always been part of the main square of the city. It is we who build theatres and who close them, but art is a natural part of human practice. It is the modern world that institutionalised art."

Having developed a passion for wider cultural concepts, Yazaji moved to earn a masters in Conceptualization and Management of Cultural Projects from Paris III and an MA in Dramaturgy and Theatre Direction from Paris X. She returned to Syria in 2007 and worked with numerous cultural organisations as programme/project manager and as a trainer in cultural management, and cultural planning, becamming involved in UNESCO’s 2008 Arab Capital of Culture initiative in Damascus.

She also touched on the more entrepreneurial side of the arts by working in animation. In the meanwhile, she published several articles and research papers in the field of cultural policy, with many of them becoming part of a book titled An Introduction to Cultural Policies in the Arab Region. Her paper, “National Planning and the Rising Role of Civil Society Institutions in Syria”, was published by Bilgi University, Istanbul in the Annual Book of Cultural Policies.

It was in 2011 that, together with a few other cultural players, Yazaji founded Ettijahat. Independent Culture, “an organisation that works to create an authentic relationship between cultural and artistic acts and Syrian society, with great diversity and plurality,” as its website reveals. The organisation was the natural outcome of the preoccupations of cultural activists faced with revolutionary movements in the country and the region.

“At the beginning, we were all shocked. We kept questioning ourselves and our roles: do we keep doing what we’re doing or do we take a more political action? We asked ourselves what is the function of arts and culture during war, revolution or simply turbulent times,” Yazaji explains refusing to identify or give specific name to the current situation in Syria. To her, regardless the terminology, the country is going through a tragic crisis with thousands of innocent victims.  

“I consider myself a cultural activist and, together with like-minded people in Syria, we had long conversations trying to figure out what we should or can do. We knew we had to become part of what was happening in the country and in the region.”

Throughout its short history, Ettijahat. Independent Culture has embarked on activities aimed at empowering Syrian artist, facilitating their mobility, supporting their freedom of expression. While doing so, the organisation began developing its regional networking and positioning. But as Ettijahat continued to grow, Yazaji began transitioning to Beirut and, in 2014, she responded to a call for Al Mawred’s managing director position. She considers this step to be an important move in her development as cultural activist and manager.

Effect multiplication and a passion for change

Yazaji joined Al Mawred in a one decade into its activities, during which it has already proved to be one of the most dynamic NGOs working with civil society through arts and culture in the region. From the moment Yazaji approached Al Mawred, she believed in its strength built throughout the previous decade. However she also recognised that it was time for Al Mawred to move a step further and add a new dimension to its wealth of expertise.

“It was in the very first interview when I presented my vision of how I saw this organisation developing further. Among several points presented, I thought it was the time for ‘effect multiplication.’ For ten years, Al Mawred was giving grants, and supporting artists in many ways. I believed it was about time for this NGO to expand and also to start acting as a helper to other similar smaller/younger institutions with a vision similar to ours. In other words, we began looking for established organisations which in their mission provide service and support to artists, cultural players -- our target groups. We want to share our expertise and support those who also play a supportive role,” she explains.

She adds that as Al Mawred’s challenges linked to the transition of its regional office to Beirut have been overcome, it will now be easier to embark on that new dimension of activities.

Along parallel lnes, however, Al Mawred continues to play it’s own supportive role in the region. “The needs and assessments that were done a decade ago are not overdue today. With each of the Arab countries representing an important area of our activities and an important topic to work on, our core objectives have not changed. We continue developing cultural policies to help frame the work of the artists. We continue with the production awards, cultural management training, travel awards, etc.”

Yazaji goes on to point to the programmes and activities enumerated on Al Mawred’s website, shedding particular light on the new initiative announced in mid-March. Called Tajwaal, the new programme is in the form of a fund supporting international travel for Arab artists and cultural players. According to the official information released by the Culture Resource, "the goal of the fund is to help support mobility outside of the Arab world, which is often a major challenge due to lack of financial resources, visa issues and lack of exposure to potential partner organisations." The initiative is Al Mawred's response to the emerging importance of opening new opportunities for Arab artists. It is also the first such initiative aiming at moving Al Mawred onto a wider, international network of support.

Yazaji explains that what triggered creation of the fund is the fact that for many Arab nationals, mobility can be extremely difficult. “With everything that is happening in the world and all those images in the news, we found it crucial to support artists and all cultural players that come from the Arab region. The chosen applicants, who can be individuals or projects, will be offered financial mobility support and will benefit from Al Mawred's strong regional network. This way we can become an active player  in creating a support group in its larger sense.”

With Tajwaal, Yazaji is proud to see Al Mawred expand beyond the region and open up opportunities to create dynamic channels between Arab artists and rest of the world. She adds that, though it is not new for Al Mawred, she believes that now the NGO will focus on the risk that independent cultural individuals and institutions face due to the changing political circumstances.

“Hopefully, we can offer a framework of support for the artists, to have their safe space of creation" she adds clarifying that through "space" she means the whole creative dynamics of the artist or a group of artists who can benefit from the Al Mawred’s ability to provide “safe and nurturing creative dynamics.”

As Yazaji gives several examples of Al Mawred’s core visions, all turn to be tailored around concepts built on profound assessments of the region as part of the larger international scene. Yazaji elaborates further, explaining that in many cases artists are particularly affected by social or political change and face a variety of threats to their creative dynamics.

“Artists somehow represent a consciousness of what is happening around them. They are capable of transporting their reflections onto an international level. As such, they are often at risk in many countries in the region. This is a natural phenomenon at times of political turbulence. Al Mawred’s programmes do not focus on a specific country but we look at the whole regional scene and recognise areas where freedom of expression might be challenged. This of course applies to individuals as well as institutions. We can provide support through our different programmes and the wide network we developed over the past years,” Yazaji underlines the importance of regional backup, and an ability to connect to people who are similar in their understanding of freedom of expression. “Without this network we are lonely and incapable of achieving much.”

It is exactly through this wide network that Al Mawred has managed to support communities and individual artists. As it moves towards the ‘effect multiplication’, soon it will also address other supportive institutions. It is through this strategy that Al Mawred is able to create palpable positive change. Effect multiplication will carry the skills as well as the core philosophy of Al Mawred, both of which have brought about many rewarding results in past years. And while the philosophy behind the action and Al Mawred’s main principles of dealing with each community remain the same, Yazaji underlines that “each society is different. It is important to first understand the real culture of the community in question and how their uniqueness shapes the approach. The approach adopted is the key of the relationship. If you do not understand the heart and soul of a given community, you only pretend to be capable of offering solutions.”

This path of thought has been already successfully practiced by the Culture Resources on multiple levels. It is enough to look to one of the many examples such as Egypt’s Darb Al Ahmar Arts School, which was founded by and under Al Mawred’s management until 2014 (when was moved to El-Genaina Company), to understand how this philosophy is put in action. 

As children and youths of Darb Al Ahmar Arts School learn circus arts and percussion and eventually showcase their skills, we can see how dozens of lives from economically underprivileged communities are transformed, how they embark on a journey of self-worth, and find a source of income. Al Mawred’s website provides many other examples, on regional scale, proving how the NGO’s philosophy deals with various communities and addresses their needs through culture.

“If you plan to help any community, first you need to understand what it is that they need. If you are not aware of those people and their stories, you lose contact with them, and you end up as a preacher. The importance of the arts in social change is deeply linked to understanding the community in question. If we come with the assumption of only helping with what we see is right, we kill them even more,” Yazaji stresses importance of deep understanding and assessments as only then long- or even short-term support or culture-related training will make a palpable impact and lead to change.

Change is probably one of the most powerful words that resurfaces in conversations about the Culture Resource and it’s meaning is equally validated when we talk about people who work inside Al Mawred.

According to Yazaji, Al Mawred creates an equally strong impact on those who work inside it. “Even if my career was similar prior to joining Al Mawred, I am definitely one of the people who have changed while working in it. Al Mawred makes us understand the local environments through better understanding of the regional environment.”

She stresses the passion that all team shares for the Culture Resource. Surprisingly, with such a strong regional impact, Al Mawred operates with hardly 30 people on board, all based in Beirut. Some members of the team keep travelling across the region, while the coordinator of Tunisia’s Balad Al Fann programme is the only person practically living in Tunis. Yazaji explains that, for the time being, Al Mawred does not plan to expand in terms of people, but rather looks into further developing its programmes.

“Of course on the way we sometimes get caught up in an overload, complications, challenges. So again, if you do not believe in what you are doing and do not see how beneficial it is, when under excessive pressure, you risk to give up,” she points to the dedication and passion of the Al Mawred’s team.
“This is not to forget that very often we need to remind ourselves that what we do makes a difference, we need to nurture this passion of course. It is not always easy to be a part of this sector. Culture as linked to the social changes requires that often we should sense what should be done so that change can be obtained. It is not something direct, we do not produce actual good that people use. It is something that needs understanding of the essence of culture and arts, understanding why it is important, why it is a necessity not a luxury. ”

Yazaji concludes that even though Al Mawred’s regional office has been relocated to Beirut, Egypt remains one of the rings in the NGO’s large chain. She points to the variety of programmes of which the Egyptian artists and organizations can become the direct beneficiaries. Together with the Tajwaal initiative, Al Mawred’s website reveals many interesting opportunities.


This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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