Syrian Arts and Culture Festival 2022: A hopeful reminder of Syrian aptitude and achievement

SACF
6 min read
19 January, 2022
From January 20 to February 6, London will host the inaugural Syrian Arts and Culture Festival which celebrates the diverse cultural achievements of the Syrian people and is a poignant reminder of the power of aesthetic political resistance.

It might seem to some that arts and cultures are ‘luxury’ at the time of violence. But as Dr Sarah Fine notes: in times of crises, the arts are the weapons of the soul.

Arts and culture at the time of war

In the Syrian context, at the time of war, artists, writers, painters, poets, musicians have pushed the boundaries to make sense of the individual and collective trauma that millions of Syrians have endured – to tell the story of Syria, of Syrians.

Arts and cultures have become acts of survival and possible ways to heal and deal with trauma.

"Even if they erase everything, we should not let them erase our dream. If there is only one Syrian left, I am sure he [she] will build the Syria that we love. Syria is not a country, a geography. It’s an idea"

Khaled Khalifa, the author of Death Is Hard Work, describes the sense of helplessness he feels in Damascus at the time of war. Yet, he turns again to writing. In Exiled at Home, a film by Lina Sinjab, he notes that:

"Bombing becomes part of our life. It’s nonsense. If you write an article, a novel or anything, it’s nonsense. There’s nothing you can do. You can’t help a child. Complete helplessness. Solitude becomes an essential part of this helplessness. Everyday you have to find a solution for your solitude, for your helplessness. Someone like me turns to writing. I spend long hours writing in the coffee shop. I say probably that’s the only thing that’s possible."

For over a decade the Syrian war has gradually turned into a faceless war. In a country where more than 13 million Syrians are displaced, Syria is turning into numbers and statistics whilst the story of the people increasingly vanish.

Dima Orsho is a Syrian soprano singer and composer. She will perform at the opening event of SACF.
Dima Orsho is a Syrian soprano singer and composer. She will perform at the opening event of SACF
Ibrahim Kievo
Syrian musician Ibrahim Kievo will also be performing at the London Syrian Arts & Culture

Memory is essential to remember and reflect on the destruction of cities and towns. As Syrian civil society activist Oula Ramadan notes:

"How do we keep the memory alive? I think that we need to invest more in knowledge production of all types, including books, broadcasts, visual works, building archives, etc."

Arts and cultures have been at the forefront to protect the memory of Syria and Syrians.

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New spaces to celebrate Syrian arts and culture

As a celebration of Syria’s artistic and cultural efforts, new spaces have been established. At the heart of London in the UK, the Syrian Arts and Culture Festival (SACF) has emerged with a wide range of events between January 20 to February 4. It promises to showcase Syria’s vibrant arts and culture in a city that is shaped by migration and displacement.

"Such creative and courageous forms of expression are a reminder of the power of art, and its ability to offer counter-narratives where new understandings can begin to take shape"

"We decided to start SACF because we wanted to create a platform where we could showcase the richness and diversity of Syria, its culture and people," Daniela Nofal, one of the co-organisers and curators of SACF, tells The New Arab. 

"Ten years on since the early days of the revolution, we have witnessed an astonishing outpouring of cultural and creative forms of expression by Syrians as many resorted to artistic production and practices as a way to make sense of and respond to the new realities they found themselves in.

"Such creative and courageous forms of expression are a reminder of the power of art, and its ability to offer counter-narratives where new understandings can begin to take shape. And so through our multidisciplinary programme, we hope to create encounters that not only bring people together but also open up generative spaces for exchange and discussion where we can begin to think about the present and future of Syria. We are very excited for this to grow into something that more Syrians, both inside Syria and in the diaspora, will take part in organising with us."

Esteemed Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay will exhibit some of his films at the upcoming festival
Esteemed Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay will exhibit some of his films at the upcoming festival. Shubbak is proud to present the Against Disappearance series as part of SACF, in association with Zamakan and Ettijahat. Supported by the Cultural Protection Fund which is led by the British Council in partnership with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Albeit the uncertainties surrounding Covid-19, eight out of the ten events organised in the programme are taking place in person, while the other two are online. The venues spread across London rather than being all organised in one place. This includes, for instance, the Barbican Centre, SOAS, Kings Place and the Museum of London.

There are different themes that are brought together in SACF. In one of its panel events, Looking Back to Move Forward, which I am invited to as a panellist, a central topic is a link between the past and the future through the lens of arts and culture. This linkage is so important today as many artists, filmmakers, writers and intellectuals are turning to the past to bring different slices of history in order to make sense of our present, and by doing so, to pave the way for the future.

In another panel, Access to the Future, questions are raised on the role of institutions in nurturing contemporary Syrian cultural production.

Ammar Azzouz's art work, entitled "Death of the Butterfly", pen and ink on paper
Ammar Azzouz's artwork, entitled Death of the Butterfly, pen and ink on paper

Whilst SACF is the first London based festival for celebrating Syria’s arts and culture, it is not the first UK based. In Manchester, Celebrating Syria festival has been organised each year since 2017.

Celebrating Syria has been successful in its vision that aims at bringing another story about Syria, contrasting with the news media story that focuses on war and destruction:

"For many people, the little they know of Syria and its people comes from media coverage of the conflict. Syria is so much more than that. Its beating heart is filled with the treasures emanating from a deep well of artistic creativity. The news from Syria and the sadness, death, and misery that continue to pour out from the unrest must be juxtaposed against another vision of Syria – one that is filled with beauty, creativity, rebirth and hope."

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It is this hope indeed that we need today. A reconstruction of hope is essential even in the darkest times.

We should never lose this hope, never lose our dream that another future is possible despite all the crises around us. We should always remember the words of Fadwa Souleimane, a Syrian actress and activist who died in her exile, Paris at 47 in 2017, who said: "Even if they erase everything, we should not let them erase our dream. If there is only one Syrian left, I am sure he [she] will build the Syria that we love. Syria is not a country, a geography. It’s an idea."

So, let us celebrate Syria’s arts and culture in London. Let us fight to remember.

Dr Ammar Azzouz is a UK based architect and writer.

Follow him on Twitter: @Dr_Ammar_Azzouz