What we learned from Hotspot Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq
by Rachele De Felice @ The Festival Academy
The Hotspot Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, hosted by The Festival Academy took place online on Monday, June 21, 2021 between 12-2 pm and was an opportunity to bring together arts and community leaders and directly affected advocates from Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and Lebanon. The purpose of the session was to raise awareness and knowledge about the current state of these countries and the arts and culture sector in the region. In particular, the group discussed the role the arts and culture community can play in regard the region’s latest political developments.
This session provided an opportunity to understand in depth what is happening in the region at the time and how it directly affects people not only in the arts and culture sector but also beyond it. The discussion provided grounds to build bridges and strategies for enhancing international cooperation and elaborated on the question what solidarity with the arts and festival sector in war and violent zone in practice means.. In addition to the facilitator, five speakers were present, each one of them from a different conflict zone in the Middle East, bringing in very diverse perspectives to the conversation. The leading question for the whole hotspot was “What does solidarity with arts festival colleagues in war, violent zones mean in practice?” We, therefore, discussed the cases of Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria and Iraq, in that order, during Hotspot 3. Facilitated by Mike van Graan, 22 participants joined in to learn from these real time impressions and how the speakers themselves are engaging in current events.
Abdul Hakim Hashemi Hamidi (Afghanistan)
Abdul Hakim Hashemi Hamidi started off this inspiring hotspot by telling us more about his activities in Afghanistan since 2005 until 2016. He provided a general introduction of Afghan history and its war and violent zone developments. He touched upon the 5 important historical periods, since 1978 and the country’s political instability. The 5 periods mentioned were: 1) Successive coups, 2) soviet invasion, 3) civil war, 4) the Taliban, 5) US-led coalition. Today there is more than 2 million 700.000 Afghan people displaced with numerous internally displaced people in Afghanistan. The political instability, therefore, made people in Afghanistan suffer tremendously with millions of lives lost and forced to flee their homes. Since the political instability, social, cultural and economic exclusion, especially for women, children and certain ethnics, became a daily companion for Afghani people.
He then moved on to give a more contemporary context of the country: After 2001, there was new window for Afghanistan. Afghanistan was very isolated before the turn of the century but in 2001 many states came to the country and provided foreign aid. A question he posed is “What should we do now with Afghanistan, a country destroyed with almost nothing left? How do we deal with the painful past and deal with the future based on human rights values and dignity?” Social change is needed in the country, but how to achieve this? His involvement and activities in Afghanistan provide a perspective on how you can achieve change by using social and cultural tools.
His association, Simorgh Film Association of Culture and Art was presented afterwards, which works with art, in this case specifically theatre and film, and it believes art is essential for social changes. They provide educational programmes in remote areas where there is no electricity and internet in centres and facilities with excluded social groups, such as prisoners, policies, orphanages, housewives, farmers, women shelter etc. 30 short films were produced, as a consequence, and 300 theatre and performances in different places, participation in national and international theatre festivals and 200 workshops were organised for in the name of social change.
The main subjects for the Simorgh Film Association of Culture and Art are: women’s and children’s rights, sexual abuse and rape, the value of individuals participating in elections and voting, education for all, the role of education in the empowerment of women and young girls, family conflicts and empowerment in areas of conflict and post-war recovery.
Main challenges, difficulties and barriers for the art and culture sector in Afghanistan are the security challenges, caused by the Taliban and lack of enough financial support and funding, as there is not much financial support going to the cultural sector. There still seems to be no economic interest from NGOs or from a foreign aid perspective to invest in arts and culture. Furthermore, corruption (at a national and international level), is still a great problem in Afghanistan. The role of foreign states and their involvement in this and what a crucial role they play in up-keeping the system is something to bear in mind and critically reflect upon, which was stressed by the speaker. A personal example Hakim provided to illustrate this was his involvement with a project partner in the U.S. that would not want to disclose the total amount of budget in a project. At the end, the budget became public and more than half of the budget in the project was not used for the agreed purposes. This is something that happens frequently with projects like this and partners abroad that partner with Afghanistan.
“Solidarity means that Afghan people’s voice needs to be heard and they need someone from the international community to listen to them, to their recommendations, suggestions and needs. They need to be actively included in the decision-making process and contribute physically and intellectually in the process; we need the chance to go from a more passive to a more active role. We need to work together, because now we do really have the capability to work together.”
Abdul Hakim Hashemi Hamidi
Hakim also stressed the trust-building on an international level and effective, mutual transparency and accountability between Afghanis who work at the ground and partners and donors from abroad, who give us financial support. This presentation was followed by a round of questions and a wrapping up by Mike.
“We need to hear the stories of people right from where they live and where they are from. This conversation is a unique setting with people from these countries who are engaged in conflict right now.”
Mike van Graan
Maha Nasser (Yemen)
The second speaker, Maha Nasser, told us about her story and how she came to Europe and has now been living in Sweden for 3 years but is originally from Yemen. Her talk commences by her own story and moves on to give a contemporary outlook on the current state of problems in the country. She then moves on and gives a perspective on culture in Yemen and other Arabic countries.
She told us about how numerous people and artists in Yemen, as well as social activists and journalists have been killed and arrested for speaking up about the horrific situation in Yemen. She provides real time examples, such as from a Yemeni artist, who was arrested because she published a photo of herself to Facebook. Overall, she mentions how there is a lack of interest in culture, however the situation has changed and people in Yemen are hungry for the arts now, they want to go to culture events, concerts etc. but the governments funds and attention is directed towards other areas. In addition to this, there are religious groups who try to fight the arts and music events. So, the problem in Yemen is twofold, as she explains, as you have the government on the one hand working against the arts and culture sector, but also the religious groups. Before the conflicts in the Middle East started to escalate, people actually already tried to open up, be more modern and having more awareness for the arts and culture. In that period there were a lot of Arabic writers, actors, artist etc known and present on an international scale as well. In Yemen, however, the same developments could not be admired. Nonetheless, people still tried to overcome the shame that was entrenched with the cultural sector. Women rights and arts are now interlinked, she mentions, because the Yemeni government took on a more restrictive approach by forcing women to put on hijab and forcing them to cover their minds at the same time. Music started to be forbidden, they separated girls and boys and women and men in places. Since then the situation has only worsened. Unfortunately, religious groups use their ideology to serve and fulfil a political interest in the country. “This political ideology by religious groups are ideas that are stealing our dreams.” Sometimes as a woman in Yemen, our speaker explains, you will find yourself with expensive bills or invoices, because of things like your gender, the colour of your skin, or your social status. Female artists are heavily suppressed in the country. She explains:
“It’s like you cannot be who you are, you cannot express yourself, you cannot live your passion. There is no place for you in this world. It’s like life feels useless when you cannot exhibit yourself.”
This is exactly what these extremist religious groups do, they want Yemenis to stand small in the corner, to be hiding. She gives then a somewhat more hopeful perspective to the conflict and some developments today: Young people start liberating themselves, express themselves in an artistic way and breaking free from old ideas. There are young people who are leaving the country and the state is struggling more and more to continue with extremist ideas. People start to realise that they can use arts to express their feelings and to express through the arts who they are. She counts her generation as a lucky one, as there is access to the internet that provides a space for education, communication and awareness of Yemeni people and the power of culture and arts in expressing oneself.
Through her own experience in Sweden, Maha realised the extrem gap in cultures between the Middle East and Europe. This is why, she dedicated herself to foster mutual understanding between Sweden and Yemen by working with an organisation that enables just that, a culture exchange between Yemen and Sweden. She also mentioned her aspiration in working together with another one of our speakers present at the Hospot, Kassem, and how they want to set up a project against the discrimination of women in the Arab region together. She believes by starting to counteract women’s problems in one country in the region, it will not just have a positive effect in Yemen alone, but also for women in other Asian and Middle Eastern countries. They hope to achieve a domino effect because it relates to all women’s and girls’ dreams. The art is the most effective platform to address these issues and create a gap and show solidarity as well as make a change.
”The first things that are disregarded during conflicts are the arts, because people are busy accounting for basic needs and looking for safety and food. Furthermore, artists and media, and the people who work in media are a vulnerable group in conflicts. They carry the burden, and they are afraid and they are being targeted and are being arrested during these conflicts.” (Maha Nasser)
Kassem Istanbouli (Lebanon)
Kassem started by giving a brief introduction about the the Arab Culture and Arts project from Lebanon and its work, as well as in which countries the network operates. It is an organisation providing support to the arts and culture sector and dedicating its work to improving policies that will support creative workers. This organisation tries to activate the role of art and culture in changing societies through free expression in the Arab region and the Middle East.
He works hard on creating collaboration of arts and culture between the North and the South of Lebanon through the Tiro Association for Arts (TAA). TAA is a volunteer-based organisation aiming to bring together youth of different cultural backgrounds to create an alternative and critical movement through arts and culture. It was initiated by an ambitious youth group, that started training and performing theatre shows. Change the things in Lebanon, in this project now, they have festivals in the South of Lebanon where the arts try to reach everyone. The creation of ACAN happened during Corona, trying to create a link in the Middle East between the Arab regions. A next project was then to create links between South and North which is called “collaboration of arts and culture between the north and the south” and is based on three pillars: creating and renovating alternative semi-public spaces for culture and arts, providing training and cultural skill development for youth, free of charge, organizing festivals and promoting Lebanon as a place for culture and artistic development.
Kassem believes that theatres can be used as a space of education for schools and it is actually what he wants to achieve through his involvement in the TAA.TAA aims to build a thriving artistic and cultural community and provide alternatives to the marginalized and neglected community in the north of Lebanon (Tripoli). Supporting each other and helping each other, everyone that can be member, ACAN provides a space for connection, which also why he mentioned he wants to expand collaboration outside of Lebanon with Maha to involve other Arab countries more as well and anyone who wants to join in the community and in activating culture in more marginalised areas in the Middle East, is welcome to join.
The aim is to develop a free culture space by bringing together participants of Tiro from the south and north of Lebanon to do collaborative projects such as drama plays. Also, international arts festival are organised to provide a space for connection and exchanging best practices.
“Theses space are open to everyone working hard to achieve this dream and to make it reality. We are learning by doing. We come from nothing.”
- Kassem Istanbouli
Rania Elias (Palestine)
Rania explains to us through deeply moving and personal accounts the horrific situation in Palestine. She starts by showing us a picture of an Israeli military attack and occupation forces closing an event at Yabous Cultural Centre in 2013, the centre that she is running in Jerusalem. Then she continues with a brief political and historical introduction to Palestine and the links to the current situation and where the conflict between Israel and Palestine historically evolved. She then explains how personal attacks on cultural activists in Palestine by the occupation are no rarity. For 23 years she has been subjected herself every day to direct and indirect harassment by the occupation. One of the latest aggressions on Palestinian art and culture is shown, when she tells us about a raid on the 22nd of July 2021, where Israeli occupation police and income tax raided her home, searching everything and confiscating personal belongings. They arrested her husband and took him to an interrogation centre. A squad of Israeli occupation police and tax personnel raided the Music Conservatory, where her husband works and the Yabous premises, where they confiscated documents, files computers and CCTV equipment. She was put under interrogation herself for 12 consecutive hours without any breaks. On 27th of July 2021, she was arrested again, because EU Representative Office, Consulates and Representative Offices of 32 diplomates in Palestine made a solidarity visit to the Yabous Cultural Centre. The raid on the 22nd of July happened under false allegations, with Israeli officials claiming they “are promoting Palestinian culture, which is why they wanted to arrest us.” All of this in clear violation of all humanitarian and cultural laws and basic international human rights treaties, the Israeli Interior Ministry is refusing to renew her “family reunification” permit and putting the renewal under the condition that she should resign and close the Yabous Cultural Centre. This means she is now forced to either end her work at Yabous Cultural Centre, the Centre she has run since 1998, or her family, who she can only see with this permit. She vouches to not give in and wants to continue the fight for the Palestinian art and culture sector, even with her individual rights and freedom under thread. After a very emotional account on her side about the raid and the harassment by the occupation she gives some suggestions on how one can help to support the Palestinian art and culture sector.
Follow Yabous Cultural Centre to know what is happening in Palestine in the arts and culture sector.
“All too often, art and culture are helpless in the face of occupation, we think nobody is going to write a book or sing when bullets are flying around their ears, or their house is being demolished. But we are mistaken. As creativity comes from places which suffers from difficult conditions and hardship like Palestine. However the role of culture is crucial, as when the rule of justice and law of a country fail, when social services are missing an there is no freedom of expression or freedom of movement or press the artists often take on the role of government critic, people’s advocate community organizer, human rights defender or even movement leader and art and culture create spaces for freedom of expressions and encounters, and place where people can feel safe, can see productivity and tangible results.”
- Rania Elias
Mhd Moutaz Abdulrahman (Syria/Iraq)
Moutaz Abdulrahman starts his panel by acknowledging the similar situation in different areas of the Middle East and Arab region and poses the question “Can we separate education and culture?” In different countries education is math and physics and science, but culture or art is not really considered as part of the education system. He goes on to tell us more about the history of Iraq and its conflict situation. The country has been suffering since more than 50 years of civil wars. After 2003, when Americans decided to go to Iraq , they destroyed almost 70 percent of the infrastructure in the country. Just after 2003, more than 1 million civilians were killed because of the American invasion. He stressed how Iraq is a very diverse country, with different ethnic and religious groups, 5 languages and before the involvement of foreign states, this diversity never was a problem, but with foreign power meddling with the cause and starting to invest in the conflicts between the groups, the situation in Iraq started escalating. Each foreign country invested in one of those groups and provided them weapons, radicalizing the conflict, instead of diverting money towards infrastructure and the civilians. He mentions, there is money to provide armory, but there is no money to renovate the cultural centers, they are still destroyed up to this day.
“We are talking about solidarity? I don’t want to be the angry boy making trouble. I really think we must do something, and it’s not solidarity. Look at climate change, we can see with this if one country is causing pollution and one country is affected, all countries are affected and it’s the same with the violent conflicts in the Middle East.”
Then he provided us an analogy about a conversation he had with a boy in a refugee camp. He stresses the impact of culture in education and how culture makes young people already so aware of the problems in the world. He then continues to underline that Westerns do not need visas to go to the Middle East and they should use that privilege to come to the country and have a look at the unique culture.
He then moved on with a touching account of his own story of how he came from Syria to Iraq, why he had to leave and how he got to Iraq where he is now based. When the war in Syria started in 2011 he was living in Damaskus, and had a lot of opportunities to move to Europe. It was easy at that time. But no, he decided to stay in the region because he had wishes and hopes. But when things got out of hand he had to leave the country to protect himself like other Syrians. He mentions how more than 11 million Syrians had to flee and they are living in the bordering countries now. Some of them were lucky and arrived in Europe. Some of them are still in the sea, their corpses yet to be found.
Throughout a heavy and emotional discussion, speakers illustrated the history and political conflicts in the region and the influence of war and conflicts on the speakers’ personal lives and the arts and culture sector. Speakers also oriented participants on actions that can be taken in order to help. They emphasised that the situation is grave in the countries, but they also stress the importance of the arts in providing conflict resolution and education, as well as a safe space in times of war. Finally, some crucial takeaways of this hotspot were the actions of solidarity with the conflict zones in this region and how international community could provide support.
The group provided the following suggestions on how the international arts and culture community can support Afghanistan, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria now and in the future:
- contact governments and representatives in parliaments, asking them their role and the role of the embassies, their representatives in UN and other bodies and committees in following up on violations of humanitarian and human rights issues in the region
- demand them to call on human rights violations and to stop its violations against civilians in the region, as well as holding them accountable for their actions under international law
- address the responsible embassies in your cities and countries, criticise their governments acts, demand they respect international laws, or end the occupation. If there is political incidents such as bombing, the uprooting of people from their homes, killing innocent people and children, closure of cultural centres, the attack on artistic activities, the arrest of an artist i or director of a cultural centre, then send objection letters and demand them to stop their criminal acts against cultural figures
- international artists and cultural centres can issue statements of support in their countries and on their social media and platforms
- boycott, divest and sanction, which is a a non-violent form of resistance by withdrawing from, for instance, Israeli exhibitions to set a statement
- artistic collaboration through – organizing cultural days that relate to the region’s art and culture sector, Festivals, talk, inviting artists and groups, performing if possible in the countries and regions in solidarity with its people and also help through joint artistic productions
- cultural organisation rely mainly on the support of friends and local and international organisations, so financial support going directly to these cultural institutions is crucial