#lovelowry guest curator – shubbak festival By Ayham Abushaqra & Frederick Thomson | Ettijahat

Shubbak Festival is the UK’s premier festival of contemporary Arab culture presenting an outstanding live and online programme to audiences in London, nationally and globally every two year. In 2019, The Lowry co-presented Tunisian dancer the Upside Down Man by Mohamed Toukabri and Halka by Groupe Acrobatique de Tanger.

Since its inception, Shubbak has worked with many Syrian artists. For this blog we invited leading Beirut-based organisation, Ettijahat to share their thoughts and in-sights on Collective Ma’louba’s The Return of Danton and to talk about how Syrian artists keep creating – wherever they are in the world.

The Return of Danton world premiere takes place on 20th June, 7pm (BST) online on World Refugee Day, presented in partnership with The Lowry, Ettijahat and Counter-point.

On Sunday, 20 June, the much esteemed and beloved Shubbak Festival will premiere The Return of Danton, a highly promising play from renowned Syrian writer Mudar Alhaggi.

The play, which will be streamed online and subsequently made available on demand, follows a small band of Syrian theatre-makers striving to carve out decent livelihoods as working artists in Germany, where they have been living since the outbreak of conflict in Syria.

A strong meta element plays out on two levels: first, The Return of Danton an adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Danton’s Death, a major work of reflective post-revolutionary theatre dissecting the French Revolution; it is also the play that the fictional characters are attempting to stage in Germany, adapted to examine the Syrian revolution. Second, The Return of Danton is written, produced and performed by members of Collective Ma’louba, a group of Syrian theatre-makers who have also lived and worked in exile in Germany since their exodus from Syria.

The work promises to be a triumph. It is a breath of fresh air, dealing realistically, warmly and often comically with the lives, concerns and realities of Syrian people, specifically artists.

It sympathises with the protagonists as they work to establish themselves in their new surroundings, torn constantly between competing and often contradictory imperatives recognisable to anyone with similar experiences of displacement or migration: to reach out to non-Syrian audiences in their new host countries, but also to remain true to themselves and discuss the topics they consider most relevant; to remain productive and create art which is daring, but also to find some sanctuary, safety and and sustainability; to take advantage of the multitudinous opportunities now at their disposal as residents in stabler environments, but also to stay connected to their communities in Syria and the intentions which offered such promise in the heady days of spring 2011; and, of course, to deal with the everyday struggles of life in a new context, but also to remember the ongoing trials of the voiceless multitudes who lack the opportunities afforded to those who have resettled.

By highlighting these various pulls, the play succeeds astonishingly well in relating the experience of Syria and its people to that of many, many more global contexts which have seen populations move, adapt and start afresh.
This is no small feat, as the situation in Syria is portrayed all too often as an isolated, remote and specific instance of catastrophe. But over these past ten years, We have found that Syria and Syrian people, wherever they happen to reside, have much to offer the rest of the world through their stories and parables of resilience, civic engagement, innovation, creativity and hope in the face of injustice, calamity and violence – all of which are universal, perhaps increasingly so.

The mere facts of the play’s production tells us much about the ingenuity and tenacity of the Syrian cultural scene and the mélange of influences and stakeholders involved: for a start, it is written, produced and performed by Syrian artists in Germany, broadcast globally online by a British festival organisation which celebrates Arab culture.

Moreover, it uses digital space as an alternative to physical public space in the light of yet another life-altering disruption, the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, this decision constitutes part of a considerable trend in Syrian cultural productivity as Syrian artists work increasingly online in an effort to wrestle the control of narratives around their country away from reductive mainstream media and, in so doing, help to decolonise the digital realm, perhaps the ultimate frontier for the emancipation and empowerment of Syrians (or indeed any group of people).

Meanwhile, in a more immediate sense, the play also tells us about the day-to-day realities, mundane and profound alike, of our neighbours who live in our local communities and simultaneously exist within greater diasporic communities. It tells us about the opportunities Syrians enjoy outside Syria, but also the challenges face as outsiders and the pressures they resist but to which they must, often reluctantly, conform. It raises questions about what our societies can glean from the past ten years of conflict in Syria as we look to the next decade, considering the current state of the Syrian art sector, its critical importance in the lives of Syrians and non-Syrians alike, and its future.

At Ettijahat – Independent Culture, we are privileged to pose and attempt to answer these very same questions every day. This year, which marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian revolution and the founding of the organisation, Ettijahat has the honour of partnering with the Shubbak Festival in MINA: Artistic Ports & Passages, an arts exhibition and dialogue platform which will run throughout the next six months. Our programme of events, composed entirely of original and/or specially commissioned forays into theatre and performance, film, music, literature, fine arts and communal discussion, will take place online and in person in Beirut, Cairo and Khartoum.

Together, Ettijahat and Shubbak hope to raise these questions and many more with wide audiences, sharing the experiences of Syria and Syrians on a global stage and relating wherever possible to the stories of our contemporaries and friends. We hope to promote Syrian artists and their peers, nurture the bonds they keep with host and origin communities, and pave the way for improved access to collaborative opportunities wherever they live and work.

Most of all, we hope to celebrate the joyous discoveries and creative interactions which are forged through collaboration, understanding and openness. On behalf of Ettijahat and Shubbak Festival, we therefore invite you to be part of the conversation by watching The Return of Danton and by joining us for this most exciting adventure!

By Ayham Abushaqra and Frederick Thomson | Ettijahat

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