2018 saw the second edition of the Manchester festival Celebrating Syria take place, organised by Rethink Rebuild Society (RR), a charity that provides community assistance and support to improve lives and promote aspirations of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in the UK. Offering a varied programme of services and events, they are currently displaying an exhibition called ‘The Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution’, which was a highlight of the festival last year.
The exhibition forms part of the largest digital archive of the creative work related to the Syrian Revolution. After a long tour in several French cities, Rethink Rebuild Society have brought the exhibition to the UK for the British audiences to experience some of the most powerful art works that have been produced by Syrian artists in the context of the Syrian Revolution.
We reached out to Mustafa Alachkar, one of the coordinators of the festival, to ask about what took place during the festival, about the work that takes place at RR, and why their arts and culture offer is so important for Manchester.
Celebrating Syria is the first Syrian arts and culture festival in the UK showcasing the work and talent of Syrian artists. How long has the festival been running, and why did you decide to start it?
This is the second year that we have organised the festival. The last festival in July 2017 was a great success and people’s positive and welcoming response inspired us to organise it again. This year’s festival ran between the 6th and 14th of October at various venues across the city of Manchester.
We initially decided to organise a festival of Syrian arts and culture because we, as Syrians, had started to feel very saddened by the negative image that has been attached to Syria over the last few years whereby Syria has been associated with war, violence and even terrorism. We wanted to balance this image and present a fairer one by demonstrating to people in Britain, and in Manchester especially, that Syria is a country that is rich with culture, heritage and arts. We also wanted to show the British community that, as Syrian diaspora, we can offer something beautiful that adds to the richness, diversity and livelihood of the community in Manchester.
The theme of this year’s Celebrating Syria is ‘home’. Why did you choose this theme, and could you tell us more about the different responses to the theme that could be seen in the Festival?
As many refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, have been coming to settle in the UK and in Manchester, we as an organisation and as individuals, have become acutely aware of the relevance and the crucial significance of the question of home and belonging. People become refugees when they lose a ‘home’ where they can be themselves and feel safe and connected. We therefore wanted to start a discussion, through the various festival activities, on what ‘home’ means to us and what connections we form to the concept, also how we negotiate our understanding of ‘home’ when we move away from home or when home changes, or even when home is no longer there.
The ‘Home Question’ was reflected in almost all of our events and activities. These included our first film, non-accidentally titled ‘Home’, which describes a group of creative friends who renovate an abandoned house and make it into a home for creative and artistic projects for children and adult while the Assad forces and ISIS are fighting for control over their home-town (Manbij). The question of ‘Home’ was tackled directly in a group discussion at ‘Home’, the well-known art and cinema hub in Central Manchester. A conversation with author Itab Azzam who wrote ‘Syria: Recipes from Home’ also highlighted the significance of food as a tool that brings people together when home is not the same anymore. And at ‘Future Aleppo’, a virtual reality workshop, children and adults were invited to reconstruct Manchester just like the 13-year-old Mohammed Kteish had rebuilt his city, Aleppo, first as paper models and then in virtual reality.
Manchester has a rich variety of festivals that take place throughout the year. What makes Celebrating Syria stand out? Do you feel that Syrian culture is being represented elsewhere in the cultural makeup of the city?
You’re right, there are several exciting festivals in Manchester almost throughout the year, which makes it a great place to introduce a festival such as Celebrating Syria.
The impetus for the Festival came, initially, from within the Syrian community in Manchester. It was a natural progression to build a festival on the foundations of the programme of cultural events already organised by Rethink Rebuild Society which were open for anyone to attend. However, the Celebrating Syria Festival is more than simply a collection of events: it is a sharing by the Syrian community in Manchester of the pride and pleasure they take in their rich history and culture. The festival is a wonderful opportunity for the people of Manchester, and beyond, to learn about and enjoy the music, art, film, literature and food of Syria. We believe that the more people learn about the culture and history of others, the more tolerant and understanding they become of the people themselves. Our festival is so much more than a group of cultural events: it is a place for people from all backgrounds to gather together, learn and share cultural experiences and develop mutual understanding and tolerance.
Various Syrian cultural events are held in and around Manchester, from time to time, but they are not part of a cohesive whole, as can be found within the Celebrating Syria Festival. One of the benefits of an entire festival focusing on Syrian culture is that it is likely to attract the interest of people who may not attend one-off events. It broadens the appeal of the discrete events by placing them within a larger whole.
In your festival statement, you say that Celebrating Syria aims to showcase the creativity and culture of Syria to UK audiences often aware only of the conflict taking place there, whilst your charity’s aim is to improve the lives of refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, Syrians or otherwise. How do these goals feed into one another, and what role do you think the festival plays across your two missions?
A huge difficulty for many refugees, migrants and asylum seekers from anywhere in the world, is finding their place in their new communities. A lack of knowledge or understanding of each other’s culture can make it difficult for people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to relate to one another. We believe that the Celebrating Syria Festival is a vessel through which people are able to learn more about the Syrian people, including Syrian refugees. We also believe that knowledge is likely to make it easier for refugees, migrants and asylum seekers, not just from Syria, but from any country or region to be accepted by their local communities. Our Festival helps to break down barriers between communities and aids understanding and acceptance. At Rethink Rebuild Society we aim to help refugees, migrants and asylum seekers settle within their new community and to improve their lives. By giving the wider community the opportunity to learn more about the culture of a country where many of these people come from, Rethink Rebuild Society, through the Celebrating Syria Festival, is helping to build bridges between communities and improve communication and understanding, using arts and culture as a medium to achieve that.
What else is ahead for Celebrating Syria and Rethink Rebuild Society?
We are in the process of evaluating and reflecting on this year’s festival and deciding where we go from here. The obvious option is to repeat the experience in the year 2019 with yet another attractive and diverse programme of activities and events. We are also considering organising the festival in another city such as London, or in two cities contemporaneously, to allow a wider audience to enjoy the experience that the people of Manchester have enjoyed over the last two years. Broadening the repertoire of the events to include some projects commissioned especially for the festival, and organising some events in the open air will also be considered.
This year’s festival was in collaboration with Journeys Festival International, and continuing to collaborate with other organisations and festivals will remain our priority in keeping with the Rethink Rebuild Society’s ethos of building bridges and strengthening links between communities.