'The war has faded from the news, but it hasn't left the minds and hearts of the people' - Celebrating Syria Festival returns for fifth year
'When wars are turning countries into faceless stories, the arts brings the human element to the centre' - artist Ammar Azzouz
First Celebrating Syria Festival with live in person events since 2019
Festival runs from 11-26 March in venues across Manchester including HOME and Contact Theatre
Manchester is celebrating the beauty of Syrian art and culture - often neglected amid the backdrop of war - with two weeks of events organised by Rethink Rebuild Society.
After last year’s festival was forced to be cancelled and the 2020 festival was exclusively held online, this year will be the first Celebrating Syria Festival to host in person events since before the pandemic.
The theme of the 2022 festival is ‘distance’ or masafat مسافات in Arabic which is inspired by social distancing measures as well as the experiences of many Syrian and non-Syrian refugees around the world.
The festival features an art exhibition, a theatre performance, live music, films, panel discussions, interactive art workshops and will conclude with a family fun day at Brunswick Parish Church.
“I trained in the arts as a way to communicate and reflect on complex emotions and ideas, such as loss, grief, displacement and exile,” he said
“I find a shelter to communicate these complex ideas when sometimes we would struggle to communicate in words.
“At times the story of Syria is not told by people who are from Syria. The way that we hear about wars and conflicts is often by big powers, politicians, journalists and UN agencies.
“When people are turning into numbers and when wars are turning countries into faceless stories, I think the arts and culture bring the human element to the centre.”
Ammar’s artwork, displayed at Contact Theatre throughout the festival, is a series of black and white drawings of injured faces.
“That sense of rupture is tangible in reference to all the destruction the cities and towns in Syria have endured in the last decade,” he said.
“The war has faded away from the news, but it hasn't left the minds and hearts of the people.
“So in that series, I wanted to show their sense of damage but I also wanted to show a sense of strength and pride that there's still power and we continue to struggle today.”
Organiser of the festival, Mustafa Alachkar, echoes Ammar’s sentiment.
He said: “One of the ideas behind the festival is to keep Syria in the people's hearts and minds.
“But not a Syria that's often been associated with refugees and suffering and sadness and killing but a Syria that's associated with something beautiful - of culture and history and heritage and music and cinema.”
Both Ammar and Mustafa also said the festival provides an opportunity for the Syrian community to interact with non-Syrians.
Mustafa estimates that most events have a half and half split of Syrian and non-Syrian audience which he says is a way of bringing about more integration between communities.
Many of the events also encourage interaction between the artists and audience. “We're not just coming in preaching and talking at our audiences,” he said.
“We want people to get involved, be that through dancing or singing, or being part of a discussion.”
Tickets for each event are being sold on a ‘pay what you feel’ basis with different suggestions for unwaged, low waged and high waged people.
The ticketing structure is based on trust, so no evidence of income is required and asylum seekers can attend all events for free.