Beirut is hosting a cultural celebration called the "Spring Festival" that brings together groundbreaking artists from countries such as Yemen, Turkey, United States and Britain.
The festival, which runs from April 19th to May 13th, is organised by the non-profit group al-Mawred al-Thaqafi.
Hanan al-Hajj Ali, an actress and the event organizer, spoke with Al-Shorfa about the festival's new art forms and how it seeks to engage contemporary issues.
Al-Shorfa: How was the Spring Festival launched?
Hanan al-Hajj Ali: The festival is the brainchild of al-Mawred al-Thaqafy, which I helped establish in 2004 in Belgium to support young artists through a programme that provides production grants and workshops for creative writing in literature and poetry, and workshops in theatre and cultural journalism as a way to reinforce [them] and help Arab youth organise cultural events and establish cultural institutions.
Al-Mawred al-Thaqafy works through an internal system whereby members work on a cultural revitalisation project in their home country. That is how we thought of a unique and bold project that introduces new art forms and artists who are involved in the region's hot topics. Thus, the Spring Festival was born.
Al-Shorfa: Tell us about this year's festival.
Al-Hajj Ali: This year's programme includes the latest in performances and artists who are interested in contemporary issues. This season, we chose Turkish artists Cengiz Ozek, who will perform "Garbage Monster", and Nedim Nalbantoglu in "Turkish Coffee". From Zenjibar, the Tausi Women's Taarab Orchestra presented an evening of music and singing. "Check Point" was presented during an evening of music and singing from Tunisia and Palestine.
Tajikistan and Iran presented "The [Invisible Face] of the Beloved". Zapp 4 from the Netherlands will also be performing, as well as the Lebanese dancer Alexandre Paulikevitch, who will present his piece "Roaming". Ajam, a band from Britain and Iran, is scheduled to perform and Fadhil al-Juaiby from Tunisia will present his play "Yahya Yaish". The closing ceremony will take place May 13th with "Dance Brigade" from the United States.
Al-Shorfa: You are able to bring people together through this cultural festival in a way where politics have failed.
Al-Hajj Ali: Our festival is open to people whether they are black or white, Armenian or Turkish, devout Christians and Muslims and also atheists. Our goal from this festival is to convey a message that says that culture and art are food for the soul as bread [is for the body].
Given the lack of any official strategy among Arab countries regarding culture and bringing up new generations who understand the concept of culture, we are involved in this movement and the treatment of Arab issues through music, poetry and dance.
We consider our festival an umbrella under which we can discuss the problems of cultural policies and engage people in debates that are real. This way, we remove ourselves from an area limited by geography, location and people and bring together different generations and nationalities to take a look at timely and topical issues that generate elaborate discussions when they are presented.
Al-Shorfa: The festival is held every two years in parallel to the festival in Egypt. Why is that?
Al-Hajj Ali: After the festival started in Egypt in 2006, we felt it was important to bring it to other Arab countries because of its distinct qualities. That is why al-Mawred brought it to Beirut where there is the Shams Theatre at the Shams Association, which I also helped to establish. The first time we organised a Spring Festival in Beirut was in 2008 and it had deep resonance.
From then on, we were required to organise the festival at the same time as the one in Egypt. We organise it every two years because of the time required to put this festival together, including selecting artists and receiving requests without any financial support or sponsorship for the festival apart from "Shams" that provides its theatre free of charge.
Al-Shorfa: This year's festival carries the UNESCO logo. Is UNESCO a sponsor?
Al-Hajj Ali: After the Secretary-General of the Lebanese National Commission for UNESCO attended our festival in 2010, she was excited to let us use the UNESCO logo as well as support us with a small sum. We also receive help from embassies and the Ministry of Culture, which enables us to obtain visas for participating artists. Moreover, artists treat us in a special way because they know this is not a business since most of our events are free with the exception of some performances, and we sell those tickets at nominal prices.
Al-Shorfa: Are there certain events that run parallel to the official festival?
Al-Hajj Ali: The Shams Association is conducting a programme parallel to the festival which showcases Arab talent. This year, they chose the Lebanese dancer Alexandre Paulikevitch in a performance where he presented a new concept of how the body affects urbanism [civility] and vice-versa.
The Palestinian author, poet and music composer Tamer Abou Ghazaleh from the Rhythm Foundation also had a performance, as well as the Syrian muwashahat singer Ribal Khidhry who performed with the Tawsheeh al-Hadith band. The biggest surprise was a play called "Sorry" that was presented live from South Korea and Beirut simultaneously on May 7th.
Al-Shorfa: What happens after the festival is over?
Al-Hajj Ali: We are thinking of taking this festival that is currently held in Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, Assyut and Minya and to the House of Poetry in Rabat in 2014 and later to Tunisia.