How the British Council are helping artists in the Middle East

It is of great importance that the UK continues to work in unstable regions to enable social development.

Graham Sheffield
Thursday 09 July 2015 10:02
Comments
A general view shows the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila in southern Beirut on November 19, 2009.
A general view shows the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila in southern Beirut on November 19, 2009.

The British council has been operating in the Middle East for more than 70 years. Indeed one of my favourite anecdotes is how, during the Suez Crisis, despite the Brits naturally being personae non gratae, we were able to continue language classes under the aegis of the Egyptian authorities – as well as a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This story serves as a reminder that culture and education have long played a crucial role in Britain’s standing in the region – creating opportunities for people who are affected by conflict and preserving their cultural and educational institutions, and providing a middle way alongside military intervention and foreign aid. Furthermore, the arts provide genuine alternative pathways for young people at risk at home and abroad, creating safer, more secure environments.

I saw this first-hand in Lebanon recently, on a visit that took me to the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, a name with a horrible resonance for those with long memories – and everyone here has one. Since 2011, the population of Shatila has swelled to 40,000 as a result of the surge of Palestinian refugees from Syria seeking respite from the civil war.

Entry to the camp is through checkpoints. It is a built community, but one with terrible overcrowding and sanitary conditions. Improvised electrical wiring festoons the streets like spaghetti.

Operating in the backstreets of Shatila is Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a grass-roots Lebanese NGO that fills the gaps left by aid agencies by providing relief and development services through the arts. It is a cultural centre that houses a public library and a health unit, alongside its flagship “Women’s Workshop” – an initiative that offers a refuge for local women as well as enabling them to sustain themselves in the wider community by selling whatever they create. The embroidery is high quality.

We are shown into a class of 40 or so children – they work with around 400 in total – as they finish a baguette lunch on the floor. Engaged in a drawing class, they are painting their dreams. One boy shows me his: it is raining pizzas. The centre is a haven, dealing daily with demand from the refugee community for an escape from the surrounding chaos.

Palestinian children search in garbage in the refugee camp of Shatila in Beirut, where Palestinian refugees who fled the besieged camp of Nahr al-Bared organised a sit-in, 29 June 2007.

I meet the impressive Maya Zbib, founder of a political theatre group, Zoukak. We discuss the group’s work, organising cultural events in villages, schools and refugee camps across Lebanon. They use drama as a way of bringing displaced communities together. Zoukak operates in a space of possibility, rather than reality. The American opera director Peter Sellars is there, mentoring Maya. “Arts are there to do all the hard work,” he says in his compelling, quasi-evangelical way.

Later, with local arts colleagues, we watch excerpts from Queens of Syria, a film based on the experience of 50 Syrian women forced into exile in Jordan. It draws on Ancient Greek tragedy to highlight the plight of women in war.

We meet some of the women, recently involved in a Shatila production of Sophocles’ Antigone. When asked about the relevance of the piece today, one of the actors responds: “I do not know where my son is – missing, injured, captive or dead. I cannot bury him. Antigone’s tragedy is my tragedy.” The director, Omar Abu Saada, tells us that the work has enabled the women to regain their self-esteem and to become role models in society, in the face of marginalisation, poverty and violence.

The emphasis here, again and again, is on creating a free political space for these activities and open expression for those involved. Britain does a tremendous amount in these areas but we can and must do more. This is increasingly important as the safety of our citizens at home, the ability of UK organisations to operate internationally, and the freedom of UK citizens to travel and trade face serious and growing challenges.

We have all watched with horror the destruction by Isis of mosques and religious buildings across Iraq. The Bardo museum in Tunis was also the site of a recent terrorist attack, and cultural sites across the region – especially in Syria, Iraq, Libya and across wider North Africa – are at significant risk of future attack, degradation and destruction. Here too the UK must play a role, recently recognised in the announcement by our Government of a cultural protection fund. In many cases, local cultural practitioners lack the skills, capability and tools to document such sites digitally, meaning that when physically destroyed, they are lost entirely.

Graham Sheffield is Director, Arts at the British Council

In others, the need is for deeper skills and knowledge in managing and developing museums and heritage sites, and in advocating the value of such sites to the general public. They have immense symbolic importance as well as being priceless assets for humanity. In places like Libya and Tunisia, they are also potential sources of future economic development through tourism.

The arts and education can reach places that traditional diplomacy, aid and military intervention cannot. It is of great importance that the UK continues to work in unstable regions to enable social development. The results are not always immediate, but in the meantime it is a way of maintaining the UK’s influence and international networks, and of building inclusive and open societies where human rights and freedoms are realised.

Graham Sheffield is Director, Arts at the British Council

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in