This autumn, ECF highlights cultural policy research and activism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Through a series of insightful interviews, ECF introduces cultural policy researchers and activists who have contributed to the World CP –International Cultural Policy Database. Since it was set up in 2015 by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), World CP is developing into an incredibly useful central, continuously updated database and monitoring tool including country-specific profiles of cultural policies from around the world. Ettijahat, together with Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy), works on the ECF-funded Arab contributions to the World CP. They are developing a database of cultural policy for the Arab region, expanding the network from a regional to a global level, working with advocacy groups in ten Arab countries to coordinate and support the development of transparent and democratic cultural policy in their countries, made available to an international audience.
For the first interview in our new series, we talk to Abdullah Al-Kafri (Syria), Executive Director of Ettijahat – Independent Culture, about his organisation’s work and the challenges it faces in these turbulent times for the region.
A playwright and cultural activist, Abdullah works as a trainer in various cultural fields with organisations including Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. He is a founding member of the Syrian organisation Ettijahat – Independent Culture (now operating from Beirut, Lebanon) and became Executive Director in 2014.
Since 2015, he has been a member of the artistic committee of Sundance Institute’s MENA Theatre Lab, and is a regular participant at conferences and forums on culture and art. He has also collaborated with art organisations such as Lift and The Royal Court in the UK and the Lark in the US.
Abdullah Al-Kafri, Executive Director of Ettijahat – Independent Culture (Syria / Lebanon)
Abdullah, can you please tell us more about the work of Ettijahat?
The idea for Ettijahat first arose in 2010, when we as founders noted the disconnection between the Syrian cultural sector and wider society. Cultural work, particularly ‘independent’ cultural work, was isolated from its community – an isolation that limited the role of creative work, and reduced the ability of professionals in the field to interact with their audience. Moreover, Syria was not a production-friendly environment, with creative control and cultural authority residing overwhelmingly with the government, and few frameworks in place to address this lack of independent culture. Thus in late 2011, we founded Ettijahat with the goal of providing innovative long-term frameworks that respond to Syrian cultural needs. We want to allow Syrians to independently use their innate creative energy.
Today, Ettijahat conducts its work based on three primary goals: to support established and budding young artists in producing their work; to improve the general environment for Syrian cultural and artistic work; and to integrate cultural work with social change initiatives. We seek to do this through providing sustainable frameworks for artistic and cultural work, through programmes of training, grants and research, as well as policy and advocacy work. I’m proud to be working with a young, diverse team of seven wonderful colleagues from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, who all live in four different countries.
Of course, a significant factor in the evolution of our work has been the events in Syria since 2011, and the spread of a new Syrian diaspora across the region and beyond. During this time the cultural landscape has undergone profound changes, which have had a serious impact on Syrian artists, requiring us to develop new strategies to help them to work. In light of this, we have expanded our grants to include Syrian artists who have recently sought refuge in Europe, and we have diversified our services in order to strengthen collaboration between those artists and their counterparts in host communities.
What are the challenges you face while working in the field of cultural policy in the MENA region?
Perhaps the broadest challenge is the lack of importance allocated to culture and the arts by Arab governments and international organisations that work in the region. Much of our policy work is focused on addressing this. Governments in particular often view independent culture as a threat to state authority, and justify cultural repression on this basis.
Working in the Arab region should be built on a realisation that the changes affecting the region are not merely political – there is, in fact, a cultural shift as well. The field of cultural policy in the MENA region has seen major changes, and no longer concerns governments alone. Although several Arab countries have declared concrete cultural policies, and civil society organisations have launched campaigns to write cultural policies in Algeria, Egypt and Yemen, the region’s history tells us that culture will not be a priority for decision-makers. It is therefore the responsibility of cultural organisations, activists and independent researchers to integrate culture into political debate and create pressure to seize the opportunity of the profound changes in the region’s character and identity, to make culture an important component of social change.
Meanwhile, when culture is supported by international organisations, there is sometimes a tendency to do this through extremely narrow frameworks that place severe limitations on creativity and independence – for example, by dictating a specific social benefit that a project must engender. Aside from this, there are many difficulties that Syrian artists and their fellow citizens face on a daily basis, including restrictions on freedom of movement, concerns over their personal security and discrimination.
How does Ettijahat work with cultural practitioners?
Since its foundation, Ettijahat has provided 40 opportunities to train specialised researchers in different cultural disciplines; we have supported more than 50 research papers on all issues of cultural work; we have supported 25 creative projects, many of which have won awards; and we have supported 11 potential long-term initiatives in Lebanon, the beneficiaries of which included eight organisations and four artists, and whose grants ranged in value between US$7,000 and US$14,000.
A recent focus of Ettijahat has been on building relationships between the artist and audience. Our Priorities of Syrian Cultural Work programme, meanwhile, seeks to provide the independent Syrian cultural sector with a coherent and unified voice that can help express its desires for future purposes and directions. Because in times of major changes, cultural organisations that work without a clear cultural strategy risk pushing social structures towards arbitrary cultural change, or even towards change that is governed by the interests of separate external parties. If cultural actors are unable to respond to the changing needs of their communities, this may lead to a crisis of values and exacerbate the divisions between the cultural sector and the audience.
What are the most important connections you have built with European countries? What is their impact in the region?
We have strategic partners who respect the region, and have a clear of understanding of the needs and drastic challenges facing Syrian art and culture. Through our work with them, the impact is manifested in our beneficiaries’ enhanced skills in their fields, as well as in the resilience and self-confidence that comes from cultural and artistic production. All of this helps them to better form an outlook on their own future and the future of Syria. We also witness social changes – one of the most prominent comes through facilitating interaction between the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian communities. On this note, it is important to recognise that we should not measure the impact of a programme simply by the quality of the final product. Instead, it is more helpful to focus on the environment in which that product has been created – in particular on the pre-existing mechanisms for cultural production – and evaluate the impact that the process of creation, as well as the production itself, has had on that environment.
We are proud of our partnership with the European Cultural Foundation (ECF), which serves as an additional, important link between the Arab region and Europe. This partnership is realised through the Cultural Policies in the Arab Region programme, organised by Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy), and executed with several partners such as Ettijahat. Having been nurtured over many years, this partnership helps to create pressure to support arts and cultural rights, and to reduce restrictive pressure on creative work in the region. It also promotes the concept of cultural rights as a part of civil rights.
Ettijahat also has ties with the Goethe Institute, a project through which we support Syrian art and facilitate Syrian presence on international art platforms; we partner in a programme with the British Council, where we focus on developing artists’ relationships with their host communities; and the Mimeta Fund (based in Norway), with whom we collaborate to provide research opportunities to young researchers.
How do you create impact in the region?
One of our most recent programmes, and the one I’m most proud of, is Create Syria, a programme that we are implementing with the British Council and International Alert. This project has many components – at the centre is a grants and training programme to support individuals and organisations in setting up their own artistic/cultural training initiatives. By supporting the training abilities of others, we aim to achieve a far-reaching and long-term impact. The project also includes components that aim to allow marginalised voices to be heard by the international community, and to break down barriers and stereotypes between Syrians and their host communities.
Another of our programmes is Research to Strengthen Culture of Knowledge, on which we are collaborating with the Mimeta Fund. Through this 12-month programme, we aim to provide full-time research opportunities to young researchers. We provide them with training and expert guidance from experienced researchers whilst they undertake their projects. At the end of the programme, a selection of the work is published.
We also have the Laboratory of Arts programme with the Goethe Institute, which is a framework supporting beneficiaries to stage cultural productions. Another initiative is the Priorities of Syrian Cultural Work programme, which is a policy-level programme to establish a common platform and voice for the independent Syrian cultural sector through which it can express its wishes collectively and therefore more powerfully.
Ettijahat, together with Culture Resource, works on the Arab contributions to the World CP – the International Cultural Policy Database. What do you hope to achieve with your work in the long run?
The area of change we aspire to achieve in this programme is elevating the status of culture in the Arab region, by suggesting mechanisms to change the cultural establishment in Arab countries. We hope thereby to reduce pain and frustration among the region’s population. We recognise that the region faces obstacles that seem impossible to overcome, and that the changes it faces are deep and profound on all levels. In the face of this, strengthening the role of independent cultural actors means contributing to empowering just, open and tolerant societies, and building a creative generation. These principles already exist in the region, but they have been continuously suppressed and besieged.
What is the ultimate goal for the future of Ettijahat?
The team and I are proud to serve Syrian art and culture, which have always been part of the global creative scene but today badly need support so that they can continue to function. With the fifth anniversary of Ettijahat around the corner, we hope that we are getting closer to our ultimate goal of becoming one of the most effective entities in the Syrian cultural field, and a pre-eminent source of expertise and resources in all our fields of activity. We also hope to enhance our position as an important consultative source in contributing to cultural policy regarding Syrian art and culture, particularly in its interaction with the rest of the Arab region and Europe.
- The World as a Battlefield: The Migration of Contemporary Syrian Art and the Prospects of Continuity by Jumana al-Yasiri for Ettijahat
- Syrian Culture in Turbulent Times – an article by Rana Yazaji & Nadia von Maltzahn in Another Europe, ECF, Amsterdam, 2015.
- Cultural Policies in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia, Boekmanstudies, Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy) and ECF, Amsterdam, 2010.
- For recent news on Arab Cultural Policies in Arabic and English, please visit www.arabcp.org