PalArt Festival at Rich Mix: A voice for Palestinian artists in the UK

PalArts Festival
5 min read
04 November, 2022
The PalArt collective reunites Palestinian artists around London. Supported by Amnesty International UK, last weekend it held a four-day festival at Rich Mix. We spoke with poets, playwrights and participants to find out the festival's importance.

PalArt festival is a collaboration between Amnesty UK and PalArt, a collective created about a year ago. It is PalArt's first edition and brings a varied programme of theatre, poetry, music, spoken word and visual art. 

“We started the collective in November last year,” Kat Khoury, one of the founders, told The New Arab, “with Ahmed Masoud and four other core members, mostly Palestinian but also British, Lebanese and even an Italian. We met about the process and decided to help validate some Palestinian voices and artists. We were dreaming about what the scene would look like if Palestine was covered by media outside of disasters.

"I worked myself in humanitarian organisations, but with the collective, we want to show another reality, of visual arts, design and performances. In the UK, the relationship with Palestinian is too political. It shouldn’t be so difficult to promote Palestinian artists.”

"I grew up watching all these images of my homeland on television being constantly attacked and destroyed; I especially remember the bombardments on Gaza in 2008/09… Now, my poetry is mostly personal, but it also addresses the larger Palestinian story, through me"

Earlier this year, Amnesty published a 280-page report which showed how Israels seizures of Palestinian land and property were components of a system amounting to apartheid under international law, including unlawful killings, the forcible transfer of Palestinian people from their land, and the denial of nationality and citizenship to Palestinians.

And in the UK, Palestinians feel they’re getting more and more support from people of colour in general. “So we wanted to create something to help promote counter-narratives in the country,” Kat adds.

A full four-day programme of music, theatre, poetry, performance and workshops

The festival launched on Friday 28 October with a networking evening, and an open invitation to Palestinian artists and those interested in Palestinian art, culture and politics. From 7 pm, music was provided by DJ Yasmine.

Then on Saturday, people could join a poetry workshop with Tasneim Zyada, followed by one of her performances. Spoken word artist, published poet, writer and voice-over artist, she describes herself as a “calm storm”, as her work addresses repressed emotions and memories.

Tasneim Zyada
Tasneim Zyada is a published British-Palestinian poet who has been writing for over 15 years. Her work explores themes of family relationships, displacement, mental health and faith [PalArt Festival]

“My grandparents had to leave Palestinian in 1948,” Tasneim told The New Arab. “We were from Haifa. On my mother’s side, the family had to flee to Kuwait. On my dad’s, to Iraq. I was born when they were in New Zealand then we came in 2000 to England, where I grew up in Slough. I was 5 years old. I started to write when I was about 12, mostly to process all these displacements, and - even if I don’t like the word – all the trauma that comes with it.

"I grew up with all these images of my homeland on television being constantly attacked and destroyed; I especially remember the bombardments on Gaza in 2008/09… Now, my poetry is mostly personal, but it also addresses the larger Palestinian story through me.”

Two plays, Another Lovers Discourse by Riham Isaac and The Shroud Maker by Ahmed Masoud, were performed on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Riham Isaac is a performance and multimedia artist based in Palestine; she’s in England this month to present her play, which premiered at the Mac in Belfast on 22 October, before coming to Rich Mix.

She works with video installation, and movements, inspired by iconic Egyptian films and music, featured heavily in her show.

"I’m from Bethlehem, she says, “but I met Ahmed Masoud in London in 2013, as it was so much easier to meet in England than in his native Gaza… And, for a long time, we were willing to do something together. That’s how this festival came through. We were really looking forward to it!”

The power of storytelling

Ahmed Masoud is one of the key founders of PalArt Collective. The Palestinian writer & theatre director grew up in the Gaza Strip and then moved to London in 2002, where he still lives. He is the author of the acclaimed novels Vanished (Rimal, 2015) and Come What May (Victorina Press, 2022).

Ahmeds Theatre and Radio Drama credits include: Application 39 (WDR Radio, Germany 2018), Camouflage (London, 2017), The Shroud Maker (London 2015 – still touring), Walaa, Loyalty (London 2014, funded by Arts Council England), Escape from Gaza (BBC Radio 4, 2011).

Ahmed Massoud's acclaimed play 'The Shroudmaker' was performed live at the four-day exhibition [PalArts Festival]
Ahmed Massoud's acclaimed play 'The Shroud Maker' was performed live at the four-day exhibition [PalArts Festival]

Ahmed was on holiday in Gaza when the festival was taking place but the representation of his play The Shroud Maker was one of the highlights. It has already been performed in England, including in Bristol, thanks to the Palestinian Film Festival in February 2022.

It is a powerful one-woman performance, based on a wonderful script, managing to retell the story of Palestine from the Nakba in 1948 to our days, through the lens of a Palestinian resident of Gaza, born before the departure of the British from their Near East protectorate. Performed by Julia Tarnoky, it is a very strong work.

Also programmed on Sunday 30 was a writing workshop with Palestinian-American actress, poet, and presenter Dana Dajani, followed by one of her performances.

Known for her theatrical style of spoken word poetry centred on feminine identity and themes of social justice, Dana has been invited to perform internationally, including at the Sydney Opera House and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Previously based in the UAE (2011-2019), she currently lives in Doha with her husband and collaborator, the visual artist Rami Kanso.

Live Story

“My poetry speaks of social justice and feminine issues but my goal is to speak to people all around the world,” she told The New Arab. The main character in the story, titled Love Letters from Palestine, was born on the day of the Nakba and believes it is her curse. “I believe that storytelling can connect people,” she says. “You can argue with someone’s politics, but you cannot deny someone’s story. I hope that this way my poetry can be a conversation starter.”

Dana strongly believes that in England Palestinian artists can be given more space, opportunities and platforms to share their stories. “It’s definitely not happening in the Arab world,” she adds. That’s why she and these artists worked so hard to create the PalArt Collective, and they’re already working on future events.

Melissa Chemam is a French-Algerian freelance journalist and culture writer based between Paris, Bristol and Marseille, and travelling beyond.

Follow her on Twitter: @melissachemam