A window to the artistic Arab world: Celebrating and connecting Middle East culture with London's Shubbak Festival

A window to the artistic Arab world: Celebrating and connecting Middle East culture with London's Shubbak Festival
UK's largest festival of contemporary Arab culture is back after two years to once again connect communities with the best of contemporary Arab visual arts, film, music, theatre, dance, literature and debate.
6 min read
18 June, 2021

London’s Shubbak Festival was initially only meant to be a one-time thing. But 10 years after its inaugural programme, the biennial event is still going strong and is about to hold its sixth instalment – and we have the Arab Spring to thank for that.

“Shubbak was actually planned in 2010 as a celebration of culture from the Arab world in London, and it took place in the summer of 2011,” artistic director Eckhard Thieman explained.

“It was initiated by the Mayor of London, and it was a big sort of umbrella where London organisations were invited to contribute content to this festival.  Of course, in December 2010, January, February 2011, you had the so-called Arab Spring, the Arab uprisings, and Shubbak became something quite different to what it originally was conceived.

“It was a festival that really spoke about a new time, new hopes, new ambitions for a new change, and became quite topical.”

Deciding that it should not just be a one-off event, the steering committee set up Shubbak independently and registered it as a charity in 2012. Around this time, Thieman – who has worked extensively with Arab artists and had a stint as guest curator at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival – was hired to curate the second instalment of Shubbak in 2013.

He’s now set to resign from his position after the next festival is complete, handing over the reins to a new artistic director by the end of summer. Nonetheless, for Theiman, Shubbak’s mission has always embodied the message of hope and change that came about from the Arab Spring.

“What we've seen over the last 10 years is a much closer interwebbing of initiatives and the ideas that came in the Arab Spring, about self-determination, about representation,” he told The New Arab.

“There is a young generation that is looking for a change. The Arab Spring had a very specific historical reason that was very much about the overturning of governments at that time. But I think what has kept alive is really the desire for individuals to oversee their own future and shaping their own representation, shaping their own narrative, and ensuring that those voices are heard.”

As well as taking place shortly after the 10th anniversary of the start of the Arab Spring, this year’s Shubbak, to be held across four weeks between June 20-July 17, will be open to a global audience for the first time ever via online streaming events.

"What has kept alive is really the desire for individuals to oversee their own future and shaping their own representation, shaping their own narrative, and ensuring that those voices are heard"

As usual, this year’s programme is packed with Arab art, film, music, theatre, dance, literature, and panel discussions, taking audiences right into the heart of cultural expression in the Arab world and its diaspora. While a fair chunk of the festival will still take place in London, others will be livestreamed from Germany, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and more.

“We have an online programme that for the first time has enabled us to keep commissioning artists wherever they are, and bring their work to us and livestream it,” Thieman said.

“So, we have live streams from Gaza, from Riyadh, from Slemani, from Cairo… It's been a very good departure from our previous programmes, and it connects us much more with the region.

“The festival has become a real exchange. It's not just a London festival, it really is global.”

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On a local scale, Shubbak is also taking place as the UK heads back to a sense of normality after more than a year of the Covid-19 pandemic – adding another layer of significance for the event.

“Our festival programme, of course, changed radically throughout the last year,” Thieman recalled.

“But we decided very early on that it was really important to have a festival this year, in whatever condition the world would allow us to have it in. It was clear that our festival would start in a period of reopening and the recovery of the cultural field. We wanted the communities that we work with, the artists that we work with, to play a crucial and important role within that period, and not have to wait.”

Thieman went on to say that much of the events and performances in this year’s Shubbak line-up was specifically commissioned for Covid-compliant conditions. For example, the physical aspect of the festival makes use of outdoor spaces or smaller, intimate venues throughout London, with many bands and theatre companies unable to come to the British capital due to international travel restrictions. 

“A lot of our physical work in London is actually very intimate. It's one-to-one encounters, it's theatrical walks with headphones, where you're transported to another place through an audio experience, where you meet the artist in person directly in front of you,” he said.

“It brings back, I think, a sense of human proximity that we have missed so much in the last year.”

For 2021, Shubbak has once again partnered with other UK organisations for the festival programme. These include Marsm, a London-based Arab music event producer and digital platform; Dardishi, a Glasgow-based organisation that showcases Arab and North African women’s contributions to contemporary art and culture; and Safar Film Festival, the only festival in the UK dedicated to cinema from the Arab world. Safar will put on a hybrid version of its festival through a curated selection of films mirroring 10 years of the Arab Spring, both for the big screen and at home.

“It brings back, I think, a sense of human proximity that we have missed so much in the last year"

Shubbak will also feature a unique collaboration between two of the most sought-after hip-hop talents from the Arabic-speaking world: Palestinian-Jordanian rapper The Synaptik and American-Egyptian artist Felukah. They will premiere two new singles and two music videos as part of a live performance taking place at and streamed online from London’s Jazz Cafe.

Another highlight of the festival programme is the return of esteemed Palestinian oud player and composer Adnan Joubran, who is also one-third of the world-renowned oud group Le Trio Joubran.

Adnan Joubran
Esteemed Palestinian oud player and composer Adnan Joubra will be performing at the festival 

Meanwhile, The London Syrian Ensemble – under the direction of Syrian composer and ney (flute) soloist Louai Alhenawi – will make their debut appearance at London’s King’s Place, where they will present new instrumental arrangements composed by Syrians in exile since the start of the civil war, and all of which explore themes of longing and loss, hope and new beginnings.

“For me, it's been a real opportunity to think about how festivals can work in the future, and how London will always be the big anchor of our work and anchor for our audiences, but can now reach out much further,” Thieman reflected.

“I do think an online and a digital offer will become part and parcel of Shubbak. I very much believe that festivals thrive on new ideas. They thrive on new contacts, new relationships. 

“We are the introducer, very often, of new artists and new ideas into the cultural fabric of a city – and that requires change.”

Shubbak Festival takes place from June 20 to July 17. Visit shubbak.co.uk for tickets and details.

Elias Jahshan is a London-based writer and freelance journalist.

Follow him on Twitter: @Elias_Jahshan