UK refuses visas for Arab artists at Edinburgh festival

UK refuses visas for Arab artists at Edinburgh festival
A quarter of visas for Arab artists performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe were rejected, forcing the first ever showcase of contemporary Arab art to cancel or rework several productions.
4 min read
19 Aug, 2017
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the largest art festival in the world. [Getty]

The British Home Office refused visas for nearly a quarter of Arab artists performing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, forcing the first ever showcase of contemporary Arab art at the event to cancel or rework several productions.

The Arab Arts Focus (AAF) collective was due to showcase performances portraying different forms of struggle in the Arab world – from political conflict to cultural identity – at the event, the largest art festival in the world.

AAF worked for over 18 months to prepare the shows, which ranged from plays by Syrian and Iraqi playwrights and children's theatre from Lebanon, to contemporary dance from Palestine and Egypt.

But nearly a quarter of artists, actors, dancers, and technical staff were refused visas by the Home Office, some multiple times, preventing the shows from going ahead.

"I did not expect in my wildest dreams that this would happen," Ahmed El Attar, the artistic director for the Arab Arts Focus, told The New Arab.

"We are used to hardships, much more than people in the West. The lack of funds, or decisions made overnight, we work it out. We just didn't expect it here".

AAF spent over £6,000 in their struggle with British immigration services to obtain visas for artists, in most cases applying multiple times to ensure that the young performers could at least attend part of the festival, which runs from 4 Aug – 28 Aug.

The AAF provided documents showing they would take full responsibility for the artists, including accommodation, flights, and other required assurances.

Despite support for AAF from the British Council and Fringe Society, British authorities were completely unreachable to discuss the visa rejections.

"We are very familiar with these opaque systems, we live in them. We thought it was a functioning democratic system. Fear kind of twists things," El Attar said.

In a statement to The New Arab the Home Office said: "All visa applications are considered on their individual merits and applicants must provide evidence to show they meet the requirements of the immigration rules."

'The world is big'

A double dance bill featuring a Sudanese dancer based in Cairo, Nagham Salah, and a Palestinian dancer, Hamza Damra, had to be completely reworked after both were denied visas.

In the end, an Egyptian choreographer who could travel on an American passport came up with an entirely new show with another Egyptian dancer, Mahmoud El Haddad, who was contacted at the eleventh hour to fill in.

The performance was shortlisted for a Total Theatre award despite the fact it had to be reworked in five days.

"Imagine if it was a full show", El Attar said.

Your Love is Fire, a play written by Mudar Alhaggi and directed by Rafat Alzakout, who studied together in Damascus before the war, was also affected.

Two of the Syrian actors, now in France, were denied visas at the last minute so it had to be rewritten, while Alzakout's visa was delayed so production was postponed by a week.

"This is not the version of the play we wanted to present. But we lost everything we had in Syria, so we will shout and scream whenever we can," he told The Guardian.

A Syrian technician based in Lebanon was denied a visa for the play Jogging, while a musician due to perform in the Palestinian children's play Jihan’s Smile was also refused a visa.

The Elephant, Your Majesty, another show which featured teenage Syrian performers living in Lebanon, had to be cancelled.

"Arabs are much more stigmatised and targeted than other groups. The intelligent move [by the British government] would be to support this show rather than hindering it and putting obstacles in our way," El Attar said.

'Fear of the other'

To draw attention to the plight of the artists in obtaining visas, each night at an event called Chill Habibi performers read out one of the refusal letters issued by the government.

On Tuesday, British actress Emma Thompson made a surprise appearance to read one of the letters, asking: "Why would anyone ever want to visit this country?"

After mounting frustrations, time, and the costs of organising what was meant to be a first time showcase of contemporary Arab culture in the UK, El Attar shares the sentiment.

"The world is big. Honestly maybe it's not worth doing the Fringe festival again," he said.

"I think that we are all in the same fight in some sense, the regressive mentality and the fear factor is everywhere, fear of the other, here, in Egypt, in the Arab world.

Everyone has to fight their own fight".