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MEMO in conversation with Abir Tobji

Our interview with co-founder of the Celebrating Syria Festival Abir Tobji

In a year that has kept us confined to our homes, unable to attend gigs or visit museums, the fourth Celebrating Syria Festival is the end-of-year pick-me-up we all need. From stand-up comedy to a 1978 feature film, an oud-making workshop and a conversation with cartoonists, the packed programme provides a deluge of Syrian culture, art and music.

The festival would normally be held in Manchester but has been forced online this year, like many other events. I caught up with festival co-founder Abir Tobji to find out more about the programme, how it will be different this year, and what to look out for.

"We weren't keen on going online at the beginning," Tobji explained, "but when we figured that this crisis is taking longer than expected [to be resolved], we decided to do something. The programme this year is smaller than usual, but we needed to keep this connection with our audiences… we have this feeling of responsibility to keep bringing up Syria."

What is sad at the moment, she noted, is that we, as human beings, are all facing the same problem together, but each one is doing it alone. "We wanted to showcase the positive aspect of that. We are alone, but we can still celebrate Syria and all of its cultures together."

Though the festival has evolved because of the pandemic, Tobji insists that the founders have not lost sight of the event's original goal of showcasing Syrian arts and culture. "The main thing was, and still is, that we wanted to showcase what Syria is about, giving an alternative point of view, rather than what the mainstream media has been covering. One thing that is really not known about Syria in the West, particularly in Britain, is how diverse the Syrian people are."

Syria is indeed "complex" and the revolution and the war, as well as the impact of the refugee crisis has made it difficult for people to understand what has actually happened and where the core problem is.

READ: Syrian photojournalist injured in police crackdown on Paris protest

The project has snowballed from the "completely crazy idea" dreamt up by Manchester's Syrian community in 2017, to winning the city's culture award for the promotion of equality and diversity in 2019. Now, serendipitously, the pandemic has brought with it the opportunity to go nationwide, or even global.

"In the past, whenever we wanted to invite someone from the outside, it's been almost impossible to get them a visa," said Tobji, "so we were very limited about who could get involved." This year, however, that barrier no longer exists and the artists living in Syria and the wider region are going to take part in the festival.

One highlight that Tobji is quick to point out is cartoonist Amany Al-Ali, who is based in Idlib, in northern Syria. She will be joining a live event to discuss her work, as part of the week-long festival.

Being online also means that the festival can reach a much wider audience. "We are looking forward to all the new audiences, whether in the UK or beyond, but especially in Syria, if their internet connection allows them to take part."

Some events will provide the opportunity for viewers to ask questions, while others encourage the whole family to get creative. One exciting example touted by Tobji is an oud making workshop with Rihab Azar, an oud player based in London. During the pre-recorded session, "She's actually taking us through the process of oud making from her personal memories because her father was also an oud maker."

This, she believes, will be a perfect session for small children to get involved because Azar explains how to produce a small oud from simple items to be found around the home, such as a Tupperware box and an elastic band, for example.

Asked for other personal highlights from the programme, Tobji told me that it is a key question because she can't skip anything, and the festival has to have something for everyone.

READ: Half of Syrians in Turkey will not return to homeland, says report

For music lovers, there is an impressive array of events on the festival's opening and closing nights, spanning a cosy living room live-streamed session with the Kiwan Family right up to electronic tunes from two Syrian DJs.

For those who enjoy fine cuisine, there is a conversation with Syrian-American blogger Antonio Tahhan on food, culture and identity, in place of the usual live cooking workshops.

Movie watchers, meanwhile, are recommended to check out the feature film selection. Tobji made special mention of We are not princesses. "The film follows the story of four Syrian women or Palestinian Syrian, depending on how they identify, in Shatila Camp in Beirut, where they gather to express their feelings through Antigone, an ancient Greek play."

For those wanting to learn more about Syria, however, the co-founder recommends the Pianist of Yarmouk event, the panel of cartoonists, and documentaries which are part of the film programme. "Everything is free of charge, but — of course —we ask people for their support and to make a donation if they can."

Viewers can register for parts of the programme on the Celebrating Syria Festival website, or through Eventbrite, to receive a zoom link to each event.

The festival opens tomorrow, Saturday, at 11am GMT, with the first live event, music from the Kiwan Family, taking place at 8pm tomorrow evening.

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