How a Longsight cultural festival is changing the narrative around Syria

When the great explorer Ibn Battuta first visited Damascus in 1362, he wrote: “Damascus surpasses all other cities in beauty, and no description, however full, can do justice to its charms.” 

That was the description of a Syria once known, a thing of the past. The country has been besieged by conflict, hardship and immeasurable suffering since its civil war began in March 2011. Ten years of relentless fighting has left around half a million killed, 6.6m displaced internally and 5.6m around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). At least half of the people affected by the Syrian refugee crisis are children.

The former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein described it as “the worst man-made disaster since World War II.”

Pianist Aeham Ahmad
Pianist Aeham Ahmad | Photo: Rebuild Rethink

Manchester-based charity Rebuild Rethink believes it can change the narrative. Its modest office sits in an industrial estate in Longsight. Founded shortly after the conflict started, the charity works towards improving the lives of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in the UK.

Every winter they hold an arts festival to celebrate Syrian culture and heritage, gathering scholars, artists and performers in Manchester. For a week, the sound of Arabic pervades the city, baklava and mint tea is served, and middle eastern culture marries itself with Manchester’s art scene.

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I caught up with one of the festival organisers, Mustafa Alachkar, who has worked with a team of volunteers to put together the festival’s programme. The aim, he says, is to keep Syria in the hearts and minds of the British public: “With everything that is going on in the news, Syria seems to have been forgotten.”

Alachkar is a healthcare professional who was born in Homs, Syria, in 1981, and grew up in Aleppo. During the conflict, Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, became a battleground. Its ancient city is a UNESCO World Heritage site: much of that now lies in ruin, with the memories of his youth scattered amongst the rubble. 

Itab Azzam
We Are Not Princesses: screening and discussion with co-director Itab Azzam | Photo: Rebuild Rethink

He tells me that the festival highlights a side of Syria often ignored by western media: “There are things we can talk about with a lot of pride: the culture, the music, the food, the heritage, the arts. But that seems to have been overshadowed over the years by the news about the war, refugees and suffering.”  

Alachkar wants people to know that Syria still has a lot to offer the international community. The contributors are carefully selected and represent the best of what the Syrian art scene has to offer. “They are people who have been producing over the years, they continue to produce some very beautiful work under some very difficult circumstances, either in exile or even in Syria where their safety may have been compromised.”  

The sounds of Arabic pervades the city, baklava and mint tea is served and middle eastern culture marries itself to Manchester’s art scene

Rebuild Rethink won the Manchester Culture Award for Equality and Diversity last year, worthy recognition for their work and contribution to the arts. “There is appreciation for what we are doing in contributing to the diversity and the multiculturalism of this great city,” he tells me.

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He sees the pandemic as a potential to connect with people online and take the message global. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘Alone Together’. The hope is that streaming will offer an intimate experience for both the artists and the audience. For the first time, people from Syria will be able to stream the events from Manchester. 

Oud Time with Rihab
Oud Time with Rihab | Photo: Rebuild Rethink

“Despite the need for social distancing, despite people not being able to see their loved ones, and the isolation of the pandemic, and the Syrian war, we are trying to bring people together,” says Alachkar. 

Like many Syrians, Alachkar has experienced a great deal of loss including the passing of family and friends. “As somebody who has lost a lot as a result of the war in Syria, including the loss of a dream and hope,” he tells me. “It’s important for me to rebuild something instead of what got lost and destroyed inside me, and it’s me trying to rebuild it in a beautiful and creative way and share it with people. We are trying to rebuild a lively community in Manchester.”  

The online festival will be running from 5 – 11 December and will include an art exhibition, a collection of films, live music, a storytelling workshop for families and a stand-up comedy performance. The programme is available here.

Ahisha Ghafoor is a journalist and writer for Salt Magazine. She is a polyglot and speaks five languages, breaking down barriers of communication, and building trust and an understanding of things in an authentic and colourful way. Follow her at @AhishaGhafoor.