The Liverpool Arab Arts Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this month. With two weeks of events across the city kicking off last night, Ally Goodman caught up with Festival Director, Anne Thwaite.

Liverpool Arab Arts Festival was founded in 1998 by Liverpool Arabic Centre and Bluecoat to provide Arab arts and culture in Liverpool.

Now, 20 years later, it is one of the many highlights in Liverpool’s cultural calendar, lasting over two weeks in venues across the city.

Last night, the festival launched with Zarkan’s enthralling blend of Syrian and Egyptian musical heritage, together with styles such as the Iraqi maqam carry an innovative expressivity and bring a remarkable distinction to an already astonishing musical culture.

As the festivities begin their fortnightly run, we talk about Liverpool’s relationship with diverse cultural festivals, what we can expect during the festival and two decades as the UK’s biggest and best Arab arts festival.

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Planet Slop: 20 years is quite an achievement – congratulations! How did Liverpool Arab Arts Festival start out and what are the major changes that have taken place for the organisation over the last two decades?

Anne Thwaite: The dream of an Arab festival began back in 1998 with the Liverpool Yemen Festival. A report in 1993 had raised concerns within the Yemeni community in Liverpool – then around 2,000 people – that lack of exposure to Arab culture meant their children were losing a vital part of their heritage.

As a result the Nadey al Cul or ‘Club for All’ was established by Taher Qassim, the Chair of our festival. The club launched informal community projects, promoting Arabic language and culture and started an Arabic school for children which included drama and educational trips. This then grew into cultural showcases involving poetry, music, exhibitions and workshops, initially with a Yemeni focus.

But from there it grew. The one-off events were in 1998 transformed into a ‘weekender’ and in 2002 Liverpool Arab Arts Festival as we know it today was launched.

Over the last 20 years the festival has grown in scale and popularity, not to mention in profile on the national and international level. Every year our audience grows and the calibre of artists that we bring to the city is always world class.

There have been many changes, but the one constant has been the festival’s ability to remove social barriers and allow people of diverse backgrounds, faiths and interests to come together and experience and enjoy the rich tapestry of Arab culture.

PS: Did you ever forsee the festival getting to the size it is now, spanning so many days and taking in so many venues?

AT: I don’t think you ever expect the kind of growth that LAAF has experienced, but we have always been aware of the appetite for what we deliver, in Liverpool and beyond.

It was always a goal to make LAAF the UK’s biggest annual festival of Arab arts and culture and we extremely proud of everything that our passionate and committed team members, visiting artists and network of volunteers have done to help us achieve this.

PS: The current political climate seems to be becoming increasingly divisive. How important are cultural events like LAAF in bringing communities together?

AT: Arts and cultural festivals like LAAF are absolutely vital to uniting communities and this is particularly true when it comes to Arab culture. Images of unrest, radicalisation and conflict in the Middle East, inform mainstream opinions of contemporary Arab culture. This in turn influences perceptions and creates stereotypes.

Our festival theme this year ‘What Do I Know?’ addresses this directly. It is both a reflection of where we have come from and what we have learned over the last 20 years and a call to step away from the assumptions made around Arab life. The theme instead asks us to be better informed by the reality of the lived experience of Arab culture through music, dance, visual art, theatre, film and the spoken word.

LAAF‘s role is to generate a deeper understanding of Arab culture, the Arab world and its people. Performances and events are often informed by the lived experience of the artists and that informs and creates critical debate, generates empathy and illuminates the creativity of Arab people.

From a local perspective, we also work to enable local Arab communities to achieve a sense of belonging and for them to celebrate their culture and heritage and contribution to the rich fabric of Liverpool.

PS: Some people will hear ‘Arab Arts’ and assume it’s not for them. Has it been difficult to change people’s perceptions over the years?

AT: More than half (54%) of our loyal audience are actually from diverse backgrounds that are representative of mainstream audiences.

Many of these visitors discover the festival through our free Family Day event at the Sefton Park Palm House, which generates curiosity and interest in wider events the following year, so our audience grows incrementally each year.

It’s such a vibrant, colourful and inclusive event that provides an introduction to the music of world-class Arab artists and Arab Culture and immediately changes perceptions of Arab Arts.

PS: Liverpool seems to be a great city for events like LAAF, Africa Oye, Brazilica and Positive Vibration, shining lights on the art and culture of countries that don’t get much wider exposure – what do you think it is about the city that makes it so special?

AT: Liverpool is extremely special because it has diversity at its heart and an incredible community spirit. All of these festivals, just like LAAF, have been born out of community groups who wanted to celebrate their difference and share their culture with wider audiences.

Liverpool embraces and celebrates diversity like no other city, with enthusiasm, love and an open mind. That’s what makes LAAF and similar festivals so successful each year.

PS: There’s a huge variety of events on at this year’s LAAF – what are some of the highlights people should look out for?

AT: Each and every one of our events are a highlight that adds to the rich tapestry of our festival.

The spoken word performance What Do I Know? has been the inspiration for this year’s festival theme and features Liverpudlian-Yemeni poet Amina Atiq and Ana Silvera, an acclaimed composer, singer and songwriter of Syrian Shepardi heritage.

Our theatre programme will include a performance of the The Shroud Maker by Ahmed Masoud at Unity, starring Julia Tarnoky. The play shares the story of 80-year-old Hajja Souad – a character loosely based on a real-life person still living in Gaza today – and depicts she has survived decades of wars, deportation and oppression by making and selling shrouds for the dead.

We also have a truly outstanding musical line up this year, in particular the performance by internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi at the Invisible Wind Factory, with a DJ set from U-Cef. We have worked tirelessly for three years to bring Emel to the city, so to have made it happen in time for our 20th anniversary is just wonderful.

Ahead of her show will be a Arab co-headline gig at Constellations with electronic hip-hop supergroup 47SOUL and trailblazing duo from the occupied Golan Heights, TootArd, who will be joined by DJ Jacques Malchance. We were this year supported by Liverpool City Council Festival Enhancement Funding, which allowed us to curate an even more ambitious musical programme as the city celebrates a decade since its year as European Capital of Culture.

Our Artist in Residence this year is British Libyan artist and graphic novelist, Asia Alfasi. She’s a really exciting new talent who creates manga-inspired works with Arab characters that provoke cross-cultural dialogue and generates a wider conversation about Arab culture.”

PS: The festival finale in Sefton Park is one for the whole family – what can people expect to find there?

AT: The LAAF Family Day, which is free, is such a joyful celebration each year and visitors this year can certainly expect a lively atmosphere.

In terms of the musical line up, we are welcoming Simo Lagnawi & Gnawa London, Danish Palestinian percussionist, Simona Abdallah and The London Syrian Ensemble, a collective of some of Syria’s finest musicians based in the UK, who will perform with guest vocalist Osama Kiwan.

There will also be stalls selling Middle Eastern food and goods, engaging family activities, children’s crafts and interactive sessions with our Storyteller in Residence, Alia Alzougbi, who be sharing folktales from the Arab world. There really is something for everyone.

Liverpool Arab Arts Festival runs until 15th July. Head to http://www.arabartsfestival.com/ for details.