Interest mounts in Arab culture say Arabfest organisers

Refugee Safari, photo: archive of Arabfest

The annual festival of Arab culture, or Arabfest, got underway this week in the west Bohemian city of Pilsen. Now in its seventh year, the event offers a number of lectures by Czech and foreign experts, exhibitions, workshops, film screenings and more. The title of this year’s Arabfest is Together, and it focuses mainly on the topics of migration and refugees.

Tereza Svášková,  photo: archive of Tereza Svášková
I spoke to the festival director and one its founders, Tereza Svášková, and I first asked her to tell me a more about its history:

“The festival of Arab culture was established in 2010 by the students of the University of West Bohemia, specifically of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy and Art. But it wouldn't be possible without the help of the professors from the department of Middle Eastern Studies.

Who is supporting you financially?

“The festival is supported financially mainly by the university, that amounts to around 80 percent of the whole budget, and then we have also small sponsors and donors from different organisations and NGOs. We are also supported by the owners of the festival venues, who help us with production and provide space for free, which is really helpful.”

What is the main focus of this years’ seventh edition of the event?

“This year's topic is called together. In the previous years the festival was connected with music, architecture or travelling, but this year we felt that we had to react on the current situation. That is why the topic reflects the current migration issues as well as the refugee crisis. We also wanted to focus on the personal experiences and the necessity of sharing this experience.”

Will you also be reflecting the current migrant crisis?

“The migrant crisis will be reflected in several lectures and debates. One of those debates will be hosted by political scientist Přemysl Rosůlek and his guests will include sociologist Jan Daniel and Zdeněk Ralík from the organisation People in Need, who is helping with volunteers on borders.

“The migration crisis will also be reflected in a debate within the so-called Grand Saturday. There will be a panel discussion called I am Czech Iraqi with the members of the second generation of Iraqis living in the Czech Republic and the debate will be moderated by Egyptian journalist Yaser Reizk.”

What are the highlights of this year’s programme that you would recommend?

Refugee Safari,  photo: archive of Arabfest
“I would definitely recommend the musical performance Refugee Safari, a progressive house musical. It will be a European premier and it will take place in Moving Station, our main festival spot in the city of Plzeň. It is a great performance dealing with the topics of weapons, war refugees, borders, as well as culture integration.

“I would also like to invite our visitors to the Grand Saturday Programme, which is taking place on seven scenes at the same time. There will be oriental market, various workshop such as Arabic calligraphy and language, debates, poetry readings, food tasting. So it will be really rich indeed.

The festival traditionally involves Arabs living in the Czech Republic. This year there will be a debate with thee second generation of Iraqis living in the Czech Republic. Do they welcome events such as this one?

“I would say that they are really happy and really glad that we as students of Middle Eastern Studies do take an effort and organise such a festival. And they are not only glad but they are really supportive and they want to take part themselves.

“There are a lot of guests who have contacted us and told us that they wanted to be part of the programme.”

This year you are expecting a record number of guests, around 80. Can you mention at least some of them?

Arabfest 2014,  photo: archive of Arabfest
“Yes, there should be around 80 festival guests coming this year. Among them will be Husam Abed from Palestine, a puppeteer who grew up in a refugee camp in Jordan, Charif Bahbou, writer and owner of a publishing house, Rashid Rahma, artist and musician from Algeria, movie director Moris Issa, who is very well known in the Czech Republic, Algerian director Baz Shamoun, who will present his movie ‘Where is Iraq’ and show extracts from his upcoming film and many others.”

Would you say people have shown increased interest in the festival over the years? How many visitors do you expect to turn up this year?

“According to the reactions on the social network, for instance on Facebook and Twitter, there are really more and more people interested in the festival. Somehow we managed to reach the wider public who wouldn’t otherwise know about the festival. In the previous years, there were around 2500 visitors during the whole festival week, so I hope the number of visitors will be at least the same.”

After the festival comes to end in Pilsen it will also move to Prague.

“Yes, the Arabfest in Prague gets underway on April 15, it will last for three days but the programme will be really rich, including for instance a discussion at the Václav Havel library. There will also be a Saturday programme for wider public, with oriental market and discussions, so all the visitors are welcome to take part.”

There will also be a rich accompanying programme. What are you particularly looking forward to?

Arabfest 2014,  photo: archive of Arabfest
“I am looking forward to an exhibition which was launched in Pilsen on March 29. It is called Together in Cairo and it features beautiful black and white photos taken by a student of the Prague Faculty of Arts, Zuzana Kováčiková. She spent several months in Cairo last year and managed to capture various communities living in Cairo as well as in the rural areas. So you can see the everyday life and activities of people living there.

“And then there is a very special offer for our visitors, organised together with the Moving Café in Pilsen. They can order coffee or tea and if they say a magic password ‘spolu’ or ‘together’, they will also receive some delicious sweets.”