How Gaza crisis started global movement within Dubai's artistic community

Artists for Peace event returns with 30 performers to raise awareness about regional crises

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More than 100 days have passed since Israel’s onslaught of Gaza began in retaliation against Hamas and, during this time, much of the rest of the world has seen from a privileged distance just how hellishly deep the human capacity for violence plummets.

To say that 25,000 people have been killed, that parents have had to write their children’s names on their arms to identify them in the rubble of air strikes, that toddlers have experienced horrors beyond being orphaned, communicates only a sliver of the tragedies unfolding. Words seem impotent at times like these.

Yet, as we go about our daily lives in a daze of routines, there is a desire to say something, to do something, to express anger, guilt or even shame at living an intact existence while skies and grounds elsewhere rip apart. For most, the urge to speak and act soon constipates to numbness.

Artists for Peace – Shadow Ban This! was conceived as a response to this state of paralysis. The first round of the initiative was held in November at The Fridge in Alserkal Avenue. It was a fundraising event supporting the UAE’s Compassion for Gaza campaign.

More than two dozen performers, including artists, musicians and poets, took part in the event. The grass roots movement sought to provide a platform for people to voice their anxieties, to act, even in a small way, against the war that is warping Palestine.

Dubai performers take part in Artists for Peace: Shadow Ban This!

Dubai performers take part in Artists for Peace: Shadow Ban This!

The second round of the initiative was held on Sunday evening, with much of the same cathartic verve that charged the first. However, this time, the event expanded its focus to highlight other countries that are in the throes of unrest and injustice, namely Sudan, Congo and Armenia.

“There’s a lot of oppression, it’s rampant and ravaging,” said Farah Radwan, one of the organisers of the event.

“We wanted to provide a little bit of a space for those voices that are oppressed and give space to the artistic community, the music community and everybody. It’s a healing experience for everybody, for organisers, the performers, the participants, for the people that come.”

On Sunday night, the paved road outside The Fridge was bustling with live performances by artists creating murals and paintings that touch upon the cultures and vibrancy affected by conflict. The percussive rattle of spray cans intermingled with the bustling sounds around booths presenting Palestinian jewellery and delicacies, such as zaatar, olive oil and duqqa, as well as leathered goods from Africa.

The venue was also replete with people wearing keffiyehs, which have long been symbolic of Palestinian resistance and have seen been increasing in popularity since the latest conflict began.

Among those producing live art was Amir Salih Elgaili, who arrived in Dubai two months ago. The artist, who goes by the moniker Fly Boy, lived in Khartoum and after a long journey finally managed to escape the conflict ravaging his country.

Elgaili worked with a team of artists to create two murals that, he said, aimed to embody the cultural diversity of Sudan, a country often misunderstood, even in the Middle East.

“Every region has its own nuances, even as a Sudanese when you go from the North to the South, East to West, you will be amazed even in your own country by the differences in dialects, food and culture,” he said.

He tries to embody this diversity within his murals, he added, with visual motifs that pay tribute to the various facets of Sudanese culture. At Artists for Peace – Shadow Ban This!, he worked on two murals with figurative representations of a Sudanese man and woman.

Elgaili said that the event was helpful in highlighting the crisis unfolding in his native country. “Many people don’t know much about Sudan to begin with,” he added. “Before it was fragmented, it was the third largest Arab country. Sudan connects the Arab world with Africa. We are Arab. We are African.”

Mohammad ElChawa was another artist producing live art at the venue. He also worked on a mural and said he wasn’t quite sure what his work would end up looking like when he started. However, naturally gravitating towards drawing faces, ElChawa said he aimed to create diverse figures to reflect upon the injustices sweeping across the globe, and how, though they may differ, they are rooted in similar human – and inhuman – notes.

“The whole point today, whether through the art or the music, was to tell messages, either in protest or in expression of certain things happening today,” he said.

“We do it through peaceful and artistic discourse, through starting conversations. Each of us here is making a statement of some sort. This is our second event right now, it's about Palestine, Sudan, Congo, Armenia, everyone who is going through genocide or oppression of any sort. We're different people, but we're the same, we're going through the same thing. It’s the same difference.”

As charged as the street at Alserkal Avenue felt, the energy was ever more potent inside The Fridge, with music and poetry performances as well as a Screaming Room, where attendees were invited to go and literally scream out their anxieties. The event opened up with a screening of two short documentaries. If the event’s art and music abstractly reflected conflict and crises, the documentaries were a real glimpse at the harrowing experiences unfolding in neighbouring countries.

In The Exit Door, filmmaker Enan Mohamed narrates his journey to escape conflict in Khartoum, navigating through parts of Sudan before eventually reaching the UAE via Ethiopia. In Voices from Gaza, Rahmeh Alhyari pulls back the curtain on the trauma children in Gaza are facing as a result of Israeli air strikes.

“We filmed a video with a few of the little kids who made it from Gaza into the UAE for treatment. They were evacuated in co-ordination with the Emirati Red Crescent,” Alhyari said ahead of the screening. “I was working with my family members and friends and whoever is working for advocacy and fundraising, to help evacuate those kids who really need intensive and immediate health care to come here.

“I witnessed a lot of war and lived through it, but this is something that we have never seen before, if I can stand here and talk to you for the next five hours, it wouldn't be enough to highlight one or two stories from what I heard from my people who just came here two days or a few weeks ago,” she said.

Alhyari’s film features the stories of five children who were severely injured as a result of the Israeli air strikes on Gaza. Some of them, such as Qamar, 10, and Layan, 13, had to have limbs amputated due to their injuries, others also had to reckon with the fact that most of their family had been killed by Israeli attacks. Amr, 13, lost 13 members of his family in a single air strike.

“What I'm here for and what we're all here for is just to make sure my people are not forgotten,” said Alhyari.

The cathartic and expressive spirit continued throughout the night as musicians took to the stage. These included Abri, Noon, Amjad Shakir, Jay Abo, Leone Murphy, Bull Funk Zoo, and Aleksandra Krstic. Their performances were interspersed with poetry readings by Nima Elnour, Enas Suleiman and Yusra Yussif. The night ended on a charged note with a group of Armenian jazz musicians, including Yervand Margaryan and Narine Arakelyan, who played high-octane interpretations of compositions by Miles Davis and Komitas, the legendary Armenian musicologist and priest.

“We're not trying to create false hope, that makes no sense,” Radwan said. “The act of coming together is the important piece. The output of it is redundant. Everybody is producing amazing things, but no one is as proud of what they’ve brought – I am not even proud of this event – as I am about the fact that we're rubbing shoulders with our friends and family in a way that we've never done before and with our communities in a way that we've never done before.”

Updated: January 23, 2024, 12:06 PM