New Syrian arts festival opens in London

String of events celebrates artistic creativity from inside the country and the diaspora to counter dominant negative narratives

Ibrahim Keivo is an accomplished player of the oud, buzoq and saz. All photos: Syrian Arts and Culture Festival

A new festival celebrating the creativity and culture of Syria has opened in London. Spearheaded by non-profit organisation, Zamakan, and Marsm event’s organisers, the Syrian Arts and Culture Festival (SACF) is hosting a number of events in the UK capital over 14 days.

Working in partnership with a number of organisations, including Shubbak, Ettijahat and Counterpoints Arts, and support from Arts Council England, the festival which was launched on Thursday will demonstrate the “richness and diversity” of Syrian cultural production.

It is the brainchild of two Syrians, Daniela Nofal and Yamen Makdad, who have been living in London for the past 10 years. The organisers hope the first SACF will grow into a “powerful network of storytellers” of Syrians, both inside the country and among the diaspora.

Speaking to The National on the eve of the launch event, co-producer Nofal says the events offer a “counter representation” to the war-related accounts which have dominated discourse on Syria over the past decade.

“It is very sad when the fullness of Syrians' lives is often reduced to their lived experience of displacement, and the ways in which the media fetishises this and portrays us as disempowered victims or as a perceived threat. We also often see the ways in which stories are shared 'on behalf of' or 'about' Syrians, not by Syrians themselves. For us, it is very important to call these systems of power into question and to challenge them,” she says.

Also co-founder of the cultural initiative Zamakan with Dima Mekdad, Nofal says it is important to give Syrians a platform to present themselves in a way that is “dignified and empowered”.

A day-long screening of some of the best films from revered Syrian filmmaker, Omar Amiralay, is one of the cinematic offerings at SACF.

SACF has brought together established and emerging artists, filmmakers, performers and musicians in the hopes offering audiences alternative perspectives on Syria, its people and culture.

“Another important aspect that we want to shed light on is the diversity of Syria, its culture and people. Syria is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the region, with many of the world's most ancient civilisations still calling it home. This means that there is just so much there to celebrate and take pride in,” Nofal tells The National.

SACF is also a transliteration of the Arabic word meaning ‘roof’ or ‘ceiling’, a word which is colloquially used to represent limit. Pushing the boundaries of inclusivity as far as possible, the festival has collaborated with Syrian artists from all across the world, including the UK, Germany, UAE, Lebanon and Syria, the Netherlands, US, Sweden, Austria and Turkey. Despite the inevitable challenges, the curators made sure their programming included the work of artists inside Syria.

“It is very important for us to keep those ties alive,” says Nofal. “ Unfortunately, what we have been witnessing over the years is a widening gap between those who are still inside Syria and those who have left, which is down to many different reasons, including the political and economic conditions of the country, as well as structural barriers like restrictions to travel, limited access to funding, etc. This is a very complex matter and one that certainly warrants closer attention.”

An evening of live music and DJs in East London follows a discussion about the Syrian Cassette Archives, a project preserving the analogue sounds from Syria over a 40-year period.

Kicking off the festival at London's King's Place on Thursday are two solo performances by acclaimed Syrian guitarist, Ayman Jarjour and Palestinian ney virtuoso Faris Ishaq. World-renowned Jarjour is celebrated for his dexterity at combining traditional Spanish guitar playing with classical influences and Middle Eastern harmonies. Born in Damascus, Jarjour studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Madrid before completing his master's degree at the Julliard School in New York. He has lived and performed around the globe and famously played in the Syrian premiere of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra.

Critically acclaimed Palestinian ney master, global jazz flautist and composer Faris Ishaq is known for his mastery of the ancient instrument which impressively he plays with leg-percussion and frame drum simultaneously. The award-winning artist graduated from Berkeley in 2018 and has since released two albums NAY: Nature Addresses You and Tripolarity which express a crossover of Jazz, Indian classical music and the melodic harmony of the flute.

If the opportunity to soak up the sounds of these two virtuosos passes you by, see below for more melody and artistry on offer at SACF:


The Voice of Ancient Syria: Ibrahim Keivo

January 26 at Kings Place, London

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Ibrahim Keivo brings to life the rich singing traditions of the ancient civilisations that call northern Syria home. From Arabs to Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians, Keivo performs the songs from each folklore’s traditions and presents his own pieces inspired by these cultures. Born to an Armenian family in a Yazidi-Kurdish village, Keivo’s efforts to preserve oral music cultures has been internationally acclaimed. Playing the oud, buzoq and saz, Keivo will carry listeners across time, languages and cultures.

Ibrahim Keivo in action on stage.

Syrian Cassette Archives London Showcase

February 3, 2022 at Cafe Oto, London

Syrian Cassette Archives, a project by Iraqi-American music producer Mark Gergis to preserve the analogue cassette sounds of a vanished era in Syrian history from the 1970s to 2010, is transported to east London for an eclectic evening of live music with singer Omran Zain, oud-player Kareem Samara and percussionist Walid Zedo, as well as DJ & VJ sets and a panel discussion alongside a cassette exhibition.

SAFC x Sada Sound Syndicate

January 20-February 7 (online Radio Al Hara & Root Radio)

SACF has teamed up with Sada Sound Syndicate, a Syrian cross-border collective of sound enthusiasts, researchers, DJs and producers, to create a set in response to a poem by famed and Lebanese writer Etel Adnan, who died in November last year.


The Cinema of Omar Amiralay

January 22, SOAS

In homage to the man widely considered the godfather of Syrian non-fiction cinema, a day-long event screening of some of Omar Amiralay’s most revered short and feature films spanning three decades takes place at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. From the renowned filmmaker’s famous Essay on the Euphrates Dam in 1970 to his 2003 Flood in Baath Party, Amiralay’s films heralded the beginnings of modernist cinema in Syria and illuminate some of the endemic reasons behind the friction that led to the Syrian war. Amiralay died in 2011, shortly before the eruption of the popular protest movement that led to the present-day war.

Dreams of the City

January 27, ICA

Filmmaker Mohammad Malas’ 1984 debut feature film, Dreams of the City, is widely referenced in the history of Syrian cinema’s transition to auteur cinema. Partly autobiographical, this coming-of-age drama follows the story of a young boy called Dib who is forced to leave his home town of Quneitra for the capital of Damascus after his father dies. Against the backdrop of political upheaval and military dictatorship, Dib encounters violence and oppression in the big city that rob him of his childish illusions. The ground-breaking film was screened at Canne’s Semaine de la Critique in 1984 and received an Honourable Mention at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1985.

Omar Amiralay: Sorrow, Time, Silence

January 30, Barbican Centre

Hala Alabdalla’s documentary is partly a cinematic letter to her old friend Amiralay and look at his politics, and partly a reflection on Syria through the ages. The film is a testimony on the role of politics and cinema and looks at the ideas that led to Amiralay’s iconoclastic career.


Ossama Mohammed will also take part in a masterclass, where we will hear about Syria’s modern film production: its history, support and censorship. Allegorising and documenting, these filmmakers represent a nuanced radical cinema. We will revisit these stories, offering a glimpse of the friction that led to today's war, and see how the psyche of the Syrian dissident has evolved. Each film will define its own moment in history, subjective impression, style and cinematic genre.


Looking Back to Look Forward

January 24, Museum of London

A talk on contemporary heritage practice and creative civic responses by Syrians that brings together four leading cultural producers: author and journalist Lina Sinjab, architect and artist Dr Ammar Azouz, co-founder of Qistena Dima Mekdad and leader of the London Syrian Ensemble, Louai Alhenawi. All have a shared interest in protecting Syria’s cultural heritage and will assemble for an evening of conversation and discussion.

Access to the Future

January 28, Online

This virtual discussion centres on the role played by several leading Syrian arts and cultural institutions in the region and in the diaspora in nurturing and preserving cultural production. With contributions from Shireen Atassi from the Atassi Foundation, Abdullah AlKafri from Ettijahat and Khaled Barakeh from Coculture, the evening will shed light on the challenges they have faced, lessons learnt and the panellists’ aspirations for the future of Syrian cultural and artistic production.

SACF takes place from January 20-February 4. For more information visit: and @sacf.a

Updated: January 21, 2022, 8:04 AM