Tunisian actor's visa rejection takes centre stage at Shubbak Festival

London playwright fears an 'invisible wall' could be hindering artist visa applications to the UK

A scene from the play Trouf: Scenes from 75 Years. Photo: BayremBenMrad
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A letter from the Home Office to a Tunisian actor refused entry into the UK was read out at a play in London on Thursday, after the actor's visa rejection threatened to derail the performance.

British playwright Hannah Khalil, a former writer-in-residence at London’s Globe Theatre, was left scrambling to save her theatre production hours before its premiere after two Tunisian actors were unable to travel to the UK.

“It feels like an invisible wall is being built up around this country. There’s a very close-minded attitude,” she said.

Shubbak: The Palestine playwright keeping alive stories of Nakba through theatre

Shubbak: The Palestine playwright keeping alive stories of Nakba through theatre

Her production Trouf: Scenes from 75 years made its premiere on Thursday as part of the Shubbak Festival. Its scenes tell stories from the Palestinian Nakba and daily life under occupation, which Khalil collected from her friends and family.

It is played by a troupe of Tunisian actors with whom Khalil has collaborated since 2021.

“England is known worldwide for its arts and theatre, but we will lose that reputation if we don’t make it possible for international collaborations to happen,” Khalil said.

Two actors and one other team member were not able to travel to the UK for the performance. The first, Amina Dachraoui, had her visa application rejected last week.

A second actor received the approval for their visa hours before the premiere.

“It’s as effective as denying them a visa,” said Khalil. “It feels incredibly cynical and on purpose. They’re trying to make it as difficult as possible for artists to make connections and get together.”

Khalil and her cast spent the final hours before the premiere adapting the play around the missing actors.

“It’s caused a lot of problems for our team. The play had 30 scenes – we all had roles in them,” Dachraoui told The National.

Two new scenes were added in to the play to reflect the challenges the actors faced in obtaining visas, including a read out of excerpts from the Home Office's letter to Dachraoui.

“I'm amazed by how it went. No one would have known they’d only been rehearsing from Tuesday,” said Khalil, praising the team's efforts.

International collaborations were essential to the development of the arts in the UK, she said.

“Culture is going to stagnate we can’t have these collaborative cross-cultural conversations. It's going to go backwards and not forwards,” Khalil added.

The Home Office’s rejection letter came as a surprise to Dachraoui, who said that she had submitted her visa application with a referral letter from the British Council in Tunisia.

“It’s bizarre. I’ve travelled to Europe on Schengen visas in the past without any issues. I’m sad, and this experience has been humiliating,” she said.

Her application was rejected on the grounds that her declared monthly expenses exceeded her monthly income – from which it was concluded that she was at risk of not leaving the UK after her visa expired.

“I am not satisfied that you are genuinely seeking entry as a visitor and that you intend to leave the UK at the end of your visit,” said the refusal letter, seen by The National.

The UK Home Office was contacted for comment.

Dachraoui believes it is a missed opportunity for Tunisian and UK-based artists to learn about each others' cultures and to present new perspectives from Tunisia to British audiences.

“Theatre is a universal language. It was an opportunity for us to express ourselves in front of a new public, to share knowledge and learn from a different culture,” she said.

She added that Khalil’s talent and approach to theatre as well as her way of telling the Palestinian story was what motivated her to be a part of the play.

“I loved Hannah’s script. It’s an enriching and ambitious play, and its impact will never fade. It highlights the Palestinian cause, away from the slogans,” she said.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made curbing illegal migration one of his government's five key priorities, but arts professionals fear this could be indirectly hindering visa applications for artists.

A March investigation by the UK’s The Voice newspaper found that the Home Office stopped at least 20 artists from entering the UK to perform at Afrobeat festivals.

Emmanuel Boakye Bidewtey, an artist and event manager living in Ghana, told The Voice that the British embassy has been called “the most difficult embassy to work with”.

Khalil's tweet about the visa rejections prompted a sympathetic response from historian Catherine Fletcher, who described the issue as a recurring problem.

“It keeps happening. Five years ago, my colleagues were hosting an Egyptology conference and curators from Egypt were refused visas,” she wrote on Twitter.

The Museums Association wrote in a 2018 statement in response to the Egyptian curator's visa rejections: “A number of non-EU academics and culture professionals attempting to attend events in the UK have had visas rejected in recent years.

“A dozen authors attending this year's Edinburgh Book Festival and at least three acts scheduled to play at the Womad world music festival earlier this month were denied visas.”

British-Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak said more public awareness of artists being denied entry into the UK was needed.

“This issue needs to be more widely discussed in the media. It’s outrageous and disgusting,” he wrote on Twitter.

In 2017, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was forced to cancel or rework several productions of its first showcase of Arab arts after nearly a quarter of the visas for their performers were refused more than once, according to The Guardian.

Cultural exchanges and international collaborations are important for the UKs diaspora communities, said Alia Alzougbi, the Shubbak Festival’s joint-chief executive.

“We learn so much from being exposed to other cultures and other ways of seeing and being in the world through the arts,” she told The National.

“Hard borders risk erasing the cultures, the wisdoms, the knowledges, the perspectives and the stories of diaspora communities that live in this country. We risk getting caught up in culture-washing.

“These application processes are not easy. They take time, they take money.

“It's a blow for an artist, a company and a hosting body when they have put time and the money, not to mention the labour of creating and organising work, when visas are refused.”

Updated: July 10, 2023, 8:44 AM