Window of opportunity: the Egyptian ‘nomad’ directing London's largest Arab arts festival

New Shubbak chairwoman Shadia El Dardiry on the privilege of supporting those from all walks of life, whether beleaguered artists or stranded migrants

Shadia El Dardiry for Arab Showcase in The National. She is a new chair of the Shubbak arts organisation in London. Photographed at her hom in south London.
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Shadia El Dardiry has been on a journey of discovery in London since arriving nearly seven years ago but one scene from her impromptu walking tours stands out from the rest.

The unexpected sight and sound of two boys speaking Arabic in a Syrian dialect as they passed by halted El Dardiry in her tracks as she tried to figure out why she recognised them.

Oblivious to her stopping and staring, they walked on without a glance but it dawned on her that she had helped the younger of the siblings when he was an unaccompanied minor stuck in Calais, after fleeing the war in Syria.

"I remember feeling so uplifted, knowing that the younger brother finally had a home and that they had been reunited," El Dardiry tells The National, "and just seeing them live something akin to a normal life in London on a Saturday afternoon.

“It was all thanks to the work of a group of amazing lawyers and people who took these cases on at a time when the UK was pretty much refusing to comply with its legal obligations ... it filled me with hope to see the fruit of all that hard work before my eyes.”

El Dardiry had signed up as a volunteer while studying to be a lawyer but she is modest about her part “on the margins” of the reunification. All she did, she says, was use her Arabic and English to interview refugees and their family members.

It seems that helping people is somewhat of a calling. Years later, El Dardiry, 34, now the new chairwoman of Shubbak, the UK's largest and most prestigious Arab contemporary arts festival, is promoting those within the cultural sector in what has been a torrid year.

She also practises as a solicitor specialising in employment law. "There's no hierarchy of problems," El Dardiry says. "Unfortunately, it would be great if you didn't need employment lawyers or immigration lawyers or any lawyers really. That would be, I think, everyone's utopia," she says, with a self-deprecating smile.

El Dardiry believes that her heritage and nomadic upbringing – “being a bit from everywhere” – make her particularly attuned to migration issues. As an adult, she has lived in Paris, Brussels, Geneva and Copenhagen but she ascribes what she calls her “mixed identities” to being raised in Guinea, Canada and Egypt.

Born in Montreal to an Egyptian father and an Italian mother, El Dardiry moved as a young child with her older sister to West Africa with their parents, an accountant and a doctor, who met while working in Guinea in the 1970s.

She conjures up vivid memories of a tranquil time in the port city of Kamsar, punctuated by daily family lunches and weekends of camping and trips to the beach or local waterfalls.

Childhood in the port city of Kamsar, Guinea, was a tranquil time for Shadia El Dardiry, punctuated by daily family lunches, and weekends of camping and trips to the beach or local waterfalls. Courtesy Shadia El Dardiry

With just a local fresh goods market and one shop, the simplicity of life created a strong sense of community. But even the young El Dardiry was conscious that the family, as expatriates in one of the world's most impoverished countries, were "living here but we're not from here, and we're very privileged".

After moving back to Canada for a few years at the age of 7, El Dardiry relocated to Egypt with her father where she completed her schooling. An adolescence spent in one of the most populous and multi-ethnic Arab countries solidified her sense of compassion, as well as how she saw herself.

“I loved it,” she says. “Cairo is great. It’s hectic, it’s chaotic, it’s inconvenient in many ways, but it has a charm to it. I think it definitely shaped me. That's where I developed my Arab identity and why I started saying, ‘I'm Arab’ and ‘I'm Egyptian’. Before, I used to say I was Canadian. So I think that there was a real shift there.”

It also gave her the opportunity to improve her command of Arabic. El Dardiry concedes, however, that she can never quite pass for a native on her regular trips back to the city that each time is “a little bit different, a bit bigger”.

“I have an accent and people make fun of me,” she says, laughing. “The taxi drivers love it. But I do tell them: ‘Don't rip me off! I still know the prices.’”

Shadia El Dardiry with her sister and father in Cairo, the city that she credits for shaping her sense of self: 'That's where I developed my Arab identity and why I started saying, ‘I'm Arab’ and ‘I'm Egyptian’. Before, I used to say I was Canadian. So I think that there was a real shift.' Courtesy Shadia El Dardiry        

Coming of age in a land that housed the likes of the Nobel-prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz and the public intellectual Edward Said, it is no surprise that El Dardiry grew fond of Arabic literature. The seeds had been sown early by her father who regaled her about the region's authors and introduced her to the Tales of Goha.

“He's very much a fixture of Arabic storytelling,” El Dardiry says of the titular satirical folk character whose sidekick is a long-suffering but faithful donkey. “Though I'm pretty sure my Dad eventually also started improvising his own Goha stories for me.”

After a graduate degree in political science at McGill University in Montreal, she studied as an exchange student for two years in Paris for her master's. While writing her thesis on identity and integration of second-generation North African migrants, she recalls being struck by the extent of discrimination against those communities in the French capital.

“We all know it exists,” El Dardiry says, “but I think I was sheltered in Canada from that. And that's what really drew me in. I think that was kind of a stepping stone where I thought 'this is actually a sector that I'm really, really passionate about', both in terms of refugees and asylum seekers but also populations that settle in countries and how their identities change over time.”

In a natural progression, she entered the world of non-governmental groups in various cities across Europe. She spent four years in Denmark with a human rights organisation working on asylum issues that kept her Middle East roots close and made use of her language skills.

Two men discuss as migrants and associations install tents on Republique square in Paris on November 23, 2020, one week after migrants were evacuated from a makeshift camp in the northern Paris popular suburb of Saint-Denis without being relocated. (Photo by MARTIN BUREAU / AFP)

She concedes that there may have been one downside to so enthusiastically soaking up the culture in Copenhagen and learning the local lexicon. “My Arabic suffered as I picked up some Danish, but it was great,” she says.

Her years as a human rights advocate were starting to take their toll, however. She reflects on the difficulties and taxing nature of working on immigration and asylum issues day in, day out.

It gave rise, she says, to a feeling of helplessness, particularly when the Middle East was haemorrhaging people fleeing the conflicts that followed the Arab uprisings.

“You had really strong political opposition to that in Europe, and you still have that,” El Dardiry says. “I think it just felt like a really difficult fight that we were never going to win. It was not getting better and it is only getting worse.”

I'm realistic that I'm not an artist. It just gave me an opportunity to contribute

She decided to qualify as a lawyer in London, and was drawn to Bates Wells. The city law firm is renowned for combining a strong commercial and charity practice with a general emphasis on public interest work.

El Dardiry’s chosen field of employment law allows a bit more distance than is afforded to those whose full-time focus is on migrants. “The lawyers who do are really impressive and have a lot of strength because it’s definitely something I’ve struggled with,” she says.

Among Bates Wells’ large charity clientele are many within the arts, and it wasn’t long before a colleague put her forward as a trustee for Shubbak in 2018.

“This offers me a chance to be more involved in art and culture coming from the Arab world,” she says. “At the same time, I'm realistic that I'm not an artist and I don't work in that every day. So it just gave me an opportunity to contribute.”

As chairwoman, her role is to provide strategic direction to Shubbak and to assist in the long-term vision of supporting and celebrating the diversity of Arab artists' creativity and innovation in the UK and the Mena region.

“It is very much there to act as a bridge between those two geographical locations,” she says.

Shubbak, which means window in Arabic, has evolved in the decade since its launch from a festival to bring people together every two years to what El Dardiry explains is a permanent presence with ongoing projects taking place between the biennial programmes.

To the delight of deprived art lovers, this year's event will go ahead after the last of England's Covid-19 restrictions lift in June. It's a welcome hurrah for a sector that has been "hugely shaken" by the pandemic, but El Dardiry is keen to acknowledge the resilience of artists and their ability to create work out of any situation. "It's really amazing," she says.

While the festival will be physically held in London, the organisers have adopted a hybrid approach. Some works will be presented digitally which, for the first time ever, will make them available to a global audience. It could well be a pilot for things to come.

“I think there's going to be even more creative ways of linking the two together,” she says. “It's another way of presenting and working which will just enrich the organisation.”

Shadia El Dardiry for Arab Showcase in The National. She is a new chair of the Shubbak arts organisation in London. Photographed at her hom in south London.

As she waits for international travel to open up so that she can see her family in Canada and Egypt again, El Dardiry will revel in Shubbak’s role in the reinvigoration of London.

She is a flaneuse, being a “bit more of a walker” than most, and has both revelled in and been saddened by the unusually deserted streets of London for which she has developed such a deep affection on her regular roams.

When asked if all those pre-Covid hours spent pounding the pavements meant that she had been ready for lockdown restrictions, El Dardiry laughs in agreement that she had been “good to go”.

“If anything, I think the pandemic has made me tired of walking,” she says, half lamenting that everyone's doing it now.

It is perhaps one of the lesser-known side effects of the coronavirus, but seems unlikely to impede El Dardiry from making great strides one way or another in the future.

The Shubbak Festival will run from Sunday, June 20 to Saturday, July 17