The year-long festivities celebrating Damascus Arab Capital of Culture for 2008 wrapped up last month. While the festival hosted a mammoth programme of events, the long-term impact on the country’s cultural scene is being questioned.
Photos Carole Farah & Ibrahim al-Malla
Last month the year-long festivities celebrating Damascus Arab Capital of Culture 2008 (DACC) drew to a close. With Arab icons like Lebanese singer Fairouz hitting the stage and countless international and local plays, musical performances and art exhibitions cast into the Syrian spotlight, the event was arguably Damascus’ most impressive celebration of culture to date.
“There wasn’t a week without a great variety of events to choose from and as most of the tickets were cheap, I could go to everything without going broke. It was a great experience,” Manar al-Shami, a Syrian student who regularly attended DACC events, said.
The festival certainly launched with a bang in January, with Lebanese singer Fairouz returning to the Syrian stage for the first time in three decades. Presenting the play Sah el Nom, Fairouz managed to stir up quite a frenzy in both Lebanese and Syrian public opinion. Appearing in Damascus at a time when political tensions with Beirut were high, the icon’s visit was labelled a betrayal by some Lebanese critics, while Syrians welcomed the event as a national victory.
Musical performances were not the only events high on the DACC agenda. The festival also hosted more than 40 plays and workshops throughout the year, including productions by internationally acclaimed “In all, the festival was a success; it’s just that we expected much more.”directors such as Britain’s Peter Brook and Tunisia’s Fadel al-Ja’aybi, all funded by the General Secretariat, the body responsible for organising the DACC. Compared to an average of 12 plays usually staged in Damascus each year, the Syrian theatre scene experienced an unprecedented boom in 2008. Local plays also enjoyed huge success – an adaptation of Slawomir Morzek’s The Emigrants stayed on stage for an additional three months due to popular demand.
“The secretariat invited important directors to Damascus whose plays Syrian audiences could not see before,” Rashed Issa, a theatre critic, said. “With the lack of funding for theatre in Syria, such high- profile plays are usually difficult to host.”
The DACC also served as a platform for encouraging the development of young talent. On the third Wednesday of every month, young Syrian bands were given space to perform on stage to promote their latest albums. A source at the DACC told Syria Today that the secretariat also distributed an estimated SYP 15m (USD 322,500) in grants to 41 young artists in the fields of cinema, animation, performing arts and literature. The grants provided much-needed support to Syria’s up-and-coming talents, which has been fairly limited until now.
“Although Syria is one of the first Arab countries to work in animation, this was the first time that the public sector ever gave grants to animators,” Omar Sawwah, head of DACC’s animation section, said. “The results were great. I hope this will motivate other sponsors to invest in animation in the future.”
Children were also singled out for special attention, with a number of creative workshops held, along with efforts to promote literacy. In addition to several photography, theatre, kite-making and poetry workshops, children aged between eight and 13 participated in a monthly book club in which famous Syrian actors read stories. The secretariat also published and sold 53 children’s books, which make up a third of the 152 books DACC published throughout the year. Most significantly, however, Syria’s first-ever public children’s library, the Box of Wonders in Dummar Cultural Complex, was launched as part of the DACC.
Not without controversy
Yet even though the DACC programme contained a wide variety of sell-out events, the mammoth cultural festival has not been free of controversy. Some critics claim a lack of behind-the-scenes organisation resulted in a number of worthy cultural projects being under-funded, poorly advertised or unable to be launched at all.
While it was announced in 2002 that Damascus would be the Arab Capital of Culture for 2008, it was not until January 2007 that the General Secretariat was established. Moreover, it was only in July 2007, six months before the DACC was set to launch, that the secretariat’s headquarters were ready to use, by which time resignations from frustrated administrators and organisers were piling up outside its doors.
Firas Chehab, head of the DACC’s contemporary visual arts section, said the secretariat’s indecisiveness regarding project funding led to many resignations. “I resigned three months before the celebration started and still didn’t know what the budget was for my projects,” he said.
Chehab had planned to restore five old Damascene houses and factories as galleries for exhibiting contemporary and video art. The project also included running creative workshops throughout the year and setting up the country’s first-ever contemporary art museum.
“Sixty art students graduate every year, yet visual arts remain largely neglected in Syria,” Chehab said. “This would have been a great opportunity for young visual artists to introduce their work and interact with Syrian audiences.”
Chehab explained that while the secretariat initially gave the project the green light, it gradually began imposing budget restrictions before finally announcing that his plans would be limited to one collective exhibition for contemporary art.
“After working six months on my project, I was left with one collective exhibition,” he said. “Such an exhibition doesn’t require an organisation of the secretariat’s size to materialise.”
In the end, other than displays at Damascus’ cultural centres and London’s touring Victoria & Albert exhibition, Syrian visual art only made it into four special fine art exhibitions. Transferred from collections at the Ministry of Culture and Damascus’ National Museum, the exhibited works, spanning the past 100 years, were also archived and published in four budget catalogues.
Performing arts and music were awarded the lion’s share of the secretariat’s funding, while visual arts, literature, cinema and poetry received very little. With performances by the Akram Khan Dance group, Lebanese singers Marcel Khalife and Julia Butros, as well as internationally acclaimed Spanish singer Julio Iglesias, the DACC festival did not fall short of box office hits. Chehab puts the secretariat’s funding policies down to the belief that celebrating DACC primarily required lively crowd-pleasing events. “The secretariat wanted the festival to consist of events that make a loud impression,” he said.
It is a criticism echoed by Issa who argues that the secretariat wasted some of its funds on “low-quality, commercialised” theatre productions. He puts this down to the secretariat selecting plays based on how famous their directors were, rather than their content and performance value.
The long-term benefits of the year-long celebration are also up for debate, with some critics arguing more energy should have been spent on creating self-sustaining cultural programmes and developing Damascus’ cultural infrastructure.
They hold that the Box of Wonders and the publications – mainly on literature, arts and history – are the festival’s only lasting achievements. Even then, they argue that the number of 152 books published is disappointingly low compared to the 1,260 books that Algiers printed when it was the Capital of Arab Culture in 2007. “The DACC was a festival of projects with expiry dates,” Mohannad Orabi, a young artist, said. “The year has ended like a summer breeze and we’ve got nothing left to remind us of its existence.”
The festival’s advertising programme – or lack of it – has also come under fire. Critics argue that poor advertising limited awareness of the DACC events to those who already followed Syria’s cultural scene. They observe that unlike the celebrations for Aleppo Capital of Islamic Culture, during which the festival logo was omnipresent in the city’s streets, Damascus barely had any signs promoting the DACC festivities. They also hold that the lack of advertising for the DACC festival abroad was a missed tourism opportunity for promoting a positive image of Syria and emphasising its rich cultural heritage.
Iyad Rateb Krayem, general director of JWT, the advertising agency commissioned to promote DACC, said the secretariat showed little interest in launching a large advertising campaign for the festival. He said that while JWT was keen to promote the festival regionally, the secretariat was only concerned with the local promotion of its most prized events.
“If we compare the celebration to a restaurant, the secretariat was only interested in the quality of food, while we found marketing the establishment equally important,” Krayem said. “Since the international campaign we expected never happened, we ended up promoting individual events that happen every year.”
Consequently, only the DACC’s large or privately sponsored events were advertised. This often left the smaller events, such as ‘Artist in the City’, a guided tour around the studios of 20 Syrian artists in Damascus, with a low turn-out.
But all criticism put aside, Syrians agree that they have never had such a mammoth cultural agenda at hand with more high-profile events in one year than Syria has seen in the last decade.
“In all, the festival was a success; it’s just that we expected much more,” Chehabi said.
This article was published in Syria Today magazine