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Shubbak: a Guide to Europe's Largest Festival of Arab Culture

posted on: Jun 21, 2019

Shubbak: a Guide to Europe's Largest Festival of Arab Culture



We pick the highlights not to miss at the London event, from Palestine’s first female techno DJ to a musical tribute show and an art installation nestled in a market

The best of Arab music, art and culture will be on show in London from Friday, June 28, for the fifth instalment of Shubbak. Named after the Arabic word for “window”, the festival was launched in 2011 to offerpeople in Britain an insight into the Arab world through visual arts, film, music, theatre, dance, literature and debate, and it has grown to become the largest festival of Arab culture in the UK.

Shubbak, which ends on July 14, will showcase more than 150 artists, musicians and theatre productions to provide visitors with a different perspective of the region. “We’re really pleased that this year’s festival is a strong mix of engaging, family-friendly work right next to some new thought-provoking, edgy work,” Eckhard Thiemann, Shubbak’s artistic director, says. “That richness and diversity really shows how strong contemporary Arab culture is without trying to define what it is.”

The team travelled extensively to find participants for this year’s festival and commissioned work specifically for the event. In April, the biennial festival also won the Unesco Sharjah prize for Arab Culture, in recognition of its outstanding contribution to the promotion of Arab art and culture – an award that has solidified it as an event well worth visiting.

The 17-day extravaganza will unfold in some of London’s most famous buildings, including the British Museum, which will hold documentary screenings, the Southbank Centre, which will house art installations, and the Gate Theatre, which will feature all manner of live acts. Shubbak will also be hitting the road, taking selected performers and installations to cities and towns across Britain, such as Bradford, Cambridge and Liverpool. “It makes sense. If someone takes the trouble to travel from Beirut to perform in London, why not make that journey stretch a little farther,” Thiemann says.

With so much to see, here’s our guide on what not to miss.

Kahareb launch party

Where better to start than at the beginning? The launch party will bring together some of the Middle East’s most talented underground DJs, producers and artists, who will take to the stage to deliver a larger-than-life evening of dance music.

The late-night performance follows 2017’s smash hit electronic showcase, but the celebrations will be stepped up a gear his year. Palestine’s first female techno DJ, Sama, Tunisian producer and percussionistNuri, and Arab slow-House expert Shkoon, are among the line-up of artists.

June 28, 8pm, Rich Mix, £16 (Dh74)

Chronicles of Majnun Layla

Palestinian actor and writer Amer Hlehel is comfortable performing in front of large London audiences, having walked the boards at the Royal Court and Young Vic theatres.

His latest work will debut at the Gate Theatre during Shubbak. It is a bilingual reworking of Qassim Haddad’s poetic telling of Majnun Layla, and will feature original music and accompaniment from Rihab Azar and Kareem Samara on electronic and acoustic oud.

In what has been described as the Arab Romeo and Juliet, Majnun and Layla are childhood sweethearts torn apart by Layla’s father, who insists she marry another man. Even when circumstances seem to improve, the worst has yet to come for the pair.

The Chronicles is among the shows that will also travel outside London, appearing in Bradford on July 5 and in Liverpool on July 7.

July 1-July 3, 7pm, Gate Theatre, £24

Trace of the Butterfly

This will be a celebration of the late Palestinian singer Rim Banna, featuring the artists who were closest to her. Singers and producers from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia will perform the works of the towering talent in their own styles.

Singer-songwriter Banna died aged 51 in Nazareth in March last year after a nine-year battle with breast cancer. The Shubbak tribute show will cover work from across her 12 albums and feature Lebanese singer-­songwriter Tania Saleh, Palestinian composer and pianist Faraj Suleiman and Tunisian singer and one half of Yuma, Sabrine Jenhani. Syrian producer and MC Bu Kolthoum will also perform reorchestrated versions of Banna’s music, accompanied by a band assembled especially for the show.


One of the festival’s specially commissioned installations, Hela Ammar’s Becoming is displayed at Shepherd’s Bush Market. Ammar is a Tunisian lawyer whose work focuses on marginalised communities and identity, with her latest piece using portraits and recordings to tell the story of women who are new to London. Visitors will hear the result of Ammar’s conversations with recent immigrants to Britain, while gazing at portraits displayed throughout the bustling clothing, fabric and food market.

Best of all, it’s free to visit the installation – that is, if you can keep yourself away from the market’s various other offerings.

June 28-July 13, 10am-6pm, excluding Sundays, Shepherd’s Bush Market, free