Featured People: Abdullah Al-Kafri

27 september 2016, 12:00
Featured People: Abdullah Al-Kafri
Featured People: Abdullah Al-Kafri
This autumn, ECF highlights cultural policy research and activism in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Through a series of insightful interviews, ECF introduces cultural policy researchers and activists who have contributed to the World CP –International Cultural Policy Database. Since it was set up in 2015 by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA), World CP is developing into an incredibly useful central, continuously updated database and monitoring tool including country-specific profiles of cultural policies from around the world. Ettijahat, together with Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy), works on the ECF-funded Arab contributions to the World CP. They are developing a database of cultural policy for the Arab region, expanding the network from a regional to a global level, working with advocacy groups in ten Arab countries to coordinate and support the development of transparent and democratic cultural policy in their countries, made available to an international audience.
For the first interview in our new series, we talk to Abdullah Al-Kafri (Syria), Executive Director of Ettijahat – Independent Culture, about his organisation’s work and the challenges it faces in these turbulent times for the region.
A playwright and cultural activist, Abdullah works as a trainer in various cultural fields with organisations including Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. He is a founding member of the Syrian organisation Ettijahat – Independent Culture (now operating from Beirut, Lebanon) and became Executive Director in 2014.
Since 2015, he has been a member of the artistic committee of Sundance Institute’s MENA Theatre Lab, and is a regular participant at conferences and forums on culture and art. He has also collaborated with art organisations such as Lift and The Royal Court in the UK and the Lark in the US. 
Abdullah, can you please tell us more about the work of Ettijahat?
The idea for Ettijahat first arose in 2010, when we as founders noted the disconnection between the Syrian cultural sector and wider society. Cultural work, particularly ‘independent’ cultural work, was isolated from its community – an isolation that limited the role of creative work, and reduced the ability of professionals in the field to interact with their audience. Moreover, Syria was not a production-friendly environment, with creative control and cultural authority residing overwhelmingly with the government, and few frameworks in place to address this lack of independent culture. Thus in late 2011, we founded Ettijahat with the goal of providing innovative long-term frameworks that respond to Syrian cultural needs. We want to allow Syrians to independently use their innate creative energy.
Today, Ettijahat conducts its work based on three primary goals: to support established and budding young artists in producing their work; to improve the general environment for Syrian cultural and artistic work; and to integrate cultural work with social change initiatives. We seek to do this through providing sustainable frameworks for artistic and cultural work, through programmes of training, grants and research, as well as policy and advocacy work.  I’m proud to be working with a young, diverse team of seven wonderful colleagues from Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, who all live in four different countries.
Of course, a significant factor in the evolution of our work has been the events in Syria since 2011, and the spread of a new Syrian diaspora across the region and beyond. During this time the cultural landscape has undergone profound changes, which have had a serious impact on Syrian artists, requiring us to develop new strategies to help them to work. In light of this, we have expanded our grants to include Syrian artists who have recently sought refuge in Europe, and we have diversified our services in order to strengthen collaboration between those artists and their counterparts in host communities.
A recent focus of Ettijahat has been on building relationships between the artist and audience. Our Priorities of Syrian Cultural Work programme, meanwhile, seeks to provide the independent Syrian cultural sector with a coherent and unified voice that can help express its desires for future purposes and directions. Because in times of major changes, cultural organisations that work without a clear cultural strategy risk pushing social structures towards arbitrary cultural change, or even towards change that is governed by the interests of separate external parties. If cultural actors are unable to respond to the changing needs of their communities, this may lead to a crisis of values and exacerbate the divisions between the cultural sector and the audience.
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