For the Absent Ones. Photo by Khaled Barakeh
For the Absent Ones. Photo by Khaled Barakeh

Parallel Crossings – A Collaborative Dialogue

Jon Davis is a Tandem Turkey alumni, he works as a Producer at LIFT in London. During Tandem, he worked on Syria in Transit with Kemal Vural Tarlan, creating a photography, sound and video exhibition documenting the stories of Syria refugees travelling to Turkey and the UK. Jon now shares insights about Parallel Crossings, a collaborative dialogue exploring the refugee and migration crisis, and considering how artists and cultural organisations can and should be responding to the issue.

Parallel Crossings began as a collaborative dialogue between Moez Mrabat (Tunisia), Abdullah Al Kafri (Syria), Jonathan May and Jon Davis (UK). It was a chance to explore the refugee and migration crisis from three differing perspectives and ask how artists and cultural organisations can and should be responding to the issue. As with all beginnings, we did not know where the journey would take us or what we might find at its close two years later. What follows is a summary of our collaboration, a story which has the structure and trajectory which only appears in hindsight and which was hidden from view as navigated our path.

The Parallel Crossings website.
The Parallel Crossings website.

In April 2015, we as strangers were introduced to one another through the Tandem programme. Our first act was to undertake three research labs that summer, spending a week together in Tunis, Beirut, and London. These labs were focused on getting to know one another and attempting to understanding the local context in each country, looking at how migration, the refugee crisis, and national political agendas affect communities and the basic human right to movement. As well as undertaking an investigative approach into the reasons people chose to leave their own country we wished to understand how artists were responding to this complex political and social issue and how arts organisations, in particular festivals, were supporting this work.

Hosted by Moez we spent a week in the neighbourhood of Radès. One of the poorest areas in Tunis, this community has seen the mass migration of young people undertaking the illegal journey to Europe across the Mediterranean for several decades. We met with a number of individuals compelled to take this dangerous route due to a lack of any meaningful future in Tunisia, including a man who had begun ferrying people across the ocean. This angry, young man did not resemble the vilified human traffickers we have been introduced to on the news, rather he was a disaffected youth who simply wished to travel for work and pleasure.

In this neighbourhood we also found a counterflow of migration, meeting a number of young people who had been groomed to undertake the journey to Syria to fight for Jihad. Tunisia has the highest number of foreign fighters in Syria, young men lured by the prospect of honour and money. In this place, where hope has been lost, the longing for a brighter future could either led to Europe or to Syria.

During our stay, we were also introduced to Dream City a fantastic biennial festival taking place in Tunis’s old Medina exploring the politics of public space. We met with local and international artists undertaking a residency with the festival and developing work which responded specifically to Tunis’s urban issues.

Three months later, in August, we arrived in a hot and sweaty Beirut. Abdullah was our fantastic host enabling us to explore the challenges facing Lebanon as it attempts to deal with the influx of Syrians since the war began in 2011. With the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, one in four people, Lebanon is struggling to cope with the weight of the newly arrived. During our stay, we visited the Palestinian Shatila refugee camp originally created in 1949 and the new camps in the Bekaa valley. Again we met with a number of young Syrians on the brink of undertaking the journey to Europe, forced to leave due to increasing pressure from the Lebanese authorities.

The Lab was also aimed at exploring the role artists and arts organisations could play in responding to these challenging conditions. Beirut, a city which has long been an important centre of the arts in the Middle East, now hosts an array of artists all attempting to understand what their work can express in the face of such horrific reality. We met with a number of Lebanese and Syrian artists and cultural activists working in the city and internationally to explore the role of artists, the notion of ‘refugee artists’ and how art spaces can thrive in times of conflict and censorship.

After a further three months, we met again for our final research Lab hosted by Jonathan and Jon in London. Here we explored the human rights issues surrounding detaining and deporting migrants and refugees. Taking a broader look at the UK’s policy in dealing with migrants we visited Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, the last stop for foreign national due for deportation, in addition to meeting with a host of organisations and individual helping to support the rights of those caught within the country’s complex immigrations laws.

To mark the close of this period of research we held a conversation event hosted by Toynbee Studios inviting activists, artists and cultural operators to reflect on the role of the UK cultural scene in supporting and revealing the complex narratives around the refugee crisis. For the event we commissioned provocations from Abdullah, the British Council’s Director of Culture & Development Stephen Stenning, James Thompson the Professor of Applied and Social Theatre and Co-Founder of In Place of War, and the Lebanese artist Tania el Khoury.

Throughout this process Parallel Crossings had the aim of creating a final project which might deal with the issues of movement, presence and absence, and representation. This investigation lead us to spend time in each other’s cities, in each other’s contexts. To be as it were, present. We wished to undertake a period of genuine exchange and research before attempting to create any form of art which might tackle these intractable conflicts facing us.

Since we began the project in 2015 the world around us had changed, the refugee crisis has worsened and the ability for individuals of certain religions and nationalities to travel, whether by plane, land or boat, has been further curtailed. It was in this context that we attempted to meet in Hammamet, Tunisia in April 2017 for a final residency. A chance to reflect on our journey and develop an artistic response. At Beirut airport, on his way to Tunisia, Abdullah was stopped by Turkish Airlines and was refused entry onto the plane. There was no lawful reason why he could not travel, and despite an invitation from the Tunisian ministry of culture and detailed documents demonstrating his motivations to return to Lebanon, the airline believed he would leave the plane in Istanbul and not return.

This distressing event lead us to revisit the text Abdullah wrote for our London conversation event in November 2015, a piece which reflected on our research by questioning the notion of the ‘Syrian artist’ and the ability to create art and imagine amongst the debilitating reality we find ourselves in.

Out of this, we created the audio performance ‘For the Absent Ones’. The work explored a Syrian artist’s attempts to make a performance for the stage. Unable to travel the artist’s absent voice haunts the space asking the audience to imagine his presence whilst offering up a series of stories for the emptiness around them. Commissioned by Shubbak Festival the performance was presented at the British Museum, the Arcola Theatre and at the Hammamet International Festival in July 2017.

'For the Absent Ones’ creates a subtle yet powerful experience of absence - a lone voice exposing the void between an un-met artist and an anticipating audience. Quietly delivered, the work is still politically sharp and emotionally profound.

Eckhard Thiemann - Artistic Director of Shubbak

In the end, Parallel Crossings and the final artwork ‘For the Absent Ones’ was not able to answer all questions we started out with – rather it was a collaborative response which drew out the complexities, the ambiguities, the failings and the hope which resides in any form of artistic expression.

Abdullah, Moez, Jonathan and Jon