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'We create art in the Arab world too': Edinburgh festivals hit by visa rejections

Posted August 23

Ahmed El Attar dreamed of bringing some of the Arab world's top performers -- dancers, actors, musicians -- to Edinburgh for the city's legendary Fringe Festival.

His showcase has made it, but many of the artists he hoped to bring over have not, denied the chance to perform after UK authorities rejected their visa applications.

Performers from 62 countries will visit the Fringe this year, hoping for success at the world's largest arts festival, which is held every August in the Scottish capital. As well as the Arab Arts program the event will host pieces from Korea and Taiwan, a Made in Adelaide showcase and a series of plays by Scottish writers.

The festival is "permit free," meaning that performers entering the UK don't need to apply for a work permit. But artists from outside the EU still need to secure visas.

Four of El Attar's producing team had their visa applications rejected, as did two dancers, Hamza Damra and Nagham Saleh, who remain in Jordan and Egypt, respectively.

Damra, a Palestinian dancer, was spotted by choreographer Yazan Iwidat at a workshop in Ramallah in the West Bank. Iwidat recalls him standing out despite being new to contemporary dance, so they put a routine together. Authorities cited concern that Damra would remain in the UK after the festival in their decision to reject his application.

"I find this approach arrogant," Iwidat said. "People aspire to live in other parts of the world too, not just the UK. We create art in the Arab world too."

A video of the dancer performing is being played at the showcase instead.

"I feel so bad about all the opportunities I missed because of these issues," Damra said.

Saleh, a Sudanese dancer, was told that because she is unmarried, authorities had similar concerns, her choreographer Shaymaa Shoukry said.

"I find that quite unbelievable," Shoukry told CNN.

The pair had worked on her performance for two years. After Saleh's application was rejected for a second time, Shoukry had five days to choreograph a new routine with Mahmoud el Hadad, a dancer she had previously worked with.

El Attar called the decisions "arbitrary."

"When you think of countries like Britain you imagine and you hope that there is a transparent visa system," he said. "But even here it's just like dealing with an Arab government agency."

The Edinburgh International Festival and the city's International Book Festival have also been affected by visa issues.

Conchita Wurst, the Austrian singer and Eurovision winner, was supposed to perform at the International Festival on August 11, in a concert featuring collaborations between established and newly-arrived artists in Europe. Wurst's band, Basalt, is made up of three Syrians who all arrived in Vienna around three years ago.

All three had their UK visa applications rejected. In response, Wurst pulled out of the show. A recorded introduction and performance from the group was screened instead.

One of the Syrians in Wurst's band, Almonther Alshoufi, told CNN that UK authorities considered him financially unstable, though he earns around 600 euros a month, and that he doesn't have good family connections in Vienna, despite having a girlfriend there.

Alshoufi said that the band didn't appeal as they had received their rejections only a day before the concert had been due to take place.

A spokeswoman for the festival said organizers were "very disappointed" by the decision.

Nick Barley, director of the International Book Festival, said it is hugely important for artists to be able to travel to the UK.

"If the government is operating a de facto travel ban from certain countries, they should admit it," Barley said. Any such ban would "(deny) us crucial opportunities to share international dialogue."

"That's just not acceptable in an open country like the United Kingdom -- and certainly not in Scotland."

A UK Home Office spokesperson said that all visa applications are considered on their merits but declined to comment on individual cases.

Social media campaigns to reverse the visa decisions have had some success. Ehsan Abdollahi, an Iranian children's illustrator invited to the Book Festival, had his visa application visa turned down in July but the decision was overturned after a subsequent outcry.

Barley took to Twitter to protest on the illustrator's behalf and a chorus of literary voices joined him before politicians got involved. Within days, the rejection was reversed.

Organizers want other artists affected by visa rejections to draw some hope from Abdollahi's case.

"We'd had success on this occasion, though I know that many other festivals are not so fortunate," Barley said. "I hope [this] stands as a beacon for others: a small demonstration that non-violent public protest can actually change a government's behavior in a democracy."

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