Requiem For Aleppo, merging Arabic poetry and Christian liturgy to celebrate a city where different creeds once lived side by side, raised £78,000 for the charity Syria Relief in its sell-out premiere at London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre earlier this year. It will be performed in Edinburgh in a shortened and revised version for one night only.
The Edinburgh festivals were founded in the aftermath of the Second World War. If any modern conflict has seized the modern imagination with a comparative scale of devastation, it is the war in Syria, where historic cities like Aleppo came to resemble the bombed-out shells of German cities in 1945.
Fringe venue the Pleasance is operating the EICC event for the first time this year. Pleasance director Anthony Alderson reminded the audience at his launch event how the the original festival 70 years ago brought hope.
“Now several thousand times larger than the original idea from 1947, the positive power this festival can yield is massively significant, and in that regard I ask for your help,” he said. “The war in Syria continues Millions of people are displaced throughout the world.”
There are about 1,500 tickets available at £15 each, and he urged people to come and bring friends.
Requiem For Aleppo was written by businessman and singer-songwriter David Cazalet, and runs in its Edinburgh version for just over an an hour Choreographed by Jason Mabana, it is sung by Juliana Yazbeck – praised as “show-stopping” in The Scotsman – and her fellow Lebanese singer and oud player Abdul Salam Kheir. He has performed for the Prince of Wales and collaborated with Led Zeppelin
“I couldn’t go on watching the news and thinking every night, ‘Aleppo, what’s happening?’” Cazalet said. “Because I play flamenco guitar and lived a long time in Spain, I was interested that only in Aleppo was there a music called Andalus, from when Jews and Arabs were thrown out of Spain, and they ended up in the city and preserved that sort of music. I tried to honour that by composing something that had the Christian element and weaving into it this Arab poetry as well and putting that to music.”
The money from the London and Edinburgh shows will go through the established UK charity Syria Relief to help set up teacher training facilities, he said. A lack of teachers in Syria is driving “a huge education crisis right now, and the concern is because of the lack of schooling children are being radicalised”.
It is a non-political effort, he says. “The cameras have gone, the real humanitarian crisis continues and this piece is to keep that in the public consciousness and ensure it stays remembered. Aleppo was a place of such sophistication and nuance and religious tolerance and the like, and it showed what we were capable as humans of developing and it’s just gone. To us in Europe, Aleppo may seem a very faraway place but it was not unlike the society we have here, many different cultures and religions living side by side.”
The fighting in Aleppo itself ended in December, after four years in which the heart of the historic old city became a no-man’s land on the front line. Alongside a wholesale exodus from areas of the city amid the brutal conflict, about 30 per cent of the historic centre was totally destroyed, officials from the UN cultural agency Unesco reported.The famous minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque, built in 1090, was brought down during the fighting in 2013, in what became a symbol of the devastation, while the medieval citadel was also extensively damaged.
Requiem For Aleppo sees dancers spin in whirling dervish robes and is overlaid with the voices of Aleppo residents now living in the UK and elsewhere. It was staged in London after only a few hours of rehearsal in the theatre, and has been further finessed. From Edinburgh it is due to tour to the US and the Middle East.
The Edinburgh International Festival has also included a Syria forum as part of its Spirit of ’47 events backed by the British Council. Reflections on Syria, tomorrow, includes animated and documentary short films created by young Syrian filmmakers, introduced by award-winning director Yasmin Fedda, and new compositions performed by classical musician Maya Youssef.
There will also be a discussion with Rafat Alzakout, director of Your Love is Fire, part of the Arab Arts Focus on the Fringe this year.