Missing your home culture is a common – and challenging – aspect of life when moving to a new country. This month, citizens of the MENA (Middle East or North Africa) region can get several weeks of the sights, sounds and taste of home during the “MENA is here” festival in Groningen.
“I miss my friends in Syria, so it’s good to have the opportunity of going somewhere what reminds me of my country. The festival gives space that reminds me of home”, says Karam Shebat, one of seven festival ambassadors and himself a musician.
That sense of home, which is “there”, is a compelling reason to draw crowds to the wide range of events, offering a moment for those who come from MENA the region in the north and beyond to share their culture, get together and enjoy it.
According to CBS, the Dutch national statistics office, there are about 400,000 first or second generation migrants from Morocco and a similar number from Turkey in the Netherlands. Other large groups include Syrians (126,000), Iraqis (68,000), Iranians (52,000) and Egyptians (29,000).
The program is a colorful mosaic of genres and regions, with dance performances, concerts, food festival, workshops, exhibitions and more from Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and many more nations in the region.
The event’s ambassadors are acutely aware that when the Middle East or North Africa (MENA) comes up in the media, it is more often than not news connected with conflict and natural disasters. One of the goals of the festival is to deliberately shift the narrative towards the rich, multifaceted cultures of the region.
Shebat says that he is looking forward to Thursday, the official opening day of the brand-new festival. “Anything that you do the first time is the best!” he says.
But the festival is also meant to engage a local audience of people from the vicinity, including the general Dutch population and other locals. “It’s like a bridge between cultures,” says Shebat.
And there is much to explore. For instance the North Netherlands Orchestra’s opening concert, presenting the “mesmerizing world of classical Arabic music” from Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon and Morocco, and Art Without Borders II, an exhibition written in the universal language of drawing by three Iranian artists. With their art, presented at the Akerk, they try to connect, transcend and cross the distance between the East and the West. The almost two-week long festival is full of a wide range of activities worth checking out.
Tickets are selling well thus far, Shebat says, and some entry passes are being provided to refugees and other newcomers who have just arrived to the North of the Netherlands. The festival itself is a great spot for meeting interesting people. “It’s customary to chat to the artists, get in touch”, Shebat says. The first step: come and enjoy.