Edinburgh International Festival: Refugee artists demonstrate the importance of freedom of expression – Soizig Carey

Women in Iran face a number of restrictions, with potential prison sentences for those who defy rules on performance art (Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images)

But artists are particularly at risk of censorship, harassment, criminalization and persecution when their work expresses ideas and possibilities that are denied by oppressive regimes. Their work demands freedom of expression and calls on others to speak up too. It can be dangerous work in today’s world.

One of the artists we work with at the Scottish Refugee Council, Aref Ghorbani, is a classically trained Iranian musician and singer. In his home country, artists and cultural events require permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which has the power to cancel anything deemed immoral.

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Despite the threat of prison for defying government restrictions on women, Ghorbani sought to collaborate with female musicians. He organized and performed an unauthorized concert alongside female singers in front of an audience of 600 people, mostly women. He felt sick, but did it anyway.

Because of this and other important underground activities, he had to flee his country. Ghorbani is now based in Scotland and will perform as part of Refuge at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Refuge is a series of contemporary theatre, dance, visual art, film and conversation, featuring artists who have found themselves uprooted and now live in Scotland. The program weaves together the perspectives of artists who have traveled different journeys, journeys that remind us that people often carry more than we can see or know. The artists in particular are always listening, questioning and manufacturing; they are exceptional minds.

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Leena Nammari is an artist and printmaker whose installation It Will Live will welcome the public during their visit to the Studio. “My work has primarily quietly reflected on the Palestinian condition of statehood or lack thereof, from a small individual domestic setting. I am an artist who is a storyteller, a storyteller. It is my job to express, to push, to enable others to reflect, without slogans or propaganda, the human condition, and especially the marginalized voices,” she said.

Nammari has been settled in Scotland for a long time, but in many ways he never left Palestine.

Sabir Zazai, Chief Executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, knows this sentiment all too well, and the important role artists play in truth and storytelling, in building an open-hearted culture. “It has been a year of terrible stories. The war in Ukraine, the unrest in Afghanistan, families stranded and separated by bureaucracy, Rwandan detention centers and people have no choice but to risk their lives on dangerous journeys in a desperate attempt to reach a safe place,” he said.

“In this fierce struggle for human rights and freedoms, we must not forget to reflect on the hard-won triumphs… If Rudolph Bing had not sought and obtained refugee protection here 75 years ago , this world-class festival might not exist. The cultural fabric of Scotland would be very different. We are in awe of its legacy and the exceptional artists who perform as part of Refuge.

We hope audiences will be moved and inspired by this program, and come away with a better understanding of what it means to be uprooted in today’s world.

Darcy J. Skinner