Week 1-2: Introductions, Definitions
How do we make sense of our experience of connection to the Middle East whilst living at a distance from it in the UK? This was the principle question which brought forth the creative-therapeutic project, Arab Spring, English Autumn (ASEA). Tara and I discussed the possibility of a project for young people of Middle Eastern origin, living in the UK. The aim was to use creative therapy- art, music, movement and drama, to explore issues of identity, home and belonging in relation to media portrayals of people from this region. Given the prolific, intense and unrelenting media coverage of the region shaping opinions of people both familiar and unfamiliar with the region, we felt the impulse to offer a project confronting how the disharmony in the Middle East, coupled with media stereotyping, seep into our identities and affect us on a personal level. We also hoped to give participants a confidential space to explore conflicts and consider how they may be resolved.
The Middle East encompasses a vast region and it was left to participants to decide whether they identified from this region. Despite the title of the project, it was made clear that it was open to all who considered themselves from the ‘Middle East’, regardless of ethnicity or nationality. A core group of 12 people from all over the region met on a weekly basis over eight weeks. Their origins are from Somalia, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Turkey, Bangladesh, Russia, France and England. Other participants, who attended for one or two groups, were from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Some of the group are second generation, or of mixed heritage, and others have newly arrived to the UK and still going through asylum procedures. One is English and, having lived in Cairo for 5 years, closely identified with the region. We recruited participants for the project by email to relevant groups, our networks and on social media.
‘Arab Spring’ is used to bring attention to the region in focus and the tumultuous period in which it is currently immersed, as well as the media frenzy that follows it. ‘English Autumn’ reflects the setting and time period of the project. The title came to serve as a metaphorical polarity of the sometimes opposing worlds which they evoke.
The creative-therapeutic groups were informed by a variety of approaches including drama and art therapy, social pedagogy and anthropological methods. Every group and each session called for different forms of creativity, depending on the energy and focus of the participants that week. The first group ran in early September 2014 and the project was open to new members for the first three weeks. In these early weeks it was important to establish what the group wanted to work on and which methods they were comfortable using. We started with introductions and what we hoped to gain from the group. We set some rules around confidentiality, sharing and respect.
These early groups involved warm-up exercises to get to know one another and members were welcome to contribute their own games. Following games, we would move into the bulk of the session, starting with discussion or reflection regarding words and labels, including what it means to be Middle Eastern or from our respective countries and what Western or English holds for us. What are our ideas about home, belonging and identity? We also explore the concept of the arts and therapy. How do we relate to these words? What feelings do they evoke in us? In the second session we look at roles and stereotypes and use newspapers to pick out images and phrases which make us think of the Middle East or the West. There is a heated debate around specific words used by the media and all-round anger and resentment at the western media’s generalisations of people from the region, and toward Muslims. There is a sense of resignation, to use Audre Lorde’s phrase, that the “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and that neither Middle Eastern nor grassroots social media has been able to influence the narrative in the West to give a more balanced perspective on the region. The group seek to carve out a different space, somewhere in between. They propose ‘common’ factors familiar to both East and West and shift from the political to the personal.