Interview with Qaisra Shahraz

Ahead of our event with MACFEST, we had the chance to ask the festival founder Qaisra Shahraz a few questions

qaisra shahraz

Q: MACFEST was founded in 2017 following the Manchester Arena attack, to bring Muslim and non-Muslim communities together. What progress, if any, have you seen in connecting communities in Greater Manchester since then? 

A: People of all faiths, ages and backgrounds have come together at our events to watch films, perform together, listen to poetry and musical concerts, enjoy art exhibitions, and meet people from migrant communities.

“MACFEST facilitates getting to know about the art and cultural heritage of Muslim civilisations as well as having nuanced debates and discussions in safe spaces.”

While other organisations closed during the pandemic, we delivered 75 events in an attempt to connect people who were feeling isolated without their communities.

The festival has provided an excellent platform that celebrates both aspiring and established writers, poets, artists and cultural champions. With an outstanding commitment to inclusion at our festivals, we host at least 10 Muslim communities in Greater Manchester that represent every continent. We’ve also worked with schools to enrich their curriculums by encouraging them to practice multiple art forms and celebrate cultural diversity.


Q: To date, which MACFEST events do you think have been most impactful? And what have been your personal highlights?  

A: There are so many to choose from!  Our annual celebration of poets reciting in their own languages or hearing the music and sounds of different countries. Or our 25 annual women events that included dance performances from Turkey and Indonesia. Plus, child-friendly discussions on race and climate change.  So many of our events over the years have had a huge, positive impact. This is especially true of our collaborations with schools which encouraged young children to express themselves creatively, embrace their cultures and diversity in general.

Many of my favourites from this year celebrate and showcase the lives and work of Muslim women, such as: an exhibition of female Afghani artists living under Taliban rule, a performance by Sudanese girls and Turkish women, learning about three centuries of female Muslim travel writers as well as the challenges faced by a deaf film maker on International Women’s Day.


Q: We’re really looking forward to our joint online event on the 9th of July: ‘Kindness & Integrity – Leadership in a troubled world’. Why did you find it important to organise this event at this time? 

A: Personally, I’m a huge fan of Professor Akbar’s work. His mere presence enriches our festival, as it did two years ago. The topic that he chose ties in beautifully with his lifelong commitment to building bridges and promoting harmony between people of faith.

“We are living in a troubled world filled with conflicts and divisions. Cultures of hate and the ‘othering’ of people persist.”

All the while, extremists stoke the fires of division.  So, there is a real need for leaders to take ownership of their actions and words to promote peace and kindness in the world.


Q: How does Professor Akbar Ahmed’s work align with MACFEST’s ambitions?

A: MACFEST’s mission is to challenge Islamophobia, break barriers, promote community and social cohesion and, of course, spread sweetness with our slogan ‘Spread Honey Not Hate.’ The marvellous work of Professor Akbar Ahmed – an academic, author, poet, playwright, filmmaker, former diplomat and, of course, ardent promoter of interfaith dialogue – aligns beautifully with MACFEST and its mission.

Internationally applauded and recognised for his incredible feat of achievements and work, he has devoted his whole life – through his bestselling books, travel documentaries, historical film, poetry and plays – to promoting peace and a better understanding of history, Muslims and building bridges.

“Professor Akbar is a leading figure in the Muslim world and is highly respected for his intellect and nuanced discussions on contemporary issues. The BBC rightly called him, ‘the world’s leading authority on contemporary Islam’.”

Most importantly, for creating a space for dialogue between people of all faiths, including with the Jewish communities.


Q: You have many accolades, including being an accomplished novelist. Why do you think your novels have achieved such popularity at home and abroad, especially in Germany where some of your books are taught in schools?  

A: I arrived in the UK at a young age, carrying valuable childhood memories of Pakistan with me. These memories served me well, enabling me to write about my home country in my first three novels. As a migrant woman growing up in Manchester, I was fascinated by my multiple identities. This was the inspiration for my early stories, including the famous ones, A Pair of Jeans and Escape, both prescribed literary texts for the German Abitur, the equivalent to A-Level English.

I am more known in Germany than in the UK as thousands of students have been studying my books since 1996. They are popular because of their content – they deal with migrant and cultural issues, relevant to Germany which is a country with a large migrant population.

“These stories enabled me to visit German schools, build cultural bridges and have nuanced discussions with students and their teachers on various issues including debunking myths about Islam and Muslim women.”

Thanks to my stories, I met Professor Karin Vogt from Heidelberg, who is also on the international panel of our partnership event. I have taken part in her university teacher training programmes, highlighting to her trainees the importance of celebrating diversity, inclusion, and to ‘get out of one’s box’, to look beyond our own little world, to respect other people’s norms, faiths, cultures, and ways of lives. It works both ways.

Through our strong and valuable friendship both Karin and I have found that our lives are totally enriched by being part of and learning about each other’s world. She has visited my Pakistani Muslim household in Manchester and met my family. I have stayed with her in her German household and watched her beautiful children grow over time. I’m delighted she too joining us for the online discussion.

professor akbar ahmed

Professor Akbar Ahmed

Professor Akbar Ahmed is the current Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University and a Wilson Centre Global Fellow in Washington, D.C.

His important and ceaselessly untiring work in engaging with religious leaders worldwide to promote inter-faith harmony has been recognised and honoured with numerous prestigious awards.

These include the 2008 “Rumi Peace and Dialogue Award, USA”, “Global Thought Leader” 2015, and the inaugural “Gandhi Peace Award” amongst others. More recently he became the first Muslim to be awarded the prestigious “Mensch Award” by the Mensch Foundation (2022). He has been consistently featured in the Muslim 500: The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims.

professor karin vogt

Professor Karin Vogt

An author, academic, and teacher trainer at Heidelberg University, Germany, with a special interest in promoting diversity and intercultural understanding.

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