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Woman artists do well as CairoComix launches

The first edition of CairoComix got off to a good start on Wednesday evening. During a closed launch event, six awards were given out to recognize achievements in regional comics and published cartoons, and a majority of the winners were women. — Published on Mada Masr.

Egyptian artist Hanan al-Karargy received the Best Graphic Novel award for her work on Khaled Tawfik’s Ta’atheer al-Garada (The Locust Effect), and Best Comics Magazine went to Tunisian artist Noha Habib for Makhbar 916.

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Hanan al-Karargy and Khaled Tawfik’s Ta’atheer al-Garada

Best Digital Comic was given to Dina Mohamed for Qahera, which features a female superhero fighting injustice in Cairo, and Best Work in Progress went to Riham Husseiny for a project that’s still untitled.

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A frame from Dina Suleiman’s Qahera

Male artists didn’t lose out entirely. Best Short Story was given to Migo for Malaeka Tanam fi El-Bahr (Angels Sleep in the Sea), and Best Comic Strip in a Newspaper went to Amr El-Tarouty and Ahmed Okasha.

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A frame from Migo’s Malaeka Tanam fi al-Bahr

The awards were given out happily by veteran French comics artist Golo, cartoonist and illustrator Hicham Rahma and graphic designer Ahmed Ellabad.

The three-day festival seems to be a natural step for the comics movement that’s been growing in Egypt over the past 10 years, and it serves as a much-needed platform for Arab artists and publishers to connect. It was founded by Shennawy (TokTok, The Ninth Art), Magdi El-Shafie (of graphic novel Metro) and Haytham Raafat (Twins Cartoon), and takes the place of last year’s prototype festival, Egypt Comix.

Set up at the American University in Cairo (AUC) downtown campus, the festival features various publishers’ booths selling comic books, magazines, graphic novels and drawings at affordable prices from Cairo, Alexandria, Beirut, Tunis and other cities.

Another main component is an exhibition of works by iconic comics artist Mohieddin Ellabbad (1940-2010), curated by Shennawy. It features artworks and framed magazine pages showing Ellabbad’s famous character, Zaghloul Afendi, in the Samir and Karawan magazines between 1960-1970, and then during a later stage of the character in 1987, when it was revamped as Ostaz Zaghloul in Maged comics.

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Mohieddin Ellabbad’s Zaghloul Effendi

The exhibition is a reminder that a market for comics enjoyed by both children and adults existed for decades in Egypt prior to the contemporary comics movement, in which artists are focusing mostly on comics for adults.

Inaugurating the festival on Wednesday evening, Shafie did a public Skype call with Hatem Fathi, an Egyptian comics artist residing in Canada, that aimed to present a history of the contemporary comics movement in Egypt.

Taking shape as a call between friends reminiscing about when they first met in 2002 in a comics workshop in Cairo, it started as a fragmented and slightly irritating list of names of workshop participants and what they’re up to now. But the conversation moved to more solid ground when the two started tying in ideas about how that workshop initially connected them as a movement.

It apparently led to the formation of an extended group that continued to meet several times a month to look at comics and discuss their work. Fathi and Shafie highlighted the role of the internet, especially open-source initiatives, in exposing them to comics from around the world, enabling diverse inspirations and the development of their styles and storytelling.

At another point in the evening, Shafie was eager to point out that because CairoComix is keen on setting a certain standard, the jury will always be external and have a wide range of backgrounds and skills. This year it consisted of Lina Ghaibeh (an artist, associate professor at the American University in Beirut and director of its Moataz and Rada Sawwaf Arab Comics Initiative), Jonathan Guyer (an American Cairo-based writer researching political cartoons in Egypt), Rania Amin (an Egyptian writer and illustrator of bestselling comic series Farhana) and Zeinab Ben Jalon (a Moroccan artist and graphic designer).

The rest of the festival has plenty of events at both the AUC Tahrir campus and the GrEEK Campus. On Thursday evening, Golo will sign his new book, Alwan al-Aar (Colors of Shame), and hold a public discussion with Shennawy about it and about his long career between Cairo and Paris. There will also be another exhibition opening, an app launch and a talk with festival winners Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Hanan al-Karargy. Friday and Saturday will host performances, talks, workshops and a film screening.

For many comics artists and enthusiasts, a highlight of the festival — which is supported by the French Institute, AUC and the Moataz and Rada Sawwaf Arab Comics Initiative —  will be the three 3al Sotouh (On the Roof) evenings, where audiences gather on the rooftop of the Greek Club in Talaat Harb Square to discuss challenges facing comics in the Arab world, the relationship between taboos, politics and comics, and how the scene can be developed regionally. Semi-public, these events are ticketed and open to comic artists and students.

CairoComix is just beginning, and while it’s perhaps a little rough around the edges in terms of organization, it’s a promising endeavor to bring together cartoonists and comic artists, celebrate their achievements and think collectively of how to push this artistic movement forward.

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Egypt’s cinematic gems: Watch Out for Zuzu

Looking for a gem to write about this week, I was surprised to find that one of Egypt’s most-loved films, Khali Balak Men Zuzu (Watch Out for Zuzu, 1972), wasn’t already covered. — Published on Mada Masr.

Boasting an impressive cast on both sides of the camera, this feel-good musical is written by cartoonist and poet Salah Jahin, directed by Hassan al-Imam and stars Souad Hosny, Hussein Fahmy and Tahiya Karioka.

It begins with a women’s race: We hear people’s cheers and see Hosny running fast along the track. The camera then pans down from trophy held aloft down to the toes of the protagonist – she’s wearing hot pants and she’s won the 100-meter race at Cairo University, where she studies literature.

In a big choreographed song and dance staged on a university staircase, her friends crown her the “ideal girl.” Zuzu, now in a short shiny red dress, breaks into song and is on top of the world.

She makes her way home – a quick impressive tour of Cairo street scenes – to Mohamed Ali Street, famous for musicians, dancers and instrument makers, then the heart of the music scene and largely frowned upon by outsiders.

Zuzu’s retired belly-dancer mother (Karioka) constantly pressures her to dance in the dodgy nightclubs of Giza’s Haram Street so they can make money – a good excuse for lots of seductive dance scenes. But Zuzu aspires to graduate and get a desk job – one that will not pay as much as belly-dancing.

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Khali Balak min Zuzu

Hosny, always at the center of the frame, is charming as ever as a strong, stubborn woman determined to prove to society that she can transcend her predestined mould. Zuzu represents a generation looking to break free of rigid family structures and class divides so that names and families don’t matter as much as education, determination and individuality.

The film was made just after the end of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist era, as Anwar Sadat’s open door economic policy was starting: As the gloom of the lost 1967 war faded, many in society started hoping for a new future.

Accordingly there’s a clear rejection of conservative religiosity and an embrace of ideals of modernity and freedom of expression – for example the student who attacks Zuzu for running in hot pants is looked down on by everyone. And as in many of Imam’s films, Zuzu’s story revolves around class segregation – ultimately the characters break these prejudices to teach society a lesson.

Zuzu falls for Said (Fahmy), a theater director with a wealthy family and sports car. Like Zuzu, Said is trying to break free of expectations: His family wish him to have a regular desk job and marry his chichi stepsister, but he’s looking for love and passionate about his art. Yet Zuzu can’t tell him or her friends about her background, which conflicts with the secular modernity they all represent.

This comes to a head when the lovers’ two worlds collide – due to some jealous scheming – at a wedding at Said’s family house in posh Maadi, prompting one of the most memorable dance scenes in Egyptian cinema. Hosny does a wonderful job, with her grace as a dancer and her teary eyes. The scene was recently recreated in her honor by Mohamed Khan in Factory Girl.

Imam’s pallette is colorful, with the characters wearing daring outfits and the action taking place in visually rich locations such as a park, the university campus and the theater where Said’s troupe rehearses. The visuals match the caricature-like characters – both primary or secondary ones – creating an idealistic world for two hours in which happiness and sadness are strongly contrasted through music, dance and camera work.

Jahin’s lyrics are full of word play and quirky humor. In one famous song Zuzu compares Said’s coolness to the calm nerves of a British surgeon or a statue of Ramses, hoping that he won’t turn into a police sergeant or diplomat.

It’s sad to look back at the film now in 2015 and find that so many of the aspirations for modernity, social justice and freedom have not been achieved and seem even further away than they did in 1972. That said, Watch Out for Zuzu is ultimately a happy film in which love, idealism and art prevail even in the gloomiest of situations. It was one of the country’s biggest ever box-office hits.

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7UP borrows Cairo Dish Painting Initiative: Intellectual theft or fair game?

Paris-based American artist Jason Stoneking spent three months in Cairo at the end of 2014 as a resident artist in Artellewa, an art space in one of the city’s oldest informal neighborhoods. During this time he founded the Cairo Dish Painting Initiative, a campaign to paint the city’s signature satellite-dish skyline in a multitude of colors.

Published on Mada Masr.

In January 2015, a few months after his residency had ended, he got a Facebook message from an employee at Cairo ad production company Lighthouse Productions. She asked him for his contact information so Lighthouse could feature him in a television commercial for a “big brand.”

After requesting further information, Stoneking found that the company was executing an ad on behalf of Pepsi Co for their new 7UP campaign. The concept, she wrote, was “how we look at things differently, in a beautiful manner. Just like how you saw an artwork out of normal satellites.”

In Facebook conversation, snapshots of which Stoneking shared with Mada Masr via email, the artist politely but clearly told her he did not want to associate his project with 7UP because he doesn’t drink soda, doesn’t even believe people should drink soda, and doesn’t believe art should be used to sell products.

“So I would not under any circumstances want any images of myself or my projects to be used in the advertisement,” he wrote, wishing her luck with the project.

Six months later, Stoneking found the 7UP advertisement on YouTube, a regional campaign with both Arabic and English versions. It featured his project.

7up Perspective

The feel-good spot features young, passionate, happy people figuring out alternative solutions to make their homes and cities more exciting places. They turn a door into a ping-pong table, a tennis ball into a key-holder, a fire extinguisher into a scuba diver’s tank and an old tire into an indoor swing. They also make graffiti, including a computer keyboard on the pavement, a gameboy window and a policeman with a CCTV head.

Although the first subtitle of the advert after “7UP presents” reads “acts of originality” none of the above is original. Most of the graffiti is copied from street art in various parts of the world, and the indoor ideas are from 33-ways-to-make-your-house-cool type articles and Pinterest posts.

After people go about with their originality, the ad ends by giving credit to the youth groups featured, including Colouring the Grey City and Schaduf, two groups who agreed to appear. “Dish painting, Cairo” is featured, but with actors, not Stoneking and his crew.

I contacted Lighthouse through the employee who got in touch with Stoneking, but got no reply. When I called the company, they said they get their briefs as is and only execute, relinquishing responsibility for the infringement. When I asked for an interview several times through 7UP’s official Facebook account, they told me they would contact me for any possible collaboration, but did not.

Mada Masr spoke to Sherif Hosny, CEO of Schaduf, a company that creates rooftop gardens in Cairo. They confirmed they had agreed to be part of the advert and actually appear themselves in it.

Marwa Nasr, a founder of Colouring the Grey City, a group of students at Helwan University’s Fine Arts Faculty who have been painting vibrant colors and designs in Cairo’s public spaces for the past year, also confirmed that they appeared in the ad, but said it was not a positive experience. “They were not clear on the process and very disorganized,” she told Mada.

Nasr said they participated because they’re all young and still learning, and wanted the experience of being part of a set. They regretted it afterwards though, she said, feeling it was exploitative of their work to use it to sell a brand.

Creative differences

“I didn’t want the dish painting project, which so many local people participated in for free, just to enjoy expressing themselves, and adding beauty to their neighborhoods, to be used to try to get Egyptian people to give their money to a foreign corporation,” Stoneking told Mada Masr. “The concept of the ad was extremely cynical. The idea that 7UP has anything to do with creative expression is ridiculous.”

“I can understand why they had this idea. Because 7UP is not a beautiful or creative or inspiring thing. So they are desperate to attach themselves to other things that are beautiful, creative, and inspiring, so they can make themselves look better by association,” Stoneking said.

One can argue however that Stoneking does not own the idea of painting satellite dishes. Who owns a public space painting idea? Who owns home decorating ideas that are posted on Pinterest? Can companies use ideas that are shared widely to sell us products? Or is there a line between what’s acceptable and what’s not?

The 7UP spot features actors painting satellite dishes, but it also mentions the initiative in the final “credits” section, so it is easy to pinpoint their lack of respect for Stoneking’s wishes. But if they had just featured the idea, without mentioning the initiative, could we so easily blame them for intellectual theft?

Stoneking is unsure whether he will try to press charges or not. In a New York Times article published in July 2008, journalist Mia Fineman recounts similar stories from around the world where major corporations “borrowed” ideas from artists, narrating how some artists won cases against them while others realized it was a lost battle against such a huge corporation with the ability to spend endlessly on legal consultation.

With public art, the conundrum deepens, since unlike paintings, films or songs which can be registered and have rightful owners and legal frameworks set up to protect their producers, public art is available and free. Sometimes art is public space is signed, and sometimes it’s not. People can reproduce graffiti and street painting initiatives or share imagery of them freely. The guidelines on where and when they can be reproduced are blurred and left up to individual judgement.

Who owns public space?

This is not the first time Pepsi Co. in Egypt has had a feud with artists. After the 2011 revolution, the graffiti movement in Egypt boomed due to both inspiration from the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s government and the security vacuum that formed after them. Cairo’s streets were full of political, and some non-political, artworks.

A blogger who fiercely documented that graffiti movement, Suzee in the City, wrote a blogpost in August 2011 highlighting how companies were using graffiti for ad campaigns. One in particular by Pepsi really agitated three artists. Pepsi painted a long wall in the upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, one of the hotspots for graffiti at the time, with colourful paintings of a slogan about free creative expression.

Graffities Pepsi ad

Three graffiti artists, each working alone, painted over the wall and other outdoor Pepsi adverts. Designer and street artist Adham Bakry sprayed alternative adverts for Vimto on the wall and other street ads, El Teneen spray-painted Coca-Cola Chivas and Sinalco’s logos on a wall Pepsi had painted in Heliopolis, and Keizer sprayed his famous ants on the Zamalek wall.

“I wanted to show Pepsi that we don’t need a graffiti ad to remind us to express ourselves,” El Teneen wrote to Suzee at the time. “The streets and its walls are the people’s. Greed needs to pay for its billboards.”

Stoneking agrees. “They need very much to associate themselves with artists,” he told Mada. “But we don’t in any way need to associate ourselves with them.”

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Assessing Hany Khalifa’s long-awaited Bitter Sugar

Co-written with Alia Ayman and Yasmine Zohdi on Mada Masr.

It’s hard not to compare Sukkar Mor (Bitter Sugar) with director Hany Khalifa’s first and only other feature film, Sahar al-Layaly (Sleepless Nights, 2003).

Both follow upper-middle-class Egyptian couples trying to cope with relationship issues, and both get their names from songs by Lebanese singers – Sahar al-Layaly by Fairouz and Moftara’ al-Toro’ (Crossroads) by Majida al-Roumi.

Sleepless Nights, which stood out admirably from its contemporaries, brought various taboos to the screen: Sex before marriage, compulsive cheating, sexual problems and the impact of previous relationships on a marriage.

These all crop up again in this summer’s Bitter Sugar, which follows the lives of five couples in Cairo as they wander in and out of relationships with each other and others.

The script is Mohamed Abdelaty’s second attempt at writing a feature film, although unlike Khalifa, his first effort — Hossam al-Gohary’s Al-Mahragan (The Festival, 2014) — barely made a ripple after its release.

Bitter Sugar’s screenplay follows a non-linear narrative that jumps back and forth between various points between 2009 to 2014, with a special focus on how the protagonists spend each New Year’s Eve.

Dates flash across the screen when the camera hops from one time to another. The 2011 revolution and subsequent political developments enter the plot through the characters’ eyes as they watch television, listen to the radio and read news. Beyond giving an indication of time, though, these political realities have no direct impact on the story other than leaving the viewer slightly confused.

Trying to figure out who is who, when things are happening and what the potential significance is of arbitrary news clips takes a lot of effort, so there’s little chance to empathize with the characters or get lost in the story.

The characters themselves seem to go through fairly drastic changes. For instance, Hossam (Haitham Ahmed Zaki) goes from party animal to being unexpectedly conservative and wanting a wife who wears niqab, while Alia (Ayten Amer) initially refuses to get involved with Selim (Ahmed al-Fishawy) because of his wild party lifestyle, only to become the life and soul of the party herself after they get married – while he calms down.

None of the protagonists are defined by unique personal details. We’re rarely given meaningful information about their families or backgrounds (except that they are all from a certain class), nor exposed to their lives outside the relationships we see onscreen. As a result they’re bland and inaccessible, and the film ends up feeling like all six seasons of “Gossip Girl” condensed into two hours: Rich people party and swap partners as time passes, with no significant dramatic force behind their actions.

One moment in Bitter Sugar rings tender and true. Nabil (Omar al-Saeed) and Mariam (Nahed al-Sebaei) have been together for ages but are unable to marry due to financial difficulties. In this particular scene, they gaze into each other’s eyes, sharing an intimate moment ripe with sexual tension, and then the camera zooms out and we realize they’re not somewhere private but in a restaurant, and their conversation is interrupted by a waiter bringing their orders.

Theirs is a relationship stifled by society’s expectations about marriage and religious restrictions on premarital sex, and so they spend their days in public places with pent-up desires and heavy hearts. The restaurant scene captures that beautifully and subtly — qualities almost absent from the rest of the film.

Sleepless Nights came out at a time when Egypt’s movie industry had almost nothing to offer but cheap comedy flicks, and its relatively candid portrayal of sex was considered daring, breaching ground not yet trodden by other young Egyptian filmmakers.

Thirteen years later, Khalifa relies on almost the same formula to do the trick, but it doesn’t work because all the other variables in the equation have changed. There’s nothing bold or daring about Bitter Sugar, beyond its use of the word “fashkh” (commonly used to mean “fuck”).

Despite this, the film does carry a clear message: “Stay away from marriage, it will destroy you.” Had the filmmakers put as much effort in tightening their story as they put into making this message loud and clear, the film might have been stronger. Ultimately, Bitter Sugar reeks of wasted potential.

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Welad Rizk: A guilty pleasure

Co-written with Amany Ali Shawky for Mada Masr.

There can be something unbelievably sexy about a group of young men walking into a desolate landscape or driving a convertible into an ailing city. Strangely, the sons of Rizk enjoy the same allure as Alex DeLarge and his Droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 futuristic flick A Clockwork Orange, in which the youth of England were disturbingly tempting.

The second highest grossing film this summer, Welad Rizk (The Sons of Rizk) is still showing in cinemas. It offers no depth of characters, originality in execution or particular cinematic brilliance. But it unexpectedly captivated both of us and we left the cinema with stomachs full of popcorn and big smiles on our faces.

Director Tarek al-Erian’s flashy, eclectic and visually invigorating film is set in the grey, poverty-stricken, densely populated southern Cairo district of Basateen. It revolves around four brothers who are thieves with a conscience.

Similar to Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), a high-ranking police officer (Mohamed Mamdouh) interrogates Atef (Ahmed al-Fishawy), the brothers’ awkward neighbor and long-time friend, about their lives and criminal activities. The narrative, told through Atef’s story as flashbacks, shifts smoothly between present and past. It starts with how they became thieves following their father’s death but promised never to kill anyone or get involved in drugs.

The competent script, by engineer-turned-writer Salah al-Geheiny, is characterized by carefully timed jokes and expected yet exciting plot twists.

This “boy movie” is full of fights, women dancing in revealing clothes, sex scenes, drugs and sexual innuendo. Because the film doesn’t have any age restrictions, many have criticized the overly sexual content of some scenes and the language the characters use. But if you make a film about a gang who steal, take drugs and pay for sex, it’s difficult to expect the characters not to use foul language or make sexual references.

More problematic for us is the film’s representation of female characters. Women are either hysterical girlfriends trying to get the boys to settle down and marry them, or they’re sex workers dancing provocatively. The absence of a rounded female lead weakens the film, but as the male characters are also objectified and caricature-like in their stereotypes, at least these misogynistic representations blended in.

So bringing the epic to life are the new “in” boys of the cinema scene, Ahmed Daoud, Amr Youssef, Ahmed al-Fishawy and Karim Qassem, alongside the older, slightly botoxed heartthrob Ahmed Ezz. Each with an ounce or two of talent, aided by the proficient screenplay, they bring life, color and soul to their rather two-dimensional musketeers. Mamdooh excels as the aloof and callous police officer interrogating wingman Atef.

Fishawy’s high-quality performance as the latter proves him to be a versatile actor willing to take on a variety of roles. But the up-and-coming Daoud is the real star of the film. The young actor plays a supporting role to Fishawy, Ezz and Youssef but is both the funniest and most convincing. He had already impressed us with his performance as the only male main character in last year’s Ramadan series Segn al-Nesa (Women’s Prison), the hated love interest of Nelly Karim, and he continues to deliver.

Color and flair pops out of the neighborhood’s yellowish-grey decaying walls in the form of the four brothers’ tacky bling, the dowdy cabaret they frequent and the orangey-yellow vintage convertible they drive. Before making a name for himself as one of Egypt’s most well-known action-genre directors (Tito, 2004, Al-Embrator, 1990), 51-year-old Erian’s career directing music videos and ads made his cinematic touch a beautifying one.

Cinematographer Mazen al-Motagawel creates a soft layer through natural light, special angles and slow tracking camera movements — except for the action scenes, where speed is a must. His multi-hued brush perfectly fits Erian’s vision of Basateen and its thugs, his fascination with speed and beauty. Tracking opening and closing shots going in and out of the district with a bird’s-eye view of its cracked cement squares creates a cohesive flow.

Hesham Nazih, who has successfully graced many cinematic and television productions with quirky, off-putting and mysterious scores, is an expected but sound choice for the music. The soundtrack here alternates edgy, looming and alarming with fast and playful.

The Sons of Rizq is fun as an action-packed light comedy with a tight script, nifty camera work and engaging performances. There is little artistry and no deeper meanings, but it’s a capable blockbuster that’s seductively packaged.

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جولة بين فيديوهات أغاني “قناة السويس الجديدة”

ارتباط الإنتاج الثقافي بالمشروعات القومية ليس بالأمر الجديد في مصر، ويظهر هذا الارتباط تحديدا في مجالات الموسيقى والفنون البصرية. فكثيرًا ما تُكلّف الحكومة فنانين لإنتاج أعمال فنية مرتبطة بلحظات تاريخية بعينها، بينما يختار فنانون آخرون الاشتراك في هذه الأعمال دون تكليف حكومي. فعقب الإطاحة بالرئيس الأسبق محمد مرسي في ٣ يوليو ٢٠١٣ وأثناء فترة الانتخابات الرئاسية في يونيو ٢٠١٤، شهدنا مجموعة من الأغاني التي احتفت بالمناسبتين.

لم يكن افتتاح «قناة السويس الجديدة»، اليوم، استثناءً من هذا التوجه.

إذا ما حسبنا الأغاني والفيديوهات الموسيقية التي أُنتجت سنة ٢٠١٤ مع بداية المشروع، وكذلك الأغاني التي أُنتجت خلال الأسابيع القليلة الماضية، وتلك التي ستُعرض للمرة الأولى في حفل الافتتاح، يمكننا الحديث عن إجمالي يقارب ٢٧ أغنية. بعض هذه الأغاني جاء بناء على تكليف من وزارة الدفاع، والبعض الآخر أنتجتها شركات إنتاج وفنانون صغار بميزانيات محدودة، غير أن جميعها جاءت ضمن الحالة الاحتفالية بـ«قناة السويس الجديدة» والأمل الذي ولّدته لدى مصر، أم الدنيا.

بمشاهدة فيديو تلو الآخر، والاستماع إلى أغنية بعد الأخرى، لم أعد قادرة على التمييز بينهم، وحيث امتزجت كل الأغنيات في رأسي في أغنية واحدة كبيرة تُظهر فيديوهاتها عددا لا ينتهي من السفن التي تعبر القناة. وبينما تختلف أسماء الموسيقيين والمؤلفين في كل أغنية عن الأخرى، إلا أن الأغاني كلها لها نفس الإيقاع والكلمات والتصوير.

واحدة فقط بين هذه الأغاني تبدو مختلفة، وهي أغنية “فات الكتير” لمحمد منير. وما يُثير الدهشة، في المقام الأول، هو وجود هذه الأغنية وسط قائمة الأغاني الاحتفالية. فمنير الذي دائما ما مثّل “اختيارًا بديلًا”، حتى من موقعه داخل التيار الفنيّ السائد، لم يُطلق فيديو لأغنيته، كما أنها ليست عن قناة السويس تحديدا، وإنما تقتصر على مدح مصر والمصريين بشكل عام. ويُمكن بسهولة اعتبارها أغنية متواضعة فنيًا مقارنة بأعمال منير في مجملها.

مشاهد القناة القديمة، للاحتفال بـ«القناة الجديدة»

مشاهد الحفر هي العامل المشترك بين كل الفيديوهات التي أُنتجت احتفالا بالقناة على مدى العام الماضي. ولعل لا غرابة في أن المقاطع المستخدمة في كل الفيديوهات واحدة، باستثناءات محدودة للغاية. تُظهر الأغنيات حفّارات تحفر القناة، وسفنا تعبر المجرى الملاحي القديم، ومشاهد مُصورة من أعلى للمياه والعمال في خوذاتهم ينظرون في خرائط موقع البناء.

وائل الصدّيقي، المُخرج الذي لم يُعرف قبل كليب “سيب إيدي” الذي حُكم عليه بالسجن سنة غيابيًا بسببه، أخّرج وغنى في العام الماضي أغنية “بحبك يا بلدي” مع مطربة مغمورة تدعى كنزي قزاز. وبخلاف معظم الأغاني، سافر الصدّيقي وكنزي إلى القناة وصوّر بنفسه المشاهد المستخدمة في الأغنية والتي يظهران فيها وسط موقع الحفر ووسط ضباط الجيش وأثناء ركوبهما العبّارة بين بورسعيد وبورفؤاد.

كلمات أغنية “بحبك يا بلدي” لم تخرج عن المألوف في كل الأغاني المعنية بـ”قناة السويس الجديدة”، وفريق عمل الأغنية لم يتجاوز أربعة أشخاص، من بينهم الصدّيقي، الذي قام بالإخراج والإنتاج والتصوير وشارك في الغناء، والمغنّية كنزي ومؤلف الأغنية ومُلحنها.

 يغني وائل وكنزي عن حبهما لمصر “أحلى بلد في الدنيا”، وعن أهلها الطيبين؛ ويشجّعون أفراد على تحسين وتغيير أنفسهم لكي تتغير مصر أيضا. وفي نهاية الأغنية، تقف كنزي أمام الكاميرا لتذكر أسماء فريق العمل، وتختم بعبارة “أتمنى إن الأغنية تديكم الأمل زي ما السيسي إدّانا”.

أما أغنية هشام عبد الله، وهو مطرب غير مشهور، فاعتمدت بالكامل على مشاهد قناة السويس. ففي الفيديو تظهر في الخلفية مشاهد القناة نفسها التي استخدمها الجميع، ويظهر هو أمام هذه الخلفية بطريقة المونتاج مُغيّرا قميصه مع كل لقطة.

كلمات الأغنية، التي كتبها شفيق كارم، تتحدث عن قدرتنا على “شقّ الأرض اتنين”، وهي مماثلة تمامًا لحديث النظام عن “القناة الجديدة”: “آدي الجيش قالها ونفذها.. فترة قليلة وهننجزها.. وآدي الشعب كمان جاي لها يبوسها من الخدين”.

أنتج الأغنية والفيديو شركة “وينرز ميديا”؛ التي لا تحتوى قناتها على موقع يوتيوب إلا على أوبريت واحد عن عيد الأم.

بينما تبدأ أغنية “منصورين” بمشاهد أرشيفية للرئيس الراحل جمال عبد الناصر سنة ١٩٥٦ أثناء إعلانه تأميم قناة السويس، والتي تقطع على مشاهد للسيسي أثناء إطلاق توسيع القناة سنة ٢٠١٤. والأٌغنية لمدحت صالح وخالد عجاج الذي شارك أيضا في أغنية “تسلم الأيادي” سنة ٢٠١٣.

لحن الأغنية المُلحن عمرو مصطفى، أحد أشد المؤيدين لمبارك خلال فترة ثورة ٢٥ يناير ٢٠١١ وما تلاها من سنوات.وقام مصطفى أيضا بتلحين أوبريت افتتاح “قناة السويس الجديدة”، الذي يعرض اليوم على الهواء مباشرة، والذي يشارك فيه حكيم، وإيهاب توفيق، وشيرين عبد الوهاب، وأنغام، ونادية مصطفى.

وتعترف الأغنية بفضل الله في صناعة انتصار مصر وتعرض بفخر كيف شارك المصريون في أعمال حفر القناة، مستخدمة أحيانا انفوجرافات تشرح توسعة القناة إلى جانب لقطات الحفر والقناة القديمة.

الموتيف البصري مسلم/ مسيحي/فلاح/عامل

لا تقتصر أغلب هذه الأغاني على الاحتفاء بقناة السويس الجديدة، ولكنها تحتفي أيضا بالمصريين لنجاحهم في جمع نسبة كبيرة من الميزانية المطلوبة للمشروع، ما جعلهم عنصرا فاعلا في إنهائه.

وكثيرا ما تميل المواد الإعلانية لقصر الهوية الدينية المصرية على الإسلام والمسيحية، كما تحدد قطاعات الشعب في العمال والفلاحين والصيادين والجنود. وقد لجأ العديد من فيديوهات المشروع الجديد الموسيقية الوطنية لذات التقسيم.

أصدر المطرب المشهور علي الحجار أغنيته “أنا المصري” الأسبوع الماضي، والتي أنتجتها وزارة الدفاع، لتتبع سابقاتها في تسليط الضوء على قناة السويس الجديدة ومراحل إنشائها، دون الاقتصار عليها. عوضا عن ذلك، يشدو الحجار بكلمات تمتزج بالمقاطع المصورة المتناسبة عن الفلاح والعامل والجندي والبحار والصياد. ويبدو أن المصريين لا يمتهنون سوى هذه المهن.

ويحفل فيديو الحجار بكليشيهات أخرى، حيث يغني ووراءه خلفية تظهر فيها الأهرامات والقلعة والنيل ومعبد فيلة.

كلمات الأغنية التي ألفها الشاعر محمد عبد الجواد ذات نزعة وطنية بالضرورة. تسرد الكلمات إنجازات المصريين كحفر القناة ثم عبورها في حرب ١٩٧٣، وبناء السد العالي. كما تتطلع نحو المستقبل الذي سيبنيه المصريون.

لا تظهر امرأة واحدة في الفيديو المصور، كما يغيب العنصر النسائي بالكامل عن قائمة أعضاء فريق الإنتاج الظاهر في نهايته.

بدوره، يهدي المغني اللبناني فادي البدر أغنية “الله يا مصر الله” لقناة السويس أيضاً، وهو عمل لم تكلفه به أي جهة، ونشرته صحيفة اليوم السابع على قناتها على موقع يوتيوب. ويلتزم الفيديو بكل الكليشيهات المصرية، بدءًا من الكنيسة والجامع، إلى النيل والقارب النيلي والأهرامات وأسواق خان الخليلي، بالإضافة إلى موسيقى الريف.

ويغلب على الأغنية طابع البهجة والاحتفال، ولا تتطرق بشكل مباشر لمشروع القناة الجديدة سواء في الكلمات أو المقاطع المصورة. ولكن إصدارها في هذا الأسبوع بالتحديد يربطها بالأحداث الجارية.

كما أطلق المغني المصري أحمد جمال أغنية “بسم الله”، والتي لحنها عمرو مصطفى أيضا، هذا الأسبوع، دون أن يلحقها بفيديو موسيقي.

وتحيي “بسم الله” التي ألفها تامر حسين كل من ساهموا في إحياء مشروع القناة. وترفع القبعة لكل “مصري أصيل ماهانش عليه بلاده، ردلها كل جميل.. وراح لأم ولاده وخدهم عالقناة”. كما تذكر”كل عامل، مهندس أو مزارع”، “واللي قال بلدي أولى، كان متغرب وراجع”.

“مصر شريان الحياة” أغنية أخرى أنتجتها وزارة الدفاع، وألفها مصطفى الشاعر ليغنيها خالد مصطفى. وإلى جانب القناة تتحدث الأغنية عن الفلاحين والصيادين، وتشير إلى مصر كأرض الفراعنة مع خلفية الأهرامات وأبي الهول.

كما تتبع أغنية “الله أكبر” لأحمد الكحلاوي نفس المدرسة بالضبط.

في مديح السيسي.. والجيش

كما هو متوقع يلعب الرئيس عبد الفتاح السيسي دور البطولة في أغلب الفيديوهات، التي تظهر مقاطع من خطبه وزيارته لموقع الحفر وصورا تجمعه بأطفال أثناء إطلاق المشروع.

في أغنية فريق البوب “ميكس تيم” دعوة للشعب لكي يقف “إيد في إيد” من أجل مستقبلنا، مع فيديو يعرض أعمال الحفر والسيسي.

في إنتاج آخر من وزارة الدفاع يغني كل من محمود العسيلي وكارمن سليمان أغنية “عشرة على عشرة”. وتم تصوير الفيديو في الشارع حيث يظهر العسيلي وهو يلتقط صور السيلفي مع أفراد الشعب، فضلا عن صور للقناة وأعمال الحفر التي تظهر في صور بروفايل على الفيسبوك.

“في العادة عايشينها برنسات.. في الوقت ده جيوش منتشرة” يغني العسيلي وكارمن بينما تظهر صور للجيش المصري والرئيس السيسي في لقاءات تجمعه بقادة أجانب (فلاديمير بوتن وأنجيلا ميركل وزعماء دول آخرين).

وما زلنا مع إنتاج وزارة الدفاع: تبدأ أغنية “بكره تحلى” بموسيقى درامية بينما يخطب السيسي: “مش هنسيبها، ومش هنضيعها، ومش هنخلي حد يقدر يضيعها”.

اختارت وزارة الدفاع كلا من نادية مصطفى ومحمد الحلو لغناء “بكرة تحلى”، التي يظهر فيها السيسي وهو يحيي الأطفال في موقع القناة، ويلتقي بالعمال، ويلوح بيده للواقفين على الضفة الأخرى من القناة. تتحدث الأغنية أيضا عن التعاون بين الجيش والشعب، والدليل على ذلك لقطات من مظاهرات وصور لطيارات حربية.

وعلى خلفية صوت نادية مصطفي وهي تغني “ألف مبروك انتصرنا.. عاللي باعِك واللي خان” نرى مقاطع من مظاهرات لأنصار الإخوان المسلمين وصورا لتفجيرات.

غير أن أكثر أغاني المشروع اختلافا تظل أغنية المطرب الشعبي شعبان عبد الرحيم والذي لم يكتف بإنتاج أغنية واحدة بل أنتج اثنتين يشتركان في نفس التيمة اللحنية التي عمل بها على مدى الأعوام العشرين الماضية. الأغنية الأولى ظهرت في 2014 مع إطلاق المشروع (انظر أدناه) بينما أطلق هذا الأسبوع فيديو “أول حلم اتحقق“.

تدعو الأغنية الأولى الشعب إلى الاكتتاب في مشروع توسعة القناة، حيث نرى شعبان عبد الرحيم يدخل إلى أحد مقاهي الإنترنت ويضرب الشباب الجالسين بالعصا (حرفيا) ناصحا إياهم بأن يتركوا الفيسبوك ويخرجوا للبحث عن وظيفة. كما تمتدح الأغنية كلا من الإمارات والكويت والبحرين والسعودية لوقوفهم إلى جوار مصر، بينما توبخ على الجانب الآخر كلًا من أوباما والإخوان المسلمين.

العديد من أغاني الفيديو كليب الأخرى ظهرت هذا الأسبوع، بينما يتوقع أن تظهر أغان أخرى بعد حفل الافتتاح إضافة إلى ما تم انتاجه عند إطلاق المشروع في 2014. وتشترك جميع الأغنيات في المبالغة الشديدة بشأن طبيعة وحجم ومردودات “قناة السويس الجديدة”. ولا تعد هذه التيمات البصرية والموسيقية أمرًا جديدا على مصر، بل تثير ذكريات عديدة من أغاني الحقبة الناصرية ومشروعاتها القومية (التي يرى كثيرون أنها كانت أفضل جودة)، كما عادت للظهور مع حرب السادس من أكتوبر في عهد السادات وفي ذكراها السنوية كل عام. وبينما حصلنا على استراحة أثناء ثورة يناير والفترة التالية لها، فإننا على ما يبدو سنشاهد المئات من هذا النوع من الفيديوهات طيلة العام المقبل.

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Farmer, worker, soldier, Sisi: What the songs for the New Suez Canal all have in common

In keeping with Egypt’s long and storied tradition of immediately commemorating national projects with a flurry of new artistic works, the New Suez Canal launches with an ecstatic soundtrack of at least 27 songs that were produced over the past year, with even more on the way. — Published on Mada Masr.

Some were commissioned by the Defense Ministry, others by private production companies, while still others were self-produced by young artists with limited budgets — but all celebrate the extension to the canal and the hope it brings to Egypt, mother of the world.

As I watched video after video and listened to song after song, by the end of my waterway playlist I found myself unable to distinguish between them — they have all converged into one long tribute with endless ships passing by in the background. While their credits list different names, the songs are all based on similar beats and lyrics, while the video clips endlessly recycle the same visual tropes.

Only one tune stood out, which I was surprised to find on the list, in the first place — Mohamed Mounir’s Fat El-Keteer (The Majority has Passed). Though Mounir is a mainstream artist, in the past he’s swerved a little toward the “alternative” side of things. A video hasn’t been released for Mounir’s song, the lyrics of which don’t address the canal specifically, but rather praise Egypt at large. But still, compared to the rest of Mounir’s music, this is pretty poor quality.

This poor quality sets the tone for the rest of the songs about the Suez Canal extension. Given the repetitiveness of this swarm of songs, it’s perhaps more instructive to look at the various tropes that they have in common to understand their collective message, rather than to examine them one by one.

Building the New Canal, building the Old Canal

Construction footage appears in every single one of these music videos. And it’s the exact same footage in almost all of them, with only minimal exceptions. Like some kind of endless recursive loop, we see the same loaders digging through the canal, the same ships passing through the existing canal, the same aerial footage of the water, and the same workers in helmets looking at plans in song after song.

Vlogger Wael al-Sedeki — who recently rose to notoriety after he was sentenced to a year in prison in absentia for lewd behavior in his music video for Seeb Eedy — directed and sang Bahebek Ya Biladi (I love you my country) with another unknown singer, Kenzy Kazzaz, back in 2014 after the project was announced. Exceptionally, the duo actually traveled to the canal and shot their own footage, which features the pair singing at the construction site, posing awkwardly with military officers and singing on the ferry from Port Said to Port Fouad.

The lyrics — by a mysteriously anonymous songwriter who is not credited in the video — foregrounds love for Egypt, “the best country in the world,” and how good its people are. Sedeki and Kazzazz encourage people to develop and change themselves, so that Egypt can develop and change, too. At the end of the song, Kenzy says to the camera, “I hope the song gives you hope in tomorrow, like Sisi gave us.”

The only other artist to play around with the stock canal footage in a slightly different way is the unknown singer Hesham Abdalla. In the video for his song, “Suez Canal,” which was posted to YouTube on July 31 — with a lackluster response, only garnering fewer than 1,500 views so far —  a dancing Abdalla is inserted in front of the clips of the canal that everyone else is using, changing his shirt with every cut. Animated infographs also randomly appear.

Lyrics by Shafik Karem talk about how we were able to split the land in two. Listening to the song is almost like listening to a distant, regime-supporting relative talk about the canal: “The army promised and delivered, in a short span of time …  And the people come to kiss both its cheeks.”

The song and music clip were produced by Winners Media, an unknown company that only has one other video on its YouTube account — a Mother’s Day operetta performed by young singers.

Mansourin (Victorious) by established singers Medhat Saleh and Khaled Agag (who performed in the 2013 operetta paying tribute to the army, Teslam al-Ayady) starts off with archival footage of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalizing the canal in 1956, juxtaposed with footage of Sisi during the expansion in 2014.

The song is composed by Amr Mostafa, one of the most vocal supporters of former President Hosni Mubarak during the January 2011 revolution. Mostafa is also the composer of the operetta commissioned for the canal’s opening ceremony, which is to be performed live by Egyptian pop icons Hakeem, Ehab Tawfik, Sherine Abdel-Wahab, Angham and Nadia Mostafa.

The pop track recognizes God’s work in Egypt’s victory, and proudly highlights the Egyptians taking part in the canal’s construction. It uses the same animated infographs employed by Abdalla to explain the science behind the expansion, along with footage of work on the canal.

Muslim, Christian, farmer, worker

Many of the songs celebrate not only the Suez Canal, but the Egyptians who managed to raise a large sum of the budget needed for the new expansion.

Distilling Egypt’s vast and diverse populace into a narrow range of archetypes — the Egyptian is either Muslim or Christian, and has one of four professions: worker, farmer, fisherman or soldier — is a representative mode that’s already well-established in advertising, and many of these patriotic music videos follow that tendency, as well.

Celebrated musician Aly El-Haggar just released the Defense Ministry-produced Ana al-Masry (I am the Egyptian) last week. Like its predecessors, the video clip features the new Suez Canal and images from its construction, but that’s not the focus of the lyrics. Instead, Haggar sings about the farmer, the worker, the soldier, the sailor and the fisherman, as the corresponding images play in perfect coordination.

The video deals in clichés — Haggar also uses backdrops of the Pyramids, the Citadel, the Nile and Feyal temple.

The song’s lyrics, by poet Mohamed Abdel-Gawad, are strictly patriotic. The words list all of the achievements of the Egyptian people, from digging the canal in the 19th century to winning the 6th of October War, among others. The song also looks forward to the future, and how the Egyptian man will build it (not a single woman appears in the video, or in the production team credits at the end).

Lebanese singer Fady al-Badr joins the party with Allah ya Masr Allah (Wow, Egypt, Wow), a non-commissioned work published on YouTube by the privately owned media outlet Youm7. The video for the upbeat and celebratory song stays true to all the Egyptian cliches: the Church and the Mosque, the Nile, the felucca, the Pyramids, Khan al-Khalili and folk music. Though it never directly engages with the new canal in any footage or lyrics, the timing of its release this week ties it to current events.

Ahmed Gamal, a young Egyptian pop star, released Besmellah (In the Name of God) this week, another tune composed by Amr Mostafa, with lyrics by Tamer Hussein. No video clip has been released, but the ballad’s lyrics pay homage to all those who participated in bringing the canal to life. It salutes every “worker, engineer and farmer” and every expatriate who returned to Egypt to invest their energy in the country. The song also bows to the people who participated in crowdfunding for the canal.

Misr Shoryan El-Hayat (Egypt is the Vein of Life) is another Defense Ministry commission. Written by Mostafa al-Shaer and sung by Khaled Mostafa, the clip shows footage from work on the canal, and sings about the boats that used to have to slow down as they approached Suez, but are now are able to pass smoothly through the waterway. He sings about farmers and fishermen, and calls Egypt the land of the Pharos against a backdrop of the pyramids and sphinx.

In praise of Sisi

No Suez Canal music video would be complete with at least a cameo from President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The majority of the songs feature snippets from his speeches, footage of his visit to the construction site and images of him with children inaugurating the construction.

In one such video, the pop band Mix Team calls on the people to stand hand-in-hand for Egypt’s future:

In another Defense Ministry production, Mahmoud al-Esseily sings alongside the star Carmen Soliman in 10/10. The video clip is filmed on the streets as the pop stars go out to take selfies with people, as the obligatory footage of the canal’s construction is inserted into Facebook profile templates.

“Normally we are living like princes, but in this time, our armies are spreading,” they sing alongside footage of Sisi and army personnel meeting world leaders like Valdimir Putin and Angela Merkel.

Bokra Tehla (Tomorrow Will be Better, another commission from the Defense Ministry) starts off with dramatic music and Sisi solemnly intoning: “We won’t leave it, we won’t lose it, and we won’t let anyone have the ability to lose it.”

The song, by Nadia Mostafa and Mohamed El-Helw, stars Sisi as he greets children at the canal, meets the workers and waves to the people on the other side of the passage. The song also talks about the cooperation between the army and the people as it recycles footage of protests and soldiers in planes.

“Congratulations, we have won over the traitors,” Mostafa sings as video clips of Muslim Brotherhood protests and bombings appear in the background.

Perhaps the one artist who stands out most is Shaabi musician Shaaban Abdel Raheem, who has produced not one, but two songs and videos for the New Suez Canal project. Both tunes are based on the same melody he’s been working with for 20 years. The first was released in 2014 when the project launched (below), and the second, Awel Helm Ethaqaq (The First Dream Came True), appeared just this week.

In the first, Abdel Raheem encouraged people to donate to the canal. He goes to an internet cafe and hits young men with a stick, telling them to get off Facebook and get a job. He then goes on to praise the Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia for standing by Egypt as the video clip shows footage of Gulf State leaders meeting with Sisi, then goes on to scrutinize Obama and the Muslim Brotherhood.

There are several other music videos that were produced this week, and still others that will be released after the opening gala. All blow the project completely out of proportion. It seems we will be seeing hundreds more of these types of cultural productions in the coming year — so look forward to seeing more images of the soldier, the worker and the farmer as they perform their useful functions under the benign gaze of Sisi, the leader who will bring these productive citizens into the future.

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Propaganda of shattered dreams: Remembering the films of July 23

If you grew up in Cairo, July 23 is likely associated with a long weekend in the north with your family, a televised military parade celebrating the 1952 revolution, and watching a swarm of films depicting the Free Officers Movement that launched the revolution (or coup, rather) that felled King Farouk and established the Egyptian Republic. — Published on Mada Masr.

Under the newly appointed President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s luminous cinema industry was used as a tool to educate the masses, show them how to be good citizens in a new, modern society, and to reinvent the nation’s identity. During this period, a wave of films emerged that were still infused with the melodrama characterizing the big hits of the 1920s-1950s, but that focused on social issues, such as class divides, social justice and feminism — similar to the social realist film movement that swept across the USSR, which was forming close cultural ties with Egypt at that time. Scholar Viola Shafik coined the term “melodramatic realism” for the films of the Nasserist era.

still from God is On Our Side

still from God is On Our Side

The events that led up to and surrounded the July 23 coup were particularly popular as subject matter during this period, and these films get replayed incessantly on television on its anniversary. Through this repetitive act of watching them year after year, some of those films became as engraved in my mind as the lines of those Amr Diab songs that stay with you forever. But this year I asked myself, do these films have much to offer besides their political message and obvious propaganda?

Still from Rod Kalby

Still from Rod Kalby

A film that has become synonymous with the July 23 holiday is the 1957 production Rod Kalby (Return My Heart), directed by Ezz Eldin Zulfikar and written by Youssef El Sebai — it’s probably the most iconic “coup film,” and always plays on television at this time of year.

In Return My Heart, Mariam Fakhr Eddine stars as Princess Ingy, who is in love with the gardener’s son, Ali (Shoukry Sarhan). Their class differences divide them, and her brother (Ahmed Mazhar) and father threaten Ali’s career in the army through their connections with the king.

The two-and-a-half-hour-long love story between Ingy and Ali tries to humanize the stereotypes, but ends up flattening its characters. There is the pure, innocent, selfless princess; the tough but good army officer; the father who sacrifices everything for his sons; the elites who whip and shoot their house staff; the playboy turned calm husband, and even a hedonistic belly dancer who is redeemed by love.

The plot unravels over the several years leading up to the coup, and delves into several other socio-political factors besides the class issue. A key plot point comes during Ali’s time as a soldier in Palestine in 1948, when his fellow soldiers are wounded or killed while fighting in the Nakba due to their defective weapons.

The issue of the defective arms that were allegedly dispatched to the Egyptian soldiers is recurrent in several July 23 films, and even in the “Haret el-Yahood” (The Jewish Alley) series that aired this Ramadan. It’s widely believed in Egypt that the faulty weapons were the reason the Egyptian army lost the war (though many historians have stated that the arms were not necessarily defective, as depicted in the films, but simply outdated compared to those used by the Israeli army). But in Return My Heart, this becomes one of the main triggers for the army to launch its coup and topple the king.

Such is also the case in Allah Maana (God is On Our Side, 1955), directed by Ahmed Badrakhan and written by Ihsan Abdel Quddous (who was also the main journalist in the state-owned Rose al-Youssef magazine, which was investigating the corrupt weapons deal).

God is On Our Side can only be described as a pure Nasser-loyalist movie. A soldier (Emad Hamdy) goes off to fight in the Nakba, but ends up losing his arm due to a defective gun. He and his mates then plot to take their revenge from the elite, and save Egypt from their tyrannical rule. The aristocrats are only shown as immoral gamblers and crooks, making money off of the people’s suffering — the film shows the king and a committee of the Egyptian elite making a crooked deal off the bad weapons the British delivered to the army — while the army men are heroes who save the country from their treachery. The political parties are corrupt and follow the king’s orders, no matter the cost (this is highlighted in several films to justify their dissolution following the coup). The film also points to the fact that the Free Officers Movement was widely supported by students and workers.

The soldier’s uncle, played by Mahmoud El-Meleigy, is one of the noblemen profiteering from the arms deal. His daughter (Faten Hamama) is thus mired in the moral dilemma of choosing to side with her cousin and cause her father’s doom, or save him. Everything about this film is over-dramatized and cliché, from the officers meeting secretly under a single, theatrical light, to the noblemen’s heartless comments, and even the depiction of the activist journalist as the people’s saviour. And in addition to the obvious clichés in its storyline, God is On Our Side is afflicted with awkward cinematography and rough editing, as well.

Still from Fi Baytona Ragol

Still from Fi Baytona Ragol

Two films that don’t deal directly with the coup, but rather the events that led up to it, are Fi Baytona Ragol (A Man in our House, 1961), directed by Henri Barakat and also written by Ihsan Abdel Quddous, and Ghroub w Shorouk (Sunset and Sunrise, 1970) directed by Kamal al-Sheikh and written by Raafat al-Mihi.

In A Man in Our House, Omar Sharif stars as a political activist who assassinates the prime minister and escapes from prison to hide with a middle-class family. The film demonizes the secret police, who were notorious for their torture techniques and arrests without warrants, while showing the regular, non-politicised family staying quiet as Sharif remains true to his cause of abolishing British rule and the monarchy.

The film has several moments reminiscent of the 2011 revolution. In the opening scene, students march from their university onto Abbas Bridge, where the police confront them and open fire — the images are staggeringly similar to the events of January 28, 2011, when protesters took to the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. People get killed, others get trampled in the crowds, while some fall into the Nile and the sound of gun shots fills the air.

A Man in Our House is a classic of Egyptian cinema, and tells a compelling story. Barakat brings the characters to life through vivid details, and visually attracts the viewer even in the most mundane scenes.

Tackling similar issues, Sunset and Sunrise stars Soad Hosny as the spoiled daughter of the head of the secret police. After she sleeps with her husband’s friend (Rushdy Abaza) and gets caught, her father kills her husband to protect his daughter’s reputation, then tortures Abaza and forces him to marry her. Abaza is then recruited by a group of activists to be their spy from within his house.

The film has one of Hosny’s most memorable scenes in her acting career, when her husband finds her in his friend’s bed and literally drags her by the hair out of the house. The scene is deeply disturbing, and Hosny completely lets herself go — and her performance for the rest of the film manages to live up to that one scene.

Both of these films end not with the traditional “The End,” but with, “And this was the beginning of the end,” alluding to the impending demise of the tyrannical monarchy.

Still from Cairo 30

Still from Cairo 30

Delving more into the social, rather than the political, elements that led to the uprising is Al-Qahira 30 (Cairo 30, 1966), based on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz and directed by Salah Abu Seif. A more well-rounded film than those mentioned above, Cairo 30 follows the stories of a group of students throughout the 1930s and 40s who followed different directions in life: Ali (Abdel-Aziz Mekkawy) is a socialist at heart looking to build a new society and abolish class; his liberal journalist friend (Abdel Moneim Ibrahim); and Mahgoub Abdel-Dayem (Hamdy Ahmed), whose answer to everything is “tuz” (fuck it).

Mahgoub is arguably one of the most interesting characters written in Egyptian cinema. He is a poverty-stricken student who can’t find work after graduating, since he has no connections with the elite, so he agrees to a shady deal to marry a high government official’s mistress in return for an apartment and a job. He is an opportunist, representing the silent masses who go against their morals to get ahead in the world.

While the film toys with elements of the revolutionary struggle — such as Ali’s involvement in secret activist groups and his detention by the police, protests that remove the government, and the spread of revolutionary sentiment — it is mainly about society’s obsession with materialism, and its role in creating the class divide that still plagues Egypt today. A memorable scene shows a dreamy conversation between Ali and his lover Ihsan (Soad Hosny) as they walk and discuss socialism while advertisements fill the background.

Still from Soft Hands

Still from Soft Hands

Finally, a comedy and a classic that looked into Egypt’s future following this drastic social change is Al-Aydi al-Naema (Soft Hands, 1964), directed by Mahmoud Zulfikar and based on a short play by Tawfiq al-Hakim.

Soft Hands does not delve into the politics of the coup at all, but rather its aftermath, and proposes the ideal manner for the fallen elites to lead their new lives. It’s one of my favorite revolution films, because it represents a certain dream for reconciliation and social equality which Egypt is still looking for to this day, but never quite manages to attain — even if the movies tell us we did.

The film stars Ahmed Mazhar as a prince who goes bankrupt after the revolution and refuses to accept the status quo. While his daughters move on with their lives — one marries a mechanic and another sells off her paintings to make a living — he refuses to work to pay his bills, and can hardly read Arabic. The film then follows a love story between Mazhar and a woman played by Sabah, in which the prince learns the values of the new society where class no longer exists, everyone has to work and contribute to the economy and learn to speak Arabic.

If we overlook the propaganda elements in these films, there was a certain optimistic fantasy these directors and writers were sharing with their audiences. At the time, many hoped the revolution would bring about freedom and equality to the society. But that dream eventually shattered, and we found ourselves with a new elite, decades of military rule, the absence of democracy and a stronger-than-ever return of the secret police.  As I reflect on the gap between the July 23 films and the historical reality, I can’t help but wonder, what will the films of June 30 look like in 60 years’ time?

IMG_5918_0-800x380

The avant-garde konafas of Ramadan 2015: 6 contenders, 1 winner

Out of all the Ramadan desserts, the konafa has become the preeminent delicacy that Egyptian pastry chefs experiment with from year to year. Unlike basbousa, katayef or baklava, whose recipes remain unchanged in Cairo patisseries, konafa — the iconic golden dessert made from a light, noodle-like crust — has stood out from the crowd as it evolves away from the traditional cream or nut-filled varieties. — Published on Mada Masr.

This year and the year before, a number of articles emerged on lifestyle sites showing how far experimental konafa fillings have come, from blueberries to Oreos, Maltesers, Snickers, Nutella, sweet potatoes, dates and even red velvet cake. The desserts now come in the shape of a pie, large and individual bowls, cups, cones and mini-bites.

But long before blueberries and Snickers bars found their way into the konafa, the famed dessert is said to have originated during the reign of the Ummayads in Syria. In a story on the beloved dessert’s history, Community Times magazine quotes Aida Khattab, a member of the Egyptian Society for Folk Traditions, as saying that Calif Muawya Ibn Abi Sufian (661-680 AD) was having a hard time fasting in Ramadan. His doctor advised that he increase his sugar intake for the late-night sohour meal, which started the tradition of Syrian sweets in Ramadan. Konafa is said to have been born out of this practice.

That need for sweetness in times of hardship has only grown exponentially, and today we find ourselves in a full-blown konafa-topping madness. This fanaticism can be traced back to two factors, the first being the emergence of the famous mango konafa at Dokki’s Le Carnaval in the mid-2000s. This paved the way for experimenting with the traditional konafa recipes that every other patisserie was presenting.

The second factor is the general dessert craze sweeping through the Egyptian capital ever since the start of the Italian coffee trend in 2001, when Cilantro cafe opened its first branch in Zamalek. Before Cilantro, Egyptians were used to drinking either Turkish coffee or Nescafe, and while some restaurants had been serving espresso for years, a cafe culture around it did not emerge. But after Cilantro was established, western-style cafes sprouted about, with local coffee shops (like downtown Cairo’s popular Kafein) and international chains serving variations of espresso and desserts that were new to the Egyptian consumer, such as brownies, chocolate cake and cheesecake. Then, after the revolution, the global cupcake invasion made its way to Cairo, with bakeries such as Nola, Crumbs and Devour Cupcakes relying on people’s sweet-tooth to build a successful business.

All these factors have led to a Ramadan full of konafa variations this year. So with a friend of mine, I decided to host a konafa sampling event, building on the success of a mango konafa sampling event we threw the year before. This year’s theme was “Avant-Garde Konafa.” Guests were asked to find some of the craziest konafas on the market, and we would provide a light salad-based iftar before the sampling began.

The results, from last to first

The konafas were judged through a very intricate process. Excel sheets were printed out and put next to each konafa. Guests had to judge from 1 to 5 (Konafa Catastrophe to Konafa Climax) in four categories: presentation, texture and crunch, overall taste and creativity. A final question was a yes or no: Is it trying too hard?

Judging the konafas

Judging the konafas

5: Caroussel’s Nutella-banana konafa bowl

A large bowl housing layers of Nutella, konafa, cream and bananas looks much more appetizing than it tastes. It earned itself an average rating of 2.7, and scored high only in the konafa creativity category. One has to admit that the Heliopolis-based bakery’s Facebook page does have very appealing konafas pictured. But this one is only for those with a serious sweet tooth, as it is essentially a sugar attack.

Was it trying too hard? Fifty percent of our guests said yes, and 40-something percent said no. One person said “eh.”

Carousel, 57 El Horreya Street, Heliopolis. Open 10 am – 11:30 pm, Mon-Sun. Contact: 01.01.64.46.688.

4: A tie between Grand Kunafa’s konafa Nabulsi, and La Poire’s red velvet konafa

In fourth place came two konafas. Grand’s konafa is the classic cheese-filled Nabulsi variety, native to the historic city of Nablus in northern Palestine, and widely enjoyed in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. While it’s not creative per se, it is relatively new to Egypt — its popularity is growing here thanks to the Syrian diaspora that’s making a new home in Cairo. Grand Kunafa, a Syrian bakery in Mohandiseen, delivers the dessert, which you then heat up and serve with the accompanying sweet syrup, according to your liking. This control definitely gave Grand’s konafa an edge over its contenders — you can savor the crispy crust and cheesy center while controlling how much sugar intake is involved. It scored a 3.3 average, with high scores in both the texture and overall taste categories.

Was it trying too hard? A unanimous no came from our taste-testers.

La Poire’s red velvet konafa, on the other hand, scored highest in the presentation category with a whopping 4.7, due to its sleek layering of konafa, cream and red velvet cake, while still managing to make it all hold together in cake form. However, it scored significantly lower in the texture and overall taste categories. The red velvet element somehow felt imposed, and didn’t mesh well with the konafa layer.

Was it trying too hard? Eighty percent said yes.

Grand Kunafa, 25 Syria Street (in front of Bank Al-Ahly), Mohandiseen. Contact: 01.02.74.03.010, 01.02.74.03.101

La Poire, multiple locations. Contact: 02.27.02.41.31

3. The Batter Half & Co’s mango konafa

A classic not to be messed with. The guest who brought it admitted it was not the most creative choice, but argued “it just had to be there.” The Batter Half’s variation of the dish was comprised of layers of konafa, creamy icing and mango. However, there were only two layers of mango, and several of konafa and cream, which compromised the cake’s overall taste. Not to mention that it isn’t mango season yet, so the fruity flavor wasn’t at its peak. Its overall score was 3.6, with a particularly high score in the categories of presentation, texture and overall taste, but a low ranking in the creativity category. However, the audience response shows that even though the mango konafa wasn’t the winner of the evening, it’s still a Cairo favorite.

Was it trying too hard? A unanimous no, and a smiley face.

The Batter Half & Co, 17 Mohamed Mazhar Street, Zamalek. Contact: 02.27.37.00.36

2: Delight’s blueberry konafa

Delight Sweet House has been around for some time, and is most famous for its mouth-watering banana cream pie. The bakery’s blueberry konafa was simple and to the point: a konafa base supported a thin layer of cream and blueberry jam. It scored high in the presentation category with 3.9, and the rest of the categories remained between 3.5 and 3.7. This is clearly an above-average konafa overall, though it didn’t particularly shine (or stumble) in any one category.

Was it trying too hard? Mostly no, said our testers, with one surmising that “it didn’t even try.”

Delight Sweet House, multiple locations. Contact: 16469

1: The Batter Half & Co’s Nutella cones

The dark-horse of the race (literally, as the guest bringing it arrived late) was The Batter Half’s Nutella-banana konafa cones, with an overall 3.8. The konafa-base cones are about the size of an ice-cream cone, and create a delicate, crackled golden swirl surrounding the Nutella and banana filling. It scored exceptionally high in the presentation category with a 4.6. It also scored relatively high in terms of konafa texture, which came as no surprise, as this was the only contender that actually crunched. Its creativity was also relatively high, while its overall taste was just above average at 3.2 — probably because aside from the appropriately crisp konafa cone, the fillings weren’t that impressive.

Was it trying too hard? Mostly nos, though the two people who gave it the lowest scores answered yes.

The Batter Half & Co, 17 Mohamed Mazhar Street, Zamalek. Contact: 02.27.37.00.36

To conclude, my sampler summed up the results of our judgements in the following infograph. “This is the kind of graph that should be done in a bar, not a pie,” he says, “but the theme called for it.”

konafa square.png

konafa infograph

Click on image for full view. (Courtesy of Youssef Faltas).

Abdel20Rahman20Mounif20library20courtesy20Fehras-800x380

The stolen library: Syrian artists poetically archive Arab publishing

It’s a thunderous evening in East Berlin. A dented, chipped metal door is propped open, inviting passersby inside for dry refuge. Taped on the weathered door is a cardboard sign with “Fehras Publishing” written in Sharpie and an arrow pointing up a dark stairwell. — Published on Mada Masr.

I was told that this German Democratic Republic-era factory is one of the few buildings in the area that survived the rise, expansion and fall of the notorious Berlin Wall. Now, the former railway factory has been transformed into the Flutgraben cooperative art and exhibition space, which started as a squat in 1996 and has grown into a non-profit organization housing 40 artist studios, exhibition rooms and a club. It’s also the physical hub for three displaced Syrian artists, Kenan Darwich, Omar Nicolas and Sami Rustom, who just launched their new publishing house on June 27 with a project focusing on archival practices — an effort to create discursive alternatives to a history lost in rubble.

Moving through the building, there’s graffiti and tags scribbled all over the walls. Etched in all sorts of handwriting and a range of vernaculars, these traces of past presences act like a living archive of those passing through the changing times. The exhibition, “When the Library was Stolen,” is upstairs in a massive rectangular room resembling a dismantled factory, in which the artists laid out several small photographs on long tables. A wall in the back holds two evenly spaced rows of larger photographs that combine to create an image of someone pulling a book down from a shelf.

Opening of When the Library was Stolen

Opening of When the Library was Stolen

The 70 or so young art-goers and hipster-types attending the opening peruse the aisles just as they would in an actual library, looking at photo after photo of the thousands of book bindings from the recently raided library of renowned Saudi-Iraqi author Abdel Rahman Mounif (1933-2004). There’s a grid-like element to the whole scene, and the way the photos are presented in a symmetrical assemblage of clean lines makes the images appear like coordinates on a world map. But instead of measuring geography, these metaphorical coordinates point toward socio-political and cultural moments within the Arab region.

The three artists gather around a long wooden table with a shiny Mac computer in a performative manner, their backs against a wall of small boxy windows that sharply align with the gridded exhibition. Darwich begins presenting the work, but as he starts, there’s a rumble of bass from the dance club next door that gradually drowns him out. The audience, mostly made up of Berliners and some familiar faces from Egypt, Iraq and Syria, all smile patiently as Darwich pauses. There’s something befitting about Berlin’s contemporary urban archive — in the form of techno music — creeping into the launch of a Syrian publishing house dedicated to atypical archives of experience.

The musical interruption, the artist’s talk and the photos themselves all hint at the inherently abstract nature of the archive, which can be reshaped by the artist’s imagination as a form of resistance against cultural erasure, particularly as a result of war. The notion of the archive has been thoroughly mined as both a practice and subject matter by artists in the Arab region for years, to the point that the “archive fever” of the mid-2000s or post-2011 has been replaced by more of an archive fatigue. But there’s a particular, personal urgency to this project. Through their archival practices and vision, Darwich, Nicolas and Rustom are pinpointing their own coordinates on a map that is otherwise being wiped clean by the destructive war in Syria.

When the Library was Stolen, install view

When the Library was Stolen, install view

When the library was stolen

“When the Library was Stolen” is the first iteration of Fehras’ ongoing project, Series of Disappearances. The collection of published materials will examine the relocation of knowledge in and out of the region due to various economic, political and social changes — for example, via the displacement of libraries and books.

The trio was taken by the story of Mounif’s personal library, which resides in Damascus. The Jordan-born author has lived in capital cities all over the world, such as Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad, Kuwait City, Amman, Paris, Tokyo and Belgrade. In his lifetime, Mounif’s library grew as he moved from city to city before settling down in Damascus, until he finally collected more than 10,000 titles that reflected the development of the publishing scene in several Arab countries across the decades.

Soad Qadra, the writer’s wife, issued a statement in early 2015 claiming that several books, including rare unpublished manuscripts, personal notes and hundreds of letters, were stolen from the library, while other items were damaged or vandalized by unknown assailants. This story was told and retold across several media platforms, thus opening a debate on the profound loss of cultural heritage amid the ongoing war in Syria.

“The story attracted us,” Darwich says. “The idea of these books moving with [Mounif] across the Arab cities directly speaks about the movement of knowledge in a symbolic way. The robbery holds certain symbolism. We researched the library topic. We were looking at the journalistic archive about the robbery, but also the journalistic archive about him during his life.”

“He’s one of those writers who leaves space in his books for other writers to contribute,” Nicolas adds. “We felt his library was like a tree, or a spider web or a fabric. It’s not just about his work, but the others around him.”

These aspects drew the three artists to focus on the Mounif library for their first Fehras-produced publication. At the June 27 launch and exhibition, they published a small booklet functioning as a provisionary draft of a catalogue of the library, which they hope to turn into a comprehensive Arabic-English index once they secure funding.

When the Library was Stolen publication

When the Library was Stolen publication

The draft publication, When the Library was Stolen, includes a bilingual introduction to Mounif’s story, followed by an index of some titles and photographs of the actual bookshelves commissioned from Syrian photojournalist Al-Mahdi Shubat in Damascus. The final publication will include more essays about disappearing libraries, a reflection on the displacement of knowledge in the Arab world and the full index of the library.

The Fehras team built the exhibition and publication out of the 350 photos Shubat took.

“These photos speak of more than the library, which is prone to destruction given its location in Damascus. Through the titles you can read more into the politics, culture, society, immigration, the region, our relationship with the rest of the world,” Nicolas says. “When you read the book titles you are also looking into several decades, from the 1950s to the 2000s. You look at various political and social changes, ideas that came and went, publishing houses that existed and do not anymore, public versus private publishing. You see the movement of Arab publishing across decades through this library.”

“We’re also concerned with how this private library became a public one. Since his wife announced the books were stolen, it somehow shifted its nature to a public wealth,” Darwich adds.

Image of Abdel Rahman Mounif's library

Image of Abdel Rahman Mounif’s library

Fehras and rediscovering publishing practices

The three young men came together in Berlin in October 2014. They tell me that Fehras was born out of their conversations about Arab archives, from photographs to radio spinets, to films and books and television series. They each come from different backgrounds: Rustom is a journalist and archivist who only left Syria for Berlin in 2013, while Darwich has been in Germany since 2001, studying and teaching art and curating in Kiel and Leipzig. Nicolas, on the other hand, came to Germany in 2008 to study art and has been working in book design, typography and, most recently, performance art.

“We all are concerned with publishing, but with different perspectives. Sami is looking at publishing as an archive. Kenan looks at it as books or art. For me, I share the perspective of publishing as art or books, but also as performance and literature and typography,” Nicolas explains.

Through Fehras, the artists hope to focus on four main issues, the first being the problem of disappearance. Another long-term project, The Series of Listenings, explores sound publications in various forms by examining archival materials from radio interviews, cinema sound, audio archives, poems and music, including, for example, a recording of Om Kalthoum reading a poem on Egyptian radio.

Nicolas explains that while working on this project, the artists were asking themselves, “What is the meaning of a singer reading poetry and being published in this manner? How can publishing take different forms? What is the relationship of publishing with sound?”

Under this series, they are also exploring the story of the Palestinian radio station Sharq al-Adna (Near East Broadcasting Station), which was founded by British forces and first started broadcasting from Jaffa in 1941, becoming a robust player in both artistic production and media development at that time. After its staff declared support for Egypt during the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, they were dismissed and the station was handed over to the BBC shortly thereafter. Its archive was not accessible until 10 years ago, when the BBC opened it up to researchers.

The third investigation, The Series of Institutional Terms, examines the published cultural language of the East Mediterranean and North African region and its shifting vocabulary. The artists look at these shifts in light of the displacement of the region’s intellectuals along with the emergence of new cultural institutions and their relationships with the global art sphere.

Darwich gives as example the first edition of the Arabic translation of Edward Said’s Orientalism by Syrian poet Kamal Abu Deib, published in 1981. “The first 20 pages are a dictionary of the terms Said used in English that didn’t exist at the time in Arabic, so they needed to be established. This opened a question of, ‘Why do we need a dictionary from English to understand how foreigners look at us as Arabs?’”

And things are not much different today, Darwich continues. “Now, if you look at catalogues of contemporary art in the Arab world, you read them and you feel like you’re reading a foreign language. They come up with new terminologies. Sometimes it feels like a new language, but fact is it is just a translated language.”

The fourth major project is the Atlas — a collection of photographs relating to books, reading and publishing from the region, intended to function as a visual archive of public, private and street libraries along with local reading customs.

For the moment, Fehras is operating from its founders’ pockets. Later, the artists hope to secure funding for their projects and also produce translations of Arabic books to sell. They are hopeful about the future of the publishing house, they say, as it comes at a time when, more than ever, the rich cultural heritage of the MENA region needs to be reexamined, remembered and shared.