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In conversation: On 2B Continued and performing arts in Egypt

Mada’s Rowan El Shimi and artist Hanaa Safwat sit down to talk about this year’s three-day 2B Continued festival and lab, which presented to the public last weekend. They discuss the three performances — two contemporary dance shows and one play — and then zoom out to look at some issues affecting non-state-affiliated performing arts in Egypt today. — Published on Mada Masr.

Rowan El Shimi: 2B Continued creates very specific parameters for shows, including timeframe and format. I felt the artists were working within this framework rather than working on how to make a text more interesting or deliver it in a new way.

Hanaa Safwat: To be honest, when you read the text about the festival, that it helps artists produce their own shows and production grants, it feels condescending. The truth is many people know how to produce their own shows and how to manage things. What’s not really available is the opportunity to show works to audiences.

Of the people showing this year, choreographer Hend El Balouty is a relative newcomer to the scene, but Sherine Hegazy has been active as a dancer and choreographer since 2008, and she’s also an engineer, so she’s more than capable of efficiently producing shows, while Hani Sami has many plays under his belt and earned a postgraduate degree in film in France — also very capable. Maybe what’s missing is mentorship, feedback and engagement. If 2B Continued is a lab, they should pick people much younger, really at the beginning of their careers. It’s not Sherine or Hani’s fault, because 2B Continued is one of the few opportunities to use a real stage and have financing to do your performance properly.

RS: But 2B Continued has two layers. There’s the mentorship for the directors, who are mentored on developing the artistic side of their performances. But the real training is for workshop participants — the crew working on the stage, lights, costumes and sets.

HS: All these elements were fine in the performances. My issues were mainly with the directing and artistic content. It is a great opportunity for technical crews but I wonder where the mentorship is if I feel the performances are not self-aware or missing something.

The play Hani Sami directed felt too familiar. Working with an existing text [The Newcomer (1966) by late Egyptian playwright Mikhail Roman], one should be aware that it has been done before, who has done it, in what context and why. I felt this awareness was not present. But the play didn’t feel inaccessible. The text was fine — overly dramatic perhaps, even though it’s very simple. The struggle is between the lines, and that’s why absurdist plays are interesting — the tension is subtle, it’s not shouted out, people don’t talk about land or martyrs, they try to remember names, they’re confused.

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2B Continued

RS: I think you have a more critical eye because you have a background in practicing dance and theater. Even though I agree with you that we’ve seen this type of work before, I felt that countering the absurdist were too many details about the characters, so it was confusing whether they were anonymous or whether I should know their backstories, whether the narrative drama was important. It was unsure what it was trying to be. It felt a bit rushed and didn’t give the audience much context, although I did like that the text was from the past yet we realise how we’re still in a similar position — there was a lot of relevance there.

HS: I agree. The character is skeptically questioned right in front of us, about whether he belongs to the hotel, and he keeps shouting that he exists. That’s probably why the director chose this text. The truth is, as long as you live in a society, absurdist plays will be relevant.

What did you think of Hend El Balouty’s dance piece, Shadow of a Fish?

RS: I really felt it. The way they created the routines of the first dancer and the other three and how these collisions were happening in a very systematic way. Sometimes in a predictable manner, sometimes unexpected. I personally related to it very much, whether in the context of my own life or looking at our generation’s lives in the city with this sense of feeling trapped, the need to achieve the best and compete, and self-criticism. I felt the play visualised it and created movements cleverly around it.

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2B Continued

HS: I saw Hend’s performance a year ago during the Cairo Contemporary Dance School show Front and Back where she and Nermine Habib were belly-dancing. This time she was doing something different, with a very different process. An abstraction happened, I think; she constructed an idea in her head:  “What if you tried to be a fish?” First a fish in the sea, happily swimming, then a fish in a tank. The movements of the fish in the tank are almost mechanical. She used it as a wide-brushstroke metaphor for something. I thought it was really interesting. Also, it was very well cast. Each dancer’s strengths and qualities worked totally in the position they were in.

I did have a problem with how they threw out the fish from the buckets at the end, because the title of the show asks if I want to be a fish, and now I know that I don’t want to be. They gave me the answer. Conceptually it could have been different.

RS: I always look at a contemporary dance performance in terms of how it resonated with me and how I related to what the choreographer and dancers were doing. This performance was very deep in terms of how it affected me, and it was also very interesting to watch them be fish, the way they related being a fish in a tank, with people watching you, to being human, living in a society that’s watching you. Also, aesthetically, it was interesting to watch the stage split in two — with things happening on each side of the stage.

HS: I’m excited to see what Hend will do next.

RS: What about the third performance, Sherine Hegazy’s Ya Sem?

HS: First we should mention that this was the audience’s favorite. I haven’t seen a standing ovation and that amount of clapping in a very long time. The performance is extremely entertaining. We start with four women, dressed in beautiful dresses, drumming. They’re gorgeous, very strong attitude and presence. People are glued to them. The percussionist, Sabrine al-Hossamy, is amazing at what she does — not to mention the simple fact that she’s a woman drumming.

But I was disappointed that it was so didactic, so extremely straightforward. It expressed an anger everybody felt because they care about the issue of sexual harassment. As for what it means to really change and what this show calls for, in terms of social and political structures of family and sexual relations, would anyone really do it? I don’t think so. Not everyone. In a show calling for action, “let’s all go down” (when they all held sticks) — when it comes right down to it, after all that applause, who is willing to reflect on their own misogyny, change it, face their families, other men, the judgement of society? Who are the people carrying the sticks and against who? It didn’t ask those questions.

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Ya Sem

RS: I didn’t feel that part was a call to action or change. The show started out quite soft, with beautiful dancing, very sensual and positive. They were all happy, and performing swiftly. The lights went off, and we heard catcalls and harassment, then they come back with the sticks. I saw it as a commentary on how women develop anger due to daily social pressures and the various layers of harassment they face. Also these sticks are more typically used by men, so when they use them it signifies a shift in gender roles and there’s a certain aggression that takes place in the second half of the show.

HS: It would have been more powerful if the performance examined the fact that everybody cheered, and the truth is that we all know that most people we know or we have met are misogynists who don’t have any problems with other forms of sexism. Their problem with street harassment is that it’s not classy or that it’s a pain.

It didn’t address the reasons harassment exists, and it was not self-critical in terms of all of us as women and the audience, who felt they’re 100 percent with them and clapped and went home happy. We should all go home and feel humiliated, that we should do something critical, examine ourselves and how we each contribute to the general structural misogyny in the world rather than cheer for women holding sticks and dancing.

But I give this show a lot of credit because it was so good to watch. These women are very strong and charismatic in real life. I wanted more though. And the set of hanging frames was flat. The language of putting women within a frame shows that the thought process was one straight line — “I want to do something relating to women’s bodies and harassment and then place them in a frame.”

RS: Is your problem in how it was designed or that they used frames?

HS: Both. I had a problem that it was flat and the metaphor of frames being very direct.

RS: But the show itself is very direct. That’s what they were going for. They’re dealing with a topic everyone in the audience could relate to in one way or another. Maybe if they had not done the bit in the middle with the catcalling, we wouldn’t have related it to harassment per se. It was clear from the very start that the show was about gender, but sexual harassment was introduced later — then came the batons showing anger, followed by them dancing in the frames society places for us and stepping out of them. Bullet points: 1,2,3,4,5. That was one of the reasons it got a standing ovation. Everyone in the audience understood what it was about, was entertained and enjoyed it.

HS: I personally enjoyed it very much. But when I want to talk about work I want to talk about it from a critical point of view. I agree that people got it and loved it and had a great time just watching it, which is something that’s missing from a lot of contemporary dance. It’s always either something you enjoy but isn’t intellectually engaging or vice versa. Sometimes it’s neither. We have to give it credit for that.

RS: Also, even shows that are straightforward, perhaps even simplistic, have a role to play in building audiences for contemporary dance. The audience has been growing in the past four or five years but it’s still very limited. If someone who is not very familiar with contemporary dance saw Sherine and Hend’s performances they would relate more to Sherine’s, even though Hend’s is also quite accessible.

HS: It’s not always the artist’s job to entertain. Maybe an art form wants to engage, and that is something missing from a lot of work. And engage a larger audience. But the audience also has work to do. I know so many people are skeptical about contemporary art in general and they want to believe it is bullshit. So no matter how much you do as an artist, you can’t get someone who’s doubting your intentions and what you are doing to come and take you seriously. They are coming with prejudice.

There are two reasons why the audience has grown: the performances have increased and the audience has been doing a lot of work. They come, they’re curious, they stay for the Q&As and ask questions. But we shouldn’t assume the audience is stupid and needs to be coddled. How long do we coddle for? When do we decide that the audience is ready to see something a little less direct? I think one has to think about the audience, but not in terms of, “Will they get this work or not?” It has been proven over and over, if you offer something of quality and it is complex, there is a response.

RS: There needs to be a mixture of both. It’s not like everyone will do this or that. You want the audience to grow, but you want to give the existing audience new things, challenge them and keep the conversation going. Both happen simultaneously according to the vision of the director and the type of work they want to produce. Different shows have different audiences. It’s not like “the audience” is this static group of people moving together in a herd.

HS: You’re right. All of it is necessary. And it’s really important when we talk about 2B Continued to talk about the underlying circumstances of producing performance art right now. There’s very little funding and only two non-governmental spaces you can really perform in: Falaki and Rawabet. Rawabet isn’t ideal because it’s not very well prepared — there’s no space for a set or large number of performers. But it’s cheap to rent, they support you and it’s a very good place to have with its limitations. Falaki is well-equipped but less accessible.

It’s hard to build audiences if I’m performing in apartments or public spaces. It won’t get as many people as 2B Continued, which hosted a full house each of its three nights. And Contemporary Dance Night is now discontinued. There are few opportunities to show work, get feedback, fail, succeed, try again, build experience. So it’s hard to sit here and be disappointed or heavily criticize them because we know they don’t have the chance to work on their stuff. Most performers only get to work on one show a year maximum, show it two or three times, and that’s it. We have to contextualise people’s work when we criticize it.

The Cairo Contemporary Dance Center (which I have been working with) is always struggling with funding, even though it’s the only center in the region for training contemporary dancers full-time. There is also very little critical engagement with the work being done, whether talks, writing or educational programs, so a lot of these artists do work and feel like they are throwing it into a black hole. It’s frustrating.

RS: I imagine also that 2B Continued choose according to the set criteria and from the proposals they get, and those with more experience are likely to have more solid proposals. Under 35 can include people who have an extensive careers already. But it also probably tries to choose people it trusts to deliver quality performances. The lack of opportunity almost forces a festival like 2B Continued, which is meant to be for emerging artists, to choose the usual suspects.

HS: People can’t afford to take risks. You have to deliver to please funders. And growth has a ceiling here. After a certain point, an artist has to go abroad and get support for themselves.

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In photos: Fish, harassment, a strict hotel at 2B Continued festival

The theater is a stressful place during rehearsals, and stress levels increase as opening night draws near. Everyone runs around testing all kinds of equipment, figuring out the quickest methods to change sets and what cues to give each other for light, sound and performance. — Published on Mada Masr.

But this tense flurry of activity is an unavoidable part of the magic of live performance. As spectators, we’re often unaware of how much attention to tiny detail is put in by the cast and crew to produce an absorbing, memorable experience. And that’s exactly what around 30 crew members and 15 artists are working to create for the sixth edition of the 2B Continued Festival and Lab, which shows three back-to-back performances with very different and impressive sets for three consecutive nights starting Thursday.

One play and two contemporary dance performances have been developed by practitioners under 35 with the mentorship of more established ones, many of who work on the festival year after year. This year it’s Studio Emad Eddin head Ahmed El Attar, French choreographer and dancer Laurence Rondoni, Scottish stage and production manager Alan Wright, Lebanese scenographer Hussein Baydoun and Cairo lighting manager Saber al-Sayed.

Founded and run by Studio Emad Eddin’s workshops and residency director Nevine Ibiary, herself a theater director and a graduate of the American University in Cairo’s theater program, 2B Continued offers the space and budget for artists to develop and show work and for stage managers, light designers, scenographers and costume designers to gain invaluable work experience.

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2B continued

“The festival is a continuation of what we do at Studio Emad Eddin,” Ibiary says. “We offer practical workshops according to the needs of the performance arts scene and the festival serves as an opportunity for the participants to build on their training by working on professionally developed performances.”

Ibiary thinks a vicious cycle in the independent theater scene means that many staged performances are not well developed in terms of writing or storytelling and many clearly lack good teamwork, a very important element in theater.

She staged the festival’s first edition in 2008 to challenge this cycle by giving the directors very specific criteria to work with, including a limited performance time, a limited number of performers, a specific budget and the stipulation to work with existing texts to focus solely on directing. She insists on production teamwork and encourages both artists and technicians to take on specialized tasks to gain experience and open up performing arts networks to new talent.

“The festival produces all four performances and all participants get a nominal fee for their work,” Ibiary says.

An important, often overlooked element of the festival is that Ibiary also involves the audience, who vote for their favorite performance and the elements they liked in each one (light, sound, costume, scenography, and so on). This is a way to raise the audience’s awareness about the constituent elements of performing arts. The results are announced on the third night.

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2B Continued festival

On each night, the audience watches all three performances, and the crew only have a few minutes to re-arrange the set design for the each one.

Each evening begins with dance performance Shadow of a Fish, choreographed by Hend El-Balouty, a graduate of the Cairo Contemporary Dance Center. The piece is performed by Noura Seif, Samar Ezzat, Amany Atef and Nermine Habib, with music by Abdallah Miniawy. “Apology and thanks for all the fish,” reads the intriguing blurb about the work. “The joy of silence, routine and irony.”

The second show is this year’s only theater play: The Newcomer, directed by Hani Sami, who holds a bachelor degree in theater and a masters in film. This is the third play he is involved in that’s written by late Egyptian playwright Michael Romani, who wrote rebellious and revolutionary works in the 1960s. The Newcomer is set in a hotel and its main character (Ahmed Ashrafi) has absurd conversations with staff and various long lost friends who also seem to work there (Omar Madkour, Joseph Gamil, Aly Kassem and Arsany Meshreky). Discovering the rigid rules of the place opens up questions about society, individualism and control. Look out for the sound design by Adham Zeidan, which plays a significant role in creating a claustrophobic feeling on stage.

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2B Continued festival

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2B Continued festival

A dance performance titled Ya Sem by Sherine Hegazy, a graduate of the contemporary dance program at Studio Emad Eddin and one of Cairo’s very active young dancers and choreographers, closes the night. Ya Sem is performed by Hegazy, Amany Atef and Nagham Saleh, with live percussion from Sabrine al-Hossamy. In a goddess-like ritual set against a backdrop of sexual harassment on Cairo’s streets, the three dancers display the power dynamics of women reacting to the space they live in, often employing bellydance movements. It’s engaging and thoughtful, and the scenography, designed by Nada Mounir, is particularly notable, not only for its aesthetics but also for how it creates a new layer of meaning in the piece.

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2B Continued festival

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2B Continued festival

A dance performance called Mayohkomsh, choreographed by Shaimaa Shoukry and performed by Nagham Saleh, will be presented on the fringes of the festival, on December 21 and 22. This work debuted at this year’s Downtown Contemporary Dance Festival, also headed by El Attar. It shows in 2B Continued because Shoukry was a participant in a previous 2B Continued edition.

“It’s called 2B Continued because it is based on continuation, follow up and supporting the existing scene with more opportunities to show and develop their work,” Ibiary explains. “We don’t promote the idea of art for art’s sake. We want people who work in the arts to make a living out of it.”

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Crossroads: Panorama of the European Film and our constantly evolving identity

European cinema might be the focus of the Panorama of the European Film, but in recent years the festival has also shed light on underexposed Egyptian and regional cinema.

With the launch of Zawya in 2014, which created many opportunities year-round for less commercial Egyptian and regional films to be presented, alongside films from various corners of the world, the Panorama naturally renewed its commitment to its Euro-centred focus – European films are almost impossible to see in Egypt, after all. But Panorama’s young curators, Youssef Shazli, Stephanie Sicard, Malak Makar, Mouwafak Chourbagui and Alia Ayman, quickly realized that films from the Arab world will find their way into the program regardless.

The newest section introduced to the Panorama, dubbed Crossroads, takes a look at films produced as professional cooperations between Europeans and filmmakers originating from the Arab region. With many regional filmmakers looking for partnerships for funding purposes and a larger market, and European filmmakers looking to bring more diverse stories to audiences, co-production has been increasing. The Robert-Bosch foundation, for example, actively supports films that are co-produced by German and Arab filmmakers. They gave a presentation about their fund as part of the Crossroads activities.

Even though co-production in itself is an alluring topic, the Crossroads section looked beyond production to examine issues affecting societies from both regions. Its five films included documentary, fiction and everything between, and dealt with themes from migration to exile to remembering difficult pasts and unearthing untold stories.

A panel discussion was also organized at Cimatheque between the film’s directors (in person or on Skype) and moderated by Egyptian-British actor Khaled Abdallah, who is the star of Tala Hadid’s The Narrow Frame of Midnight, one of the films in the section. Sadly, the Kurdish director of Iraqi-German production Memories on Stone, Shawkat Amin Korki, was not present, although the discussion touched upon a lot of themes his film passes through.

Abdallah chose to focus on the theme of identity, or to be more specific, how we identify our origins. He asked each panelist, as well as the audience members who asked questions, to start by saying where they’re from. Yasmine Fedda, the director of Queens of Syria explained via Skype that she is originally Palestinian, she grew up in Kuwait, she lived in Syria as a child and her official nationality is Lebanese-Canadian. Her hybridity drew a laugh from the audience.

The story of Khaled Soliman al-Nassiry, one of the three directors of On the Bride’s Side, actually tied into their film. Nassiry was born a Palestinian refugee in Syria, where he lived alongside Kurds and Iraqis before moving to Europe to live with the woman who is now his wife. During the film, which documents how he and some Italians attempted to bring five Syrian refugees from Milan to Sweden by posing as a wedding party, he receives a phone call with the news that he has finally become an Italian citizen.

In The Narrow Frame of Midnight, Abdallah plays a Zacaria, a man with Moroccan-Iraqi nationality in love with a French woman. He sets out to find his brother, who has gone to Iraq to fight with militants. The film is picturesque and slow-paced, allowing viewers to uncover its layered meanings and commentary.

The question of identity is prevalent also in Hisham Zaman’s Letter to the King. Five refugees, mostly Kurdish and Afghani, living in an asylum centre in Norway go to spend a day in Oslo. Zaman films Oslo in from the perspective of these characters, and the city itself becomes a protagonist. Norwegians hardly have presence in the story and instead are replaced with immigrants who run the shops, cafes and restaurants we see.

Identity is dealt with in these films not merely in terms of “where am I from?” but in terms of the hybridity that comes with the geographical proximity of the two regions and the consistent patterns of movement between them that have dramatically increased in the past few years.

Abdallah told the panel’s audience that 2014 saw the largest number of displaced people in the world, at over 60 million people. He added that over 15 million people from this region are displaced, a figure that for political reasons does not include the over 5 million Palestinian refugees or people without refugee status.

On the Bride’s Side presents an atmosphere of emergency filmmaking. It tells the stories of the Syrian refugees and the filmmakers’ strong ties to immigration issues. The film becomes a necessary way of sharing these stories and the motivations of the Europeans risking jail time to organize the trip and make the film.

Queens of Syria is also full of heart-breaking stories from the Syrian crisis. Set in Amman, it documents seven weeks over which a group of Syrian women were mentored by theater directors to create a version of The Women of Troy adapted from their own stories. Between the final performance and the preparations, it gives a sense of the realities these women went through and what it means to be able to perform them on a stage despite fears of repercussions, in terms of both security and family relationships.

The necessity of storytelling is made very clear in Memories on Stone too. A group of filmmakers try to make a feature film about Saddam Hussein’s massacre of Kurds in 1988. They face the problems any filmmaker does: They have to cast a famous pop star as the lead to help them sell the film, they struggle to find a lead actress in a male-dominated society, and they fight to find a place to screen the film since the last cinema in Iraqi Kurdistan is being turned into a Turkish restaurant.

The main characters are completely committed to finishing their film. Each makes a massive personal sacrifice during Memories of Stone, ultimately asking a rhetorical question: Why would you give up your life just for a film? The film opens questions about the need to continue making meaningful films under harsh conditions. These concern production and distribution but also the role of the image in recording our modern history, which is monopolized by states and the media, whose narrative tends to be over-simplistic and filtered according to political agendas.

It seems that many filmmakers are holding themselves accountable to the urgent need to make work about contemporary Arab realities, which hopefully means we will be seeing more films encouraging questions about our constantly evolving identity – a genre of film much-needed in Egypt too. The Crossroads films were originally part of other selections at the Panorama, but after noting their shared concerns the curators found it made sense to create a program around them to explore what continual travel and drastic politics means for our regional identities, both individual and collective.

While some films were more engaging than others, by placing them together, and alongside the panel discussion, the Panorama allowed for a deeper viewing of films connected to the region, which I believe adds significant value to the event being hosted in Cairo at this point in its history.

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Paying farewell to Gamal al-Ghitani

At a memorial to Gamal al-Ghitani last Tuesday, Humphrey Davies read the seventh chapter of one of the books of the author’s that he had translated himself: The Pyramid Texts (1994). Titled Luminosity, the chapter is about a flash of incandescent light, sighted near the pyramids, that brings the narrator an obscure ease. — Published on Mada Masr.

“I chose it to a large degree because it embodies very much the essence of his writing and his particularly individual vision,” Davies told an audience of literary figures, researchers, activists and fans. “This is a book that is about the pyramids, but it’s also written in the form of a pyramid, each chapter getting shorter so that at the very end one arrives at what is essentially an annihilation.”

The quiet room, the American University in Cairo’s Oriental Hall, had filled up slowly. There weren’t a whole lot of people attending, but those who did had much to say. A picture emerged of the writer as a much-loved, major influence in and beyond Egypt’s literary scene, an advocate of freedom of expression and thought, a patriot in a good sense, and a thoughtful father and husband.

Ghitani, who passed away on October 18, published more than a dozen novels and short story collections between 1969 and 2008, many of which have been translated into English and French, gaining worldwide distribution and attention.

His novels include his masterpiece Zayni Barakat (1974), which is set in Egypt’s 16th-century Mamluk era but is also a clear critique of the authoritarian regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and Zaafarani Files (1976), in which impotence affects the residents of a Cairo alley that is then isolated by the rest of the city.

Among his non-fiction books is The Mahfouz Dialogs, which was translated by Davies for the AUC Press in 2007. It documents conversations, memories, jokes and views on culture and politics that Naguib Mahfouz, 34 years his senior, had shared with him.

Born in 1945 in a village in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Sohag, Ghitani was raised in Old Cairo’s Gamaliya district, of which Mahfouz often wrote. He grew up reading Mahfouz’s novels, fascinated by the idea of contemporary novels set in such an old neighbourhood.

“Gamal al-Ghitani infuses this sense of identification with Egypt, an identification which he expresses in sense both metaphysical and deeply lyrical,” Humphries said. “That’s an unusual combination of qualities to find in an author.”

Samia Mehrez, director of AUC’s Center for Translation Studies, knew Ghitani for 35 years and he became a great influence, professionally and personally.

“I consider myself one of the many that Ghitani influenced greatly,” she said. “When I was doing my PhD on his works, I was faced with a lot of challenges from my professors, since at the time he was still an emerging author. But I insisted and they had to comply. It was an honor that my PhD became the first in English to be written on his work.”

Studying Ghitani’s work and absorbing his passion for heritage helped her understand the relationship between literature and history and the relationship between authors and historians. This was the basis of her first published text (1994’s Egyptian Writers between History and Fiction: Essays on Naguib Mahfouz, Sonallah Ibrahim and Gamal al-Ghitani).

“Gamal al-Ghitani was obsessed with Cairo,” she continued, a fact that seems it could equally apply to herself. “He has prepared several tours with thousands of people over time to see his Cairo with so much warmth and happiness. He considered it a duty to transfer his love for Cairo to others.”

After training as a carpet designer, Ghitani started out as a journalist and was a war correspondent with the Egyptian army in the 1967 and the 1973 wars, starting to write his own literary works at the same time.

He founded weekly literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab in 1993 and was its editor-in-chief until 2011. Published by state-owned news organization Akhbar al-Youm, Akhbar al-Adab is one of the main sources of culture journalism in Egypt and the region, with a curious, open-minded approach that has not been shy of criticizing the Culture Ministry nor of courting controversy. It has also regularly translated international works into Arabic.

“Ghitani is not only a journalist, he is an institution,” Mehrez said. “There has never been a literary journal with a wider distribution in the region like Akhbar al-Adab. It is not just a space where articles on literature and culture are printed. It has played a crucial role in birthing important Arabic literary figures who started in the newspaper. Ghitani gave space for new voices in literature and published their works, with an open, adventurous flare in his choices of authors.”

An Akhbar al-Adab journalist, Hassan Abdel Mawgoud, praised Ghitani’s leadership style as both firm and nurturing, and his ability to produce very regular articles and literary works. “He taught me how to work under pressure,” Abdel-Mawgoud said. “I was very attached to Ghitani not just on a professional level but also on a personal one.”

The event had started with Mehrez reading a moving letter from Ghitani’s wife, journalist Magda al-Guindy, the editor of children’s magazine Alaaeddin, who could not make it for health reasons. As well as hailing his love for Egypt, both geographically and historically, she spoke of sharing her life with him for 41 years, of how he supported her and their two children in their search for knowledge.

Mehrez talked about seeing Ghitani take his six-year-old son Mohamed to the French Institute to see Shady Abdel Salam’s 1970 long, somber historical film The Mummy. “It was wonderful moment for me because it taught me what one could give their children even at such an early age,” she said. She also remembered receiving a phone call from Ghitani when she was teaching his daughter Magda at university. He told her not to treat his daughter differently to the other students.

When the floor was opened up to the audience, minorities’ rights activist and sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim also told a story about Ghitani as a father. During a birthday party for his daughter when she was little, Ghitani asked why one of her close friends was not invited, and she told him it was because she was Christian and her other friends would not come if she did. Much dismayed, he started looking into why these young girls were developing sectarian ideas.

Ibrahim wrote an op-ed in Al-Ahram newspaper about this story and the Minister of Education at the time. He discovered that one of the teachers was feeding these ideas to the young children. The minister ordered that she be transferred to a school in Upper Egypt, prompting Ghitani to wonder why she was moved, as she would likely end up spreading sectarian tension in Upper Egypt too.

“This situation is what drove me to study closely the topic of minorities in Egypt,” he said “And so this small incident changed the course of my thought and career. Until now, this is an issue that we suffer from in the Arab world.”

Both his Guindy and Mehrez spoke of Ghitani’s unshakable belief in freedom of thought and expression throughout his career and writings. Zayni Barakat vehemently criticized corruption and totalitarianism, and Ghitani had already spent five months in prison in 1966 for dissent. He often wrote op-eds and public statements in support of authors whose works had been banned or deemed blasphemous by the authorities. Like many cultural figures of his generation, he was overwhelmingly against Islamism.

Mehrez remembered how, when he headed a jury she was a part of for the Sawiris Foundation writers’ prize, he managed to bring conflicting opinions together to reach a democratic consensus. Many others in the room also spoke of Ghitani as a humble man who was respectful of others, as a human being who believed in the importance of knowing one’s own history and culture and in giving people a chance to prove what they can achieve.

The commemoration event was organized by several AUC departments: the Center for Translation Studies, the Department of English and Comparative Literature, the School of Library and Learning Technologies, and AUC Press, which has published several translations of his works. Egypt and the region has lost many cultural icons in 2015, and the memorial proved that Ghitani is one of those who will be remembered and taught for generations to come.

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Tuk-tuk: Beautifully shot, unnecessarily long

Tuk-tuk is a portrait of three young teenage boys who, instead of going to school everyday, man some of the three-wheel vehicles that are a staple of Cairo’s informal areas. — Published on Mada Masr.

Screening as part of the Cairo International Film Festival’s parallel program of the critics film week, the 75-minute documentary has the revolution’s aftermath at its backdrop, highlighting the impact of the economic and security vacuum on their families’ livelihoods.

Romany Saad’s first feature (and first documentary) after three shorts, Tuk-tuk has gripping camera work by director of photography Hany Fakhry. Its shots are very composed, with a rich yellowish color grade, and collectively give the viewer a full picture of the lives of Tuk-tuk’s protagonists: Abdallah, Bika and Sharon (a nickname given to him by his family after the former Israeli prime minister for being loud and obnoxious).

That said, the film is far longer than its content warrants, and thus becomes repetitive, both in terms of its storytelling and imagery. It would have been a very tight, inviting and captivating short film, but in its feature length, it dwells for far too long on its themes of poverty, child labor and the limited glimpses of childhood these three boys have.

The film takes place largely on the streets near Shubra, where the boys take commuters around and avoid main streets where policemen dwell — they don’t want to risk having their tuk tuks taken or the police shattering their windshields or lights, which they say has happened several times. Because tuk tuks are illegal in several Cairo districts and licensing is both expensive and difficult, children and teenagers end up driving many of them, making a living for their families without licences.

Abdallah’s father in the film wonders why the government doesn’t recognize the tuk tuk as a form of legitimate transport like the taxis or the microbus, and tax it accordingly. “If they didn’t want tuk tuks then why did they let people import them in the first place?”

“Without tuk tuks these kids would be selling drugs on the street,” Bika’s mother says in another scene from her small apartment where more than 10 family members live. She argues that tuk tuk drivers are breadwinners for many families and provide important transport in certain neighborhoods.

Saad follows the three boys as they drive their distinctively personalized tuk tuks (with Arsenal flags, Egyptian flags, cartoon character toys and shiny stickers), blasting mahranagat. They stand up to older microbus and tuk tuk drivers who try to take potential customers from them, sit to negotiate over shisha with a tuk tuk owner they want to rent from, and talk about their financial responsibility to their families and about the political situation.

There is some opportunity for activities more suited to their age — they spend time together after their long work days playing video games and listening to the latest mahragan releases at the local internet cafe, or “al-cybar.”

At the film festival there were disapproving tuts from the audience, especially when any of the boys smoked a cigarette or hash or used foul language. Perhaps this shows how disconnected many people from privileged economic backgrounds have become from the reality that the majority of Egyptians have to live in.

One particular edit stands out in the film. The three boys walk on top of the steel-rodded roof of the Imbaba bridge, and as they climb and hop we see informal areas and the Nile Towers behind them. We hear their voices answering a question about what they dream to become. The sequence is not only visually captivating but also very moving. It shows this harsh reality these boys live in, the small freedom they get of being outside playing, and how like other children their age they still have hopes and dreams for their future.

Saad has announced that he will screen the film again in Cairo, at a date yet to be announced. Tuk-tuk premiered at HotDocs, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival’s official competition, and has also screened at festivals in Warsaw and South Korea, as well as at London’s BBC Arabic Film Festival and the Montpellier International Festival of Mediterranean Film.

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From Mahfouz to Mohamed Khan: On two of CLUSTER’s downtown tours

As part of its recent Creative Cities conference hosted by the American University in Cairo, CLUSTER organized six tours, each looking at downtown Cairo through a different lens — including biking, photography, architecture and passageways. Here is Rowan El Shimi with a video on the cinema tour, and Lara El Gibaly with a written account of the literary tour. — Published on Mada Masr.

Aida El Kashef’s cinema tour

Samia Mehrez’s literary tour

“Café Riche is a refuge from the pain of loneliness,” says Elwan Fawwaz, the doomed protagonist of Naguib Mahfouz’s novel The Day the Leader Was Killed (1985). Today it is still a refuge, its bay windows overlooking the streets trodden by the city’s great authors and their fictional characters.

We are at Riche now, an odd group of about a dozen, guided by literary critic and scholar of Arabic literature Samia Mehrez, who is walking us through a selection of her favorite texts featuring downtown Cairo, inspired in part by her two-volume anthology The Literary Atlas of Cairo (2010) and The Literary Life of Cairo (2011).

We began at the American University in Cairo campus, bordered by Mohamed Mahmoud and Qasr al-Aini streets. Founded in 1919, with its looming presence occupying one of the most prominent downtown intersections, it was bound to find its way into literary texts, and has been both a character in and a location for the creation of Cairo’s contemporary canon.

Our tour’s earliest portrayal of AUC is found in cultural critic and literary theoretician Edward Said’s autobiography Out of Place (2000). Best known for his 1978 cultural critique Orientalism (practically mandatory reading for any AUC humanities student), Said described AUC as an elite, mostly foreign community that was insulated from Egyptian society at large.

We see AUC opening up slightly to a larger community in Ihsan Abdel Koddous’ I am Free (1952), in which Amina, the novel’s middle-class protagonist, convinces her controlling father to let her attend. She sees higher education, particularly at an exclusive institution, as an avenue to freedom and a way to distinguish herself from her friends in the neighborhood of Abbasseya. When the novel was adapted for the screen in 1958, Amina was played by Lobna Abdelaziz, herself an AUC graduate and recipient of the thankfully now-defunct Miss AUC title in 1954.

We get a sense of how involved AUC has become in Egyptian affairs in Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love (1999), in which a character recalls the failed 1993 attempt to assassinate then-Interior Minister Hassan al-Alfi. As the minister’s motorcade passed through Sheikh Rihan Street, a bomb went off, missing the minister but claiming the life of Mansour, the parking attendant responsible for the car keys of almost the whole AUC student body. He died instantly, leaving behind nothing but “a pale brown stain on the wall of the university. A stain that would not scrub off.”

“She writes Mansour into history,” says Mehrez, herself an AUC student at the time, and a friend of Mansour’s. Mehrez contributed to his immortalization by including the excerpt from Soueif’s novel in The Literary Life of Cairo. As Mehrez describes the scene of Mansour’s death, we stand inside AUC’s Sheikh Rihan Street gate and imagine the wall outside (security would not less us out). More walls have been set up at the entrance to the street since 2011, and parking or even driving there is now prohibited.

With a quick mention of Mai Khaled’s The Last Seat in Ewart Hall (2005), we exit onto Mohamed Mahmoud Street, stopping nearby to recreate the moment the protagonist in Yasser Abdelatif’s The Law of Inheritance (2005) reminisces about his early childhood spent at the then pink, now grey-walled French Lycee. When he returns in a fit of insomnia more than 20 years later, he finds no trace of the small fountain and the mosaic-tiled courtyard of his memories. He cynically reflects that the “clever painter […] chose the right color so that I could stand there after 20 years and contemplate my early childhood. Which child inside the kindergarten now will stand here 20 years down the line and contemplate it? What color will it be painted? Black, perhaps — the most suitable color for the coming days.”

As we walk over to Tahrir Square, I can’t blame onlookers for mistaking us for a group of foreign tourists, enthusiastically yelling out “Welcome, welcome!” as we pass. Mehrez had expressed her initial aversion to “walking people through throbbing downtown Cairo as if it were a museum.” It would have been odd to explain that we were not taking a tour of downtown Cairo in its current state, but rather its past portrayals.

Tahrir Square’s literary cameos are too many to mention, almost all revolving around the square as a center for political action. From Tawfiq al-Hakim’s The Return of the Spirit (1933) and its portrayal of the 1919 revolution, to Latifa al-Zayat’s daring portrayal of a young female activist in the 1940s and 1950s in The Open Door (1960), to Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron (2005), set against the bread riots of 1977, and Mahfouz’s Palace Walk (1956), in which the middle child of the Abd Al-Jawad family — the lives of its members chronicled throughout the trilogy — is drawn into demonstrations against British occupation.

Mahfouz was a longtime patron of Ali Baba café on Tahrir Square, to which he would walk from his home in Agouza every morning to read the papers before walking to his office at the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper on Galaa Street.

We briefly step into the newly reopened Café Riche — one of the axes of “the triangle of horror,” the name bestowed by Sonallah Ibrahim on the area between Riche, the Grillon restaurant and Cairo Atelier in his 1998 Cairo from Edge to Edge — and I feel self-conscious at coming into a space not as a customer or an anonymous pedestrian, but as a curious observer. But Riche is well equipped for and used to this voyeurism, with portraits of its famous patrons, which the new manager proudly shows us, flanking the walls of its back room. The café used to be a hub for Cairo’s intellectuals and literati, but they have since migrated to other, cheaper locations, including “this place up there somewhere…” — Mehrez gesticulates across the street.

“Lotus?”

“Ah yes, Lotus. That’s where they go now.”

Behind Riche is Zahrat al-Bustan coffeehouse, the site of a chance encounter between the protagonist of Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song (2006) and a glue-sniffing street kid, whose involvement in his life proves pivotal as the narrative progresses. Although we gloss over Cairo Swan Song due to lack of time, it is rich in downtown references, with the nihilistic narrator meeting his foreign love interest at Mashrabia Gallery on Champollion Street, spending “happy hours sitting on the sidewalks of Qasr al-Aini Street,” and enjoying those rare public holidays when “downtown Cairo is once again like the downtown of the 1930s we read about,” when he can “[walk] down its streets, a hash cigarette in hand, smoking it with relish, enjoying the quiet and the cracking echoes of children’s distant fireworks.”

We stop to catch our breath in front of Groppi, which is closed but has been adorned with a new and unappealing underwater-themed mosaic on its façade, I assume as part of its renovations. The cafe, overlooking Talaat Harb Square, is the scene of an endearing moment recalled in Alaa Al Aswany’s short story Mme Zitta Mendes — A Last Image, in his 2009 collection Friendly Fire. Aswany fondly recalls his father taking him along as a child on clandestine visits to Madam Zitta, his foreign mistress. Years later, as a grown man, he spots Madam Zitta on “the foreigners’ table at Groppi’s, [the one which] never changes, next to the window.” Aging but made-up, she remembers him, and almost as a gesture of thanks for momentarily returning her to her lost youth and beauty, says nothing but plants a kiss on his weathered forehead.

We move on to the Greek Club. Its breezy terrace is a regular summertime haunt for a younger crowd, and in its indoor hall, still heavily draped in layers of crimson, older patrons slow-dance to bad renditions of Enrique Iglesias songs, and on a good evening, Fayrouz. The Greek Club features repeatedly in Ehab Abdel Hamid’s Failed Lovers (2005), with the protagonist, a mediocre writer, coming to drink alone, pensively, in the early afternoon. At one point, despite going to the Greek Club to find that “the lights were dim, the music loud, and the young crowd was ready to dance all night,” the protagonist ends his evening a drunken mess with no one to console him but the establishment’s four-fingered waiter. “I tossed my head on his shoulder and wept,” wrote Abdel Hamid. “I could not stop myself from throwing up on his trousers. I cannot remember what happened later, but I decided that I would commit suicide next time if this drama were to reoccur.” This work has never been translated into English in its entirety, and the only translation that seems to exist is that carried out by Mehrez for inclusion in her anthology.

We end our tour in the Automobile Club, the namesake of Aswany’s 2013 novel. Unlike the Greek Club, the Automobile Club has retained its members-only policy, but because Mehrez is a member, we’re treated to a rare glimpse of its plush interior. Downtown establishments seem to be in a perpetual state of renovation, and the Automobile Club is no different, with sections on the ground floor closed off. Nonetheless, we’re shown into the library (devoid of books, but possessing a very large flatscreen TV) and given treatment fitting for a place this grand.

Despite the fact that we had to skip a few tour stops listed on the map due to time constraints — the original Yacoubian building, for example, located on Talaat Harb Street above Cinema Miami, and the entire Maarouf area, which is the setting for Khairy Shalaby’s darkly comic The Hashish Waiter (2009) — the tour is a multilayered exploration of a specific section of downtown and its literary representations.

But there are layers and layers more to be explored. I would have loved to visit the original snooker club (it’s on 26th July Street, in case anyone is interested) in Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club (1964) in which the unemployed, western-educated Ram spends his afternoons drinking at the “cosy bar with deep leather armchairs [which] impresses with its subdued luxury,” or the lesser-known Groppi’s garden on Abdel Khalek Tharwat, which Ram describes as “perhaps one of the most beautiful places to drink whisky in.”

But his and other literary ghosts will have to be resurrected at another time, on what I hope will be one of many more literary tours.

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Three takes on Um Ghayeb

Published on Mada Masr.

Rowan El Shimi

Director Nadine Salib’s first feature documentary, Um Ghayeb (Mother of the Unborn, 2014), is a deeply moving and engrossing portrait of Hanan, a woman from a countryside village near Assiut who is incapable of having children.

In a community obsessed with conception and a closed society that sees a woman’s role in life as a bearer of children, Hanan’s reality as a woman who cannot have children is worse than many places in the world. However, while this is the plot and setting for Um Ghayeb, the documentary goes far beyond its heroine’s story. Shot over four years, it asks questions about life and its meaning, happiness and death, and how at the end, it’s all relative.

Salib told the audience at the downtown Cairo cinema Zawya on Wednesday that it took a year of filming before she even realized that Hanan would be the film’s main focus. Originally she had set out to make a film about women’s infertility in rural Egypt and the folk remedies and traditions used to counter it, such as rolling around over graves, stepping over snakes or elaborate rituals involving burning elders’ hair. We do see some of this in the film.

But Salib was taken by Hanan’s presence and her ability to express her thoughts, and it’s easy to see why. The character is any filmmaker’s fantasy — she is charming, has great depth and engrosses the viewer in her stories.

While Hanan is a major element in the film’s success, various other factors also combine to create this whole experience. Through the sheer time the crew spent filming and the intimate conversations they capture, we are slowly but surely invited into their world. I found myself completely captivated.

Sara Yahia’s camera work is particularly worthy of mention. She uses interesting angles and pays close attention to details, whether shooting in interiors, at the farm or in the graveyard (where much of the story takes place), as we listen to Hanan’s story and those of the people around her. Yehia’s long, essay-like sequences of flowing water, plants, insects, animals, playing children and settling dust bring a poetic visual depth to Um Ghayeb’s theme.

According to Salib, over 200 hours of footage were gathered, providing a daunting task for any editor. This was handled brilliantly by Micheal Yousef Shafik. Salib told us that the film changed many times over the past four years, and that she and Shafik had continual conversations to find the right feel for the story. In spite of its seemingly slow development, the content is rich enough and edited tightly enough that we can take our time to fully grasp its story, visual poetry and contemplation on life.

Salib has greatly developed as a filmmaker from her previous self-portrait film, Dawn (2012), and presents a truly moving contribution to Egypt’s independent cinema scene.

Andeel

The first thing we came across was older women talking about private parts and popular fertility tips. To a middle-class small-towner like me it’s always a bit shocking how blunt people from the countryside can sometimes be. I believe Um Ghayeb is aware of this expectation and is communicating with it. As you watch, the movie makes you think a lot of the other and of what you expect them to be.

Cinematically, I found it amazing how much the shots served their purposes. I’m always fascinated by how documentary filmmakers manage to hide themselves and allow their characters to just be themselves. I can’t imagine how much material it takes to find the shot where a person is perfectly being the character you want to have on film.

The film suppresses its presence and delivers the beauty it sees in things without too many unnecessary filmmaking flourishes, which keeps the focus on people’s feelings and thoughts.

The exoticism of the people, location and characters is a very difficult trap to ignore when you’re making a movie like this. On my way to the cinema, I was praying that it would not be what I call “another brown movie that white people like,” but at the end of the day we have to figure out a way to make movies about people and things we live with in this country without having to worry all the time about Europe and what it thinks of it. Um Ghayeb handled this with confidence and simplicity. It all comes down to the beliefs and motives of the people contributing to the filmmaking — both the makers and the subjects, and an agreement whereby everybody knows exactly what’s happening.

Jenifer Evans

Inevitably there is a voyeurism, as with any film that follows someone’s life. This is perhaps especially true because of the pity the film encourages, with shots for example of Hanan’s face as she looks at other people’s babies, and because of its documentation of superstitious fertility rituals that are no doubt exotic for a majority of this film’s viewers.

The life of Hanan’s community seems to be characterized by hard work, weddings, births and funerals. Children run around everywhere throughout. But despite her longing, and despite her infertility appearing to define her personality and image in various ways, she also grapples with the fact that pregnancy and children don’t necessarily bring happiness.

There are many scenes in the village’s beautiful graveyard, where Hanan likes to spend time. We hear of people declaring that a person who does not have children represents a wasted life, like wasted water. An old man wonders who would perform the funerary rights and stand next to the grave of a dead person who was childless. But in the graveyard Hanan points out that, at the end of the day, people don’t take anything to their graves.

The film rests on how thoughtful, articulate and photogenic the protagonist is — her monologues take up a large part of it, which is a strength. Its power also lies in the fact that it clearly and uncomfortably shows how, just like anywhere else, women’s private bodily issues are lived out very publicly, because fertility is seen as a public good.

I would be interested to know what Hanan feels about the film. If she did it not just because she liked the filmmaker, but because she felt it would be an important project that might help other people get through what she was going through, it would be empowering, which would make my worries about exoticism and voyeurism rather insignificant.

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Young theater troupe Masl portray Egypt’s parking mafia in four cities

Four young men walk down the Manial Corniche in navy-blue overalls on a Monday afternoon. Young couples and middle-aged men on midday breaks sit around, while others pace up and down the river in a hurry. “Come see what we’ve got! A 15-minute play on the street!” the performers sing out to drum beats and a melodica as they make their way to a simple set-up of flipchart, cardboard box and dusty black cloth lying on the sidewalk further down the street.

“What are they? Garbage men?” one school kid asks his friends loudly as they pass.

In fact, they’re the newly formed Masl theater troupe, who are performing their second show (and first street show) as part of Mahatat for Contemporary Art‘s touring Art in Transit project.

Manial was one of the last stops on a five-day tour which ran between October 22 and 26 in Port Said, Damietta, Mansoura and Cairo. To an eager public comprised mainly of children and teenagers in school uniform, they presented their performance, Sayes Omourak (an expression encouraging flexibility when dealing with problems).

Gathering crowds for the performance in Cairo’s Ard El-Lewa  

The actors lead the crowd to the location, and the show kicks off with singing. The audience is asked to clap along at certain moments. Then, actor Ahmed Koundy starts telling the audience about his character, who works as a sayes. Anyone who drives in Cairo will know what a sayes is, but for those elsewhere, the sayes is somewhat akin to a parking attendant. The set-up for a sayes in Cairo is informal, though, with a guy or a group controlling a street or block and helping people park on it — or even if they don’t help, still expecting to be paid.

Gathering crowds for the performance in Damietta  

The Manial performance  

 

Ahmed Mohamed’s live drawing during the performance in Manial  

“We wanted to use the language of the sayes to highlight this idea of empty consumption — when you pay money and don’t get anything in return,” Koundy tells me after the performance. “Although the sayes is someone who works hard, he also often claims money for work he hasn’t done.”

“The concept is how our society functions by just going with things,” adds fellow performer and the show’s director, Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, known in theater circles by his nickname Dodo. “It’s about the informality of our system.”

Sayes Omourak is short and intense, with the crowd completely involved in the process. The actors recite poetry, use storytelling, and one performer, Ahmed Mohamed, does two fast-paced live drawings that keep us eagerly anticipating what he’ll come up with next.

Masl keep their idea clear and their audience engaged, many singing along to the classic songs they have adapted, such as Nagah al-Mougy’s Hankoura, which closes the show. They seem to have a very promising career ahead of them as street performers, an art form that had been very common in Egypt around the turn of the last century, then died out due to the introduction of cinema, television and the increased suspicion of security forces.

In Damietta  

 

In Mansoura

In Damietta

There’s something magical about observing how a crowd forms around a performance then scatters as soon as it’s over. While everyone was going about their own lives during that day, they unexpectedly found a purpose to unite them for a limited time, gaining a dash of positive energy, then moving on after having shared an experience with strangers, and by strangers.

This is what’s so special about what Mahatat does. Mahatat isn’t the only group enabling artists to adapt their work for public space, nor are the artists who work with them the only ones who present work in public. But with increased security on the streets, especially in large cities, it has become increasingly difficult to hold public performances without security permits and clearances — which Mahatat takes care of, along with organizing the logistics and building local support networks in various localities to make these happenings happen.

Masl’s performances in the four cities were the fifth tour in a continuous series ran by Mahatat under its Art of Transit umbrella, which began in October 2014. They hosted the Abu Karim Marching Band along with the Kousha Puppets Troupe, then El-Mazzikateya jammed in public spaces with local musicians for the second tour. Early this year they hosted Teatro Theater Troupe, who performed classical music on balconies, then a tour with clown troupe Outa Hamra over the summer.

The tours are part of Shababeek/Access to Art, a larger three-year umbrella project Mahatat is working on with funding from Drosos. It also includes workshops in various artistic disciplines, such as literature, origami and improv-theater. They’re planning more tours with other artists in 2015, along with various workshops and projects in the cities they’ve built a base in since becoming active in 2011.

All photos courtesy Mahatat.

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Q&A with Cairobserver: On space and universities

Since its launch in 2011, Cairobserver has become a go-to place for laypeople (not to mention academics) to read about, discover and discuss not just the city’s architecture, but its culture and urban environment. Initially its articles were largely in English, mostly authored by its founder and the one-man show behind the site: Mohamed Elshahed. — Published on Mada Masr.

Last Sunday, downtown Cairo’s Townhouse Rawabet theater hosted the launch of Cairobserver’s fifth print edition: a black-and-white, high-quality 72-page magazine on the theme of the university.

The University edition, which features articles from academics alongside texts by artists and others, is clearly a large step forward in terms of the diversity of authors, the inclusion of recognizable names along with new writers, and the depth and variety of angles with which the authors tackle the theme.

Novelist Khaled AlKhamissi (Taxi, Noah’s Ark) introduces the issue with a text on his experience at university. Literature professor and activist Hoda El-Sadda writes about the dangers of neoliberal higher education reform. Farida Makar discusses the rise of the concept of “courses” at independent for-profit centers, and how that reflects a society seeking education. There’s even a piece by former Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi. The issue also includes profiles on significant architecture professors and practitioners, such as Abdel Halim Ibrahim, and one on Cairo University’s handyman, Am Abdelnaby.

Perhaps the piece I found most remarkable, though, was Aya Nassar and Ahmed Borham’s article about an abandoned beer factory owned by the Cairo University and the struggle around what to do with this space.

Elshahed encouraged launch attendees to take more than one copy (they’re free) to distribute within their friend network. With the issue’s co-editor, lecturer and researcher Shaimaa Ashour, he presented a run-through of the articles and four of its contributors discussed their pieces. Attendance was quite high for a publication launch, and the audience diverse in terms of ages and disciplines.

It seemed a good point to sit with Elshahed to look back at Cairobserver’s five print editions and its continued blog and social media presence, and talk content, process and that staple issue for any non-state project: funding.

Rowan El Shimi: Maybe it would be a good start to tell me about the first bilingual printed issue of Cairobserver, released in 2012. How did you put it together?

Mohamed Elshahed: The first issue happened on a whim. Its theme — “an invitation to observe” — was very loose, covering the idea of why it’s important for anyone living in the city to pay attention to the urban environment and have a say, to demand information about it. That was the message. The issue was totally amateur and we were tight on time. It was done haphazardly and based around the blog’s content, kind of like a “best of,” in addition to content I sourced particularly for print.

RS: How did you come to start Cairobserver in general?

MS: I was doing my PhD at New York University on modern architecture and came back in 2010 to do research. Living in Cairo for the first time (I’m originally from Alexandria), I had a lot of impressions, reactions and frustrations. I was always more fascinated by Cairo than Alexandria. I wanted to know more about my observations, but didn’t find a satisfying discourse about it in newspapers, magazines or online. I used to talk about it all the time. At parties I’d be that annoying person who could only talk about the city and complain about sidewalks or bridges.

Around March 2011, my flatmate at the time, Nadim Damluji, was researching the history of cartoons in countries visited by Tintin. He had a blog about the topic, so he suggested I run a blog to express my observations of the city. From there, cairobserver.com was born. Within two months I realized people were reading and sharing and giving me feedback. There was interest.

In my PhD research, I was getting most of my information from printed material, but we have no documentation on paper of stories on urbanism — they get lost. Since print is still valuable, I wanted to try it. I applied for the British Council’s grants to arts that year and produced the first issue with that money.

RS: Your second print edition in 2014 was financed through a crowdfunding campaign. What made you opt for that?

MS: I applied again to the British Council, and was turned down. It made me realize that there’s something very dubious about depending on this kind of funding here for projects in Arabic. I decided to make the issue about popular initiatives working on the city, which in a way was a reaction to being rejected by the British Council. I wanted to produce the issue with crowdfunding to prove that there is an audience willing to support the project.

It featured articles exploring the inner workings of [urban] informality, and also community initiatives by activists, architects and artists responding to gaps in our existing systems. The last pages were dedicated to a directory of some of these initiatives.

RS: 2015 has been a pretty big year for you, with three issues printed. How did that happen?

MS: The third edition was meant to be released with D-CAF. Cairobserver had been one of the festival’s media sponsors the previous year, and I thought it would be a great idea to release a downtown-centered issue around the time of the festival. I also wanted to have contributions about downtowns in different Egyptian cities, which only worked for Alexandria, Tanta and Mansoura, but I was happy with that.

I had run a crowdfunding campaign for both the downtown and university issues together, which wasn’t successful — I only managed to raise about US$700 after Indiegogo took its percentage — but eventually the issue was financed through a contribution from Ismaelia for Real Estate Development and Garaad incubator, who bought a full-page ad.

The fourth issue was not in my plans. I was part of a two-year research project supported by the Beirut-based Arab Council for Social Sciences (ACSS), and part of the grant was for us as a group to have an outcome that connects with the public. Paul Amar, who ran the research group, suggested we print a Cairobserver issue with a regional outlook. It was a great opportunity to get academics working on urban transformations in the Middle East to shorten their articles and make them more readable and accessible to the public in both English and Arabic. ACSS covered the expenses for design, translation and printing, and it was printed in both Cairo and Beirut.

By then I’d had contributions for a university issue sitting in my email for more than eight months. So I decided to start working on that theme again. Last year saw universities in the headlines, with fighting between security forces and students, arrests and suspensions, student activism on campuses and faculties dealing with it all. It felt like an opportunity to revisit various elements of the university as a place in the city.

I didn’t study in Egyptian universities, so part of my interest was to learn about the experience — from the perspective of architecture and urbanism, but also touching on other issues, such as the surrounding neighborhoods and the history of architecture education.

This is when Shaimaa Ashour came in to co-edit. Shaimaa is very involved in Cairo University and teaches at the Arab Academy for Sciences, Technology and Maritime Transport. She has researched modernist architects in Egypt and their education. So it didn’t feel right to do it without her. Also, she had access to stories I would have never picked up on had I been on my own.

That’s why it’s truly a community, collaborative effort. The final project is shaped by the participating authors and funded for the most part by a last-minute crowdfunding campaign.

RS: This time you worked with a new designer, and you posted lots of photos from the printing process before the launch.

MS: It was the first time I was hands-on in the actual printing of the magazine. The new designer, Ahmad Hammoud, it’s his first print magazine, so we worked together to get it done at the print house. Every time I went there was a new step, and I was fascinated with how much manual labour goes into it. I’d never thought about how many hands actually hold each issue.

In terms of design, generally form and function go hand in hand. It’s really important to balance the two and not give weight to one over the other. This whole project evolved out of my interest in print culture in Egypt between the 1930s and 1960s and in my magazine collection from this period. I was very struck by the fonts, the innovative design and the thought that went into presentation of content. From the 1970s this almost completely died, and was replaced by standard fonts and design approaches.

Despite Egypt being so pioneering with the press, we don’t have a publication documenting graphic design practices of the last 100 years. There is no archive or museum for this history. A part of Cairobserver is to take inspiration from that period before standardization. Not to be nostalgic about it, but to move forward and be inspired by it.

RS: You’ve always taken a very organic approach to distribution. What about archiving? Do you make sure the issues end up in public libraries where they can be made available for research?

MS: I focus on making it available in downtown cultural spaces people frequent. It’s also very important to always have a launch event, as a main distribution point. Since its cost is high and it’s distributed for free with a limited number of copies (2,000), I always want to make sure it goes to the people really interested to engage with the content.

I also recently added to the website a prints link where people can download the issues as PDFs. There were thousands of downloads within days. This helps archive the issues in one space online. I am in the processes of getting copies to libraries such as the American University in Cairo and the Netherlands Flemish Institute in Cairo. Abroad, New York University and Yale have them as well, and soon copies will be in Harvard’s library. I’m considering reprinting or binding the five issues together in a single volume to have it available as a reference for libraries and research institutes.

RS: How is funding going for you?

MS: I feel like I’m always begging for money [laughs]. But seriously, it is difficult to find funding for the project both on and offline. Also, it’s taking a toll on me, since it’s a lot of effort to run it entirely on a voluntary basis. While I gain a lot from the project as it is, it would be great to have the capacity to hire a small team to handle different aspects of the online platform and print. The budget allocated for the print issues is always spent on translation, design and printing. Currently there’s no room to pay authors, nor myself as the editor.

Even though there is great interest in the project locally and even regionally — I get invited to workshops and talks in Beirut, Amman and Tunis, and I know there’s also an audience further afield in places like Kuwait — I’m having a hard time finding interest to fund it. Most arts funding organizations are more interested to fund either institutions and spaces or development-oriented arts initiatives. A project like Cairobserver is in the middle of both, and I haven’t been able to get funding for it through the few active funding agencies in Egypt. It would really make a huge difference in the project’s consistency and reach to have a budget to work with.

I do try to come up with creative ways to raise funds. For the downtown issue, for example, I made a photography exhibition at Kafein and the proceeds went toward printing the issue.

Lately, a small grant from the Young Arab Theatre Fund complemented crowdfunding, which resulted in a smaller amount this time. But I also put advertisements in the magazine — relevant ones for cultural, journalistic and educational institutions, like Goethe Institut, the Italian Cultural Institute, the Technical University of Berlin in Gouna — which covered a portion of the cost.

RS: Where do you see Cairobserver going from here, content-wise?

MS: The biggest challenge now is how to be financially sustainable, so it’s difficult to think about growth in terms of content without sorting this out. I have lots of ideas for future print issues, such as one on museums. I’ve also been approached by people with ideas, such as an issue on historic Cairo, or particular neighborhoods such as Heliopolis, or suburbs and new cities.

There is a lot to cover and a lot of potential to grow. Cairo is uber-urban and should have analysis produced and printed material containing conversations about it publicly available.

Aida Elkashef the day i ate the fish

عن الطرق اﻹبداعية لتمويل اﻷفلام، والنساء اللاتي قتلن أزواجهن

ربما يبدو اﻷمر مبتذلًا، لكن كان من الصعب أن أتوقف عن التفكير في اﻷداء المعقد، والمبهرج، والملئ باﻷلوان لتانجو الزنزانة من فيلم شيكاغو الذي تم إنتاجه في 2002، حين سمعت أن عائدة الكاشف تصنع وثائقيًا عن النساء المصريات اللواتي قتلن أزواجهن. — نشر على مدى مصر.

في شيكاغو، تبرر القاتلات لأنفسهن بشرح كيف كان أزواجهن مذنبين بالخيانة، أو اﻹساءة، أو في بعض اﻷحيان يمضغون اللبان بصوت عالٍ.

لا يحمل الفيديو القصير لفيلم الكاشف “يوم أكلت السمكة”، والذي نشرته بجانب مقدمة حول الفيلم على موقع التمويل الجماعي Indiegogo، أي تشابه مع فيلم شيكاغو. لكن الموضوع يحوز على هوس الفنانين والباحثين والصحفيين حول العالم.

طورت الكاشف اهتمامًا بالمسألة عندما اعتاد والدها (المخرج السينمائي رضوان الكاشف) تشجيعها على قراءة الصحف اليومية في سن صغيرة. حينها، في التسعينيات، كانت صفحات الحوادث بالصحف مليئة بقصص بشعة عن العنف المنزلي في كافة أرجاء مصر.

حاولت الكاشف اللعب مسبقًا بفكرة عمل فيلم روائي حول الموضوع في فترة دراستها بالمعهد العالي للسينما، لكنها لم تبدأ التنفيذ إلا بعد نشاطها مع “قوة ضد التحرش“، وهي مجموعة كانت تتدخل بشكل مباشر في حالات التحرش الجنسي الجماعي في ميدان التحرير أثناء التظاهرات في عامي 2012 و2013. كان هذا هو الوقت الذي قررت فيه تنفيذ الفيلم، هذه المرة كوثائقي.

“حين شهدت حوادث التحرش الجنسي الجماعي هذه، شعرت بالغضب. انتابني، بشكل شخصي، الكثير من الطاقة العنيفة”، تقول الكاشف، مضيفة: “شعرت بالوحدة. بدأت في اكتساب أفكار وتخيلات تفيض عنفًا. واكتشفت أن من واجهن حوادث التحرش يشعرن بأشياء مماثلة. لهذا أردت زيارة النساء اللواتي قررن اللجوء للخيارات اﻷصعب، الخيارات التي لا سبيل للتراجع عنها. إلى أين يمكنك أن يقودك العنف؟ هذا هو ما قررت استكشافه، من جانبه اﻹنساني البسيط”.

بدأت الكاشف، التي تبلغ من العمر 27 عامًا، عملها مع الصحفية والناشطة رشا عزب، والتي كانت محبوسة في 2006 في العنبر نفسه مع نساء ارتكبن جرائم قتل. قامت عزب بتوثيق العديد من الحكايات التي سمعتها ﻷول مرة خلال هذا الوقت، وساعدها طاقم للبحث بشكل أوسع في المسألة، بينما يصارعون من أجل الحصول على تصاريح للتصوير من خمس هيئات حكومية مختلفة.

وبعد عام ونصف العام تمكنوا من الحصول على تصاريح، وبدأوا التصوير في سجن القناطر. وبعد العديد من المقابلات، قاموا بتضييق نطاق مواضيعهم، واستقروا على اختيار أربع نساء.

لكن الطاقم وصل لتلك النقطة التي يواجهها صناع اﻷفلام المستقلين على الدوام: لم يعد هناك ما يكفي من النقود. حصل الفيلم على تمويلات التطوير وجزء من تكلفة اﻹنتاج قدره 10 آلاف دولار من المنظمة غير الحكومية ACT، إلى جانب 12 ألف دولار من مهرجان أبوظبي السينمائي.

وتقول الكاشف إنه “إذا جاء الشهر المقبل دون أموال، لن يتوقف الفيلم. لكنني سأضطر للعمل بمفردي تمامًا. سيستغرق اﻷمر وقتًا أطول، ولن يكون هناك ما يكفي من أموال مطلوبة للتصاريح، واستخدام اﻷرشيفات، والمعدات، وغيرها”.

وعلى الرغم من أن طاقمها متعاونٌ للغاية، إلا أنها لن تطلب من أحد أن يعمل دون مقابل. “لا يمكنك المحافظة على صناعة بهذه الطريقة”، توضح الكاشف.

حاولت الكاشف وطاقمها التقديم للحصول على تمويلات عديدة، لكنهم قوبلوا للرفض. لا يوجد العديد من التمويلات الموجهة لدعم السينما المستقلة، وسط منافسة إقليمية ودولية شرسة.

لكن التمويل الجماعي ليس سهلًا أيضًا بكل تأكيد. يتطلب تصميم حملة تمويل جماعي ناجحة العديد والعديد من الموارد. لن يؤدي نشر فيديو قصير مع نص مصاحب على اﻹنترنت إلى نتائج بشكل سحري، فالتخطيط الذي لا ينتهي ﻹطلاق الحملات وتسويقها ونشرها عبر شبكات مختلفة، ومعرفة ما الذي يمكن أن يدفع الناس للتبرع فعلًا، هو العامل المحوري وراء كل حملات التمويل الجماعي الناجحة.

“لكن كل مليم نقوم بتجميعه يجلب الكثير من السعادة، ﻷنه قادم من الجمهور الذي يدعمنا وينتظر مشاهدة الفيلم، وليس من لجان تحكيم تقوم بتقييمنا فكريًا وفنيًا، وهو التقييم الخاضع لمقاييسهم الشخصية”، تقول الكاشف، مفسرة: “التقارير التي صاحبت خطابات الرفض التي حصلنا عليها ردًا على طلبات تمويلنا تسببت في اهتزاز ثقتنا الشخصية في المشروع. لكن التمويل الجماعي جعلنا نشعر بالدعم، بشكل عاطفي وليس على أساس مالي.”

كانت الكاشف قد تمكنت من الانتهاء من فيلمها القصير اﻷول “حدوتة من صاج” المبني على حكاية حقيقية عن عاملة جنس (مشاهدته متاحة على اﻹنترنت هنا)، معتمدة على أموالها الشخصية، إلى جانب منحة حصلت عليها من المنظمة غير الحكومية كرامة.

ليست الكاشف أول من قرر اللجوء للتمويل الجماعي من صناع الفيلم المستقلين المصريين. تقوم الفنانة البصرية وصانعة اﻷفلام هالة القوصي حاليًا بحملة تمويل جماعي لفيلمها زهرة الصبار. وفي يناير 2013، تمكن صانع اﻷفلام شريف القطشة من تجميع 33 ألف دولار ﻹنهاء إنتاج فيلمه الوثائقي “طرق القاهرة” عن زحام المرور الشديد. وفي 2011 و2013، قام عمر روبرت هاميلتون بتجميع ما يقرب من 30 ألف دولار عبر حملتين من أجل فيلمه الفلسطيني “مع أني أعرف أن النهر قد جف”.

وبعد إطلاق فيلمه، أخبر هاميلتون “مدى مصر” أن التمويل الجماعي له تأثير إيجابي فقط بسبب محدودية فرص التمويل اﻹقليمية، ومشكلات الدعم الحكومية للفنون، وقلة المؤسسات ذات الثقة.

لكن التمويل الجماعي لا يأتي دون سلبياته. فبسبب محدودية استخدام الدفع عبر اﻹنترنت وبطاقات الائتمان في مصر، تضطر معظم الحملات على الاعتماد على الشبكة الدولية لصاحبها (وهو ما امتلكه صناع اﻷفلام المذكورين لحسن الحظ). بدون هذا، يمكن القول أن التمويل الجماعي ليس له فائدة. تشير الكاشف مع هذا إلى أنها حاولت استضافة مبادرة تمويل جماعي على اﻷرض حين بدأت العمل في الفيلم.

صانع اﻷفلام محمد حماد، عمره 33 عامًا، وهو صاحب فيلمين روائيين قصيرين تم استقبالهما جيدًا هما فيلم “سنترال” في 2007، وفيلم “أحمر باهت” في 2009، وكلاهما يشتبك بقوة مع قضايا النساء، باﻹضافة إلى العديد من الوثائقيات القصيرة. يقول حماد لـ”مدى مصر” إنه سيفكر في التمويل الجماعي في مشاريعه المقبلة.

“بشكل ما، يجعل التمويل الجماعي عملية إنتاج أفلام أكثر ديموقراطية، حيث يحصل الجمهور على فرصة لدعم اﻷفلام التي يريدون مشاهدتها في السينمات”، يقول حماد، مضيفًا أن “التمويل الجماعي يساعد في الترويج وتوسيع دوائر الوفاء للفيلم”.

يحاول حمادعمل مقاربة قد تبدو أكثر تطرفًا: نموذج إنتاج بدون ميزانية لفيلمه اﻷول الطويل الذي لم يستقر على اسمه بعد، والذي لم يتكشف محتواه بعد. كل من يعمل على إنتاج الفيلم يعتبر مالكًا له، ويحصل على نسبة من أرباحه، والهدف هو إطلاق الفيلم عبر دور العرض في نسخة تجارية.

تشارك عائلة حماد في أدوار تمثيلية، إلى جانب تطوعهم باستخدام منازلهم ومتجر والده كأماكن للتصوير. “لا تهتم عائلتي بالسينما حقًا، ويفضلون إذا عملت كمهندس. لكنهم في هذا اللحظة يريدون مساعدتي”، يقول حماد، مستكملًا: “أظن أنهم يشعرون باﻷسف من أجلنا. لكن في كل اﻷحوال، أنا ممتن لهم بشدة”.

عمل حماد مع مجموعة من اﻷصدقاء كطاقم عمل في أعماله السابقة، ويشترك في أعمالهم في المقابل، وتمويلهم بنفس الطريقة. وعلى الرغم من أنهم لم يعرضوا في أي سينمات باستثناء “زاوية”، ﻷن اﻷفلام القصيرة لا تصدر في نسخة تجارية، إلا أن حقوق البث قد تم بيعها لقنوات تليفزيونية في أوروبا.

يحاول حماد التجريب بخصوص نموذجه اﻹنتاجي لعمل فيلم طويل ﻷنه ليس راضيًا عن الخيار اﻷول أمام صناع اﻷفلام المستقلين: المنح.

يقول حماد إنه على الرغم من أن دخول هذه المنح لصناعة السينما في بداية اﻷلفينيات ساعد صناع اﻷفلام غير التجاريين، إلا أنه كان إشكاليًا؛ ﻷنه بمجرد تغطية ميزانية الفيلم، يقوم صناع اﻷفلام بإخراج الجمهور من اعتباراتهم. “السينما أحد أشكال الفن الموجه للناس”، يوضح حماد. “أريد أن أصنع أفلامًا أؤمن بها، لكن مع اﻷخذ المستمر في الاعتبار كيف سيستقبل الجمهور الفيلم”.

تؤكد الكاشف على هذا: “على الرغم من أنني صانعة أفلام مستقلة، إلا أنني مرتبطة للغاية باﻹصدار في دور العرض، كي يشاهد الناس أفلامي في السينما ويدفعوا تذاكر من أجلها، ﻷن هذا هو الطريق الوحيد للاكتفاء الذاتي. أريد دخول السوق باﻷفلام التي أريد أن أصنعها، وأريد أن أكون جزءًا من هذه الصناعة”.

“المعركة هي في كيفية أن نثبت كمجتمع أن لدينا ما نقدمه”، تقول الكاشف، مختتمة: “ولن يحدث هذا حتى يطلب الناس مشاهدة هذه اﻷفلام”.