Date Palm Festival Cairo

VIDEO: Cairo festival celebrates dates and palm trees

Families, environmentalists and food enthusiasts gather in Cairo to revive an ancient celebration of date harvesting

In its second edition the Date Palm Festival brings together Egyptian environmentalists, foodies and families to celebrate the date harvest season on 26 September.

The Date Palm Festival is organised by Slow Food Cairo, Nawaya, Ice-Ribh, Zooba and Mahali Deli — published in Ahram Online.

Zawya MIF Cinema Cairo

Zawya cinema: Six months of essential art house

Ahram Online looks at the ups and downs of the downtown Cairo cinema over the last half year
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For cinephiles, Cairo is not necessarily the best of cities. Cinemas only feature Hollywood blockbusters and seasonal Egyptian productions that rarely offer anything authentic. Cairo’s independent culture spaces hold one-off screenings and small scale festivals which nevertheless are attended by limited audiences who are usually directly interested in the centre’s cultural offerings.

This is why Zawya, Cairo’s first real attempt at an art house cinema and the brainchild of Misr International Films (MIF), is an important initiative to challenge the status quo. Zawya means a perspective or angle in Arabic, but the word is also used to refer to make-shift mosques on street corners – which fits with the cinema’s corner location, and choice of films.

“It’s a cinema for the films that don’t make it to the cinema,” reads Zawya’s tagline, and that’s precisely what the Zawya team provides: a wide range of films that are diverse in both geographical location and genre.

In its first six months, Zawya hosted theatrical releases along with retrospectives for veteran directors, short films, documentaries, experimental films and classics.

Moving right along

After six months at Odeon Cinema, Zawya’s team announced on the last day of a recent retrospective held for late Egyptian iconic filmmaker Youssef Chahine – who also established the company behind Zawya – that they’ll be closing for the month of October and re-opening at a new venue, Karim Cinema, which is merely blocks away from their current location in downtown.

Zawya’s contract for Odeon with the company New Century, which owns both cinemas, was coming to an end, and New Century offered Zawya a chance to move to Karim for a year – after an extensive overhaul and an extended closure.

According to the Zawya team, MIF used to have shares in both Karim and Odeon but sold them right before Zawya’s opening as the company was not looking to invest in downtown cinemas, which draw fewer audiences than cinemas in newer malls and multiplexes on the city’s outskirts.

“Our project needs to be in downtown – our crowd is either living in or near downtown or frequents downtown,” Youssef Shazli, Zawya’s founder and director, tells Ahram Online. “We target different audiences in different geographical areas, but from the start we were all convinced that we needed to start in downtown.”

Shazli has a point. Cairo’s downtown art scene has boomed over the past decade or so. Many people who would be interested in such a cinema will also be likely to spend their day downtown, going to an exhibition or independent play – or, now, a film at Zawya.

Zawya is not MIF’s first attempt at an art house cinema. In 2008, following the success of the first editions of the Panorama of the European Film– an annual 10-day event hosting film screenings and talks in various cinemas, also organised by MIF – the company took one of the eight screens at the mega-mall City Stars and turned it into an art house cinema dubbed “Cinemania”.

However, the project closed after only a few months, which Shazli attributes to the cinema’s location – a mall in Heliopolis, removed from the city centre.

“An art house cinema needs to be accessible, on the street,” he says.

Curation, challenges

Zawya hosts three types of happenings: theatrical releases, special events curated by Zawya and special events by external curators.

According to Alia Ayman, Zawya’s programme curator, the selection of films is not just about tastes – it’s also dependent on finances and the availability of films. Sometimes films already have a distributor in the region, which makes the process simpler. Other times, Zawya has to play the role of both distributor and screening hall.

“When we want the film to be screened at Zawya, the owner wants to release it in the most amount of cinemas and sell you festival and television rights,” Ayman explains. “Zawya is a hybrid project,” she adds.

Artistically speaking, Zawya aims for diversity – features, documentaries, short films, animation and experimental productions – but also films from an array of geographical locations – the Arab region, Europe, the Far East and Latin America.

At the start of the project, Ayman and Shazli selected films haphazardly according to availability and artistic value. However, after some time studying the market, the duo gained insight on what films bring in audiences and which ones are more challenging.

Special events like the Youssef Chahine, Abdellatif Cachiche and Mohamed Malas retrospectives, along with the Egyptian short films series and single screenings of classic films, features and documentaries are all sure to attract audiences since they happen only once and are usually followed with a Q&A session.

But theatrical releases are trickier since the film stays on for several weeks.

“We found that with Egyptian releases we can be more experimental, while foreign films should be more commercial,” Shazli says.

The films that have had the most success at Zawya have been Amir Ramsis’ documentary Jews of Egypt II, Moroccan director Laila Marrakchi’s Rock the Casbah (starring Omar Sherif and Nadine Labaki) and Egyptian director Hala Lotfy’s Coming Forth By Day.

Jim Jarmush’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Iranian Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi’s The Past also attracted audiences because they are big names in the market.

Shazli explains that some films they’ve screened – like Rock the Casbah – would be considered commercial and not art house abroad. “But alternative is always relative; it is alternative to what is available in the market,” he says.

Any talk of films in Egypt has to involve one word: censorship. Egypt’s censorship authorities are known to cut scenes from films with explicit or sexual content and even ban films from screening commercially. However, Zawya has a special relationship with the censorship authority, which considers Zawya a “festival venue” and therefore grants it more leniency. As a rule they set for themselves, Zawya doesn’t screen films that have been cut and prefers not to screen a film at all rather than have it censored.

In its first six months, only two films out of 100 were banned – Cannes Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour (for sexual content) and Aida El-Kashef’s short film A Tin Tale (for profanity), the latter of which was due to be screened as part of the Egyptian shorts programme. The night of El-Kashef’s screening, Ayman and the director made a statement that they were against film censorship and announced to the audience that while the film wouldn’t be shown, an online link would be provided for home viewing.

Of the many challenges Zawya has faced in its hybrid model, the cinema’s weakest points have been scheduling, information release and marketing. Many Zawya goers told Ahram Online they’ve had issues with finding information on the latest releases and special events.

Zawya’s marketing depends on social media and their media partners such as Ahram Online and elcinema.com, in addition to on-site marketing through posters and trailers. This tends to limit the audience to those who are active online.

“We haven’t figured out the perfect formula to balance this hybrid, but we’ll manage eventually,” Ayman says.

Growth, sustainability

Zawya saw its best success during its last month at Odeon. With a programme boasting Jews of Egypt II (which attracted more than 2,000 people over two weeks, averaging 100 people per day), Rock the Casbah and the Youssef Chahine retrospective (which hosted a full house for six consecutive nights), more and more people found their way to Zawya.

According to Shazli and Ayman, Zawya grossed more money in September than Odeon’s two other screens, which screened Egyptian commercial films.

“I thought our crowd was all cinephiles and if we screened a film that was commercial we would risk our reputation,” Shazli says. “But what I found is that our crowd is diverse and each film or event attracts a different crowd – our audience is growing.”

“We’ve proven we have something to offer, especially when other cinemas are not doing so well,” Shazli continues. “I think us being offered Cinema Karim for one year is a good indicator.”

However, in spite of the success of the project, Zawya’s numbers remain conservative. Their business model is not self-financing as ticket sales go to Odeon Cinema and not Zawya – although they take a small percentage and don’t pay to rent the screen. Still, the venture isn’t losing money because it’s dependent on sponsors.

In the future, they hope to have their own cinema and set up a fully-functional distribution company so they can be self-sufficient.

Once it re-opens at the end of October in its new location on Emad El-Din Street, Zawya promises to continue offering high quality films and original programming.

While the November schedule isn’t certain yet, Zawya expects to screen Underground/On the Surface, Salma El-Tarzi’s documentary on Shaabi music duo Okka and Ortega, along with Palestinian 2014 Oscar contender Omar, originally planned for this month.

They will also host screenings for Medrar’s 7th Cairo Video Festival for video art and experimental films, along with the second edition of Cimatheque’s Kurassat programme and a series of documentary films on Cairo as a city in collaboration with Cairobserver. November will also be the time of the year for MIF’s 7th edition of the Panorama of the European Film, and naturally Zawya will be one of its screens.

In spite of challenges and shortcomings, Zawya has so far proven to be one of the few projects in the independent culture scene which attracts a strong following beyond Cairo’s cultural crowd. Most of all, it has a massive opportunity for financial sustainability and an actual chance to compete in the commercially saturated film market.

Photo by Mai Shaheen

VIDEO: Egypt’s students, parents express hopes for new school year

On the first day back to school, Egypt’s students and their parents talk to Ahram Online about their aspirations for the school year and the education system

In Dokki district of Giza, part of greater Cairo, students and parents express their desires for a positive education system and hopes for improvement in the new school year.

Rock the Casbah Zawya

Rock the Casbah: Amusing Moroccan-French film tackles societal challenges

Though Laila Marrakchi’s star-studded Rock the Casbah provides an interesting look at modern Moroccan society, its predictable plotline and at times clichéd conversations limit its appeal — Published in Ahram Online.
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French-Moroccan film Rock the Casbah – currently in its second week of showing at Cairo’s art house cinema Zawya – carries a lot of praiseworthy values within its thematic choices, cinematography and performances, but falls short on its predictability and some clichés presented throughout the feature.

Laila Marrakchi puts together an all-star cast of versatile actors and presents a film with many well-rounded characters which explores several topics relevant to any upper-class Arab society.

From the film’s opening credits, with the sound track of American song Rock the Casbah, we see Tangier’s beach life showing all the contradictions in the society: from foreigners sunbathing, to locals in bikinis, to other locals wearing the veil, and the overall cultural melting pot that is modern day Morocco. This sets the stage for the upcoming social unravelling manifested in the story at hand.

Set against the backdrop of a traditional three-day funeral, the film opens with the deceased patriarch and father Moulay Al-Hassan – played by veteran Egyptian actor Omar El-Sharif – as he bestows his wisdom on life on the audience before showing us his dead body as it is being washed.

The setting of the villa – in which the funeral takes place and the seaside city of Tangiers – aides the director in creating scenes which in spite of revolving around a theme as dark as death, through the picturesque, naturally lit imagery reflect the film’s delightful and at times whimsical nature.

The film’s cinematography incorporates a lot of white colour, which to some viewers might seem as contradictory to the ghastly images of death. This, however, takes us back to the Moroccan culture, where – contrary to many cultures that associate death with black – people dress in colourful traditional dresses, whereas the wife of the deceased is expected to wear white.

The patriarch, Al-Hassan, leaves behind a wife and three daughters, their grandmother, and their life-long house maid. As the events of the funeral unfold, family confrontations brought on by his death start to shape up among these women.

His youngest daughter Sophia – played by Moroccan-American actress Morjana Alaoui – returns from America with her young half-American son Noah – and immediately her sisters’ resentments of her leaving her Arab roots behind surface.

Sophia represents the daring spirit of the sisters, who left her father’s tight grip to become a Hollywood actress – always typecast in terrorist roles. Her sisters Miriam (Lebanese actress-director Nadine Labaki) and Kenza (Lubna Azabal), chose more traditional paths of marrying from the Moroccan elite and staying under their father’s shadow.

Miriam is portrayed as an alcoholic housewife and mother who had ambitions to become a dancer or actress. Kenza is portrayed as a religious, pious Muslim, while we learn that she used to be involved in politics in her early days.

In their own way, the sisters are stuck in the middle of being traditional versus modern and between their westernised upbringing and eastern roots. Through the story, this cultural question is often brought to the surface through the characters’ conversations and arguments about their past and present lives.

Many women hailing from an upper-middle class post-colonial society can relate to these contradictions, not only in Morocco. Many people from this socio-economic background in Egypt find themselves torn between the traditions they grew up with, and their exposure to other cultures through travel, education and access to information.

Rock the Casbah’s focus on its female cast brings to the surface many issues and taboos woman face in contemporary Arab society.

The strong female cast voice their opinions on these taboos – such as sex, orgasms, sexual harassment or breast enlargement surgery – on several occasions throughout the film, during family dinners, and other one-to-one conversations.

On the other hand, the question of inheritance is raised. Islamic law, where the male son inherits more than his female counterpart, becomes even more problematic in cases where there are no sons and the uncle inherits most of the money.

This old law took into account the concept of the uncle being able to take care of the women in the family, however in modern society, where women are more independent and autonomous, this procedure becomes troublesome. Kenza says that if this law persists then women should also pay less tax to the state.

But as the events progress and the viewer is offered a wide analytical array of cultural colours and challenges faced by Moroccan society and its women in particular, from the start of the film, certain events point out to the inevitable twist in the story. These clues would have served the plot further had they been more subtle or even just presented later in the film.

As such while the story is engaging and dynamic, and presents numerous layers of the modern Arab society, its predictable nature challenges otherwise strong structure and thematic choices.

The ultra-dramatic twists, which are quite traditional in Arab films, play out to be the weak-link in an otherwise interesting, progressive and dynamic film full of characters drawn with remarkable depth and themes central to contemporary society.

Eka3 Al Moharrek Tamer Abu Ghazala

Eka3 gives birth to Al-Moharek to infiltrate mainstream music

Independent music aggregator Eka3 – founded by Palestinian musician Tamer Abu Gazaleh – launches specialised booking agency ‘Al Moharek’ — Published in Ahram Online.
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In a room in Cairo’s newly opened Garden City art space, ‘Room‘, independent Palestinian, Egypt-based musician, Tamer Abu Ghazaleh tells a small audience of artists and members of the press the story of Eka3 and the launch of its new baby Al-Moharek (The Mover).

Founded in 2007 as a reaction to the growing movement of independent Arab music in the region, Eka3 aimed to fill the market void of independent music. The company – which was founded by Abu Ghazaleh – was meant to support artists to establish themselves in the market as well as sustain themselves financially through their art by taking on marketing responsibilities and booking shows.

Currently Al-Moharek – a booking agency specialised for independent artists – includes under its umbrella acts such as Like Jelly, Darwasha, Maryam Saleh‘s solo project, Duo Maryam Saleh and Zeid HemdanDuo Maii Waleed and Zeid Hemdan, Jawhar, Kamilya Jubran, Sarah Murcia, Telepoetic, Saleh and Minyawy and Tamer Abu Ghazaleh.

Previously Eka3 has worked with artists and projects such as Kareim Abo Reida, Bikya, The Choir Project and Jadal. Eka3 was in charge of booking live acts for Bassem Youssef’s popular television satire show by El-Bernameg. The company has also partnered with a number of festivals and platforms to feature the artists.

Abu Ghazaleh believes that one day the music we dub as “independent” could be just as accessible to the public as the so called “mainstream” music which many view as over-produced and industrialised. However, this cannot happen by only having talented musicians on the scene, but an entire market and industry will have to exist around them to help them reach a wider audience.

Ahram Online interviewed Abu Ghazaleh to find out more regarding Eka3’s plan for Al-Moharek and the independent music scene.

Ahram Online (AO): What kind of independent music environment existed in 2007 that pushed you to establish Eka3?

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh (TA): For many years back and to date, there has been and is still a huge gap between what the Arabic music culture has to say, and what the Arabic music market and governmental institutions are doing to answer to that. Eka3 was founded to be an active part of the many organizations, projects, and initiatives that are needed to fill such a gap. Our vision is that quality music shall become a major part of the Arabic mainstream sooner or later. Our mission is to be part of making this happen sooner, rather than later.

AO: How do you think Eka3 contributed to developing the music scene until now?

TA: Since 2007, we have been searching for missing market needs, and trying to fulfill such needs by different models of work; including production, distribution, event production and management, artist booking and touring, and licensing/publishing, working on a regional level and starting off with teams in each of Cairo, Beirut, and Amman.

AO: What kind of events or concerts has Eka3 managed to secure for the assigned artists? Could you provide examples?

TA: We are proud – and very lucky – to have worked with many great artists in the region. Some examples of our previous bookings include Aziz Maraka’s premiere shows in Madrid and Barcelona; Jadal’s premiere in Cairo and Alexandria; Kamilya Jubran’s premiere in Beirut; Maryam Saleh’s premieres in Ramallah, Nablus, and Carthage; Khyam Allami’s premieres in Oslo, Stockholm, Malmo, and Copenhagen; Mashrou3 Leila’s premiere show in Amman, among other bookings.

AO: What pushed the idea of creating four separate branches of Eka3?

TA: Given that we work on building different working models in the music business, and that we are aiming to build more models whenever we find a crucial gap in the market; and given that each model of work relates to different artists and different partners, we came to realize that Eka3 is not a company with one purpose, in reality; it is a platform and an incubator of ideas and models that all serve one vision. Therefore, separating each of our models under a dedicated name helps clarify that model’s role, and more importantly, helps Eka3 as a platform in finding more needs in the market and trying to answer to them, whether solely or in partnership with entrepreneurs.

AO: What criteria exists for an artist to be part of Al-Moharek?

TA: The ideal criteria are original vocal music with genuine Arabic sound, strong performance, serious management, and a culture of goodwill and transparency.

AO: What are the coming plans for Al-Moharek and the launch of the coming parts of Eka3?

TA: At Al-Moharek we are currently expanding our reach to be able to book our represented artists at wider geographies, including North Africa, the Arab Gulf, and more European cities. In attempt to make this happen on a wide scale, we have initiated an agent program where trusted individuals and companies that work in the events and touring fields in different cities of the world are able to officially represent our artists and help us spread their works in each of their countries’ markets; therefore creating a network of agents across the world empowering our artist roster’s opportunities.

Regarding the rest of Eka3’s properties, we have launched Ma3azef.com back in December 2012 in partnership with Ahmed Zaatari and Maan AbuTaleb. Ma3azef.com is a specialized music critique e-magazine; created in belief that critique is something that must exist in a healthy eco-system, and one that was – thus far – lacking.

In the coming months we will be announcing more news related to other properties, namely Awyav, the agency for content makers; and Mostakell, the music label.

Room Art Space Cairo Garden City

Room for the arts opens in Garden City

Newly opened cafe and art space, ‘Room,’ in Garden City aims to establish a space for artistic conversation in the heart of Cairo — Published in Ahram Online.
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In Garden City, one of the few neighbourhoods where one can still immerse oneself in Cairo’s Belle Epoque architecture, a new space for the arts has opened its doors.

“Room,” a basement space, is composed of two separate elements: a cafe, and a room capable of hosting an array of artistic events.

Officially opening its doors to the public 14 August, “Room” has been an idea in the making for several months.

Ahmed Zeidan, founder of “Room” who is also a cameraman and aspiring filmmaker, stumbled upon the space at the start of the summer and immediately saw its potential.

I used to host movie nights, theatre rehearsals and other things in my house in Garden City,” Zeidan told Ahram Online, explaining that when he first saw the space it looked entirely different than it looks now. “We tore down all the walls to make the two large rooms hosting the cafe and the art space.”

The art room is designed to serve several purposes with small tweaks. The large air-conditioned room has hardwood floors and a mirror that covers an entire wall to help with dance classes. Curtains cover the mirror for other events. A stage that can be assembled and dismantled in minutes is present, and a screen can be pulled down for film screenings and chairs and beanbags can be summoned from storage for seating.

The concept was for it to be a room that is transferable,” Zeidan stated. “[Potentially] each hour the room could take on a different form.”

The name of the place was inspired by this concept. People simply need a room.”

Room Art Space Inner 1

The other Room (Photo: Courtesy of Room)

“Room” is keen on serving an array of artistic needs at no cost. While dance classes, which are being organised by contemporary dancer Mirette Mechail, are going to be paid, most other events — such as film screenings and concerts — will be free of charge.

The space has a long list of artistic disciplines it plans to accommodate: performances, concerts, film screenings, exhibitions, rehearsals, talks and lectures.

So far Room has hosted a concert by electronic music and spoken word duo Ahmed Saleh and Abdallah Miniawy on its opening night. The concert, much like many music events planned to be hosted, was curated by Eka3’s Al-Moharek, a booking agency working to promote independent Arabic music.

With regional artists such as Maryam Saleh and Zeid Hemdan, Like Jelly and Tamer Abu Ghazala under their belt, one can predict an interesting line-up of musicians to appear at Room.

One way Room wants to host music is via an idea they are calling “Tiny Afternoon Concerts” where they host a musician during the day, and concerts are announced only hours in advance, to allow for an intimate setting with the audience.

On Saturday, 23 August, Room hosted a talk by heritage group Al-Tohfageya where they spoke of the history of Arabic music from the 1920s until now.

So far the events are planned one at a time. Zeidan is still looking into copyright issues to screen films, and the dance classes are set to commence in September.

Room Art Space Inner 2

(Photo: Courtesy of Room)
 Room is working on a financial model that is self-sustainable. Through the cafe, which sells high quality coffee, beverages and sandwiches, along with the dance classes fees, Zeidan hopes the space will be self-sufficient and maybe even generate profit in the long-run.

Most art spaces that offer independent or alternative art are reliant on grants from embassies and donors. It is to be hoped that art spaces such as Room, Falak in Garden City, Mizan in Maadi, Kaffein in Downtown, or Sufi in Zamalek, which all run cafes parallel to the art space, can find the means to sustain themselves.

Cafes are a smart way to go forward. Given the success the food and beverage industry has been seeing in an otherwise depressed economy, offering people high quality food, a space to have meetings and gather socially, or to sit and work in the afternoons, with regular caffeine fixes, could serve to sustain artistic events, becoming a transferable model.

Room is also exploring options on how people who use the art space can contribute in ways that are not financial. The organisers are toying with the idea to have Room’s logo on brochures of plays that are rehearsed in their space, among other ideas.

Room Art Space Inner 3

‘Grey Pillars’ or ‘The Number 10′ (Photo: Courtesy of Room)

When we walked into Room, a playlist of 90s music filled the space. Zeidan even let Ahram Online contribute to it. Another one of Room’s quirky additions is a “Blackout Menu,” which people can order from whenever power is cut in the neighbourhood.

The cafe area hosts a buletin board, a book case, and beatifully painted blue walls with small hand drawn paintings of paper planes. One wall has its original stonework completely bare of plaster. According to Zeidan, a team of heritage specialists came in to remove the plaster, which took a full week of intricate work to get done.

The building that hosts Room carries its own historical significance.

According to stories from veteran neighbours, the building served as the Cairo headquarters of the British Army in 1941, a location where many strategic decisions related to World War II were made, and where figures such as Charles de Gaulle are believed to have visited.

When in correspondance referencing the location at 10 Tombolat Street — before the street name was changed to Mohameyeen El-Arab — officers wrote of “Grey Pilliars” or “Number 10.” Later, some of the buildings floors were used as prisons during the British occupation. And both Syrian and Lebanese independence were negotiated within these very walls.

Now, Room brings light back in to this historic building, giving the city’s vibrant art scene a place within this wonderful architectural gem.

Room is located at 10 Mohameyeen El-Arab Street (previously Tolombat Street), Garden City, Cairo

Photo by Sherif Sonbol for Ahram Weekly

Les Petits Chats to reunite in Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Les Petits Chats, a cover band which started in 1967, gets together for the closing event of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Summer Festival on Tuesday 2 September.

In Alexandria, the singers will be joined by Nayer Nagui who worked on some arrangements of the songs and who will also play piano. Rami Soussou will play keyboards, Elhamy Amin percussion. The backing vocals will include members of Sobhi and Friends.

Ahram Online catches up with them in Vibe Studio for their rehearsal prior to the concert.

Shout Art Loud Documentary Sexual Harassment

Shout Art Loud: Interesting interactive documentary with several drawbacks

Interactive web documentary Shout Art Loud follows artists who tackle sexual harassment — Published in Ahram Online.
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Taking viewers on a ride through the Cairo Metro, filmmaker Melody Patry employs an unconventional style to create a documentary that shows Egyptian artists as they respond to the issue of sexual harassment.

Shout Art Loud – which is available for viewing online at Index on Censorship, the website for an international organisation defending free expression – uses the Cairo Metro as the backbone of the film. Viewers can either take the journey the filmmaker put together or do their own stops, choosing between the different metro stations. Each station offers one or a few stories, with every stop characterised by a specific art genre through which sexual harassment is addressed.

The film also has two additional chapters – or rather metro stops – one of them explores art on protesters’ placards while the other looks at taboos and censorship. The closing chapter suggests that we revisit our perceptions.

“I wanted the documentary to be accessible to an audience that was not necessarily [well-informed about] sexual harassment in Egypt. You do not have to be an expert in women’s rights in the Middle East to go through the web documentary,” the filmmaker Melody Patry told Ahram Online.

“The fact that Shout Art Loud is available online is all the more relevant today, as more artists use the internet as a platform to share their work.”

Patry is focused on art as a means to bring about change. She believes it is art that has the ability to trigger debate and inspire change in a society, especially when traditional forms of advocacy become powerless and insufficient.

“Art engages with people at various levels and transcends gender, religious, cultural and sociopolitical barriers,” Patry says.

“In the documentary, Merna Thomas explains that if you see graffiti in the street for example, whether you agree or disagree with it, it creates some form of dialogue, of interaction with passersby. Sexual harassment remains a sensitive topic and artists have played a major role in pushing the debate into the public space and inspiring social change.”

The artists featured in the documentary are among the most prominent working within the realm of sexual harassment. Although groups and artists such as Graffiti Hareemy initiative, the Bussy Project monologues, and rapper Maryam Mahmoud have been featured in documentaries and foreign media reports on sexual harassment, it may have been more suitable for a documentary with such an impressive and creative form to present artists who might be working on grassroots movements that have less of a media presence.

“The art scene is thriving in Egypt and many artistic initiatives addressing sexual harassment and violence against women are taking place. Women’s rights groups are also using artistic tools in the context of gender and feminism,” Patry told Ahram Online.

“I was lucky to be able to film and present some of these initiatives, but Shout Art Loud is not an exhaustive list. I am following the developments in Egypt closely and hope to be able to update the documentary with new projects and complementary interviews on a regular basis.”

One of the interesting – and perhaps underreported projects – featured in Shout Art Loud is the theatrical performance, Maknoun which was done in November 2012 as a collaboration between Studio 15/3 and Heya Foundation for Women. The workshop included 20 young men and women who shared stories on sexual harassment and came up with sketches for a final performance. One of the sketches highlighted in the documentary portrays a harassed woman denying that she has been harassed. The actors excel in bringing to life the inner conflict between being hurt and wanting to hide the shame of being a socially pressured woman.

The film highlights two dance initiatives that deal with sexual harassment: one is a flashmob organised in Heliopolis (performed earlier this year) where around 40-50 women gathered to make a public statement in the upper-middle class neighborhood; the other is a video art project called Cairography (late 2012) in which contemporary dancers explore the limits of their bodies on Cairo’s streets.

On the other hand the taboos and censorship chapter provides a much more interesting view. Dancer and actress Nadine Emile shares her story on the censorship authority removing one of her stories from the Bussy Monologues in 2010. The story, told in English, is about a girl being sexually molested by her cousin. Emile eventually performed the text without using words, but only miming it so the audience would know they have been censored. Emile tells the story in the film, and the director uses inserts from the performance which brings the viewer closer to the story.

Despite the chapter’s originality, two errors were present. The chapter included factual mistakes such as labeling Emile as a comedian as opposed to an actress and contemporary dancer and also referred to the D-CAF (Downtown Contemporary Art Festival) as “The D-CAF Censorship Festival.”

All in all, Shout Art Loud presents an interesting format, topic and user engagement. However it would benefit from additional research and deeper analysis of the issues it tackles not to mention stronger fact-checking to present a clearer image of the issue at hand.

Segn El Nesa Ramadan Television

Segn Al-Nesa: Ramadan TV hit offers glimpse of life in women’s prison

The series created by the team behind last Ramadan’s critically acclaimed Zaat invites audiences into the lives of female prisoners and wardresses in the infamous Qanater Prison — published in Ahram Online.
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“Prison is not just a high fence and a locked door. Prison can be in a piece of clothing you don’t want to wear, people you don’t want to see, a job you hate. Prison is feeling broken and oppressed.”

These words spoken by Segn Al-Nesa protagonist Ghalia (played by Nelly Karim) perhaps best summarise the core of current Egyptian society and the issues facing it – which is just what the series portrays throughout its happenings.

Over the past two decades or so, Ramadan has become increasingly associated with a plethora of television series. However, few works stand out every year as enjoying high artistic quality, depth of research and brilliant performances by its actors.

This year, Segn Al-Nesa (Women’s Prison) is definitely one such work. Directed by Kamla Abu Zekry, with a screenplay by Mariam Nawaem — the same duo who transformed Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1992 novel Zaat into one of last Ramadan’s most critically acclaimed productions — Segn Al-Nesa is based on a theatre play by the late feminist writer Fatheya El-Assal.

Segn Al-Nesa derives its content from real stories of prisoners and wardresses. The series is shot in the Qanater Prison, with the scenes in the wardresses’ houses shot in Haret Al-Sagganat (Wardresses’ Alley) in which they receive government housing. This has enabled the cast and crew to deal with the real-life characters that inspired this production and portray the story in an evocative way.

The characters are well rounded and believable; they surprise the viewers with how easy it is to relate to them.

While Segn Al-Nesa has been causing some stir – with some saying it is deliberately showing women and, more particularly, wardresses in a bad light – the crew maintain that some elements were dramatised for the sake of the story, as indicated by a disclaimer starting the 14th episode.

The first episode of Segn Al-Nesa kicks off with archival footage of Jean-Michel Jarre’s millennium concert held on 31 December 1999 at the Giza plateau, giving viewers a clear temporary indication. We then find Ghalia and a group of women, all dressed in black, mourning her mother who died suddenly.

It is the death of the mother, a wardress at the Qanater Prison for Women, that forces Ghalia to abandon her current profession as a seamstress in a factory — which she was passionate about expanding into her own business — and take on the seemingly daunting job at the prison; she must, if she is to retain the state-sponsored apartment in the wardress’ neighbourhood where she lives.

Her mother’s neighbour, colleague and friend Intessar (Salwa Othman) walks her through the prison where viewers get a tour of the different wards and secondary characters that are to appear throughout the series. From the drug wards, encompassing large-scale drug lords and mere distributors, to the public embezzlement ward where high society women stridently demand disinfectants, to the fun and daring prostitution ward, Ghalia is overwhelmed with her new life, although her kind nature soon enough gives her friends in all the different wards.

Like most of the scenes in Segn Al-Nesa, this one creates a series of images allowing viewers to enjoy the story visually. Since the events are heavy, Segn Al-Nesa takes on a slow pace in each episode. This pace, however, does not take away from the work as it allows for the carefully crafted imagery to speak for the characters and the plot.

In this female dominated series, one male character, Saber — portrayed by Ahmed Dawoud — has an important role. Saber is Ghalia’s lover, a charming and persuasive microbus driver who promises her marriage. However, he continuously cheats on her and extracts every penny that she owns.

Through Saber, the scriptwriter represents numerous men in contemporary Egyptian society, where more than 30 percent of household breadwinners are now women. Saber spends his wife’s money on drugs and women. Ghalia’s love for him blinds her from seeing all the indications pointing to the fact that he will eventually lead to her doom.

Dawoud’s acting is sincere and manages to prompt viewers to utterly despise his character as he shifts smoothly from a “poor-me” drama to a sturdy and psychologically abusive husband.

A number of secondary threads intercalate Ghalia’s story, revealing a multitude of narratives that lead several women to prison — all of them victims of society pushed into their crimes.

Dalal, played by Dorra, is a young woman from a low-income family who supports her mother and two sisters. Behind her mother’s back, she joins her aunt and cousins into prostitution. While she does not engage in sexual activities, she makes money from frequenting bars and cabarets with her cousin’s clients. When she decides to leave this life behind and get married, greed and consumerism lure her back into that world until she ends up in jail.

When she vows to leave prison and set matters straight with her family and ex-husband, she is rejected by both and falls back into prostitution — a fate which would have been different had she lived in a society that did not value a woman’s chastity over her salvation from past mistakes.

The prison offers a refuge for many of the prisoners. A colourful, lively and dependable inmate throughout her stay in prison, the character of Zeinat (Nesreen Amin) leaves the prison and continues to prostitute herself for LE20 ($3). The actress captures the gloom that overtakes her character once she leaves the prison so well that she seems to be delivering two separate performances of the same character.

Another character worth mentioning is Hayat (Donia Maher), a working mother with two young children, who takes Ghalia’s job at the sewing factory. Hayat suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a condition that her mother and husband do not understand.

Segn Al-Nesa is characterised by its luring scenes, many of which were unsteady cam or filmed from behind an object to give viewers the sense that they are spying on these women’s lives. In one of the most memorable scenes, we see Hayat shot from a low perspective, with the sun glaring in the background, cooking dinner for her family. As she stirs the tomato sauce for the staple Egyptian koshari, we see her add a white powder – poison – in large quantity, while her children play cheerfully in the background. Hayat murdered her entire family to protect them from the harassment and injustice she is faced with everyday.

Another marvelous story is that of Reda, played surprisingly well by pop-singer and actress Ruby, who was famous in the early 2000s for her daring music videos. Reda, who comes from a small village in Sharqiya, is sent to Cairo by her family to become a domestic worker in a high society household.

After having been wrongfully accused of theft, she leaves the household and goes to work for a new family. Although the new family is warm and loving, and treat Reda with respect, they are not devoid of the classism that characterises Egyptian society.

Segn Al-Nesa touches upon many social issues particularly faced by women: from the pressures of work, to sexual harassment in public spaces and the struggles they face within their marriages. The cast and crew managed to weave these and many more ills into a powerful story, glorious imagery and impeccable performances. While many might feel the series’ events are too slow, with some patience, everyone can manage to enjoy the sneak-peak inside the Qanater Prison.

Mango Konafa

Mango Konafa showdown: A run-through of the Ramadan summer delicacy

Summertime Ramadan means unbearable heat during fasting hours – but also Mango Konafa after iftar; Ahram Online samples versions of this transient delicacy and recommends the best — Previously Published in Ahram Online.

Coming roughly 10 days earlier every year, Ramadan has been hitting Cairo right in the scorching summer heat for a few years now. Muslims fast during the sizzling daytime and spend the evenings among family and friends – with desserts featuring most prominently in every nightly gathering.

While patisseries this Ramadan are presenting innovative desserts — such as Qatayef with Nutella, Red Velvet Basbousa and Pumpkin Konafa — the uncontested favourite for many remains that combining the best of Ramadan and of the summer fruit season: Mango Konafa.

Egypt is famous for its variety of mangoes, which are rich in flavour and smooth in texture. Mango was introduced during Egypt’s agricultural renaissance by Mohamed Ali Pasha in 1825. Since then, Egyptians have continued to venerate this exotic fruit which had found a new home, and Ramadan simply gave food innovators a chance to play around with it.

Being a passionate foodie, and so ridiculously enthusiastic about mango that my father and I purchase cases of it directly from orchards every year, the mix of konafa, cream and mango is just simply irresistible.

This is how a friend and I ended up hosting “Konafa Bel Manga Extravaganza”, where we invited friends to break their fast with a super light iftar on the second night of Ramadan and bring Mango Konafa platters from as many different patisseries as possible, so we could sample them together.

Le Carnaval

Le Carnaval invented Mango Konafa more than five years ago when Ramadan in September coincided with the height of the mango season in Egypt. Their konafa consists of two layers of cream, mango and konafa and an additional layer of juicy cake. These are topped with a layer of konafa and what can only be described as a pyramid of mango pieces. The entire platter is held together by a konafa fence. While the group agreed it deserves the winning title, the price of the platter – a hefty 350 LE – is a substantial drawback, especially since other versions came close on the scale of deliciousness. Le Carnaval also makes mini-mango konafas, which are relatively cheaper.

Simonds

One of Cairo’s oldest upscale bakeries, Simonds put their Mango Konafas in bowls – large and individual-sized. Both came to the party. The small bowl is significantly lower in quality than the larger bowl. The dessert includes several layers of konafa, cream and mango – with the small bowl only housing a layer of each, losing the richness. Having said that, Simonds succeeded on the fresh, tasty mango front — which really either makes or breaks this entire affair.

Tseppas

Now here is the black horse of the race. While its presentation is weak compared to the rest, we tried their individual-sized Mango Konafas and they were delicious. The konafa was quite soft, not soaked in syrup, and therefore offered a solid base for the cream and mango to really take the lead in the dessert. Like Simonds, their choice to add tasty mangoes did them wonders. Tseppas garnered a well-deserved second place in the Konafa Bel Manga Extravaganza vote, although this writer was happy to give place it first among the evening’s samples.

La Poire

While La Poire boast the largest number of franchises out of all the bakeries which make Mango Konafa — and thus are the most famous — and despite their history of using fresh and flavourful ingredients, their Mango Konafa was disappointing. The mangoes were quite sour, the cream looked and tasted more like condensed milk, and their presentation lacked grace. Not to mention that the konafa failed to keep its composure once the slicing of portions began.

Sale Sucre

While Sale Sucre was not an official contender in the Konafa Bel Manga Extravaganza, it is an opponent more than worthy of mentioning. Sale Sucre managed to score high with the writer, and her family, in terms of sweetness of the mango, fluffiness of the cream and crisp of the konafa. It is also quite light on the stomach compared to its counterparts – which means you can eat more of it without feeling as though an elephant was lounging across your chest as you drink your post-iftar tea and watch TV series.

On a final note, Ramadan began this year with the very start of the mango season. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect the mango to be as tasty as in previous years. Furthermore, let’s bear in mind that 2014 may be one of the last times we enjoy this delicacy in another 20-25 years, when Ramadan will once again coincide with the mango season, so let’s make the most of it! Thankfully, we will still have Nutella, pumpkin, red velvet and blueberry konafa to get us through these tough times.