Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has seen a proliferation of cultural initiatives which attempt to develop its contemporary culture, art, literature and music as a means of interpreting the ambiguous legacy of the Arab Spring and understanding the present political uncertainty.
The Arab Spring was not only a political revolution, but also a cultural revolution. It was Egypt’s time to shine, to make the very most of the masses and community strength, and to build a country based on the people of Egypt. The history of Egypt is swamped in literature: a history of expression and ideas. But this culture has become somewhat lost in recent decades; before the transition to Latin, Arabic was the lingua franca of scientific knowledge and enlightened thinking. It is certainly about time that the Arab world reasserted its position as a center for knowledge and excellence.
Egypt has churned out a great number of influential writers, including Naguib Mahfouz, Yahya Haqqi and more recently, Ahdaf Soueif. The role of the artist, the writer, or the creative is not fostered in Egypt and a lot of the Arab world more generally, and like many artists around the world, they are not appreciated during their lifetimes. The arts are widely viewed as a ‘fall-back’ option for those who do not enter the worlds of medicine, engineering or law – the three of which constitute the staple diet of Egyptian career options. It is time for the creatives to gain more respect for their work and for their talent; and what better time to foster and encourage this creative environment than in a time of transition? It is the perfect opportunity to bring to light different voices and different viewpoints, but it also requires a change in attitude from the public.
On my most recent visit to Egypt I was excited to see so much happening in the country’s cultural activity. TEDxAlexandriaU was an initiative aimed at bringing ‘thinkers and doers together.’ Part of the TEDx series, a non-profit organization devoted to ‘ideas worth spreading’, and giving information and advice to members of the general public in the form of lectures and presentations from experts in a particular field. Broadcast online, these lectures were accessible and free to view – an excellent way to spread knowledge and information to the world at large. TEDxAlexandriaU organized its first event in 2011 under the theme ‘Unlock’ – encompassing subjects from the varying education systems to traffic etiquette. The event also incorporated a drawing workshop, each participating group drawing a part of Egypt from their own perspective. The day ended with TEDxAlexandriaU Speak Up, allowing all attendees to participate with their comments through general discussion, singing and poetry.
Also fostering the concept of expression and creative discourse is The Freedom Bus. This is an initiative that brings together volunteers from a myriad of social strata, including artists, NGOs and free thinkers – all traveling on a bus to visit different towns, villages and cities around Egypt. The idea is to provide an outlet for thought and a forum for discussion surrounding current social and political issues in Egypt, discussing possible solutions and methods to overcome them. Another initiative born out of the revolution is Film Collective Mosireen, which recently launched its new project, The Right of: a series of videos focusing on social issues in Egypt. The videos deliver a poignant message to both Egypt’s citizens and to outsiders, capturing both the positives and negatives of the country encouraging the necessary changes to be made. Issues covered have included housing, healthcare and labor strikes. As well as its social campaigning, Mosireen organizes weekly screenings of films relating to social movements around the world, and offers filmmaking workshops to aspiring creatives. Mosireen lends itself as a workspace for filmmaking and editing, offering its meeting rooms for discussion and collaboration. It is an independent organization and depends entirely upon contributions and donations to keep its projects going.
Music has also always been a strong part of the Arab cultural landscape and it is now being adopted as a force for change. The Mini-Mobile Concert is an initiative in Alexandria which aims to bring underground art and music to the streets of Egypt. This music will have a message; it will center on change. Similarly, The Nile Project works with musicians from the Nile region to curate cross-cultural collaborative musical dialogues. The idea is to build important social connections among those residing along the river, in order to address and overcome the environmental challenges affecting the Nile and water consumption in Egypt. The Nile is a vital source of water for the country and a strategy is required to ensure that the best use is made of this supply.
This is a time for Egypt’s youth to express themselves; there are so many opportunities to foster the concept of creative and cultural exchange. Noon: the power of art practice is a recently established forum for youths to share their thoughts, no matter what their cultural, political or social background. Noon’s first event was held on Friday 14th September 2012 in downtown Cairo. Participants were provided with painting and graffiti tools, competing for the winning place. Throughout the day there was an open mic setting and talent show. This forum for discussion and expression is being encouraged also through creative writing courses, which were offered at Diwan Bookstore, which has many branches all over Egypt. These courses were run by Linda Cleary, a writer, poet and performer originally from the UK, with a background in theater. Discussing the idea behind these workshops, Linda said: ‘Reading is educational in all realms – handing over other countries, cultures, people – that ordinarily we might not get the chance to encounter.’
Reading fosters the imagination and feeds the mind; it is fantastic to see people like Linda Cleary championing the cause in a country lacking in literary spirit. People don’t seem to read for pleasure in Egypt; with a huge range of great literary figures spanning Egypt’s history I find this a great shame. It is time to reinvigorate this spirit.