A Cultural Awakening in Cairo
|April 03, 2011
Dietz is a recent graduate of Georgetown University and alum of a Youth Talk pilot school, currently working
as a journalist in Cairo. He is a contributing writer to PolicyMic.com,
and is the founder of the new blog TheMidEaster.com,
a daily Middle East policy and politics blog. Be sure to click the link below for his interviews with emerging Egyptian artists!
"Art is dead in Cairo."
These were the words spoken by my philosophy teacher in my first week
studying at the American University in Cairo several years ago. Many
in the class murmured in agreement. No one spoke in protest. For a
country with a rich cultural heritage and proudly referred to
by Egyptians as "Om el-Donia" (Mother of the World), such an admission
revealed the despair over a disintegrating society. Gradually one
sensed that life in Egypt was hollow, devoid of creativity and spark.
Passions were reserved for the extra blasting of the horn while stuck
in the relentless Cairo traffic, not for a canvas or an oud (a version
of a Middle Eastern guitar).
A dignified people, Egyptians
were remarkably candid in explaining the absence of the vivacious arts
scene one would expect from the "mother of the world." Many Cairns
described how life in Egypt was too hard to bother with the beguilement
of high culture.
They said that the arts (whether it be
painting, music, theatre, poetry) couldn't sustain a family, thus
ruling out a whole class of talented youth. Worse yet, the arts weren't
appreciated or admired in society anymore, so why bother?
Most of the blame rested on an oppressive political climate. Shop
owners, students, the wealthy and the poor repeated that the government
was sucking the creativity out of the people. Freedom of speech and
expression were repressed. Ingenuity admonished. The people felt
chained, strangled by an invisible oppressive force. Their work was not
appreciated. Their work was not allowed. Their work was not wanted.
I pressed further... What about an underground arts scene in Cairo?
People usually chuckled... There was no arts scene in Cairo, they said.
One person, though, challenged this view and set out to prove her
belief. Amina, an AUC classmate and art minor at AUC, denied art was
dead. Admitting it had suffered greatly over the past generations, she
was determined demonstrate that it was coming back. Art was ready to
flourish, she insisted. It was just hidden. Amina took me to her
painting showcase at AUC, an exhibit that featured students and coming
artists. After, she urged me to go see other places and discover hidden
cultural gems craving mainstream acceptance.
I took her up on
her recommendation venturing out to see different tucked-away galleries
and hear underground bands perform at small but hip cafes.
The arts may have been close to life support, yet for those who were
part of the underground community, there was a definite hope and
optimism about its revival.
Last November, nearly 2 years
after studying abroad, I returned to Cairo to find a dozen new small
shops and galleries in Zamalek, the upscale island in the center of
Cairo, displaying everything from abstract art to local handcrafts to
hand made accoutrements imported from Central Asia. Visiting some of
the shops, one could feel the excitement emanating from their
owners. There appeared to be an artistic awakening and these young
entrepreneurs and artists were leading the way.
The question remained, where would this energy lead?
We didn't have long to wait. Three months later came the political
awakening. During the eighteen days in Tahrir Square, artistic signs,
music and humor were on view. Did the cultural awakening and the
political revolution impact each other? Returning to Cairo, I set out
to hear the perspectives not only of those involved in the political
revolution, but also the voices of those leading and hopeful for a
cultural revolution as well. I have sought a variety of perspectives
from different mediums of the arts -- comedy, design, painting,
photography, film and music. I wanted to hear from those who are
established and have paved the way for the next generation and those
who are charting their own course. Here below are the thoughts of 7
artists representing different artistic mediums (comedy, design,
painting, photography, film and music) on whether art played a roll in
the revolution, and where they see the arts in general, and their own
art in particular, is heading.
# Click the links below for David's interviews with the following artists:
Article and photos courtesy of David Dietz, TheMidEaster.com.
- Hossam Hassan, an up-and-coming mixed-media artist;
- Mohammed Yousry, an actor and award-winning independent film writer;
- Dean Obeidallah, an award-winning Arab-American comedian and executive producer of the annual NY Arab-American Comedy Festival;
- Nour and Fadi, members of the band Nour Ayoun (Eyes of the Night), recently featured in the Washington Post for their role in the protests;
- Mona Said, owner of the Safar Khan Art Gallery in Zamalek, Cairo;
- Azza Fahmy, award-winning, internationally-acclaimed jewelry designer and author of the book Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt; and
- Mounaz Abdel Raouf, an up-and-coming artist who has been featured in several galleries throughout Cairo.