Al-Monitor highlights a new effort to get art to the street. Ballerinas of Cairo has some great pictures, combining cultural physique with iconic cityscape.
By taking to the streets of Cairo, the young artists have succeeded in breaking the stereotype that ballet is an art form for the upper class only. Despite the dangers of performing on the streets and fears of negative reactions from the public, the ballerinas surprise passers-by with their performances.
When asked about the most difficult shows they performed, Taher said, “The performance in downtown [Cairo] was quite difficult given the heavy traffic, which made it harder for us to shoot. Our objective is an image that shows the beauty of ballet as an art as well as Cairo’s sites.”
According to Fathy, the idea of the project is to combine three art forms: architecture, ballet and photography. So far, Ballerinas of Cairo has performed 11 shows on several streets in Cairo, all of which were photographed.
I can’t say I’m very knowledgeable about ‘the arts’, but I admire the efforts of Egypt’s cultural scene to take their passion to the people. Here are some efforts I’ve highlighted in the past.
One of the reasons given for the weakness of liberal values in Egypt is that political parties are not active on the street. Politicians tend to be elite, it is said, and are much more comfortable appearing on television and holding conferences in hotels.
This makes a difference, of course, as the media has great influence over the general political atmosphere. But it is not as successful at winning converts and changing culture. Here, the argument goes, Islamist politicians have been much more successful as they win their support through charitable activity.
In this sense, then, this initiative covered by Mada Masr is a step in the right direction:
In four Egyptian cities over a weekend this month, one could be walking down the street and all of a sudden hear a violin, a percussion beat and the soulful singing of a trained soprano. This is what’s been happening in Port Said, Damietta, Mansoura and Cairo as part of Mahatat’s third Art of Transit tour, which took place between March 12 and 16.
Here is their goal:
“The idea is very important — to break the barrier of theaters and cinemas, which are closed spaces and charge money to bring art to the people,” Ziad Hassan says. “To reclaim public spaces for the public, so when you walk around you find all kinds of activities, are exposed to different sorts of art and deal with various people.”
Music and culture are not the exclusive domain of liberals, of course, though in Egypt the Islamists show much less interest and at times opposition.
But this outreach and similar efforts are clearly necessary. Anyone with a message must respect the target audience, best shown by going to them.
From my recent article at Arab West Report, the first in a series of interviews of members of the committee which wrote Egypt’s constitution. Mohamed Abla is an internationally acclaimed Egyptian artist and was a leading figure in the protests against the appointment of an Islamist head to the Ministry of Culture. As such, protection of culture became a constitutional necessity:
One area that was mostly uncontroversial, but dear to his heart, was the inclusion of several articles promoting culture. Articles 47-50 oblige the state to foster cultural development and protect its cultural heritage, but this section was strange to many only in that it was new. In the end, only Salafīs opposed.
Most of the interview dealt with controversial elements, however. One area in question was the decision of the committee to yield the decision on electoral order and system to the president. Some have wondered if this was cooked in advance to make way for Sisi’s presidential campaign:
‘Ablah said this was completely absent from their negotiations. Some members favored presidential elections first, other parliamentary. Some favored a parliament elected by individual candidacy, some by party list or something in-between. As they debated, positions shifted. In the end, the Committee of Fifty decided two things. First, they were unable to come to an agreement. Second, they were unequipped to come to an agreement. Technical matters such as these require data that would take a long period to study judiciously. Given their sixty day timeframe, proper determinations were not feasible. The president, however, will be able to summon all the tools of state to engage in social dialogue, gather pertinent data, and make a decision in the best interests of the country. Beside, ‘Ablah stated, such matters should not be made permanent in the constitution. Members desired flexibility in the political system; if an individual candidacy is preferred now, perhaps party list will be better in ten years when political life is stronger.
‘Ablah admits he was an anomaly in the committee, as he is not connected to the government. But as such he may have been ignored in any backroom political machinations. He saw very little, however, that even approached the idea of trading votes for certain articles. “These issues were not postponed for anyone’s interests.”
Please click here to read the rest of the article at Arab West Report.
As earlier crises continue, another one lingers in the background, and it is hard to know if it is trivial or essential. As Egypt’s politicians agitate over the Ethiopia dam, and as the people continue to collect ‘rebellion’ signatures, the nation’s artists stage a revolt of their own.
President Morsi appointed a new minister of culture; immediately he began firing longtime heads of departments. He says the cultural scene is full of Mubarak-era corruption. Artists say he is implementing a Brotherhood plan to destroy Egyptian culture and replace it with one of their own – where art, creativity, and expression have little place. They currently occupy the ministry building in protest, where they stage a cultural event each night.
God, both scenarios can be imagined. Sort out the right from the wrong, and hold accountable those who err – past and present. But culture: Help Egypt find her way in this battle for her soul.
Culture is largely beyond the reach of manipulation, but not of influence. It is what the nation’s people are, and especially what they have been. It can change, and in modern times the change can sometimes outpace a people’s comfort.
Be merciful, God, and give comfort. Some Egyptians look at the loosening of traditional mores and balk. Others see a conservative stranglehold retarding thought and progress. Both blame the import of foreign cultural values, but both are Egyptian, trying to meld society in a preferred image. Both are fearful, though the revolution has flipped the status quo script, bringing religion-based forces to power.
Here it is hard to craft a unified prayer, God, as this division goes beyond politics. Culture is deeper than a plea for the national interest. For many, culture is not national at all. It can be reduced to sect or tribe, or merged into ubiquitous globalization. To ask for the preservation of ‘Egyptian’ culture itself is to take a side.
But the land called Egypt has people who collectively inhabit a culture, and that culture can either encourage or discourage the good you desire. God, this is so bland, but honor Egyptians with a life-giving culture. Define it as you wish, God, but may it reflect your values and not those imported from any other place.
As for the artists and the minister and the Brotherhood, God, give people wisdom to know what is at stake. Is it everything, or nothing?
But culture: It is the soul of Egypt. Ensure she comes through this revolution healthy.
Nawara Nagm is a revolutionary activist who believes one of the main flaws of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization is that they do not know how to talk to the Egyptian people. Correct or not in her assessment of the Brotherhood, her article is very humorous and offers great insight into Egyptian culture. There are many lessons here for those willing to learn (and, God forbid, exploit).
Here is a good excerpt:
The Muslim Brotherhood’s problem is that they do not resemble the Egyptian character in any way, they don’t have the Egyptians’ light touch and don’t understand the nature of the Egyptians whom they are trying to rule amidst this turbulence. They don’t understand Egyptian taste in food, clothes or arts. It is a “yes, master” organization ruling a people that only park their cars under “No Parking” signs; a highly organized group ruling a people who spray water in front of shops to cool things off; a dour organization ruling a people that never stops laughing at its own misfortunes; an organization that says “die in your rage” ruling a people that does not fear death even when crossing the street and that does not die when it is in rage, but takes revenge on those who inspired their rage and makes a joke out of them; it is a bureaucratic organization ruled by an official with a family, branch and bureau all above him ruling a people that manages things on the fly.
What’s worse, the Brotherhood deals with us on the basis that we’re an “ill-bred” people and they want to teach us some manners. There’s no greater proof of that than the text of the constitution that the Brotherhood drafted, putting in every article expressions like “cultivation,” “morals,” and “values.” The only thing left for them was to put: “The people must brush their teeth and clip their nails.”
I don’t know what the reason is behind this naïveté on the part of the Brotherhood. Your Excellency the President, Mr. General Guide [of the Brotherhood], Mr. Khairat al-Shater, have you never driven a car on the streets of Egypt? If you do something wrong, smile at the person you wronged and say: “Sorry, I owe you an apology,” he will break out in a smile and say: “May God ease things for you, brother!” And if the other person is in the wrong and you open your yap at him, he’ll say: “Why are you shouting? Don’t I have a voice same as you…that’s not the way to do things…to hell with you.”
Easy… easy… Showing one’s anger doesn’t work with Egyptians. Egyptians are not afraid of a raised voice, since God has blessed them with a throat such that when they whisper in your ear in Imbaba, they’re heard in al-Tagammu al-Khamis, and they don’t get startled or shaken. It’s through gentle coaxing that you gain our affection.
About six weeks ago, we welcomed baby Alexander into our lives. According to Egyptian tradition, one week later we should have given him a Subuu3.
Subuu3 is related to the Arabic word for ‘week’, and the number three at the end represents an Arabic letter absent in English. We delayed his party, however, until his eighteenth day of life, until both sets of grandparents could arrive. But this is acceptable according to the local traditions, as Egyptians tend to be very, um, flexible, on matters of time.
Our good friend, a Coptic Orthodox priest, Fr. Yuennis, traveled three hours one way from Upper Egypt to perform the religious rites of what is essentially a cultural baby party – received from the Pharaohs. We weren’t really sure what these rites included, though, until he was about fifteen minutes from our home.
My friend, who had already arrived, told me I needed to have a basin prepared for the priest to bathe Alexander in. I racked my brain, but couldn’t think of anything appropriate. Fortunately our neighbors upstairs had a foot bath which worked perfectly for the event.
I learned after the fact that we should have had a similar party the previous night where Alexander was also bathed. This time, all the guests would have thrown an Egyptian coin or two into the water, and the lucky woman who was chosen to bathe the baby would then collect that money. It is up to the family to choose, but the main criterion is that she is an older woman. My friend told me that for the Subuu3s done for her two children, the women took 100 and 150 Egyptian pounds (US $17 and $25) respectively. Not a bad fee for giving a baby a bath!
Instead, our party began with the arrival of the priest, who chanted prayers before taking Alexander from me to bathe him. The point is to bless the baby; it is not a baptism. In the Orthodox tradition boys are baptized forty days after birth, and girls eighty.
I have to admit that I was quite distracted during the priest’s words since we had about fifteen children, ages 3-9, holding lit candles and standing very close to each other and many other flammable items! Even when I took Alexander to get him ready for his bath, I was very conscious of the candles behind my back and prepared to catch on fire at any minute!
Later, when I asked my friend about the craziness of putting lit candles in young children’s hands, she just laughed and said this was a key part of the ceremony, and that, unlike our party, the children should have marched around the whole apartment holding the candles.
(Please click here to watch a video clip from the religious part of the ceremony. Translated subtitles are provided, though we are not yet able to translate the parts in Coptic. You may need to select ‘captions’ from the YouTube screen.)
After getting cleaned up and dressed in white, as is customary, Alexander got to experience the most stimulating part of the evening. First, he was put into a special bed made for the occasion. Then we put him and his bed on the floor and I stepped over him seven times, showing my authority over him as his Mother. Next he was taken by my friend and shaken a bit in his bed.
If that didn’t wake him enough, another friend took a mortar and pestle and made lots of noise right next to him. As it rang out, she chanted something like, “Listen to your mother, listen to your father, listen to your aunt, but don’t listen to your grandfather.” They will say several variations on this, always joking around by adding the “don’t listen to” part. When I asked the ‘why’ behind all this, I was told that it helps him not be afraid in the future when he hears a loud noise. Having been put through this ordeal, the rest of life should be much easier.
This is all followed by walking around the room in a circle with the noisemaker in his ear while the guests chant something like, “Lord, be with him and grow him; may he have the prettiest gold in his ear.” This is said regardless of gender, for some reason.
(Please click here to watch a video clip from the cultural part of the ceremony. While there is lots of chatter, no subtitles are necessary – just take in the hubbub.)
Once all this was done, it was time for the food. In general, Egyptians are very generous and great at hospitality, so we wanted to be sure we had more than enough food as well as a nice-looking spread. It probably wasn’t enough, but with a lot of help from the four grandparents, we mixed ready-made Egyptian favorites with American items.
The final aspect of the traditional baby party is the party favor, also called a Subuu3, where we comically veered too much into American baby shower traditions. The Egyptian bag should be filled with peanuts, popcorn, and some hard candy, along with perhaps a baby-looking figurine or something similar and labeled with the baby’s name. But our friends were enamored by the favors we gave out as they weren’t the least bit traditional.
In preparation for this party, my mom came with American items. Our bags were filled with a lollipop and a couple pieces of candy – all wrapped in blue, of course – then tied together with a miniature pacifier and a card bearing Alexander’s vital statistics: name, date of birth, weight, and length — information all our stateside friends expect to hear at the birth of a new baby. This was far too much detail for our Egyptian friends, though. They only include the baby’s name and a written blessing. This is what happens when you combine two cultures!
All in all it was a great night. Our Egyptian friends had a chance to meet Alexander and we were able to share in Egypt’s unique cultural traditions. Perhaps most importantly our child received a blessing, as did we, of an ever deeper sense of belonging.
Egyptian Salafi parliamentarian Mohamed al-Kurdi created a minor stir last week while testifying before the education committee. He declared his opposition to a USAID program to encourage English language teaching in government schools, beginning in grade two as opposed to grade four. Kurdi found this to be an example of ‘cultural imperialism’ and urged the government to cancel the grant.
The Salafi Nour Party, for its part, distanced itself from Kurdi, consenting to their member’s referral to a disciplinary hearing.
Amina Nossair, professor at the Azhar University, criticized:
‘We definitely should not neglect our mother tongue but I would remind Mr. Kurdi that learning foreign languages was advised by Prophet Mohamed.’
Nevertheless, through conversations with many Muslims in the Arab world, I have felt there is a palpable discomfort with the dominance of Western culture. Many of these conversations were conducted in English, so few would argue the language itself should be stricken from education.
Many other conversations, often in their language, have flipped the sentiment arguing Arabic is the language of God. Exasperation at Western culture is often awkwardly articulated as a desire for the reassertion of Islamic cultural dominance. In these cases the issue is seen as one of struggle, rather than respect for the uniqueness of each cultural expression.
But really, why argue in any direction? After all, who can resist the flow of culture? It is above us all.
Such a statement threatens to undo the reality of education as a shaper of values. It is this which Kurdi is addressing in reality, and reflects why the Salafi Nour Party maneuvered to receive the education file in the distribution of parliamentary committee leadership.
An example more akin to Western sensibilities may help win Kurdi sympathy, along with others frustrated over ubiquitous Pepsi commercials starring scantily clad Arab women.
Rev. Emmanuel Bennsion is the pastor for Sudanese ministries at the Anglican Cathedral in Cairo. Sudanese himself, he has lived the past twenty-four years in Egypt. Unlike many of his parishioners, however, he did not arrive as a refugee. In fact, he was a privileged student selected to study in Zagazig University in the Nile Delta.
‘Privileged’, however, is adjoined to the word ‘politicized’. Bennsion is a non-Arab Christian Sudanese from what is now the independent nation of South Sudan. He explains the independence movement is quite old, and the Arab leadership in the north moved to diffuse it as standard policy.
Bennsion stated Sudanese officials targeted bright students from the south to study in Egypt so as to assist in soft, low-key Arabization. During the 1970s up to 300 students a year were selected for the program. They would learn Arabic, gain a picture of Arab civilization from friendly interactions with colleagues, and increase their sense of belonging to Sudan-as-Arab nationality, even though they were ethnically, linguistically, and in some cases, religiously different.
Is this wise policy to unify a diverse population, or cultural imperialism of the sort which Kurdi would decry if applied in reverse?
Consider how many university students from around the world come to the United States. While many come of their own accord, seeking the best preparation for their fields, US policy actively facilitates many programs to give the best and brightest minds a taste of America. If they stay, we profit from brain drain. If they return, they have gained insight into American freedom and values, winning, perhaps, their hearts and minds.
Cultural imperialism, generous welcome, enlightenment sharing, or mere education? It is not a simple question.
Bennsion continues, however, to give what would appear to be a more sinister Sudanese cultural manipulation. All students wishing to enter government elementary schools must first complete two years of preschool in the ‘Kharwa’. Education here, he maintained, consisted entirely of Quran recitation and study of hadith.
This requirement could be avoided if the student entered a private school, but this was cost prohibitive for many. To receive a free education, all students, Christians included, needed to learn the Quran.
In Egypt, all schools teach religion, but separate Muslims and Christians into different classes, taught by approved members of the religious establishments.
Even so, many Christians complain that it is always the Christians who must leave the room, while Muslims remain behind in the normal classroom. Furthermore, the secular curriculum – science, math, and especially Arabic – is laced with Islamic concepts which all are required to learn.
Of course, Islam is the religion of the vast majority and a major shaper of cultural values. In Sudan, this was subjected upon a non-Islamic geographical region. In Egypt, there is no ‘Christian’ area, though Christians are everywhere. Should not Egyptian Copts simply adapt to their cultural setting?
How might your opinion of such issues shape your response to these American questions:
Teaching of Spanish versus English-only educational systems
Mandatory inclusion of ‘intelligent design’ theories in school textbooks
Providing financial vouchers to poor students to attend private/religious schools
Allowing Muslims students to absent themselves during class for prayers
Sponsoring school prayers or moments of silence before football games
Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, including the phrase ‘under God’
The parallels are not exact, but evaluation of the question shapes the search for consistency. What is the proper relation between culture, religion, and freedom? Must we allow for the other what we desire for ourselves? Or is this itself a sentiment derived from a particular cultural-religious framework?
Even if so, is the sentiment superior to cultural imperialism, whether in its Western or Islamic form? Or does appeal to the sentiment itself reflect a return to the zero sum ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative?
Kurdi, however lamentably, reminds us that while we may flail at unwanted cultural expressions, education plays a real role of determination. Egypt, much like America, is in struggle to set its course.
Sudan, meanwhile, has divided over the issue. Is this lamentable? So much depends on perspective, shaped by education, the common collection of which forms a culture.
note: This article was originally published on Aslan Media.