Egypt's Cultural Decentralization

[caption id="attachment_55247807" align="alignnone" width="620"]A performance by Noon Creative Enterprise in Egypt's governorates. (Courtesy Noon Creative Enterprise) A performance by Noon Creative Enterprise in Egypt's governorates. (Courtesy Noon Creative Enterprise)[/caption]

One of the most significant changes to Egypt’s cultural scene post-2011 revolution is the growing consensus among cultural institutions and artists alike that communities beyond the country’s major cities should have access to the same creative opportunities as those in Cairo and Alexandria. This has largely been triggered by the reawakened belief that art can be of educational and social value, and in addition can develop debate and stir the advancement of thought. According to Egypt’s creative minds, those benefits of art became endangered over the year when former president Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in power.

Several organizations convinced of the need for such cultural decentralization have already given financial or logistical support to various independent artistic initiatives around the country, making it likely that 2014 will witness increased cultural vitality across Egypt's twenty-seven governorates.

For example, since its inception in 2004, the non-profit organization Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Culture Resource) has gained profound expertise in encouraging cultural exchange regionally and within Egypt's governorates. This past December, Cairo and Upper Egypt's Minya governorate benefited from the fruits of this expertise in the shape of a grant for a performance of Once Upon a Time Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, an experimental theater production by Iranian—Egyptian artist Sabry Zekry.

Al Mawred Al Thaqafy’s also helped to set up Madad, a cultural service launched in 2012 that supports producers, the training of artists, and literary seminars, whose goal is, as Al Mawred Al Thaqafy states, to address "deprived communities . . . [including] people in small towns and villages and in slums and other poor urban neighborhoods,” which it says are “home to 56 per cent of the Egyptian population."

Similarly, Action for Hope, another Al Mawred Al Thaqafy program, provides cultural activities for communities suffering from war, displacement or difficult living conditions. It held its third event in El-Dowair Village, Asyut in November.

Basma El-Husseiny, Al Mawred Al Thaqafy 's managing director, is actively involved in Egypt’s Independent Culture Coalition, which in April 2011 launched El-Fan Midan (Art is a Square), a one-day cultural festival packed with performances, visual arts and poetry. El-Fan Midan was initially held on the first Saturday of each month in Cairo's Abdeen Square, as well as in other cities. But by December 2011, El-Fan Midan had stretched to thirteen governorates and sixteen of Egypt’s cities. The festival embraced many social and political messages: in June 2013 it endorsed the anti-Mursi Tamarod (Rebellion) campaign. Although it has had its ups and downs, today the festival remains one of the most sustainable cultural platforms across Egypt.

The growing need to include rural governorates is also a driving force for other cultural institutions. Another example of this trend is the Mahatat for Contemporary Art, an initiative whose mission is the "decentralization of contemporary art by developing art in public spaces and community art projects all over the country." The organization engages the community in art projects using art as a means to enhance the socio-political environment. During 2013, it toured all over Egypt. Its most successful programs included art workshops and an open-air photography display in the Delta port of Damietta and its neighboring coastal city, Ras El-Barr. In November 2013, supported by the British Council and Vrede Van Utrecht Community Arts Lab from the Netherlands, Mahatat organized a series of lectures on cinema and filmmaking for emerging filmmakers in Damietta. Its mission for 2014 is to launch projects in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Port Said and Damietta, as well as to spread its activities to Egypt’s other governorates.

In yet another example, the Noon Creative Enterprise, launched in 2011 with the aim of giving a creative voice to all communities, has just completed its tour of fifteen governorates with Keep it Real, It All Comes Out in the Wash, an interactive theater performance targeting young audiences. The twenty-five-minute show, performed in a multitude of cities and villages, was followed by a discussion on the issues tackled in the performance, such as violence at home, relationships between boys and girls, equality and racism.

Decentralization is also part of the official mission of the Doum Cultural Centre, a non-profit foundation which, through workshops, book discussions, and meetings with intellectuals, aims to boost critical thinking among the various social strata.

Other institutions and festivals, though based in Cairo, are extending a cultural arm towards the governorates. In May 2013, the multi-disciplinary Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) staged a performance of the hugely popular traveling play White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour in Asyut. Although some questioned the choice of play, saying it was not suitable for Upper Egypt's “disconnected” audience, the D-CAF organizers will nevertheless benefit from the publicity generated by last year’s event when it comes to planning their activities in Asyut and in Minya during this year’s festival.

It is apparent that many organizations in Egypt, including independent cultural groups backed by international cultural centers and foreign embassies in Cairo, are initiating or becoming involved in activities that reach out to audiences outside Egypt’s major cities.

While the independent art scene will doubtlessly continue to work on developing a successful dialogue with the audiences of Egypt’s governorates, 2014 may also see the Ministry of Culture forced to redefine the role of the more than 550 government-funded cultural centers scattered across Egypt, many of which are nonfunctioning.

But with the General Egyptian Book Organization holding a book fair in Sohag and the Cairo Opera House recently holding a show in the western Nile Delta city of Damanhour, it seems that for now, at least, the government cultural centers are also starting to give some much-needed attention to the governorates.