The Arab Spring is not only a political revolution, but a cultural one as well. This is Egypt’s time to shine, to realise the potential of the masses and the strength of community, and to build a country founded on the people of Egypt. The history of Egypt is one of expression and ideas, swamped in knowledge and literature; however, this culture has somewhat declined in recent decades. Before its translation into Latin, Arabic was perhaps the language of science and enlightened thinking. Thus, it is certainly about time that the Arab world reasserted its position as a centre for knowledge and excellence.
Egypt has churned out a great number of influential writers in the past century, such as Naguib Mahfouz, Yahya Haqqi, and more recently, Ahdaf Soueif. The role of the artist/writer/creative, however, is not fostered in Egypt and a large portion of the Arab world, and generally speaking, is not given due appreciation. Here, 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 ‘staple’ Egyptian career options. It is time for creatives in the country to gain more respect for their work and talent; and what better time to support a creative environment than in a time of transition? This is the perfect opportunity to bring to light different voices and viewpoints, although a change in attitude from the public is also vital.
On my most recent visit to Egypt, I was excited to see so much happening in terms of cultural activity. Part of the TEDx series, TEDxAlexandriaU – which ‘brings thinkers and doers together’ – is a non-profit organisation that shares ideas, and gives information and advice to members of the general public in the form of lectures and presentations, presented by experts in particular fields. Last year, TEDxAlexandriaU organised Unlock, its first event, which encompassed subjects from the country’s varying education systems, to traffic etiquette and road behaviour. The event also included a drawing workshop, wherein each participating group drew a part of Egypt from their own perspective. Concluding the day was an event entitled Speak Up, which allowed all attendees to participate in expressing their opinions through general discussions, singing, and poetry.
Also fostering expression and creative discourse is The Freedom Bus. Bringing together volunteers from myriad social strata, including artists, NGOs, and free-thinkers, the bus travels to different towns, villages, and cities around Egypt. The underlying idea is to provide an outlet for thought, and a forum for discussion surrounding current social and political issues in Egypt, whereby possible solutions and methods to overcome these issues are explored. Furthermore, Mosireen – an independent, donor-supported film collective born out of the revolution – has recently launched a new project,The Right Of. This project focuses on social issues in Egypt (e.g. housing, healthcare, and labour strikes), and its films deliver poignant messages to citizens and outsiders, capturing both the positives and negatives of the country, encouraging constructive change. As well as its social campaigning, Mosireen also organises weekly screenings of films relating to social movements around the world, and offers filmmaking workshops for aspiring creatives.
Adding to the cultural revolution is music. Music has always been a strong component of the Arab cultural landscape, and is now being adopted as a force for change. For example, the Mini-Mobile Concert is an Alexandria-based initiative, which aims to bring underground art and music with a message for change to the streets of Egypt. 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, as well as water consumption in Egypt as a whole.
Noon – The Power of Art and Practice, a recently established youth project that provides a forum for youths of all cultural, political, and social backgrounds to share their thoughts, is yet another cultural endeavour garnering attention. In their debut event last September in downtown Cairo, participants were provided with painting and graffiti tools to partake in an art competition, and were also treated to an open-mic session and talent show. Likewise, another outlet for discussion and expression is also being provided via creative writing courses run by Linda Cleary – a British writer, poet, and performer – at the Diwan Bookstore, which has many branches across Egypt. Discussing the idea behind these workshops, Linda remarked that ‘Reading is educational in all realms – handing over other countries, cultures, people – that ordinarily we might not get the chance to encounter’. It’s fantastic to see people like Linda championing reading in a country currently lacking in literary spirit. Egyptians don’t seem to read for pleasure in Egypt, and with a huge range of great literary figures spanning its history, I find this a great shame.
It is time to reinvigorate and make the most of the great efforts being made to revive Egypt’s creative spirit, such that it can regain its place as a hub for grand ideas and excellence in all fields of knowledge.
*Sarah Zakzouk is a London-based academic publisher. Sarah’s writing focuses on the arts, culture, and gender politics of the Middle East. She currently runs BOOKED Literary Events, a forum for cultural and literary exchange, and can be followed on Twitter @sarahzakzouk. This article originally appeared in ReOrient Magazine.