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Youth, art, and public discourse reignite Alexandria’s fading culture

After the cultural decline of a once shining Mediterranean star, Alexandria's old glamour is now being revived by the city’s youth and public spaces

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 30 Sep 2015
Alexandria
From top left, clockwise: * Heshk-Beshek performance, scheduled to be staged at Alexandria's Sayed Darwish Theatre (photo: promotional material of Metro Al Madina troupe), *Crowd at one of the concerts organised by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's Arts Centre (Photo: Ati Metwaly), *Syrian guitarist Ramy Sebei performs in El-Cabina (Photo: Rowan El Shimi), *Al Sameteen during the general rehearsal at El-Horrya Lil Ebdaa (Freedom of Creativity) centre in Alexandria (Photo: Mona Abouissa).
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The glamour of a lively musical or an intensive, and maybe even divisive, cultural debate is again finding its way into the heart of Alexandria, a city that went from a state of much celebrated cultural cosmopolitanism to a state of intellectual decline.

“Alexandria was falling silent; it was suffocating, but over the past few years it has been regaining its old glamour – slowly but surely, as the saying goes,” said prominent Alexandrian novelist-researcher Alaa Khaled.

Khaled is proud, he said, to be seeing a revival of “so many things happening at the cultural level and by civil society; there is really so much that is going on and it is almost a mission to re-excavate a forgotten Alexandria,” he said.

Tomorrow (Thursday 1 October) at the Theatre of Sayed Darwish, the Lebanese troupe, Metro Al-Madina, will be performing for one day its much-celebrated show ‘Heshk-Beshek’ (Sway flirtatiously).

“When we started this show over two years ago in Beirut we thought it would live on for a few weeks or maybe a few months but it has been more than two years and we have already taken it to Europe. We have always been thinking that we should take the show to Egypt and it is really delightful that we are finally doing so and that we are coming to Alexandria especially,” said Roy Dib, a lead singer with the Lebanese troupe.

Heshk-Beshk, as Dib explained, is a tribute to the glory years of Egyptian music, dance, and cabaret life in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

The two-hour show starting at 8pm includes a sequence of musical sketches that capture the songs of Shadia and the dance of Tahiya Karioka, among many others.

The tickets for the show were sold out almost as soon as they were put on the market.

“I think we can celebrate a re-growing taste for cultural consumption in Alexandria – and this is not just about musicals or other similar shows, but it is also about book discussions and political debates,” said Samy Creta, programme manager at the Alexandria Jesuit Cultural Center.

Speaking from the yard of the spacious building that has, for over 50 years, offered a space for Alexandria’s learning and cultural integration, Creta said that credit for this new hype should go to the Civil Society of Alexandria, especially to the younger generation who took it upon themselves after the January Revolution to recreate a public space for intellectual discussion and cultural consumption.

According to Creta, this new cultural consumption was most likely inspired by the many songs that were performed during the days of the Revolution “here in Alexandria, not just in Tahrir Square.

Afterwards, he argued, there was a growing audience who was wishing to listen to the music and songs of troupes like Axendrala and Massar Egbari.

“We hosted these shows here at the Jesuit and we had a very large audience each time there was a performance,” Creta said.

“We also had a large audience and intensive debate each time we hosted a prominent novelist or commentator for a discussion.”

The attendance was growing fast enough that the Jesuit decided to add more space to allow for a larger audience, not just for the public events but also for the growing interest in performing modern theatre and independent filmmaking.

The Jesuit has been undertaking this effort, Creta said, with what he describes as “a clearly small budget but an admirably energetic interest and enthusiasm.”

Creta is particularly proud of the true desire of the audience of events organized by the Jesuit Cultural Center, and by other cultural hubs in Alexandria, to avoid exclusionism and to pursue a true intellectual debate. He says he may attribute this to the long history of Alexandria, where diversity – “call it diversity or cosmopolitanism or whatever” – was the norm.

“Of course, we also made an effort to avoid polarizing situations and setups, especially since our ultimate focus of attention and work is the core of the human-being, but I think overall the audience is genuinely eager to talk, listen, and debate,” Creta said.

Creta is also impressed by what he said is “a genuine wish of the younger generation to bypass the ready-to-assume concepts, including this huge nostalgia for the ‘cosmopolitan Alexandria'.”

He added, “of course we still celebrate the history of our harbour city but we are not enclosed there; we are moving on and trying to find new windows for light.”

Come what may on the political scene in the country, with the expected legislative elections and beyond, Anis Issa, a specialist at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, is expecting the enthusiasm to continue.

“This is not a side event but rather the evolution of a wish by the young generation to regain the public space,” Issa said.

Issa is actually arguing that this wish was behind the youth’s active political presence, starting in 2010, almost one year before the January Revolution.

“Yes, of course the revolution created a new momentum, but we have to say that the revival of the life of civil society in Egypt started a few years earlier,” he argued.

Issa is crediting, “at least partially and at best considerably,” the Bibliotheca Alexandrina for the initial wave of this revival.

Issa is willing to go further and argue that the Reading for All project, a prominent work of Suzanne Mubarak, the spouse of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, has to also be credited for reviving cultural life by making books accessible to a much wider array of people. In the case of Alexandria, the Bibliotheca in particular was crucial in reopening the public space.

According to Issa, the Bibliotheca brought Alexandria’s people together after so many walls of cultural and socio-economic segregation had been erected. It also brought the world to Alexandria with so many scholars coming to the cultural center and so many countries showing interest to act through their Egypt-based diplomatic missions to sponsor cultural projects.

“So we actually reached the revolution with all these groups of people meeting on the street, but of course January 2011 was crucial,” Issa stressed.

And today, Issa said, there is a lot more work for civil society to undertake – “I think in Alexandria and across the country.”

Issa wants to see the functions of civil society moving deeper into and wider across the country. “I am not sure if we do reach out to as many people as we should and I am not sure if we are bringing enough different people together,” he said.

Issa believes the role of civil society is largely to help increase a cross-sectorial social awareness. “We need to examine our diversity closer. We need to look at the people who live on the borders or at different inputs of our collective cultural heritage,” he explained.

Moving from the center to the margins was precisely the undertaking of the project Gudran (Walls) that started as a group of young visual artists from Alexandria visiting the marginalized areas of the harbour city to help educate or simply entertain local residents.

“We thought that art, including visual arts, couldn’t be set aside from the desperate call for social development,” said Abdalla Deif, one of the artists who joined the Gudran Association for Art and Development team shortly after its opening.

Prompted by this sense of social responsibility, this group of young artists decided to reach out to a community of fishermen whose houses and entire livelihood was threatened.

Defying a municipal decision to demolish the fishermen’s homes at the western end of the harbor in El-Max, this group of young artists went there and started performing “to help empower the fishermen and their families and giving them a voice in the face of a decision to demolish their entire village,” Deif said.

Not only did they perform, but they also helped the fishermen renovate their ailing houses and had their walls repainted. “This is where the name Gudran came from,” Deif explained.

They also helped the families gain new skills – like art for children and knitting for women.

This endeavour, Deif argues, helped improve the lives of the villagers 15 years into the future, by saving the village from demolition and helping improve the quality of the fishermen’s lives.

This success story was something to build on as they embarked on other projects of a similar nature, including Al Dukkan (the store) and El Cabina (the cabinet).

“We were given a space for our projects by an old Alexandrian-Greek couple who liked what we were trying to do and decided to help us,” Deif said.

He added that this provided space for young and upcoming artists to experiment and for others to meet and debate public issues – mostly cultural.

“Creating a space for debate and experimentation is precisely the role of civil society, especially in a developing country like ours, where the open debate allow for unconventional thinking and creative concepts,” Deif said.

“I think we need, as a society in general, to defy the established model of fixed answers for all the questions we have. It is only when we get there that we will start to seriously undo the knots that have to be undone before our problems are to be resolved,” he added. 

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Sam Enslow
30-09-2015 05:40pm
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Wonderful
Cavafy noted that once in Alexandria, one cannot leave. Its spirit holds you. I hope equal attention is given to protect its rich architecture. Istanbul is now what Alexandria was. I hope Alexandria will once again take its place as the Pearl of the Mediterranean. It can do this. Its dustydiamonds can be polished. Its streets, cafes, bars, and clubs as well as 'cultural instutions' can once again make Alexandria and its people thrive in a most beautiful city filled with laughter, music, thoughtful discussions.
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