Launched two months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak by the Independent Culture Coalition, El-Fan Midan or ‘Art is a Square’ aims to bring arts and culture to the streets of Egypt. The idea is to create cultural and political awareness through a street festival that would tour all governorates of Egypt. On 7 April, it celebrated its one year anniversary.
On its inaugural day, 2 April 2011, El-Fan Midan ( Art is a Square) debuted in six governorates, reaching out to Egyptians in Minya, Assiut, Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Port Said.
A year-long journey
"We did not expect that we would reach a year, but thankfully the public admired El-Fan Midan idea and supported us," Basma El-Husseiny a leading member of the Independent Culture Coalition and director of Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi (Cultural Resource) told Ahram Online.
"We often receive invites from fans at other governorates in Egyptthrough our Facebook page to come host El-Fan Midan there, and delightedly do," she said.
Back in December 2011 at the Forum of Culture and Politics at the Goethe Institut Cairo, Azza El-Husseiny, an independent film director, a member of the coalition and a key member of El-Fan Midan organising committee, described the aim of El-Fan Midan as "seeking public cultural dialogue among the masses through art, music, and theatre."
Azza El-Husseiny explained that they chose Abdeen Squareas the site for the festival for its historic significance as well as its location in downtown. "Some suggested Tahrir Squareback then but the majority of members were against this, given its role as the main hub for political movements," she explained at the forum.
"We wanted to have an Egyptian carnival every month to include all forms of arts in support of freedom of expression," she said.
At the forum at the Goethe Institut, former minister of culture Emad Abu Ghazi praised El-Fan Midan and described it a model of how culture events should be "out of boundaries, out of the ordinary, out of any censorship. This is how arts should be in Egypt. It should be on the streets all over Egyptat public spaces and gardens." At the same meeting, Abu Ghazi said that before his resignation in November, he had supported El-Fan Midan and that he hoped the new minister would continue in this spirit.
By December 2011, El-Fan Midan had reached 16 cities in 13 of Egypt's governorates. The more it spreads, the harder it is to fund. According to Azza El-Husseiny, funding this "purely Egyptian carnival" remains a great obstacle.
Hamdy Reda, a founder of independent arts space Arttelewa, member of the Independent Culture Coalition and among the organising team of El-Fan Midan, describes El-Fan Midan as "Egypt's best post-revolution development as it involves a large number of intellectuals and artists of different cultural sectors."
"We want this street art to continue to grow and always be purely Egyptian regardless of the many obstacles," Reda told Ahram Online.
"We depend on donations. But most Egyptian believe that funding health and education should be our main priority, whereas culture becomes secondary. No-one can blame them for that but arts needs development too," he argues.
"The revolution does not only concern our political lives; there should be a revolution in every sector of Egypt," he believes.
"Performers, organisers, musicians… you name it, all participate at El-Fan Midan free of charge in support of the goals."
El-Fan Midan against all odds?
After a year of hard work to get El-Fan Midan as big as it is today, Reda explains that the culture ministry does not do much in terms of financial support, claiming that it does not have a budget. On several occasions, however, culture minister Shaker Abdel Hamid has said that initiatives such as El-Fan Midan would receive significant support by the ministry.
Abdel Hamid praised the idea of cultural and artistic events in public spaces at the last Future of Culture in Egyptforum at cultural centre El-Sawy Culturewheel in February. He said that the ministry would adopt all sorts of events, and yet such funds have been cut.
Reda confirmed, "unlike the former minister Emad Abu Ghazi who supported our project with 30,000 Egyptian pounds, Abdel Hamid reduced the amount recently to 10,000."
Basma El-Husseiny explained, "We keep running after the ministry's fund which is not sustained and was cut when Abdel Hamid took office to 15,000 Egyptian pounds and this month, we only received 10,000".
The costs far exceed these amounts. As Reda explained, "we spend 11,000 Egyptian pounds to have El-Fan Midan at Abdeen Square, let alone the fact that we currently work on eleven locations across Egyptat the same time."
Reda elaborated on the challenge: "We don't want El-Fan Midan to become a commercial event supported by international funding although this funding will be helpful. And so, we bear the consequences for our principles."
Another key challenge for the initiative according to Basma El-Husseiny is the fact that El-Fan Midan still remains tied down to some districts around Egyptand not across governorates as was initially planned.
"We are working on 11 locations in Egypt and not governorates still," she told Ahram Online.
"El-Fan Midan is still young and entirely depends on volunteer work when it comes to organising and hosting," she said.
"Yes there was a time we had managed to reach 14 governorates in one month, whereas at other times we couldn't be in more than six governorates," El Husseiny admitted, but remains hopeful that El-Fan Midan will grow even bigger in the coming year.
"I can say that El-Fan Midan has exceeded our expectations by 100 percent given the circumstances we face today and will continue until who knows when," she states.
In spite of the lack of funding and lack of national presence, throughout the past year, El-Fan Midan has become a hub for Egyptian talent and a part of Egyptian modern culture, according to the many young and adult visitors to the carnival.
Anniversary of El-Fan Midan: the artistic hub
El-Fan Midan has hosted a number of music bands, one of the most important being Mashrou' Coral (The Choir Project), which brings together young talents of music from all over Egypt. Even established music groups like Eskenderella have performed at El-Fan Midan.
Young revolutionary artists as well as established names such as Hamdy Reda and Mohamed Abla have exhibited work at the carnival and held a number of workshops for young people and children.
El-Fan Midan celebrated its one-year anniversary on 7 April at its signature location in front of Abdeen Palace among its largest of crowd of Egyptians and foreigners alongside the presence of international media the including BBC.
"Today I learned that through music, we can frighten our enemies (those who want to ruin this country and defeat the revolution) and not only cheer the public up," said one of the attendees Zeina Hassan. "Long live El-Fan Midan and singing," she chanted.
At its anniversary, El-Fan Midan presented eleven art exhibits including, 'The Story of El-Fan Midan' photography exhibition by Mohamed Zohair, 'Without a Title' photography and art by Hamdy Reda, 'Draw Yourself Citizen' by Mohamed Abla and Hany Rashid.
The celebration at Abdeen Square included two workshops, sculpture and model airplanes, in addition to various street performances of music, acting, singing, and painting that were scattered all over the area throughout the day. Among the performances were Hasab Allah, one of Egypt's established traditional music groups, Stop and Dance by Karima Mansour, mime performance by Ahmed Oscar, and Percussion Circle by Mostafa Bakar.
Zein El-Abdeen Fouad took the stage to recite some of his latest poems dedicated to this special event. He addressed the crowd following his recital chanting, "The street is for art… The street is for the revolution."
The Choir Project was greatly received, and a number of attendees, including El-Fan Midan organisers Basma El-Husseiny and Azza El-Husseiny, joined the stage to sing the group’s latest song 'El-Fan Midan' dedicated to the festival's celebration.
Mixing politics and culture as usual, Basma El-Husseiny called on all audience members to join the coalition's latest political initiative Dostour Le Kol Al-Masreyeen (Constitution for All Egyptians).
"I kindly ask you to join our rally next Tuesday 10 April in the morning in front of The Nation's Assembly as we demand true Egyptian participation in the constituent assembly that represents all Egyptians and not just one political sector," she declared.
The cultural evening might be said to have had a slightly bad ending, as a number of thugs attacked El-Fan Midan. But their presence didn't last long and "the situation was quickly handled by audiences and organisers themselves," Reda explained.
Among the attendees, the incident did not jeopardise the atmosphere, and the festival, as in previous months, ended peacefully.
"This is natural and bound to happen everywhere in Egyptwhere there is a public gathering," Reda tells Ahram Online. "Policemen did not help. It was the public and us who managed to deal with the thugs."
Despite all obstacles, El-Fan Midan is dedicated to reaching out to more people and determined to continue even with a smaller budgets and more challenges.
"We achieved a public presence in Cairoand elsewhere, and through those people we will continue to reach our goal," Reda believes.
"El-Fan Midan has developed its prestige amidst the cultural scene of Egyptand it is this reputation that will facilitate its growth", Basma El-Husseiny tells Ahram Online, declaring the organisation's new goal of reaching over 30 locations across Egyptthis year.
The crowd at El-Fan Midan gets increasingly larger, with regulars and new visitors coming each month.
Photos by Sherif Sonbol