Small groups of people from all over the world were spotted around downtown Alexandria in January. Sometimes they were covered with dust from head to toe, causing people on the street to playfully ask "Why are they so dirty?" or "Are the foreigners working for us now?"
They didn’t roam aimlessly, however. This group of 27 volunteers from across continents was working on a three-week project themed Spaces of Expression.
During the day, they broke down walls, sanded and plastered an apartment in a traditional Wikala 1900s building, which was throughout the 1930s and 60s the office of Egypt's leading film distributor Behna Films Selections. At night, they discovered the music, theatre, dance and other cultural treasures tucked around Egypt's second-largest city.
This project falls under the umbrella of International People's Project (IPP), one of the programmes of the international NGO, CISV, which has a volunteer-run branch in Cairo.
Volunteers work in Behna apartment (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
Alexandria has seen an upsurge of new independent culture spaces opening within the past few years. Some have been brought to life thanks to the Gudran Association for Arts and Development, the same association featured in Ahmed Abdallah's 2010 award winning film Microphone where Khaled (Played by Khaled Abu El-Naga) is a project manager seeking to find a stage for independent musicians to perform.
This film, is partly to thank in paving the way for this project to happen. The film inspired some CISV volunteers during the revolution and later met some of Gudran's staff socially. A friendship was formed between members of both organisations that quickly turned into a partnership for this project.
While it is Gudran’s character to turn run-down areas into art hubs, aiding the thriving underground scene in Alexandria, this has been a novel kind of venture. The largest part of the three-week project was to restore Benha’s 12-room office to nurture independent cinema, visual arts and a museum to display cinematic heritage. The office had been closed for decades and collected years worth of dust and the interiors, walls and floors had deteriorated.
Walking into Behna's office is like walking into a time capsule; ceiling-high shelves filled with contracts, scripts and paperwork dictate decades of cinematic glory. It is very easy to fall in love with the space. The international and local volunteers were originally meant to restore only two rooms and the three main hallways. That love and their positive energy led them to restore an additional five rooms before Behna’s soft opening on 16 January.
Behna apartment's soft-opening event (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
The other projects were just as valuable and interrelated. To utilise the diversity of cultures, each delegation prepared a research on how Spaces of Expression was relevant to their local context and prepared activities for the rest of the group and Gudran.
The Egyptian delegation explored how the education system affects censorship.
The Colombians recreated three projects from Bogotá and Medellín dealing with spaces.
The British explored how countries portray themselves to the world and how we portray our own identities in social media.
The German participant explored with the rest possible uses for the massive yet unused Tempelhof Airport in Berlin.
The Danish participants explored the boundaries of self-expression in public sphere.
There were many other activities that explored the theme from Canada, China, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and USA.
Besides the Cultural Activities, the staff put on an interactive presentation on art and expression in Egypt since the revolution, as well as screening Microphone. Gudran volunteers helped orient the other volunteers on the history of Egyptian cinema through a presentation and ongoing conversations while cooking, during meals and walks around the city.
Volunteers during orientation days (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
In keeping with the voluntary nature of this project, external facilitators came in at different points to help the volunteers experiment with their own spaces of expression. Considering the staff’s daily tasks and duties the fresh perspective and opportunity to play with new forms of expression were highly appreciated. Noon Creative Enterprise's Nada Thabet hosted a theatre workshop during a notably strong Alexandrian storm. As we heard the heavy rains outside Gudran's colourful space El-Cabina, we created machines, body sculptures and shared stories and, finally, several short sketches.
Volunteers in theatre workshop (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
Another interesting workshop was on movement, which contemporary dancer and CISV volunteer Salma Abdelsalam, came in from Cairo to teach. She had us experience a new way of using our bodies, and for a journalist who rarely uses her body for anything besides typing and sitting down for interviews, this was particularly liberating. One morning, we walked down the seaside boulevard to a diving spot where Alexandrian Ahmed Nasseri showed us exercises that induce laughter for psychological wellbeing as we enjoyed the first sunny moment since the storm.
For the three weeks we tried to be inconspicuous – impossibly – as we discovered the city's streets, including ahwas (street shisha/hookah cafés) and Alexandria's various cultural venues. We also attended a New Years' in a party in El-Cabina, participated in an open jam session in Teatro and attended Massar Egbari's concert in Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
Having lunch in a local cafe (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
Ousides the Library before Masar Egbari's concert (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
Besides discovering spaces, the volunteers got to meet many of Alexandria's independent artists and culture spaces creators. With photographer Sherif Sharkawy, they took morning photo-walks to create an exhibition of their Alexandria experience for Behna's opening. They also met with the founders of Radio Tram, who came to the downtown rooftop pension where the volunteers were staying to give a workshop on radio. Later a group of volunteers visited their studio to record a session on their project in addition to creating a two-hour playlist of music from all over the world for the online station. Some members of the group also worked on a short film shot in the Behna space on its caretaker, Am Hamdi, which is in editing currently and will be released later this year.
Volunteers visit Radio Tram (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)
There were ongoing discussions during the project that reflected similar debates within Egypt's cultural circles on whether the space to express ourselves has been stretched since the revolution, that artists and Egyptians generally have gained more confidence articulating how they feel, or if this space has been actually stifled as a result of the political instability or the Muslim Brotherhood taking over most political positions.
While Egyptians are far from reclaiming their freedoms, seeing many are still put behind bars for expressing their opinions, Gudran and spaces like Behna give a glimpse of a not entirely bleak future for Egypt’s art scene.
an almost entire workgroup at the opening event