March and April are among the most dynamic months on Egypt’s cultural calendar. It is a time of festivals, theatre, music and dance. Depending on their themes and missions, the festivals bring different components into their repertoires, many of them focusing on younger or older audiences.
In the arts world, and especially in Egypt’s culture sphere — with a population of over 100 million— the youngest audience, toddlers, small children and teenagers are the least fortunate when it comes to what is on offer. Even in Cairo what few stage plays and other sporadic events are held leave children thirsty for culture and parents unaware of their needs; the situation is of course much worse outside the capital.
But there is one cultural player, Mohamed El Ghawy, who many years ago decided to challenge the status quo by establishing AFCA for Arts and Culture, an independent organisation with a mission to work with children and the young in English, Arabic and French, following education through art.
Mohamed El-Ghawy working on educating through arts with children (Photo courtesy: Mohamed El-Ghawy)
In 2011, AFCA launched the Hakawy International Arts Festival, an annual event that brings Egyptian and international theatre for children and other activities to Cairo and the provinces.
The first round of the Hakawy festival took place in June 2011 at the College du Sacre-Coeur in Heliopolis, and it brought together troupes from Egypt, Croatia, Ireland and Finland. The second round took place in March 2012 at Al-Ghad, Al-Gomhoureya and the Cairo Puppet theatres in AFCA’s first large-scale cooperation with the Ministry of Culture. In March 2013, Hakawy started taking place at the Hanager Arts Centre with some troupes visiting other venues, such as the Children’s Cancer Hospital (57357).
As the festival started carving its own unique position in the cultural field, each year it presented captivating performances and attracted a growing audience. Over time, Hakawy hosted performances from 15 countries in four continents, with several of them showcasing their work in several consecutive years.
Having attended the festival for a few years now, I’ve noticed a change taking place, slowly but surely, reflecting not only the founding director’s dedication and perseverance but also his meticulous strategic planning which, as he mentions, relies on a “scientific approach that includes research, implementation and assessment”.
The Secret Life of Suitcases by Unicorn Theatre, UK (Photo: courtesy of AFCA)
I’ve noticed children who, as spring approaches, start asking about Hakawy and its programming; at times they ask about the troupes they saw in previous rounds. Equally, parents or caregivers express an increasing interest in involving children in Hakawy’s events, whether through attending plays or participating in workshops and other activities offered by the festival. Indeed, a lot of work is done each year; El Ghawy never ceases to surprise us.
The eighth Hakawy International Arts Festival will take place between 8 and 13 March with most of its activities held within the Hanager Arts Centre. The festival will host four international performances: H2ommes from France (8 and 9 March), The Secret Life of Suitcases by Unicorn Theatre, UK (several performances between 8 and 13 March), Kite Without String from the Netherlands (8 and 9 March) and Lula Del Ray from the USA (several performances between 10 and 13 March).
Though the plays take place inside Hanager, Hakawy’s practice of reaching out to children outside the theatre will also be implemented this year with two performances going to the Children’s Cancer Hospital.
“Apart from international plays, this year we added a lot of new elements to the festival,” El Ghawy reveals, starting with a film screening: the first such activity in a festival dedicated to theatre and storytelling.
Produced in France in 2014, and directed by Christian De Vita, the animated movie Yellowbird (Gus — Petit oiseau, grand voyage) tells the story of a “teeny tiny orphaned bird that has never left the nest, has no family, yet desperately wants one. That is, until he finds himself leading a flock on their migration to Africa,” as the IMDb synopsis describes it. The film targets children six years old and above and will be screened on six consecutive days at the Hanager cinema.
Still from the film Yellowbird (Gus — Petit oiseau, grand voyage)
“Among the new additions to the festival are two seminars organised for the parents at the Higher Council of Culture in Hanager’s vicinity,” El Ghawy continues.
“One seminar will discuss aspects of positive parenting and how to immerse children in the arts through parenting. The seminar will take place on 9 March and will be led by Sara Seif. The second seminar, held by Zahraa Rizk on 10 March, will tackle the issue of ‘multiple intelligence’ and how we can discover our children. Any child should not be expected to excel in everything, each has their strong side in which we can invest and which we can develop. Both seminars will be moderated by author Ahmed El Fiky.”
Also on the fringe, Hakawy will include a second phase of the “Culture is a Field of Work” seminar (11 March); this is an event that brings together El Ghawy, Azza Kamel from Alwan wa Awtar, Omar Al Moataz B’Allah from Osiris and Teatro troupe, Heba El Cheikh from Mahatat for Contemporary Arts, May El Ibrashi from Megawra-Built Environment Collective, Saeed Kabeel from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Rasha Najdi from the Al-Ismailia for Real Estate Investment. The seminar will be moderated by an HR Specialist, Bassel Fassih.
Kite Without String from the Netherlands (Photo: courtesy of AFCA)
“Targeting university students, the guests will talk about their practices within the field of culture and introduce their respective institutions to attendees. They will also offer internships in their respective institutions so young people can get better acquainted with the functioning of the arts field and how they can become a part of it, expanding the field while building their own fruitful careers,” El Ghawy explains.
Also among the new concepts this year is the focus given to the professional storytellers from Egypt. The festival will give a platform to six young people who specialise in storytelling. These include Hadotet Rania (8 and 10 March), Leila Abdel Hady (8 and 9 March), Yo7ka Anna (8 and 10 March), all presenting their work for toddlers aged four and above.
“We will also have a mime workshop (8 and 10 March) held by Mohamed El Seidy for children five years old and above,” El-Ghawy adds. Following its success last year, the Bibliotheksbus, the Goethe Institute in Cairo’s mobile library — featuring the storyteller Haitham Shoukry — will introduce book world to children and youth at the open area in front of the Hanager Arts Centre. The Bibliotheksbus will then move to schools and clubs in the Nile Delta.
With all those activities and an expected high turnout at the Hanager Arts Centre and its vicinity, once again Hakawy will bring a lot of joy and values to the attendees. It also brings hope that while the Cairo International Film Festival for Children has stopped and activities for children can be almost counted on the fingers of one hand, Hakawy manages to reinvigorate the scene and fill the void.
H2ommes from France (Photo: courtesy of AFCA)
In this context we might do well to recall the charter of Children’s Rights to Art and Culture, a list of 18 principles published in 27 languages which denotes the right of children all over the world to enjoy art and culture, and highlights the importance of exposing all children to art. The charter was introduced to Egypt during the 2015 Hakawy Festival when it was presented in a form of an exhibition of artworks and illustrations inspired by its principles. The drawings were generated by the non-profit initiative of the Italian theatre for children La Baracca — Testoni Ragazzi, in coordination with a group of children and parents, Italian artists and illustrators.
Whenever he speaks of Hakawy, El Ghawy mentions the first principle of the charter which states that children have the right to “access art in all its forms: theatre, music, dance, literature, poetry, cinema, visual and multimedia arts.”
And this is exactly what Hakawy and indeed El Ghawy’s life and work are all about.
Over the past seven years, the festival has already achieved a lot and as El Ghawy puts it “the sheer fact that we manage to continue and expand is an achievement, something we do often against all odds. We work with a very small team, facing many challenges, the same that other festival organisers and cultural players deal with in Egypt. But it is all worth it, especially when you see all those people coming together,” El Ghawy concludes in a voice that projects his hallmark zeal: “the audience, the performers and all kinds of supporters...”
Check the full programme of 8th Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children here
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly are media sponsors of this year's Hakawy festival.
Lula Del Ray from the USA (Photo: courtesy of AFCA)
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