From 2 to 9 November across three governorates in Egypt, the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children has been spreading joy and knowledge for Egyptian children and many opportunities for professional artists.
In Cairo, the festival took place from 2 to 6 November at the Tahrir Cultural Centre and the Goethe Institute. It had a touring programme in Alexandria at the French Institute on 2 November. In Minya, it was hosted by the Jesuit Cultural Centre on 8-9 November.
The festival is organised by the Académie francophone cairotte des arts (AFCA) Arts Centre that was founded in 2011. Each year, it puts on international and local performances designed for children and presents them in a vibrant one-week event with the aim of educating and entertaining them and their families through arts and culture.
Mohamed Al-Ghawi, founder and art director of the festival and the AFCA Arts Centre in Egypt, commented that “the festival came to life 11 years ago. It started out of a belief that children have the right to be exposed to cultural and arts experiences, either through watching them or participating in them in different contexts. Every year, we go around the world to bring the best shows and bands to Egypt. We also look for Egyptian shows to high professional standards.”
The festival targets all levels and ages, he said, adding that “our mission is to educate children and young people through arts and culture in Egypt without discrimination in three different languages, Arabic, English and French. Attendees vary from children going to international schools to those attending regular government schools. Each international school student pays for a couple of tickets, while they are free for the government-school students.”
After the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill last year, the AFCA turned the situation around and looked for ways to help Egyptian artists during the pandemic. It worked with international collaborators on producing shows that could be performed by local artists, for example, leading to greater opportunities for Egyptian performers.
“This year we have only one French show, while all the rest are Egyptian. We are happy that Covid-19 caused one positive thing in increasing the local participation, and we will strive to maintain this powerful Egyptian participation in future editions of the festival,” Al-Ghawi said.
“We take every opportunity to support local artists, but they also need more grants and aid to continue. We are against the idea that artists should offer their services for free. The AFCA will continue to bring international groups as their countries fund them, and we hope to find more awareness and financial support from the government for Egyptian ones. The international funding is not enough to cover local participation, but we do our best to find a balance. French funding covered two Egyptian groups this year, for example.”
Mustafa Mohamed, director of the AFCA and the festival, said that “the AFCA shifted the focus to the early years in this year’s festival, with two shows targeting children aged only 10 months old, a period important for child development. One was an interactive performance called Archipel by the ACTA Company from France that explores the musicality of early childhood, and another was nine Egyptian performances in different art forms such as object theatre, physical theatre, interactive theatre, music and singing, science and magic, and storytelling.”
“The children experienced the magic of science in the Chamber of Secrets by Marina Girgis, and appreciated friendship in Gimme Please, an Egyptian restaging by the AFCA in cooperation with the group Paperboats, the University of Texas at Austin in the US, and the Alliance Theatre. They understood animal welfare in the play Forgotten Tale... The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity by the ACT Company, danced to the rhythm of music in a performance called Sohbet Al-Semsemeya, and sat down for an afternoon story in Stories on Four Wheels, the mobile library of the charity Misr Al-Kheir.”
“They also had a special music day with the choir of the Association of Upper Egypt for Education and Development (AUEED) and the Al-Nour Wal-Amal Orchestra. Children who participated in the AFCA
Arts School showcased their talents in the storytelling performance Stories from Minya.”
One of the most important parts of this year’s festival was a theatre experience for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the first of its kind in Egypt. “With the help of the British Council, we were able to get funding for this last April and worked on online training for many months with the Bamboozle Theatre Company, a company working with children with special needs in the UK,” Mohamed said.
“We put out an open invitation to specialists who work with children with autism and chose six of them in addition to two participants from the AFCA. The online training was followed by physical training at the Al-Abbasiyya Hospital in Cairo, and the pay-off for us was to see the children enjoying and interacting with each other.”
“Both the training and the exploration sessions were not covered by the media out of respect for the children’s privacy. Three children with ASD per session could apply online through our general paid invitations.”
“In fact, registering for free tickets was easy through our Facebook page, and for paid tickets we used TicketMarché. This edition of the festival would not have come to light without the support of our partners, the Ministry of Culture in Egypt, the US Embassy, the British Council, the French Institute, the European Union, the European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC), the Goethe Institute and the Misr Al-Kheir Foundation and our media sponsor the NRJ Egypt radio station.”
Nesma Selim, one of the attending parents, said that the “Festival has been a great success. There could have been more organisation regarding the seating, but overall it has been safe and joyful. My children attended two shows, Sohbet Al-Semsemeya and The Lawsuit of the Animals, and they enjoyed them a lot. It’s our first time to come to the festival, but it won’t be the last.”
Al-Ghawi commented that “we work throughout the year and have projects with many associations and partnerships. We don’t seek only a commercial presence. This year, we have 10 shows, five of which are paid and the others are free. Some of the attendees have come every year for 10 years. We are keen to get their feedback through physical visits to schools and associations or through online surveys sent to parents. All the tickets were pre-sold, and we are more than delighted with this success.”
Salma Haddad, a 33-year-old parent, said that “I knew about the festival through my previous job at the British Council and started to attend with my child. This is my fifth year coming. The shows are really different, and I want my child to participate. This year she enjoyed Stories on Four Wheels, Sohbet Al-Semsemeya and Gimme Please, for example.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly