Stagnation and decay at Egypt's forgotten cultural palaces

Lamia Hassan, Saturday 4 Jan 2014

Once part of a democratic vision of culture for all, many of Egypt's state-run cultural centres are in a state of neglect, although officials promise this will soon change

Cultural palace
The deserted Al-Rihany cultural palace (Photo: Lamia Hassan)

A huge sign in the middle of Masr-Wal-Sudan Street in north-eastern Cairo points visitors to a nearby cultural palace.  The sign lists all the different activities offered at the venue – theatre activities, films, women's clubs, a public library, and so on.

At the very end of Al-Aghouri Street, the walls of the palace are visible. Rubbish and builder’s tools surround the entrance to the building. The shutters are closed.

On entering, three middle-aged ladies sitting behind a desk explain that the palace is undergoing minor renovations and will re-open soon.

“The palace has been closed for at least three years now,” says Mohamed Ashour, who owns a grocery shop on Al-Aghouri Street. “We have been hearing recently that the Ministry of Culture allocated a restoration budget for the palace, but we don't know anything about it.”

The story of Al-Rihany cultural palace is not unique.

The “cultural palaces” are state-owned buildings that are designated sites for Egyptians to enjoy cultural activities. Many of the buildings – some historically significant -- have been suffering from years of neglect, and restoring them to their former glory could take years.

Neglecting a cultural legacy

Al-Rihany Palace, built in 1949 by actor Naguib El-Rihany for rehearsals and to house an artistic foundation, contains a cinema and theatre spaces.

“We used to visit the palace when we were young and I remember it was beautiful from the inside,” says Ashour. He points toward the sign at the entrance of the street. “See all the activities listed? None of it exists now.”

Not far away from Cairo, Al-Anfoushi Palace in Alexandria is suffering from similar problems. According to Yasmine Magdy, a resident of the area who works at a shop across from the palace, it has been closed for three years now for renovations.

“The palace has been like that for a while now,” says Magdy, pointing to the building which undergoing major construction work.

“I remember that even when the palace was operating the activities offered were weak and the instructors were not enough,” says Shereen Mahmoud, another resident of Al-Anfoushi.

Prominent contemporary artist and member of the constitutional committee Mohamed Abla says that the government has neglected these cultural centres for years.

"Many of the palaces have been closed for years now under the excuse of renovations,” he says. “And these are palaces in the big cities we are talking about, so imagine what it’s like for the smaller cultural houses in villages or small towns.”

According to Abla, only a handful of cultural palaces are not suffering from major neglect and decay.

Saad Abdel-Rahman, the head of the General Authority for Cultural Palaces, says these accusations are inaccurate and unfair. He argues that while there is a problem, the authority is working hard on the ground to re-open as many palaces as possible, including Al-Rihany.

“We have re-opened a number of cultural palaces like Assiut, Hurghada, Banha, Port Said and a number of houses in Sinai, and we are re-opening Al-Shatby in Alexandria soon,” says Abdel-Rahman. “But, in spite of all that, the number of palaces closed or under renovation is still huge.”

There are currently 563 cultural palaces, houses and libraries across Egypt under the umbrella of the authority.

For Abdel-Rahman, his main obstacle is finances.

“My annual budget is only LE60 million, while the budget needed to renovate the old palaces could be LE54 million for just one building,” he says.

In 2012, Abdel-Rahman’s team gained an extra LE15 million and in 2013 an extra LE25 million to help them re-open the closed palaces. “I'm halting any new projects until we are done re-opening all [palaces],” he says.

He also says that some of the activities are held at youth centres instead of the closed palaces.

According to Emad Abou-Ghazi, the former minister of culture, the problem is that a large number of the buildings of the cultural palaces were decaying.

“Restoring all these old palaces is a tough job and given the annual budget, it is not in the capacity of anyone to re-open them all right away,” he says.

The future of the culture scene

The cultural palaces were initially established to raise the cultural consciousness of the Egyptians through activities in theatre, music, film, literature, arts, and programmes for children. But today, the culture ministry is struggling to put the programme back on track after years of under-funding.

“For years, the government focused on addressing economic development and neglected cultural awareness and development, and today they are faced with this reality,” argues Ahmed Morsi, head of the Egyptian Society for Folk Tradition and folk literature professor at Cairo University.

Morsi says that the government has for years marginalised ordinary Egyptians. “They considered famous writers, poets and filmmakers to be the only cultured people, and didn't pay attention to the farmer who sings mawwals (an Arabic form of vocal music) and the woman who tells stories to her children and many other examples like this who are also cultured,” says Morsy.

According to statistics from the state-run Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) for 2012, the number of cultural palaces and houses in 2012 reached 559, as opposed to 544 in 2011 -- a 2.8 percent increase. However, the same year saw a drop in the number of cultural associations, cinemas, public theatres, and public libraries in Egypt.

Trying to put the palaces back on track, Abdel-Rahman says that general authority has prepared a huge project through which they will revive the role of these palaces and enrich the cultural scene.

“We have a huge project in the pipeline, with funds provided by Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah, worth $1 million in three stages, and we have already received the first stage,” he says.

“Also, we have prepared a huge awareness campaign for the constitution and held several lectures across Egypt.”

Said Sadek, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo, doesn't see that as the solution to the problem.

“The general authority is only good at cultural awareness programmes when it serves the government and its policies,” he says. “What's the purpose of re-opening these places when there is no real restructuring of the palaces' programmes?”

Sadek says that authority should instead design new programmes specifically tailored to the needs of every neighbourhood or village.

Abou-Ghazi says he had proposed a similar plan when he was in office.

“Firstly the programmes for these palaces should be designed by a council run by the frequent visitors to these places, and the ministry official should just be applying the programmes generated by the members,” he says.

“Also, instead of spending LE40-50 million just to renovate one palace per year, 30 to 40 small cultural houses could be opened instead.”

Abou-Ghazi argues that there should be cultural caravans roaming the villages and towns and offering theatre, film, arts and literature.

For Abla, structural change is required.

“The general authority is the most important of the cultural ministry’s neglected divisions,” says Abla. “The entire ministry must be restructured and the employees in charge of these cultural palaces must be filtered.”

Back at Al-Rihany, local shop-owner Mohamed Ashour complains that he has yet to see any of the developments and achievements that the culture ministry talks about on television.

“It is heart breaking to see this young generation at schools with no real goals, passion or cultural awareness, and if there was a real cultural development plan this would not have been there case now,” he adds.

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