Children of Egypt's Darb Al-Ahmar share their stories through arts

Rowan El Shimi, Tuesday 8 Apr 2014

Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School presents the stories and aspirations of its children and youth through a circus musical on El-Geneina Theatre

Al-Darb Al-Ahmar School
Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School present 'Lost and Found' (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

In a new theatrical performance, the children and young people of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School bring Lost and Found to Cairo audiences. The play was performed at El-Geneina Theatre on 3, 4 and 5 April and debuted in February on the American University in Cairo's Falaki stage.

With the scenography by renowned Luxor-based artist Ammar Abo Bakr, the troupe showcases its theatrical abilities, brought to life by director Hanan Haj Ali to a crowd left in cheers, laughs and tears.

The script of the play is a result of a storytelling workshop hosted a year ago, during which the children shared their day-to-day struggles, expressed their emotional connection to the political situation and other burning questions.

As such, the characters' personal stories, dreams and troubles are unveiled in Lost and Found through the story of Sara, a young girl who runs away from home on a quest to find other youngsters.

The performance begins with a narrator introducing the characters to the audience in jubilant traditional circus fashion. We then learn that Sara, the protagonist played by 10-year-old Fatma Ibrahim (known as Atouta), is mistreated by her parents and has no freedom – a reason of her escape from home.

Her brother, cousins and other neighbourhood children embark on a mission to find her, taking the audience through traffic, on to Tahrir Square, and exploring the city’s cafe culture. In the meantime, deciding to impersonate a boy, Sara cuts her long hair and has her own adventure.

The children sing, perform circus stunts, and even dance to shift through the layers of the story, unveiling a social issue at every turn and tackling themes of domestic violence, inequality, police brutality, revolutionary woes and secret romantic relationships.

Lost and Found
'Lost and Found' by Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School. (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

As we walk through the story, the young actors engage the audience by stepping off the stage and reappearing in the various corners of the auditorium, at times even sitting among the viewers. At one point colourful flyers drop from the sky onto the crowd to aid them in finding Sara.

"This play was made to achieve our dream, we are very happy with it," Atouta tells Ahram Online. "The stories in the performance are part of us; we are the ones who wrote it."

According to Atouta, the production of Lost and Found was based on a collaborative effort, from the storytelling workshop onto the theatre stage.

A recurrent motif throughout the workshop pointed to girls wishing to become boys in order to experience freedom. Naturally, this idea became the point of departure of the entire piece, with the other stories fitting into the mould.

Lost and Found
'Lost and Found' by Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School. (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

Lost and Found is the first play ever prepared by Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School. Although the students have performed several times in Egypt and abroad, their performances were limited to circus tricks and percussion shows.

For over five years Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi (The Culture Resource) has been working with the community of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, by providing education through percussion and the circus arts school for its children and youth. The community resides in the vicinity of El-Geneina Theatre, a well-known stage in Al-Azhar Park and an open air theatre that hosts many of Mawred's music performances.

"In 2005, when El-Geneina launched its activities, we were not paying so much attention to the neighbourhood," Basma El-Husseiny, founder and director of Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi told Ahram Online after the Lost and Found performance. "After a while, we started noticing that the youth and children were climbing on the fence, shouting from the building rooftops, cursing and throwing things at us. So we tried to engage them through workshops of painting, mask making, puppetry. It didn't work at first and the relationship continued to be rocky."

This is when El-Husseiny and the team started to reconsider their strategies in running the activities and invited the children from the neighbourhood to come to the theatre.

"We thought that the best thing was for us to go into the community instead of asking them to come to us," El-Husseiny explained. "We decided to open a school which we called Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School.”

Launched in 2010, the school offers three focal points: percussion, circus arts and brass instruments. Through a two-year curriculum spread over 15-20 hours a week, all the children take percussion classes, but then they specialise in one of the three main branches. The school also offers English classes, computer studies and cultural courses, all topped with excursions.

Today, Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School has now gained recognition, with 47 graduates from the community.

"Some [of the graduates] work commercially in weddings, birthday parties or shop openings. It is really important, since it becomes an alternative income source for these young people,” El- Husseiny asserts.

Following its success with the Cairene audience, Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi hopes to take Lost and Found on a tour throughout Egypt’s governorates.

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