“One day, I went back home and juggled balls in front of her. Another day, I brought in the tabla [percussion instrument] and played. She's always beyond happy to see me perform,” says Hosseini Mohamed, a 17-year-old student at Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School (DAAS), about his mother’s happiness with his artistic pursuits.
“She says I'm unique for the ability to perform circus arts and musical instruments. In a way, seeing her happy about my artistic skills encourages me to learn more. I want to make her happier,” he adds.
Mohamed is a Thanawiyya Amma (Secondary School) student, who in parallel to his studies, enrolled in all three art specialisations offered at Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School: circus arts, percussion and wind instruments.
The school is located in the economically underprivileged Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district, and it targets the neighborhood’s children, aiming to provide them with an arts education and hence the means to secure future jobs. DAAS was founded by an NGO, the Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy) in cooperation with Aga Khan Music Initiative - Aga Khan Development Network. Currently the school operates under El-Genaina Company for Arts and Culture Services, and continues to be partnered by Aga Khan.
Mohamed also performs in the school’s most recent production Balalika, which comprises of circus acts, musical performances, and a clown show.
Balalika was first staged in July in Downtown’s Al-Falaki Theatre and most recently on 19 October in Bibliotheca Alexandrina as part of this year’s round of the Backstreet Festival.
It is scheduled to stage again on 23 October in El-Sawy Culture Wheel, and 30 October in El-Genaina Theatre located in Al-Azhar Park.
Hosseini Mohamed (L) in Lost and Found performance by Al Darb Al Ahmar Arts School. April 2014. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
Beginnings and aspirations
“It was sometime in 2010 when I heard an arts school was to open in the neighborhood,” Mohamed tells Ahram Online during a training day at the school’s premises in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar neighborhood.
“I was in an internet café close to our house when I saw people distribute flyers with pictures of circus acts and music performances. I was impressed and wondered if I could perform similar movements one day,” Mohamed continues.
“I also wanted to learn circus acts and impress my friends,” he laughs.
Mohamed, along with some friends of his, headed to the neighborhood’s new school, and joined the circus arts specialisation. Later, Mohamed began attending percussion classes in parallel, where he learnt to play the tabla, daf (frame drum), conga drums, among other instruments.
“It was summer vacation at the time and I had free time to do both,” he explains.
It was not long before Mohamed was asked by the school management to limit his training to only one specialisation.
“I was told that since I was good at both, focusing on one area would make me even better. I was young at the time, about 14 years old, and was very stubborn. But I went for circus arts, because I liked it so much,” Mohamed explains.
Eager not to give up on either specialisation, Mohamed would attend a general percussion class that was open to everyone daily between 1 and 3 pm, besides his circus arts classes.
“Actually, the more skills I gained, the more I brainstormed how they could complement one another,” he adds.
Mohamed took part in the school’s performances across Cairo, including a 2014 play titled Tahet Wa La’inaha (Lost and Found), where he acted, played tabla and performed circus acts.
“I applied all the skills I had gathered over the previous years in this play,” Mohamed explains.
Mohamed also accompanied the school on a trip to Lebanon where the students performed Lost and Found, and also to Kuwait where they delivered a varied performance comprising circus acts and music.
About a year ago, and after five years of intensive training in circus arts and percussion instruments, Mohamed joined the school’s third specialisation in brass and wind instruments, to learn the saxophone.
He participated in the school’s most recent production, Balalika, where he performs circus arts and the saxophone.
“I receive training in all three specialisations now. I also plan to develop my acting skills in the future,” he adds.
“The thing is, whenever I look at my trainers and see how they perform their own concerts, I wonder if I’ll be in their shoes one day,” Mohamed adds.
Hosseini Mohamed plays the saxophone as the school's trainer guides him. (Photo: Nourhan Tewfik)
As Mohamed proceeds to explain, his experience was not without its challenges. In fact, some members of his community, especially ones of the same age group but who aren't enrolled at the school, failed to see any value behind his artistic education.
“Our very first concert was held in one of the neighborhood’s centres. I was holding an instrument and spotted my neighborhood friends laughing at me,” Mohamed says.
“When you’re that young, and you’re on stage, you can’t really put your feelings aside. I was very angry, and I cried later that night,” he adds.
But despite such challenges, Mohamed continued studying at the school nonetheless.
“I owe it to my mother. Her encouragement helped me brush off such negativity and gave me a much-needed pat on the shoulder,” he adds.
It wasn’t until later that Mohamed’s neighborhood friends grasped the importance of his education at the school.
“Things changed the day we [students from Al-Darb Al-Ahmar school] came out on Mona El-Shazly’s TV show. On my way back home later that night, they were waiting for me, and they carried me in celebration.”
“Now, I’m focusing on succeeding rather than considering what people have to say about my work.
“I changed a lot since joining the school about six years ago. In this neighborhood, most people grow up perfecting a craft. Fathers specialised in crafts and they want their sons to learn it and join them,” says Mohamed of the handyman work that characterises the neighborhood. “But I loved art, and I’m happy I had the chance to do what I loved."
“In a way, my character was remolded by the moments and experiences I witnessed here. I matured a lot.”
Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School was also the place where Mohamed developed many precious friendships. “I really enjoy being among my colleagues, but I also still hold onto my old friends because we grew up together. Despite our different interests, and the fact that we undertook different paths, we can still maintain these relationships.”
As for his future plans, Mohamed plans to finish school and attend university, all in parallel to his artistic vocation. “It is important to focus on both in case I’d need a job on the side to be able to sustain my artistic career,” he explains.
“Once I’m done studying the saxophone, I want to gather lots of experience by performing and playing music. I also want to find a way to mix and match the different skills I’ve learnt so far.”
At the end, Mohamed pauses for a second before he shares a heartwarming memory, “you know what, there’s this photo of me when I was 12 years old. I think Ms Khawla [the school’s supervisor] must have it. I was carrying some instrument, and I remember how it was too heavy for my little body back then.”
Hosseini Mohamed in Lost and Found performance by Al Darb Al Ahmar Arts School. April 2014. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
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