“Look, look how she walks down the stairs. It’s moving. Oh, look…” The little girl behind me gave her mother a running commentary on every move of actor or shadow at the Lula Del Ray manual cinema performance.
Staged several times between 10 and 13 March, it is part of the eighth Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children (8-13 March), an annual event that aims to bring theatre and other art forms to children. The event takes place at the Hanager Arts Centre expanding into the neighbouring grounds and venues.
The brainchild of Mohamed El Ghawy, founder of Hakawy and its umbrella 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 – the festival has established itself as the most important children’s culture phenomenon taking place in Egypt.
Its importance is all the more obvious once you consider the fact that we do not have any other festivals for children, the only other one, the state-run Cairo International Film Festival for Children, having been halted. Hakawy responds to Egypt’s social and educational reality, and fills gaps.
Mohamed El Ghawy
Mohamed El Ghawy, founder and artistic director of Hakawy surrounded by children at the opening of the festival, Hanager Arts Centre, 8 March 2018. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
With a total lack of creative activities in the majority of schools, the children are even more in need of artistic events to enrich them outside the framework of formal education.
Sporadic shows at the Metropol, home to the National Children’s Theatre or by the Cairo Puppet Theatre (which by definition offers plays for children), a weekly aragoz show in Old Cairo (thanks to the Cultural Development Fund, this beautiful traditional art form is kept alive) or workshops here and there: none of this is enough to meet the needs of the youngest population of this huge country.
But nor is it simply a question of the number of events or even quality of the art presented; the awareness and values the shows instil in young minds are also paramount.
Even if the scene is enriched by dedicated independent players who at times tailor events for children after carefully examining their longings, as is the case with Awtar Quartet’s occasional concerts for children, the Outa Hamra troupe, chosen events held at Artellewa Arts space or at Darb 1718, among others, the demand is still much higher than what’s on offer.
Kite Without String from the Netherlands (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
And this is where Hakawy comes to the rescue, following the principle that “Children have a right to take part in artistic and cultural events on a regular, not random, basis during their school and pre-school life” -- the eighth principle of the Charter of Children’s Rights to Arts and Culture brought to Egypt by AFCA -- where “not random” is the key term. Indeed the bottom line in all creative activities for children, to quote the first and core principle of the same Charter, is that children “have a right to access art in all its forms: theatre, music, dance, literature, poetry, cinema, visual and multimedia arts.”
And even if Hakawy is but a few days a year, its impact is very strong. The festival is part of a bigger mission of bringing arts to children, one that is carried on throughout the year by AFCA for Arts and Culture.
While organising many creative journeys, many of them completely new to young Egyptians, Hakawy encapsulates all components that other platforms present separately, topping them with AFCA’s sustainability and awareness of the gaps in the educational system.
In Hakawy, we find an evident professionalism braided with passion; the team’s dedication, the hand-picked artistic selection, the strategic thinking and brilliant execution all fit into one festival to bring about the newest concepts and formats of shows, meetings and workshops.
This year, the festival came with a new assortment of plays, storytelling, fun activities and numerous new components. The international performances included H2ommes from France, Kite Without String from the Netherlands, The Secret Life of Suitcases by Unicorn Theatre from UK and Lula Del Ray from the USA.
The shows introduced a few new performing art formats to Egypt’s children: the US troupe for example presented manual cinema fused with shadow theatre. Taking the procedure a step further, the performance’s creators were present on stage, taking care of the overhead projectors, shadow theatre elements or live music. Becoming an integral part of the enveloping story they allowed the children to grasp all the elements and mechanisms that go into performing arts creation.
Moreover, following one of the shows, the Manual Cinema troupe invited the young audience on stage, explaining the technical aspects of the show and answering their questions.
H2ommes from France (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
Usually the audience enjoys the theatre watching the story taking place on the stage, and is not involved in the hidden components that constitute the performance. In this context the US performance was one of a kind, especially for the Egyptian children who are rarely offered this interesting approach to art. The same can be said about the H2ommes troupe from France.
In their visually captivating production, the creators brought together the projections techniques, shadows, an actor, a musician and a few props. At the same time, this dreamy and in many ways highly comic performance braided the elements of theatre with those of a musical concert, where live music, singing and sound effects are all produced by one man seated on stage. The musician is emotionally involved in the performance, reacts to the events happening two steps from his instruments, pots and pans alongside all possible tools that make sounds.
Equally interesting are Kite Without String from the Netherlands and The Secret Life of Suitcases from the UK. Both touch on many human values. The latter presents a puppeteer on stage who embarks on a wonderful journey. The play aims at pointing up and awakening our awareness of life values which we often tend to overlook, preoccupied as we are by our daily routines and responsibilities, as is the case with the play’s protagonist trapped in his office life.
The Secret Life of Suitcases by Unicorn Theatre, UK (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Apart from the shows staged at the Hanager Arts Centre, the UK and the US performers visited Cairo’s Children Cancer Hospital 57357 where they presented elements of their work to patients unable to leave their rooms.
This is one of the regular practices of the Hakawy festival: reaching out to all children, including those who cannot, for a variety of reasons, show up at the performance venue. On the other hand, AFCA initiated cooperation with a few NGOs working with differently abled children, bringing them to the shows in buses.
In this way Hakawy follows the 15th principle of the Charter of Children’s Rights to Arts and Culture: “Children have the right to artistic and cultural projects devised in consideration of their different abilities.”
Above the international plays, this year the festival added a lot of new elements to its programming, such as a film screening (Yellowbird/Gus — Petit oiseau, grand voyage, a 2014 animated movie from France), six professional storytellers in addition to the already well known to Hakawy Bibliothequebus) and two seminars for parents, one discussing aspects of positive parenting and how to immerse children in the arts through parenting (led by Sara Seif) and another tackling the issue of “multiple intelligence” and how we can discover and capitalise on our children’s potential (led by Zahraa Rizk).
Both seminars saw a large attendance with mothers from all social strata participating in the discussions while their children enjoyed the plays taking place next door.
Also on the fringe, Hakawy included a second phase of the “Culture is a Field of Work” seminar, an event that brought together several cultural players who spoke to young students about career development possibilities within the arts and culture field. The students were encouraged to apply for internships offered by the speakers’ institutions.
Lula Del Ray from the USA (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Following the previous year’s practice, the eighth Hakawy festival filled the Hanager and its vicinity with a bubbling commotion, with groups of children surrounding a storyteller, others enjoying a play taking place at one of the theatre spaces. Children kept running around the location, laughing, sharing their impressions with one another and their parents.
After all, the ninth principle of the Charter of Children’s Rights to Arts and Culture states, “Children have the right to share the pleasure of the artistic experience with their families.”
Children enjoyed the events and shared their experiences, but parents, school teachers and other caregivers all benefitted from the activities as well, and not only through the aforementioned seminars. By providing a large assortment of activities, plays, workshops, storytelling, the festival creates the general spirit of art and fun, showcasing to parents and caregivers that art is an extremely important part of the development of young minds.
As Mohamed El Ghawy reveals, the festival’s audience reached 10 thousand attending and participating in activities across all levels. This includes regular families coming to attend Hakawy’s events, children brought by bus from public schools in Cairo and Minya, children from the NGOs, and from the Children Cancer Hospital 57357, not to mention the many beneficiaries of events tailored for parents.
With the closing of the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children, we are left with many beautiful experiences and a touch of sadness that one more year has to pass before the festival returns with new creative, educational and fulfilling journeys. It seems like a long wait, though in the meantime children can enjoy the many offerings provided by AFCA organisation throughout the year.
El Ghawy says he will do his best to keep the level of quality work, and at the same time he hopes the festival will expand into other governorates and onto new stages, in addition to extending the number of festival days. With AFCA’s dynamism and professionalism, the sky is the limit.
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly
Ahram Online and Al-Ahram Weekly are media sponsors of this year's Hakawy festival.
Storytelling at the Bibliothequebus (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
For more arts and culture news and updates, follow Ahram Online Arts and Culture on Twitter at @AhramOnlineArts and on Facebook at Ahram Online: Arts & Culture