Cairo flash mob met with public disdain, suspicion

Rowan El Shimi, Friday 18 May 2012

Reactions to a recent flash mob at Cairo's Ramses Train Station suggest that the Egyptian public - for the most part - isn't quite ready for experimental street theatre

Participants of flash mob freeze as people around the station watch (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)

While it was not the first event of its kind in Egypt, the flash mob that took place on Thursday in the Ramses Train Station – the main train station in Cairo – was met with much public criticism, while the police put numerous obstacles in its way.

That same week, Couch-surfing Egypt, a group of people who are part of the international couch-surfing movement in which you offer your couch to low-budget travellers, called for the flash mob on Facebook. "What we are going to do is to freeze for five minutes in a public place, which is Ramses Train Station," event organiser Belal Kamal wrote on Facebook.

"I wanted to have a big event in a place where a lot of people are moving, so I chose Ramses Train Station after discussions with my friends," Kamal told Ahram Online.

At around 5:20pm, the group, comprised mostly of foreigners and a few Egyptians, were ready to freeze inside the train station. There were a few with cameras ready to capture the event (flash mob videos often go viral on YouTube), and that was when the commotion started.

Two police officers came to ask what the group was doing, saying they could not film inside the train station. After arguments and pleas by the group, the police agreed to let them have the flash mob only in one half of the station's main hall and on one condition: no filming.

The participants dispersed and got into their freezing positions: one was holding a newspaper, one a book and two were shaking hands, among other actions and poses.

The condition set by police to not film was ignored by the group as well as passersby; while many in the station simply did not notice or did not care, some stopped to take photos, videos and wonder out loud what these "crazy foreigners" were up to.

Policemen chased those with cameras, including myself, saying that we could not take pictures. The group then decided to take the flash mob outside the station to avoid hassles with the police – and that was when they were met with a new challenge: the public reaction.

Participants set up their cameras and got into their new freezing positions and, in a matter of seconds, a huge circle – made up mostly of men – formed around them and started to make jokes.

One man was particularly angry. "What's happening? We want to understand," he said angrily, standing in the middle of the circle in which participants were frozen. "We're the crazy ones from the 17th world and you're from the First World. Explain to us!" he exclaimed, referring to developed versus developing countries.

Many started asking out loud what was happening and what the point of the exercise was, getting no explanation from the frozen participants.

The police then came out again, asking people to stop what they were doing and asking someone from the group to go in and talk to police, who appeared to be just as confused as everyone else.

A government employee on the scene talked to Ahram Online after they finished. "What is the goal of what they are trying to do?" he asked. Another passerby came into the conversation explaining that this was a form of public theatre. The man disagreed that this was a form of art. "If they are performing a play with acting and a message, then I would stop and watch what these people are doing."

Others wondered aloud why most of the people involved were foreigners.

Since the revolution, there has been a media smear campaign accusing 'foreign elements' of causing chaos in the country. In Tahrir Square and at other protest sites, foreigners and foreign journalists have been attacked by the public, accused of being spies or spreading rumours. The general sentiment on Cairo's streets is not very welcoming of foreigners interfering in their lives, whether through protests or art.

"My knowledge is limited," the government employee went on as onlookers nodded their approval. "The person doing something new to society should explain to people what he is doing so we can understand and get something out of it."

Other flash mobs have taken place in Cairo: a freezing flash mob in Azhar Park, which, according to Kamal was successful, as it was organised differently (also organised by Couchsurfing Egypt); one took place at Cairo University, where some students froze for five minutes; and Coca Cola did one last Ramadan in Dandy Mall in the suburbs of Cairo. Most recently, at the Dahab Festival, there was also a flash mob organised in which participants danced to the Black-Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling".

In most of the other flash mobs that took place in Egypt, people seemed to enjoy the new introduction to their day, with some joining in or simply watching.

In March, internet sensation 'Dancing Matt', who performs the same simple dance with people around the world and uploads the videos to YouTube, came to Tahrir Square to perform. He was also met with criticism, however, with many locals complaining that his act was disrespectful to the martyrs who had died in the square.

"People are not used to things like this," Kamal commented on the Ramses flash mob. "We expected people to be curious, ask and try to participate."

Around the world, some flash mobs are simply done for the purpose of entertainment, while others have social messages or aim to raise awareness about particular issues. In Lebanon, there was a highly successful flash mob at the Beirut International Airport in March of last year organised by the airport's Duty Free in which participants started dancing the local traditional dance "El Debkeh" to wish travellers a safe trip.

Perhaps for flash mobs in Egypt to be successful they must first be adapted to local culture. If participants engage the community, and plan the flash mob and inform the people with a clear message, then there would probably be less resistance to it.

Kamal plans to continue hosting flash mobs, but only in semi-public places, such as universities, malls, sporting clubs and festivals. It might be a good start to raise more awareness on what these kinds of events aim to do.

But without engagement with the Egyptian public, which tends to be sceptical and not necessarily open to new innovative art forms in public spaces, then future flash mobs will likely meet a similar fate.


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