Amidst political crisis, Cairo saturates itself in culture

Rowan El Shimi, Thursday 11 Apr 2013

Four multidisciplinary festivals, and various side culture happenings, are taking place in Cairo simultaneously at a time when the taste of the national political crisis is on everyone's tongue

Hal Badeel Festival Downtown Cairo Townhouse
Opening of Hal Badeel Festival in Townhouse Gallery (Photo: Hal Badeel Facebook Page)

Cairo has always had a limited yet vibrant independent culture scene, mostly centered in Downtown and neighbouring areas, but to some extent expanding throughout the city. This Spring though, the word "vibrant" is taking a whole different meaning with a multitude of culture festivals and programmes bringing international, regional and locals artists to Cairo audiences.

All of these cultural festivities take place against a political backdrop of protests against the Muslim Brotherhood regime, labour movements for better working and living conditions, and looming sectarian strife that has been the focus of the city this week.

While before, many festivals and culture events would have a limited turn out, or are forced by circumstances to cancel their activities,  this Spring, a threshold of normalisation to political turmoil has met, where you have an exhibition opening as part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) taking place in Hotel Viennoise of 10 Mahmoud Bassiouny, along with the public multidisciplinary arts event El-Fan Midan taking place in Abdeen Square, both a mere few blocks away from Ramsis Street where 6 April Movement protests were receiving a strong dose of tear gas and rubber bullets in a battle that went into the night.

In Downtown Cairo, a neighbourhood surrounded by concrete barricades, three festivals are taking place this month.

D-CAF, brings a wide range of artists of various disciplines to scattered venues. The programme includes visual arts, performing arts, music, films, workshops and performances and projects in public space. The second edition of the festival started on 4 April and is ongoing until 28 April. Read more on D-CAF and it's detailed programme here.

While D-CAF is a festival bringing international, regional and local artists on a high-budget large-scale setting, Hal Badeel (Alternative Solution), also taking place Downtown, in the Townhouse Gallery's factory space, is focused on local artists and working on a zero-budget. The festival started 24 March and has included a variety of artistic events, including music, films, theatre, contemporary dance and even mime and clown performances. Hal Badeel is a reaction to the recent closure of Rawabet Theatre, one of Downtown's most cherished spaces by independent artists, where the festival operates on volunteer efforts, a donated space and materials, and on artists who do not take money for their performances. The festival does not charge money for tickets, and even has two screens on the street for passer-bys to enjoy the show.

Hal Badeel has only a few scheduled performances left and will close on Wednesday, 17 April, with a performance by circus troupe Outa Hamra, a performance by Karima Mansour's Contemporary Dance Centre in the Cairo Opera House, and finally a concert by accordionist Youssra El-Hawary. Find the full-programme here.

Taking place near Downtown on the other side of the enclosing walls around Tahrir is the French Cultural Institute's 9th Edition of the Annual Film Festival 'Rencountre de l'image' from April 7 until 15 April, in Mounira.

The festival showcases young filmmakers from Egypt, along with a few regional and French directors. This weekend brings Amir Ramses's controversial film Jews of Egypt, which is also currently showing in cinemas after state security delays, in addition to Hanan Abdallah's highly acclaimed film In the Shadow of a Man following four Egyptian women across cultures and social classes. Until Sunday the festival includes many short films and documentaries, with the closing ceremony taking place Monday. Find more information and programme details here.

Leaving Downtown Cairo, the Indian Council for Culture Relations and the Embassy of India in Egypt organises "India by the Nile," a festival dedicated to Indian performing and visual arts that will run from 13 April to 13 May. The festival is being hosted for the first time in Egypt, but has had several editions in other parts of the world. The festival's events will span many venues, including the Cairo Opera House, El-Sawy Culturewheel, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria. Read more on the festival's concept and programme here.

In addition to these festivals, which were precedented by the Cairo Jazz Festival and The Digital Arts Festival in March, culture spaces are bringing strong programmes in terms of both quality and quantity of performances in the city.

El-Geneina Theater, run by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi (The Culture Resource) is also returning with a strong programme this April and May, bringing some of the region's most popular independent musicians, such as Ghalia Benali (Tunisia), Autostrade (Jordan) and Wust El-Balad (Egypt), among numerous others. The theatre, located in Al-Azhar Park, attracts an array of audiences, and is known for handpicking the most interesting performers to come on its stage. Find El-Geneina's programme here.

A new space on the culture block, Beit El-Raseef in Maadi, launched in February after hosting several festivals dedicated to music, performing arts and handicrafts. The space started off slow but lately, in March and April, has been swiftly developing its schedule. They have been collaborating with Ekaa (Beats) — a record company and booking agency run by musician Tamer Abu Ghazala, which signs some of the most innovative musicians in the Middle East — to bring their artists to Beit El-Raseef. They have been also hosting art therapy sessions and workshops.

With this extensive dose of culture events one can only hope that the cultural dialogue it constitutes can include more segments of society than just the regular art goers, and that audiences can find, amidst all the fragmentation of a constantly escalating political situation, that special understanding that sharing and experiencing art can create.

Short link: