Under the patronage of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem and Port Said Governor Adel El-Ghadban launched the celebration of Port Said, Capital of Egyptian Culture 2021.
The extensive celebrations spanned two days, 4 and 5 March, with numerous activities taking place indoors and out, aimed at shedding light on the city’s potential for cultural dynamism and the change culture could bring about there, including attracting an international community.
Working in conjunction with the Port Said governorate, the Culture Ministry plans to hold over 100 cultural events in the course of the year. Those will include theatre performances, music, dance, literary seminars, symposia, arts and crafts activities, among others. Port Said was chosen as capital of Egyptian culture in 2020, but the pandemic and the resulting inability to hold any events there forced the organisers to push the celebrations forward to 2021.
Port Said is a rather young city, built in 1859 following the construction of the Suez Canal. But even prior to that date, the spot was an important point on the trade route between Africa and Asia. Bound to the north by the Mediterranean, to the south by Lake Manzala, to the west by the governorate of Damietta and to the east by North Sinai, Port Said is the fifth largest city in Egypt.
And, with its population working predominantly in transit trade and fishing, little attention has been paid to a well designed cultural landscape. The choice of Port Said as the culture capital can be a great opportunity to institute sustainable long-term artistic projects.
A short visit to Port Said reveals the many changes that it went through over the past years. From the cultural perspective, the governorate has renovated or even built facilities for cultural activities. Meanwhile some efforts are being made to attract the population to existing cultural gems.
In 2016, after ten years of preparation, the Port Said Culture and Entertainment Centre was inaugurated. This impressive modern-style edifice covers an area of 2,600 meters, and includes a large theatre, a cinema with two screens, a conference room, large halls where exhibitions are held and many other facilities for the audience.
The auditorium can accommodate 1200 and the stage is equipped to host large-scale music or dance performances. With those facilities in place, the Centre is also considered the Port Said Opera House.
The city has over ten movie theatres including the newly renovated Cinema Masr, one of the oldest cinemas inEgypt. It is home to the Port Said National Museum and Port Said Military Museum, the latter inaugurated in 1964, and the Museum of Modern Art in Egypt, among other attractions.
The festivities celebrating Port Said as Egypt’s culture capital in 2021 kicked off at the Port Said Culture and Entertainment Centre with a folk performance by a troupe consisting of Port Said’s children and youth. The evening continued with a visit to the exhibition set inside the theatre and presenting pictures and documents embodying the historical stages of Port Said and the city’s role in the national struggles and developments, as well as its history with the Suez Canal.
Once the attendees moved to the auditorium, plans for the year were announced by the governor and the culture minister. Among several topics, Abdel Dayem pointed to the importance of the culture ministry’s Start Your Dream (Ebdaa Helmak) initiative, which in the upcoming season will reach out to Port Said.
The initiative provides six-month theatre workshops for young people interested in exploring their talents in a variety of Egyptian governorates. Initiated in 2018 on the stage of Cairo’s Shabab (Youth) Theatre, under its former director Adel Hassaan (who is currently heading Al Talia Theatre), Start Your Dream aims to educate young people in the theatrical arts (acting, directing, scenography, light design, etc.) with Egypt’s top theatre academics and practitioners providing the curriculum.
Since its launch, the project has attracted scores of Cairo students and generated a growing interest in other Egyptian governorates as it moved to Upper Egypt, providing workshops that lead to performances in Assiut, Shafqiya, Fayoum etc. During the pandemic months, Start Your Dream was moved online with lectures posted on the culture ministry’s YouTube channel. The newest phase of the project is already open for registration in Port Said as well as Beni Suef, Kafr El-Sheikh, Giza, and Aswan
As the evening continued on the stage of Port Said Culture and Entertainment Centre, the culture minister honored seven renowned Egyptian personalities who were either born and raised in Port Said or made significant contributions to the city. Among the honorees was the late Egyptian actor Mahmoud Yassin, who lived in Port Said before moving to Cairo where he launched his career.
It was during the second day of activities that Abdel Dayem inaugurated the street named after Yassin, marking the area where he was born and spent his formative years. The first day concluded with a concert featuring Egyptian singers Yasser Suleiman, Rehab Motawa, and a special segment by Hany Shaker accompanied by an orchestra conducted by Mostafa Helmy.
The second day of activities included an extensive tour around the city with stops at significant cultural spots including the Port Said wing of the Egyptian General Book Organisation which was recently renovated and is now providing a rich selection of Egyptian publications on multiple topics. The tour included a visit to the Nasr Museum for Modern Art, the Port Said Military Museum and the historic Feryal Garden, whose history goes back to 1869 and where celebrations of the opening of the Suez Canal took place.
The garden, which covers over 21 thousand square metres, went through major renovations and developments in 2020. While providing a facility for Port Said inhabitants to relax in an atmosphere of greenery, the Feryal Garden remains true to the city’s heritage even as it accentuates the splendour of the present. It features a large central plateau like a 3D map presenting the course of the Suez Canal in a comprehensive way.
While Port Said Governor Adel El-Ghadban spoke about his efforts to develop the park, the culture minister pondered the idea of bringing music performances to the small stages scattered around the location.
No visit to Port Said would be complete without passing the port area and the promenade, the most vibrant place in the city. The promenade ends with a port for ferries that transport passengers and their vehicles between Port Said and Port Fouad every few minutes. It is there that we can admire the most important building in the city, the seat of the Suez Canal Authority (SCA).
The state-owned authority in charge of the Suez Canal operations was set up in the 1950s to replace the Suez Canal Company following the Suez Crisis. Its iconic view can be captured from the other side of the canal, from the island of Port Fouad.
The day culminated with a visit to Cinema Masr, first launched in 1940. The edifice had been closed on and off for many years, with the last 20 years seeing it managed by a private entity that rented out the space. In 2017, the building was closed due to the collapse of large segments of its roof. The cinema was then placed under the purview of the Ministry of Culture, which began the general restoration works.
Today, equipped with the latest technology, Cinema Masr is ready to accommodate 526 viewers. Abdel-Dayem suggested the launch of an annual film festival that would attract local, regional and international film communities to the city.
Activities across cultural venues ended with the screening of a documentary presenting the history of Port Said and Suez Canal.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly