The crisis hit Egypt in March 2020, shutting down cultural activities for four months before they were tentatively reopened but hardly sufficiently to make ends meet for artists. Almost two years later, having paid a high price for its absence – with artists deprived of finances if not the means to be properly creative and cultural institutions sustaining great losses – the Egyptian and regional scene is back in view. Now that the days of drought are over, we should have the oomph to review the year.
While each country has been dealing with Covid-19 in its own unique way, Egyptian performing artists tried to find innovative solution to the challenges posed by the pandemic. The Cairo Opera House erected a new open-air Fountain Theatre in August 2020, and it served the Opera’s own companies for the most part. It was then that Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem said artists should not think in terms of a new season until the Covid-19 situation was clear. Both music and theatre continued to be burdened by restrictions like social distancing and limited audiences and as such suffered from lower incomes. The cautious reopening of a few independent spaces gave an impression of movement but could not heal the pandemic wounds.
A short-lived hope came in late 2020 when some festivals – many of which are either organised by the Ministry of Culture or strongly established on Egypt’s culture scene – launched new rounds, mostly in a modified format. The 27th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre in September 2020, for example, was limited to local live performances by Egyptian troupes and international plays presented online. The fourth El Gouna Film Festival took place in October 2020. Both the 29th Arab Music Festival and the fifth Sharm El-Sheikh International Theatre Festival for Youth were held in November while the 42nd Cairo International Film Festival took place in December.
Naturally, due to international health concerns, those and a few other, much smaller festivals had to limit the participation of foreign artists and hosted part of their activities such as seminars or talks online, making for a somewhat less festive experience with less artist-audience interaction. Equally, the creative exchange of thoughts and practices was minimised if not altogether eliminated. As if adding insult to injury, the 13th National Theatre Festival which was scheduled to run between 20 December 2020 and 4 January 2021, had to close two days earlier than planned due to a spike in infections.
Performing artists welcomed 2021 with much worry. In the first few weeks of the year the wheel continued to turn but not fast enough for the artists to earn a living or continue to create without concerns about their futures. Of course, a number of events originally scheduled to take place in 2020 could not sustain the pressure of constant postponement and died a natural death. With 2020’s considerable baggage of disappointment, confusion and financial exhaustion, 2021 was burdened by its immediate past, including the psychological breakdown of many creative minds.
Only much later could we begin to think in terms of seasons. January 2021 was not without a few bumps on the road, but the first half of the year saw the slow reopening of stages and as such allowed for a cautious return of stage plays and concerts. The first months boasted a number of events in small dosages. The Ramadan season in April brought musical events to open-air locations such as the Cairo Opera’s Ramadan Nights, which presented only 27 concerts across Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour, rather than a few concerts a night across numerous cities, as was the case in previous years. A few theatres launched premieres or revived older productions, but the audience remained limited in numbers with many viewers relying on annual television series. It was only after Ramadan, with the introduction of the vaccine, that Egypt’s cultural scene started returning, slowly but surely.
Months of extremely slow and cautious movement had generated a deep hunger. Once the doors began to open, an avalanche of performances, concerts and festivals hit Egypt’s stages. In the second half of 2021, the number of events was so overwhelming audiences were unable to attend everything they wanted to.
The eighth International Festival for Drums and Traditional Arts which had been postponed from the previous year was eventually held between 12 and 18 June, featuring troupes from 30 countries. August brought the International Theatre without Fund Festival (TWFF) which in its 11th round lasted five days bringing local and international troupes to Alexandria’s audiences. Meanwhile Cairo enjoyed the 29th Citadel Festival for Music and Singing.
Then came September, with the 14th edition of the Sama’a International Festival for Spiritual Music and Chanting, parallelling the inaugural edition of the Eazees International Women’s Theatre Festival (EIWTF) that filled the stages over seven days with Egyptian and international plays, workshops and seminars. The festival was originally planned to take place in March 2020, but had been postponed. The 11th Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children took place between 28 September and 5 October, an unusual time for this annual event usually held in March.
The ninth Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) kicked off on 1 October, featuring a large assortment of performers from Egypt, the Arab region and beyond over three weeks. In the same month, the 14th National Theatre Festival filled over 20 stages with performances over ten days. There was also a Micro Theatre festival that ran over four days in Cairo and Alexandria before October ended with the launch of the week-long Cairo Jazz Festival, which closed on 4 November.
The 30th Arab Music Festival and Conference took place from 1 to 15 November at six theatres in three governorates. For the first time in its history, the festival lasted two weeks instead of 10 days. The sixth Sharm El-Sheikh International Theatre Festival for Youth (SITFY) was held between 6 and 12 November. The 43rd Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) presented more than 100 films together with the Cairo Industry Days, and many other activities between 26 November and 5 December. CIFF changed its dates from the previously announced slot of 1-10 December so as not to conflict with the inaugural Red Sea Film Festival in Saudi Arabia.
Last but not least was the 28th Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater (CIFET) which took place between 14 and 19 December, offering 14 plays in its main competition as well as workshops, seminars and a scenography exhibition. The festival usually takes place on the first 10 days of September, but this year it was rescheduled for December due to pandemic restrictions. The new date was also set in order to avoid conflict with the Carthage Theatre Days (Journées théâtrales de Carthage), which this year took place between 4 and 12 December.
The aforementioned festivals and a few more presented local, regional and international artists, testifying to unprecedented dynamism on the scene. We should not forget however that all of the events abide by restrictions intended to curb coronavirus with social distancing, masks and many other measures in place. Still, comparing the current situation with that of the past year-and-a-half, the new creative energy raises hopes that Egypt will manage to keep the pandemic in check.
This article lists only 15 festivals from the second half of 2021, omitting many smaller or independent initiatives and disregarding film festivals and literary events. Of course, the festivals are but part of the many stage productions that saw the light; they do show however that the performing arts locations do accommodate their activities just as they are embracing hundreds of local artists, be they theatre troupes, orchestras, jazz, rock, pop or other bands.
With the world still on guard, the reopening of the Egyptian and regional cultural scene can seem counterintuitive; there are nevertheless a few reasons behind their unusual accumulation, the first being the thirst for culture and the psychological and financial exhaustion caused by the preceding months. The precautions set in place and a large number of the Egyptian and global population having been vaccinated allows the Egyptian authorities to give gatherings their blessing, even if they cannot guarantee the situation would endure should new variants of the virus hit the country.
Egypt usually has two seasons filled with festivals: in spring (March to May), and autumn (September to December). The first half of 2021 was strongly embedded in pandemic rhetoric and the ministerial committee headed by the culture minister that regulates most festivals could not give a green light to a large number of physical events. On the other hand, many had to wait for the new fiscal year beginning on 1 July to benefit from the ministry’s support when needed. Whatever the procedural decisions behind the high number of festivals, they are all, directly or indirectly, linked to the imbalance created by Covid-19.
But festivals aside, the Egyptian performing arts scene is showering us with creativity on a daily basis across the Culture Ministry or independent spaces. The independent troupes and bands are making their way in the world of the performing arts, theatre makers are continuing to premiere their plays, musicians keep creating music and dancers express themselves through movement. Some new fascinating initiatives have also emerged, with the year’s highlight being opening of the concert hall at the New Administrative Capital Opera House and a historical performance by the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Riccardo Muti in November. Meanwhile the new projects keep popping up in Egyptian governorates outside Cairo and Alexandria, where the Culture Ministry or independent art managers are aiming for cultural decentralisation.
There is definitely a ray of hope that artists will recover from losses incurred during past months. This hope is strengthened by Egyptian artists’ connection to financial and morale-boosting opportunities in the region. With Saudi Arabia opening its doors to cinema, theatre and music, a large proportion of our homegrown artists present their work mostly in Riyadh, Jeddah and Al-Ula. The Riyadh season which spans for five winter months, alongside other festivals taking place in the Kingdom and other oil-rich countries, allows hundreds of artists to benefit from high demand.
From the Egyptian superstars of Arabic music, pop or rap, to well connected independent projects, the Arabian Peninsula has been importing Egyptian and other Arab gems in large numbers. It goes without saying that emerging from a year and a half of total drought, Egyptian artists are welcoming such opportunities without hesitation, even if they prioritise international commitments over the local ones.
As long as the wheel is rolling, artists will find a way to present their creativity to an audience. As we close 2021, we can remain optimistic, it seems. Let us hope that year 2022 will bring about the stability and balanced distribution of artistic activities that we need.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly