Lights out or not: Cultural scene in Egypt, Arab region during the war on Gaza

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 24 Oct 2023

For some “to cancel or not to cancel” cultural activities is equivalent to “to mourn or not to mourn” the lost Palestinian souls whose numbers multiply every day. Others ponder different angles, considering messages that artistic activities can communicate at such a difficult time.


As of the time of writing, Israel’s unceasing bombardment of Gaza has brought the death toll past 4,700, including at least 1,750 children. Ahram Online reports that since the Hamas attack on 7 October, Israel “conducted a series of heavy airstrikes on Gaza, primarily in the central and northern regions of the Gaza Strip and near the Jabalia refugee camp killing dozens of Palestinians, including children. Hamas said it fought with Israeli forces near Khan Younis in southern Gaza, destroyed a tank and two bulldozers and wounded an Israeli soldier.” Hundreds of deaths have occurred daily, and obstacles in the way of humanitarian aid have not been lifted.

Saddened and helpless in situations such as one we have been observing for almost three weeks now, many artists themselves are confused regarding what they might do by way of aid or solidarity. As a tool of engagement art can support and give voice to the oppressed, shedding light on injustice. But art is a way to disconnect from harsh reality as well, and the polemic of cancelling events out of respect for the tragedy in Gaza remains powerful.

For some “to cancel or not to cancel” is equivalent to “to mourn or not to mourn” the lost souls whose numbers multiply every day. Others ponder different angles, considering messages that artistic activities can communicate at such a difficult time. What is art? Is it sheer entertainment? Can it be a form of resistance? Where might we draw the line? History gives dozens of answers, but they are hard to apply to a situation in which Palestinian children die every hour while the world cheers.

In Egypt, under pressure from public opinion, numerous events were cancelled or postponed. But some events went ahead, some being used to make a statement. The issue is still being debated vehemently on social media; some take issue with cancellations, others applaud it. I have omitted many names in what follows due to the sensitivity of the issue being discussed.

The sixth El-Gouna Film Festival (GFF) was among the first large-scale events to announce postponing its activities. On 10 October, just three days before the opening, the festival administration announced that the event would be postponed to 27 October, citing “the outbreak of Al-Aqsa Flood and hardships in Palestine.” A week later, another statement said “the GFF management aspires to the resumption of the 6th round when the situation stabilises in the Palestinian lands,” leaving the date unspecified. The festival also revealed that it would donate EGP five million (USD 161,000) towards “the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, in partnership with the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development and the Egyptian Red Crescent Society.”

Those procedures were accompanied by the Cairo International Film Festival cancelling its 45th round, scheduled for 15-24 November, news that was announced by the Egyptian culture minister Nevine El-Kilany in an official press release that cited to the “escalating tensions in the region as a result of the ongoing Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip that began on 7 October.”

Within the same week, the Carthage Film Festival announced its cancellation “in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” In its 34th round, the CFF is Africa’s oldest film event, accepting entries only from Arab and African filmmakers, and it was scheduled for 28 October-4 November. The Tunisian culture minister Hayet Guettat said the decision was made “in solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and considering the critical humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip… following the brutal Zionist aggression.”

Qatar cancelled the 11th Ajyal Film Festival which was due to take place between 8 and 16 November. “We are grieving alongside the community within our region and are devastated by the staggering daily loss of innocent lives. It is simply not a time for celebration, it is a time for focused and intentional action,” read a statement released by the body that organises the festival, the Doha Film Institute.

October to December is the region’s festival season and one of the most significant, the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, scheduled for 30 November and 9 December, has neither made a statement nor released any news updates in the last 10 days. Equally unknown is the situation of the 20th Marrakech Film Festival scheduled for 24 November-2 December.

But the film world is not the only space facing the dilemma of whether or not to cancel events. On 18 October, in alignment with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi declaring three days of mourning, the Cairo Opera House suspended all its activities on all stages. El-Kilany also postponed the 32nd Arab Music Festival and Conference, stating that “the festival’s new date will be determined later.” The festival, scheduled to take place between 24 October and 2 November was to feature almost 40 concerts and 120 artists from across the Arab world. While no further announcements were made by the Opera, the indefinite postponement of the Arab Music Festival left the programme full of holes through the first week of November.

The situation was even more critical for events that had a launch date close to 7 October, and many of which chose a different course of action. The 11th Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) which opened on 12 October and continues until 5 November, released a statement that reads, “In D-CAF we believe that in times of pain, injustice, oppression and anger, we need to stick together, resist and not be defeated. We only know how to resist through arts and culture… We stand in solidarity with our brothers, sisters and families in Gaza, Palestine and deeply share their pain, suffering and injustice. We stand as a platform for Arab artists in Gaza, and the rest of the Arab world whose voices are not heard…”

It is worth adding that, over the past 10 rounds, through its hallmark segment, Arab Arts Focus and other shows, D-CAF has presented numerous thought-provoking events reflecting on Arab including Palestinian realities.

Meanwhile, the Cairo International Jazz Festival (CJF) scheduled for 26 October-3 November, announced its activities as scheduled. In a statement the organisers said, “cancellation means surrender and the victory of evil over good. We do not surrender or die, but rather we affirm our survival by continuing to hold this cultural presentation to challenge evil.” While the festival also decided to remove the festive colours from its designs, replacing them with a greyscale, in mourning for the martyrs, their ticketing platform TicketsMarche promotes the CJF's events with a full color palette.

Some applaud the CJF’s decision, but many criticise it on the premise that this is not the time for music, considering the event’s cheerful and energetic tenor. One Egyptian musician who supports the decision finds the dilemma nearly impossible: “there is a thin line between art for a cause and entertainment, but delving into that huge discussion would lead nowhere.”

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina followed the three-day national mourning (18-20 October), yet it also extended the suspension of concerts, including the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestras and Choir season opening event (21 October) which was to feature Mendelssohn’s Symphony no. 2 (Hymn of Praise). Once again, how do we classify Western classical, especially a work with a cantata segment derived from Biblical texts praising God and “mankind’s progress from darkness to enlightenment?”

Meanwhile the Sharm El-Sheikh International Theatre Festival for Youth (SITFY), planned for 25-30 November, released a statement announcing Theatre for Humanity as the theme for this year’s round. The festival management also plans to hold a special conference which would emphasise opposition to war and discuss how art is a means to express the right to live safely in one’s homeland.

Egypt’s independent art spaces such as Room Art Space report that many artists and bands — whether already famed or making their way through the field — postponed concerts scheduled for October and November, to December or further. Room Art Space also points to the complete cancellation of their hallmark stand-up comedy shows.

The same situation seems to hold across the Arab world. Most recently Amr Diab cancelled his Dubai concert (scheduled on 20 October). The same stage also cancelled a performance by Kiss (12 October), among others.

Kuwait suspended “all forms of musical programmes until further notice” including concerts that are part of the Laylat Omar Festival featuring stars of the Arab world. The Royal Opera House Muscat cancelled the Omani Women’s Day ceremony (17 October) which was to feature Majida El-Roumi, Ladies from the Oman Symphony Orchestra and Egypt’s Al Nour Wal Amal Orchestra.

This does not mean that all regional bodies have cancelled their events. Many continue with their planned schedules. Some musicians point to the numerous concerts still taking place in a few Arab countries - many in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - but are not being highlighted in the media.

In countries where a general suspension of artistic activities — whether for a three-day mourning period or “until further notice” — has not been declared by the state, the official cultural institution, festival organisers and artists are left to decide for themselves. Of course each decision is motivated by a network of principles and priorities, and takes into account gains and losses, whether financial or administrative. Many events had required weeks and months of preparation, and so the artists, art managers had to think twice before cancelling.

We are in the third week of the massacre of innocent people including many children, and the question “to cancel or not to cancel” remains on the tongues of many people in the field. Maybe we can replace this conversation — or at least supplement it — with some clear plans. What is a reasonable mechanism by which art can be put in action for the direct benefit of the Palestinians?

Cinema with a humanitarian angle, concerts whose profits support humanitarian efforts, special events shedding light and supporting Palestine which could resonate not only locally or regionally but also globally, are all events that could benefit the Palestinian cause, whether directly or indirectly by sending messages and raising awareness. An action plan, a unification of thought through art, might be beneficial for everyone involved.

So far some steps have been taken by some Egyptian bodies, including El-Gouna Film Festival’s donation. D-CAF continues to support Arab voices — its brief since birth — while the upcoming SITFY will step in with activities intended to “raise awareness.” We need to hear about more such initiatives by artistic bodies…

It would be almost as tragic as the ongoing massacre of the innocent people if in a few weeks’ or months’ time we were to return to our regular activities, with the art scene turning a new page, having done little or nothing to effectively support the Palestinian people.



* A version of this article appears in print in the 26 October, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: