2023 Yearender: Even tougher

Ati Metwaly , Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

Ati Metwaly wraps up a year in the musical arts

Even tougher
Even tougher

 

B

ack in 2016, my article in this space was entitled “When the going gets tough”. It discussed economic and legal changes that had impacted the arts and culture scene. As the years went by, the Egyptian cultural scene faced more and more obstacles. Little did we know just how hard it would be with what economic developments and wars would bring to the table six years later.

It is safe to say that 2023 was among the most difficult years for the cultural field in the past decade. There were financial challenges linked to the three consecutive EGP devaluations since March 2022, with the local currency losing 75 per cent of its value against USD to date. In the first days of January 2023 the USD traded for EGP 24.66; currently it trades for EGP 31, while the flourishing black market hit new records in mid-November offering EGP 50 for 1 USD. With the country expecting a fourth wave of devaluation after the presidential elections, the Egyptian people, including artists, are deeply concerned.
The end of the year was made even more difficult by Israel’s war on Gaza, with the Egyptian cultural community stepping in to express their support for the Palestinians. Only months prior to the Palestinian tragedy, the war in Sudan dominated the news, and this was another topic the creative community engaged with.

There were many challenges all through 2023, but it is hard to see it now without thinking of the tragic situation of the Palestinian people and the ongoing murder of whole families including children, which has angered many observers including Egyptian artists. At the time of writing, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, more than 18 thousand people have been killed by Israeli military operations. Since 7 October, Egyptian and Arab artists have been very vocal through their work, expressing their support for Palestine and organising funds for the humanitarian efforts.

In a more recent article, “Lights out or not”, I brought up the dilemma that many artists found themselves in shortly after the eruption of the war, when many chose to cancel or postpone their activities in “solidarity with Palestine.” For some, “to cancel or not to cancel” became equivalent to “to grieve or not to grieve”. There were also artists who pondered different angles, considering the messages that artistic activities can communicate at such a difficult time.

No need to reiterate the various stances taken on this issue. In conductor Nayer Nagui’s words, “Many Egyptians [and Arabs] perceive art as joy: dancing, singing; it’s associated with a celebration. With this in mind, the call for cancellations of the events is not surprising.” Still, some artists, and some Arab countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) decided to continue with their entertainment programmes regardless. Meanwhile, a number of Egyptian artists, artistic bodies and cultural festivals started gearing towards a conscious choice of programming, steering clear of commercial art and large-scale celebrations, and at times donating events’ proceeds to support humanitarian relief efforts for Palestine. The polemic of right and wrong, what choices should be made, continued through October and November, when artistic activities generally resumed.

Over the past two and a half months, a number of musicians used their voices to draw attention to the tragedy experienced by Palestine, not only during the ongoing war, but also over decades of Israeli occupation.

Among the first reactions to the war on Palestine was the song We Are Awakened by You Palestine by The Choir Project, a collective founded and managed by director, acting coach and visual artist Salam Yousry. Released on 29 October on Instagram, the song was a result of a one-day workshop at Cairo’s Rawabet Theatre on 23 October.

On 31 October, the eight-minute Rajieen (We Are Coming Back) was released on YouTube and other streaming platforms. This collaborative work by 25 artists from the Middle East and North Africa, including a few musicians from Egypt, was described by the artists as “an anthem” for Palestine with lyrics fusing many social, historical, and political threads, pointing to the decades of injustice and occupation, the current events, and the world silence while Palestinian children are being killed on the streets. The lyrics also address Arab leaders, urging them to take action.

The Egyptian rapper Al-Ganaini also released a new song, Land of Canaan (Canaan) on YouTube. In it, he presents Palestine’s multi-cultural history, challenging the current Western narrative that labels resistance to the Israeli occupation terrorism.

Also worth mentioning is Rise, Gaza (Ya Ghaza Aoumi), a collaboration between three shaabi singers, Houda Bondok and two younger rising singers, Mohamed Osama and Khaled Agami, released on Sultan Al-Shan’s YouTube channel and social media platforms.

In the last week of November, the popular Egyptian band Cairokee released a new single Telk Qadeya (That’s a Cause) on its official YouTube channel. Expressing solidarity with Palestine, the new single highlights US double standards.

At the same time the Egyptian singers Wael El-Fashny, Aly Alalfy, Noha Hafez, and Hadeer El-Sherif, together with numerous child singers, joined hands for a single, Where Is Peace released on YouTube. “Where is the elusive peace? Where lies the elusive sense of security? The fundamental right to life is perishing, rendering the efficacy of mere words questionable... When the prevailing sounds are those of bullets or death,” the lyrics read.

Sharmoofers, a popular Egyptian band, released Resala (A Message) in early December on YouTube, with the lyrics subtitled in Arabic and Hebrew. “The smell of blood was strong. A child, a woman, a sheikh, or a young man, no difference [to you],” are the opening words of the lyrics penned by Ahmed Bahaa (the band’s vocalist), who also composed the music.

Those are just a few of many singles that musicians from all walks of life have released in an effort to raise awareness of Israel’s ongoing massacre of the Palestinians. With the entry of December most musicians started returning to the stages, filling the schedules of many cultural venues, often without ignoring events in Palestine. The twice postponed El Gouna Film Festival (14-21 December) chose to cancel all celebrations, including opening and closing and red carpet, in solidarity with Palestine. It also created a special programme dedicated to Palestinian cinema.

The war on Gaza has definitely pushed many Egyptian artists and artistic bodies to take a stance. This was paralleled by some international artists expressing their pro-Palestinian thoughts and joining demonstrations. But 2023 had already witnessed another troubling event: Civil War broke out in Sudan in April. According to Amnesty International, six months into the war (mid-October), “at least 5,000 civilians have been killed, more than 12,000 injured, and over 5.7 million people forcibly displaced.” The numbers have only risen since then.

In 2023, steps were taken by a variety of bodies in order to shed light on the Sudanese people and their creativity. The Goethe Institut-Kairo launched Hub for Artists from Sudan (Sept-Dec 2023) aiming to support individuals through four-month scholarships and cultural networks through community events and other activities.

In the sector of music, Sudanese artists began appearing in concerts across Cairo, some showing their talent in the She Arts Festival (28 September-1 October). The film sector sees El Gouna Film Festival, again, dedicating another special section to memorable works of Sudanese cinema, restored by the Sudanese Film Group (SFG, a body founded in the late 1980s by Ibrahim Shaddad, Eltayeb Mahdi, and Suliman Elnour) in cooperation with the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art. The segment aims to “bring to light the ingenious narratives and metaphorical richness that was nearly lost to history,” read the festival’s press release.

As the gems of Sudanese cinema come to light now, so do their creators who find themselves in yet another enforced exile. For instance, the aforementioned Sudanese veteran director-screenwriter Shaddad fled Khartoum and came to Cairo in June with his wife. Shaddad and a number of his colleagues try to establish themselves in Egypt and other Arab countries while awaiting for the end of the Sudan war.

This is topped by the formation of the Union of Sudanese Artists Association in Egypt created with the support from the Arab Artists Union. The union’s role is to embrace the Sudanese exiled artists and help them find their way in Egypt’s cultural scene.

The pains of war, whether it is the Israeli war on Gaza, or the war in Sudan, do have a direct effect on the way of thinking of Egyptian creators. However, the Egyptian arts sector is facing its own challenges, in part prompted by the three consecutive devaluations of the Egyptian pound since March 2022, and the continuously raising prices of all commodities. Over the past two years, the Egyptian people have found it increasingly hard to make ends meet, yet 2023 has probably been the toughest year.

The Egyptian cultural scene is paying a high price for the recent financial developments. The first thing that comes to mind is the inability to host foreign artists, as many bodies simply cannot afford their fees, flight tickets or accommodation. They rely on the shrinking support of the foreign embassies or the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. This is not to forget that the Egyptian currency devaluation has also created a huge spike in the instruments and their spare parts, while a lot of musical equipment is no longer available on the market.

The currency devaluation also reflects the rise in fees required by the Musicians Syndicate. According to some artists, each host needs to pay $500 to obtain the performance permit for each foreign performer. Such amounts are beyond the reach of cultural bodies. Add the raise in entertainment tax, which throughout 2023 moved from 25 to 30 per cent on music and stand up comedy. Yet another tax is placed on events that have “free entry,” making them an unneeded burden for their organisers. It goes without saying that all those financial responsibilities lead to cuts in the artists’ fees.

The outcome of all this is an Egyptian artist whose monthly income has decreased over the past year. No wonder many Egyptian musicians - and artists from other cultural sectors - are looking for work in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia’s booming entertainment market has opened up infinite opportunities, while other markets (UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, etc) have become equally appealing for Egyptian musicians who focus on one-time events in the Gulf. Meanwhile theatre companies have embarked on producing performances “for export”. One of the most recent such productions is Sindbad, starring Karim Abdel-Aziz and Nelly Karim, and Bride from an Electronic Institution with Ahmed Eid, both scheduled to premiere at the Riyadh Season this month. Though Sindbad boasts well-known actors, even companies with less flashy names have their eyes on the Gulf. The musical Chaplin premiered at the beginning of 2023 in Riyadh before it was staged in Egypt.

Some artists head to the Gulf for one-time projects, while others explore long-term job opportunities. In 2023, several Egyptian musicians filled the newly opened creative bodies in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf. While this is not a completely new phenomenon for Egyptian artists looking to earn money in richer parts of the Arab world, the challenges of 2022-2023 have made the exodus even more apparent. No need to elaborate on the repercussions on the local Egyptian art scene that come with this state of affairs and how it will affect the morale of local artists. The future might not be as bright as we hope.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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