By Joseph Fahim
One of the last performances I watched at the 14th European Theater Prize last month was a children’s play entitled “Happiness” by Russian director Andrey Moguchiy. Based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s classic tale “The Blue Bird,” “Happiness” was a feast of the eye, exploring children’s fears through a series of fantastical sequences realized via stunning acrobatics and a colorful mobile set.
What caught my attention though was not the actual performance but the reactions of children and teenagers packing the sold-out Aleksandrovsky Theater. The look of awe, excitement and thoughtfulness was something I’ve never witnessed in Egyptian theater, and that, in turn, brought me back to my first sordid experience with theater in Cairo.
It was 19 years ago when I first set foot in a playhouse as part of a school trip. The play was an awfully insipid lecture charting various “important” events in Egypt’s long history. A shamelessly nationalistic piece of blatant propaganda unlinked by a narrative, the performance was interrupted midway by the loud chatter of a group of bored students from a different school.
The star of the show, the equally insipid TV actress Mai Abdel Naby, stopped the performance to have a go at the undisciplined students, a row that oddly progressed into a general knowledge contest with no winners.
This unfortunate incident largely shaped my assessment of Egyptian culture for the following 10 years, right until the end of college.
The 90s was a pitiful decade for all facets of Egyptian culture: theater, film, music, visual arts and literature, a time when art seemed completely dead. The unexpected renaissance witnessed in the past 10 years in the country, or, to be accurate, Cairo and Alexandria, was prompted by individual efforts. The government, as always, stayed at bay, apathetic to lifting the nation from the cultural disintegration it has sunk into.
This renaissance, nevertheless, was not established on solid foundations. The myriad cultural institutes that sprang up over the past 12 years capitalized on emerging talents to inject new life into the corpse that was the local culture. One crucial element was missing: education.
Everyone is familiar with the sorry state of Egyptian education, and art education was treated no differently; an exceedingly out-of-date system that discourages creativity and promotes traditionalism.
Observers tend to forget that, culturally, Egypt didn’t open up to the world until the advent of the internet less than 15 years ago. An entire generation, including mine, was brought up on a heavy diet of American pop culture and an Egyptian heritage we couldn’t connect with.
Thus, the foundation remained as weak as it’s been for the past 40 years. The culture that rose at the dawn of the new century was, to a great extent, a reaction to the conformist ideals of our parents, a form of rebellion operating within well-defined parameters my generation refused, or rather didn’t know how, to surpass. American mores were gradually replaced by a blind fetish for European mainstream art. Young artists started to navigate their way through their spheres, settling on new formulas, a superficial amalgam of these influences that rapidly grew in popularity.
We mastered the creation of hybrids but we hardly invented anything over the past three decades.
Some would certainly scold me for dismissing the entire local culture; accuse me of overlooking the accomplishments and major breakthroughs we’ve made in recent times. Truth is, tangible revelations have been few and far between and they do not accurately represent the general state of both mainstream and alternative cultures.
This brings me to the present and the post-Jan. 25 culture. The sense of defeat, frustration and cynicism that defined the pre-Jan. 25 culture was replaced over night by triumph, contentment and optimism. The 18 days that constituted Egypt’s biggest popular uprising did not only provide artistically starving artists with a bottomless well of rich material, it gave them a new sense of purpose. And then gates opened to a flood of music, art and film that shall define Egyptian culture for at least the next year and a half.
Artists from every part of the nation heralded a new golden age of Egyptian culture free of the chains of censorship and energized by our justly earned freedom. If these works are any indication though, then nothing really seems to have changed.
The countless exhibits, endless stream of music and numberless documentaries that have surfaced over the past three months have been nothing short of mediocre; shallow, reactionary, aesthetically timed art thoroughly lacking subtlety, intelligence or substance.
The produced work is nothing more than unarticulated, unripe expression. The revolution, Egyptian artists are yet to realize, is not over and their narrow-sighted works view the morally-dubious present world from a black and white prism. The growing uncertainty about the future is the overriding sentiment of the day, and the events that led to Jan. 25 were not as clear-cut as they make them appear to be.
This brings me back to the shaky foundation of art in Egypt and the education conundrum. The vast majority of the post-Jan. 25 revolution works are typified by the same anomalies that informed contemporary culture: they’re easy, hastily made and are utterly unremarkable, exploiting the public’s hunger for art that mirrors their reality. The fundamental problems our art is suffering from are yet to be addressed, lost in the overwhelming jubilation that’s blinding artists and critics alike from seeing the reality of things.
These are the facts we must face: Theater has been dead for the past 35 years; music is in stagnation, visual arts is in flux, and film is still stranded between the desire to entertain and the temptation to experiment.
We’re still marching, in confident steps, in the same old trodden path, locking ourselves in a self-congratulatory bubble. No soul in this country has been able to fully digest the scope of the revolution; no soul has been able to accurately predict its consequences. This disposable art of the moment will look naive and irrelevant in 10 years time.
There is no dearth of talent in Egypt; the problem is no one knows how to channel it into pertinent, worthwhile art. The nurture and endorsement of art outside the capital is paramount not only for scavenging new original voices but also for the improvement of neglected communities living in the shadow of religion.
At a time when fundamentalism is tearing up the country right and left, art stands as a primal force for combating intolerance, for building the great civilization we all aspire Egypt to be. That will not be accomplished as long as the bureaucrats in charge of the various cultural organizations continue to abide to the same conservative mentality that brought the entire culture to its knees.
The recently announced plans of Mohammed Ali, newly appointed director of the Artistic House of Theater, to enforce censorship on future productions doesn’t bode well for the future of Egyptian culture. The much-discussed shakeup of the Ministry of Culture has not yielded any promising results. It’s clear now, as we predicted, that censorship will prevail; the same old faces responsible for this decline will continue to reign; the emancipation of art will not materialize anytime soon; the exploitation of the revolution by artists and bureaucrats in every possible way to score points with the public will continue.
An uphill battle — against conservatism, against corruption, against our own unrealistic expectations — awaits creators from all art disciplines. All eyes are on Egypt now, anticipating great things from the generation that terminated Mubarak’s 30-year-old rule. Egyptians are now faced with two choices: To take advantage of this new-found interest for self-improvement, for leading the nation, or to bask in fading glory. The choice now is theirs.