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On literature and the city

By Rania Khalil In its second year, the Cairo Mediterranean Literary Festival focused on the theme of “Literature and the City.” Designed as an opportunity for exchange between Egyptian writers and their counterparts from the Euro-Mediterranean countries, the festival hosted a series of events from May 21-25 at various cultural organizations throughout Cairo. “Last year, the …


By Rania Khalil

In its second year, the Cairo Mediterranean Literary Festival focused on the theme of “Literature and the City.”

Designed as an opportunity for exchange between Egyptian writers and their counterparts from the Euro-Mediterranean countries, the festival hosted a series of events from May 21-25 at various cultural organizations throughout Cairo.

“Last year, the theme of the festival was on literature and humor. This year’s theme was literature and cities, a literary look at the Mediterranean countries and how they’ve changed in the last 20 years,” Giorgia Facchinelli, one of the organizers, told Daily News Egypt.

An important element for Facchinelli and her co-organizers, Stefania Angarano and Gabriella Esposito, was to approach the topic from a contemporary place, which meant looking at literature that was not over 15 to 20 years old. When asked about their curatorial strategies, Facchinelli replied: “We read!”

In seeking writers and literature for inclusion, they read what was presently available and talked with friends about what they were reading. Of primary importance was work that is accessible. “We did want to go through academic channels; we wanted things that are going on today.”

On the eve of the momentous changes spurred by the January 25 revolution, organizers not only felt pleased with their choice of theme (on the festival website it is listed as seeming “almost prophetic”), but also had a job on their hands to keep the festival going. Other annual festivals in Cairo chose to cancel the 2011 edition.

So it seemed fitting that one of this year’s participants, Italian writer Gianni Biondillo, would present a work on “psychogeography,” the study of the way the environment emotionally and behaviorally affects individuals, a phrase coined in 1955 by Situationist artist and theorist Guy Debord.

Biondillo was one of five writers present at the roundtable in downtown’s Mashrabia Gallery entitled “The dark side of the City.” He was joined by Egyptian writers Hamdi Abu Golayyel and Youssef Rakha and Italian writers Elena Stancanelli and Giorgio Vasta for a discussion on the city, from the personal to the poetic.

Speaking further on the topic Facchinelli noted, “We are looking at living in a town not only as a geographical place, but as a soul place.”

When asked about the result hoped from such a gathering, organizers noted that the experience was as much for the writers themselves. “The writers were so happy to know each other. They exchanged addresses and emails. For the Italian writers it was an open window on the Arab world.”

It is precisely this window, often curtained by stereotypes and misinformation in the media, that led these organizers of Italian origin, now living in Cairo, to assemble the event. In a screening at the Italian Cultural Center, Facchinelli and Esposito sat beside me for a personal translation of a short made by Italian high school students. A work created entirely by teenagers, the film spoke volumes to the notion of cultural exchange.

The film, “I costruttori,” tells the story of a young Roman high school student asked by his teacher to read the writings of contemporary author, Amara Lakhous. An Algerian-Italian living in Rome and writing in Italian, Lakhous was unable to attend this years’ Cairo Mediterranean Festival. The film was created by the students as a way to bring Lakhous to Egypt.

The audience is introduced, through the journey of the originally closed minded protagonist, to Rome’s multi-ethnic neighborhoods. A particularly touching message of the film is the positive ways in which Romans themselves are changed by their new populations.

Other events included a concert at the Opera of an Italian musical ensemble called Radiodervish who fuse Italian and Arabic language in their music, a series of films from Euro-Mediterranean countries, and an event at Makan entitled “Futuropolis: the Virtual City at the Bloggers’ Time.”

Moderated by Paul Geday, the event featured Youssef Rakha, the editor of Ahram Weekly, Abeer Soleiman, columnist for Al-Dostour and Ahmed Abdellatif, editor of Akhbar El-Adab.

When asked about whether she thinks that books on paper can endure the virtual age, Facchinelli replied: “I think it will survive because the book is something you can touch. It is an object of love.”

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