Channels of communication
Gudran for Art and Development, an Egyptian NGO, has been working in the Alexandrian fishing village of Al-Max since 2001. Aly El-Guindy speaks with two of the organisations 15 volunteers -- Damien, a Belgian who teaches photography in the village, and Rami Fawzi, an Egyptian/Jordanian who acts as Social Affairsa Manager -- about village life, and the role of the project in its development
Damien First of all we would like to represent, because they are not present at this interview, Sameh El-Halawani and Aliaa El-Greadi, the founders of Gudran. Their experience began four years ago, in Minya, where they collaborated on a project that aimed at incorporating artistic expression within the development experience. They worked mainly with children, and after a year they decided to initiate a project of their own.
The site chosen was Al-Max, a small, poor, fishing community near Alexandria. They felt the village had something different, a particular character, an atmosphere encapsulated in the architecture, in the traditions of the fishermen and perhaps by the canal that flowed through the village.
But Al-Max also suffered problems. There were high levels of poverty, alongside drug abuse and crime. They went to the village every day for six months, spending as much time as possible with the inhabitants. They started to share their ideas with the villagers and eventually convinced them about the project.
They rented a house in the main street and opened it as a centre providing workshops and literacy classes for the women of the village. This first step was very important, not least in establishing a network of relations.
The second phase, which we are working on now, concerns sustaining the project, allowing the villagers to develop themselves, in their own way, through the workshops and training schemes. And now we have more volunteers working in the centre and a stronger team.
The first thing we did was to paint the houses...
Ramy We painted the houses on one side of the canal but before we painted we tried to find a solution to the problems caused by humidity, which had a detrimental effect on the houses next to the salt water canal. After the renovation we started to decorate and paint the houses. The villagers, mostly youngsters, painted them.
There are customs and traditions within any community, and art, in Al-Max, had not featured among them. So there was a certain resistance, a feeling that art was not of any practical use. So it was the children who provided a means to combat that idea. They became an entry point for the project into the community.
Children are incredibly open to new ideas, to unaccustomed stimuli. So we provided them with a variety of workshops -- painting, pottery, music, theatre, shadow theatre. Children grasp new ideas quickly.
Damien It is important to stress that we are part of the village and we learn from them. It is not that we interfere with their way of life and impose our views. What we do is help in offering the villagers ways of expressing themselves. But it is the self that is being expressed.
A good example is Ahmed Mansour, a teenager from Al-Max who started writing songs. He used to be misunderstood by the villagers. He was different, an intellectual you might say, and had not been able to communicate openly. Now Ahmed has developed more self-confidence, and is more willing to express his own feelings. He is a good example of how art can help in developing communication between the individual and his or her society.
Ramy: We have also developed the connections between the villagers and the outside world. A lot of international volunteers come to Al-Max to work. The villagers interacted with them and made friendships. An Internet café eventually opened in the village so that the communication continues even after the volunteers had left. So a once isolated and insular village community was suddenly communicating with people from different cultures, and they were communicating with a community to which they would not, before the project, have had access.
Damien In 2002 we began to host international work camps in Al-Max, developing intercultural exchanges with other international NGOs. We had about 10 volunteers coming to Al-Max from all over the world.
In addition to children we work with women. We have a women's group at the centre doing mainly designs on cloth, painting and embroidery. We never direct them or ask them to copy. We want to encourage individual creativity. They started three years ago and now they are teaching the craft to younger girls. They are also planning to make a business out of their productions.
Ramy Before this centre was opened there was no place for the women to gather so they had little interaction with each other. They consider the centre as a social club. Most of them meet there. The centre added a sense of community.
We even helped in opening a restaurant that offered local fish dishes, that concentrated on the local cuisine. It is situated next to the canal so you feel like you are eating between the boats. It is open to the public six days a week. The women working there thus gain some income.
We want to help empower the women, to open up the possibility of their playing a more active role within the community, and in developing that community.
The local villagers tend to refer to us as the library, rather than as Gudran for Arts and Development. In the beginning we opened a very humble library. Now there are more than 3,000 books covering different subjects and we have rented a bigger house, on four floors, so we have more space for more activities.
Damien There is a big event coming up, when we will host an international exhibition in the village. There will be 14 artists, mostly from Africa and Europe, exhibiting their work. Also a scenographer from Lebanon will create an open air theatre. The audiences will sit on the banks of the canal and the stage will be on the boats in the water. The event we plan to film and then exhibit internationally. Audiences from all over the world will be able to see what is happening in Al-Max
Ramy The artists in the festival will work alongside the villager, and the aim is that the whole thing should be an interactive experience, a collaboration.
Damien We had an exhibition in the Town House Gallery in Cairo last March, showing a short film and photographs from Al-Max. We also exhibited the villager's artwork. The main reason behind the exhibition was to try and widen our work, and to see what feedback we would receive from those who visited the exhibition. It was about how to further develop Al-Max, and how to spread the concept we have adopted in the village.