The voice of youth
Serene Assir debates the question of Egyptian-Israeli cultural normalisation with young Cairene artists
Poet and lyricist Mohamed El-Shahawy and singer Ahmed Hamdi sat at around 12pm in the gardens of the Cairo Opera House and discussed the former's latest writings while making improvements to drafts. Both are talented yet struggling artists. And while El-Shahawy has already managed to collaborate with and sell his songs to some of Egypt's top singers, Hamdi is waiting for his big break.
Pondering the possibility of Egypt and Israel normalising ties on the cultural level, both were cynical from the start about what benefits they and their fellow Egyptian artists would reap. "What could we possibly gain from them?" Hamdi asked. "I wonder whether it would really be about culture at all... To me the fact that the Israelis approached Egypt in the first place to try and establish relations on this level is much more indicative of an underhanded political strategy than it is about a genuine cultural interest."
"Think about it," El-Shahawy said. "In any cross-national cultural relationship, both parties have something to gain. In this case, I can't see what Israel could possibly give us, given the stark difference in the two countries' political levels."
However, when asked about whether he would perform in Israel if offered significant remuneration, Hamdi thought briefly. "Well, perhaps I would think about it," he said. Then, redefining his stance, he added that he would only go in order to show the Israelis what a great nation Egypt is, and how developed its culture is -- perhaps because he was suddenly somewhat ashamed of his brief suggestion that he would be willing to go and thus break the Arab-Israeli taboo.
"But they know everything there is to know about you!" El-Shahawy told him. "Don't you see? That's precisely what they want you to think -- that you can gain something from recognising their country as a valid cultural entity. Such a relationship would not be about culture. It would be about getting you under their control."
Money also emerged as a strong incentive in the case of Shoukri Diab, another singer. "Many of Egypt's singers are, despite their talents and hard work, simply not managing to make ends meet," he said. "If the normalisation of ties would mean a new avenue for us to earn cash, then fine, I would have no problem with that."
The unfortunate economic-political conundrum that some of the artists revealed speaks of a deep-rooted problem in Egypt that emerges purely from poverty. Indeed, on the whole, despite the fact that it may well be the case that many artists would gain financially from more developed Egyptian-Israeli cultural ties, when asked about the ethical dimension, all were in disagreement.
"There is nothing I can say about such an idea," Mahmoud El-Sammaan, a producer, said. "In short, we have a culture and a history -- what do they have? Theirs is a culture of war and violence." Ahmed Marzouk, lyricist for the stars, agreed: "I cannot possibly establish relations with a country that kills my brothers. If there were any reason why I would further ties, it would be so that I could come to know my enemy more closely. But even then, when I listen to my heart, I know that I must simply reject the idea and continue to not recognise the existence of the Israeli state -- at least on my own personal level."
"I have a problem with this entire debate, though," Hamdi said. "First of all, if the furthering of ties is actually going to take place, then, on the grand scale of things we, as young artists, will not really have much of a choice. It will become the new status quo."
"Secondly," he added, "Egyptian- Israeli relations are very good on every other level -- on the political and economic levels especially. Normalisation of cultural ties would only serve to justify the more strategic, geopolitical ties. And we all know that if politics will continue to develop in the way that they are at this point, then our cultural involvement would only become the last straw."