No music in the park
The banning of performances in Al-Azhar Park raises many unanswered questions, writes Rania Khallaf
There will be no more music at Al-Azhar Park, at least for the time being. Dance and musical performances, long a feature of the park's activities, have been suspended by the government for unspecified reasons, depriving Cairo of one of its few thriving cultural outlets.
Three weeks ago the administration of Al-Azhar Park -- supervised by the Agha Khan Cultural Services Company (ACSC) -- received a call from the office of the deputy governor of Cairo ordering the cancellation of a concert by the Nagham Masry band scheduled to take place in the Al-Geneina Theatre in the park that evening. No reasons were specified, though according to a press release issued by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi Company for Artistic Production, Consultation and Training, the coordinator of the show, "security had some reservations over the content of the songs performed by the band."
The ban, though, includes not only the band's songs written by Ahmed Fouad Negm, a poet well known for his political satires, but extends to all cultural activities and for an indefinite period.
"We have not received a written note from the government explaining the real reasons behind suspending the activities so we have to wait and see," says Sherif El-Erian, general director of Al-Azhar Park.
"What happened is depressing, not only for the company but for the park's visitors. I want to know on what basis the Cairo Governorate took the decision. If the governorate is entitled to take such decisions, then what is the role of Ministry of Culture?" asked Basma El-Husseini, head of Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi Company.
"My own explanation is that the security authorities now require every trivial detail of cultural activities be reported in advance," said El-Erian.
Yasser Mohamed, an official representing Cairo Governorate, denies that the governorate ordered all performances to be suspended. "In a written memo to Al-Azhar Park administration the governorate said it required written permissions from state security and civil defence organisations, for the sake of citizens' security, for any performances in Al-Geneina Theatre," Mohamed said. "The administration of the park is obliged to send us the date of performance and name of the troupe at least one month in advance," Mohamed added.
El-Husseini believes the ban "is part of a scheme on the part of the Cairo Governorate to control and set the cultural agenda of the park and eventually take over its administration."
"It looks like the governorate has suddenly noticed that there is a successful cultural venue that is not under its control," she said.
The ACSC is part of the Agha Khan Development Network, based in Geneva. It built the 75-feddan park, at a cost of LE12 million, on derelict land as part of its programme to preserve the historical identity of Islamic cities in 10 countries.
"We plan to extend our contract with the governorate to manage the park by five more years to guarantee its performance," said Mohamed Mekawy, the director of ACSC. The current agreement between ACSC and the Cairo Governorate, renewable on a five-yearly basis, ends in July 2007.
"Al-Azhar Park is not only a recreational area for the public, it is a catalyst for development in the Darb Al-Ahmar district," Mekawy explained.
In addition to archaeological development plans and workshops and galleries for artisans who live in Darb Al-Ahmar, the ACSC recently signed an agreement with the Social Development Fund for a programme that seeks to improve standards of living for the district's inhabitants.
"We strongly believe that the development of historical areas should extend to offering educational and training services to the inhabitants," Mekawy added.
El-Husseini says the park opened up opportunities for new musical troupes as well as leading traditional groups which "successfully perform their shows outside Egypt but hardly ever perform at home".
The battle over Al-Azhar Park exposes not only the unstable relationship between security authorities and cultural organisations but the failure of civil society organisations to develop a strategy to confront such seemingly ad hoc bans.
"The park is supervised by a higher committee presided over by the Cairo governor, so if he decides there can be no cultural activities in the park we have to obey the orders," says El-Erian.
"We do not even have a written ban from the governorate to which we could react legally," says El-Husseini. "Yet even so, if the governorate insists on its stance we intend to file a lawsuit. We have a contract with the administration of the park and have prepared a full schedule for the summer, including an international popular arts festival, and a festival for poetry and music including recitals and musical shows from across the Arab world."