Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A sea of festivity

As the Farah Al-Bahr Festival comes to Alexandria's Qaitbay Fort, Nader Habib joins the crowds out enjoying themselves

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The Greek troupe; mother and daughter flying kites; an arts student sketching scenes from the event; visitors taking photos at the festival

The glow of the tilting sun colours the sea a mysterious shade of blue as Alexandria once again hosts the entire Mediterranean, or at least a part of it. For the first time a festival was held at Qaitbay Fort, and everything in Alexandria bears the unmistakable signs of carnival. Families, local and foreign, are here for a day of pure fun, with music shows, theatre, dance and bazaars all being part of the Farah Al-Bahr (Joy of the Sea) Festival.

Walking around the Qaitbay Fort, the massive 15th-century fortress where the festival takes place, is a bit like going back in time. Cosmopolitan Alexandria is back. All around, Egyptians are talking to Greeks, British are conversing with French, and Palestinians are hanging out with people from the south of Egypt.

For one joyous day of calm, everyone forgets the conflicts of the world outside. Gone are the unceasing wars, and forgotten is the bitter taste of injustice. Everyone is present to celebrate friendship, pay homage to neighbourliness and enjoy our common humanity.

Kites fly above, as if aspiring to reach an unseen summit behind the clouds. Everyone dances as the air wafts by bearing snatches of Greek songs. Children run around freely, some hiding behind handicraft stalls. One stall bears Palestinian garments, and another has reproductions of traditional jewellery. There is a puppeteer, a magician, a cartoonist and a henna-tattoo artist. Traditional fuul is on sale from an authentic cart near the popcorn stand. There is also candyfloss, which can be enjoyed after visiting the Turkish, Greek and French cuisine on sale at the make- shift food court.

The Farah El-Bahr Festival is organised by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, the Higher Council for Antiquities, the European Union, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. It is a key project of the Anna Lindh Foundation (ALF), an organisation that aims to promote art and friendship around the Mediterranean, and it is also part of the first Alexandria Cultural Festival, a multi-event affair organised by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to promote cultural diversity inside and outside Egypt.

According to ALF media chief Paul Walton, Alexandria has always been a magnet for different cultures and a symbol of diversity. He points out that the ALF has several ongoing projects in the Delta, Sinai and Siwa in Egypt, and he stresses that the ALF seeks to reinforce common understanding around the Mediterranean through cooperation.

"The Farah Al-Bahr Festival not only brings happiness to the people of Alexandria, but it also helps Alexandria's foreign community to feel at home," Walton says. The event combines art and music shows with displays of nearly 20 types of handicraft from around the Mediterranean.

Walton has lived in Alexandria for nearly four years, and now he knows a thing or two about Egyptians, especially about the inhabitants of Alexandria. "They are hospitable," he says, "which is part of their Egyptian and Arab heritage. Of course, hospitality and kindness to strangers are also main components for the dialogue of civilisations. When we extend hospitality, according to our respective customs, a barrier is removed."

Walton says that more festivals will be held over the coming years. "What we have done this year will make people enthusiastic about participating in the event next year. This goes not only for the people of Alexandria and Egypt, but also for the 43 member countries of ALF. The event will help the participants, artists as well as artisans, to improve and think of something new for next year."

Not all the visitors to the Qaitbay Fort knew that a festivity was going on, however. Mohamed Morsi is from Tanta, and he was surprised on arriving in Alexandria to find a festival underway. "I came here by chance and was pleasantly surprised by the event. It's great to see Egyptians and foreigners mingling together and enjoying art in such a relaxed atmosphere," Morsi says.

Morsi's wife Mayyada adds that one of the best things about being at the Fort is that her daughter can play freely. "I feel safe about my daughter being here. She is playing without anyone bothering here," she says.

Rabie El-Sayed has been selling fuul from the same cart in the Alexandria city streets for many years, but this day is special, he says. He was greatly entertained when one buyer asked him to let him make his own fuul sandwich. "Perhaps fuul is not a big deal," El-Sayed says, "but it is great to be here, selling sandwiches to this wonderful crowd."

Sedra is an Australian woman residing in Egypt. Her husband, a geologist, works for an Egyptian mining company, and they have been living with their two daughters in Alexandria for four years. Sedra feels that the festival has given her daughters a chance to connect with the real Egypt. "The children go to the British School and study Egyptian history. They learn Arabic too. They're having so much fun here," Sedra says.

Bahi Ahmed, nine, is flying a kite. As he runs away from a friend, he says, "I came here to have fun at the Fort and was surprised to find the festival taking place. It is very beautiful."

Among those taking part in the festivities is cartoonist Omar Badran. He has been drawing a lot today, and his clients walk away from his stall with a smile on their faces and a comic representation of themselves on a piece of paper. Badran is proving to be very popular today, and he says that he wishes there were more such events.

Mohamed Ghanayem has come from Port Said to set up his stall at the festival and to sell the semsemeyas, harp-like musical instruments, that he has made himself. He recounts the story of the semsemeya, and how this musical instrument first appeared when the Suez Canal was being dug in the 19th century and became popular among residents of the Canal zone.

From the south of Egypt comes Amer Awadallah, who has journeyed all the way from Aswan to display his palm-frond products, an eclectic mix of picture frames, chandeliers, tables and napkin boxes.

Dance troops from Palestine and Greece also performed during the festival. Short plays and a story-teller show were staged. At night, Egyptian music groups performed to entertain the crowds, including Masar Igbari (Obligatory Detour), Sawt fil-Zahmah (Voice in the Crowd), Nas Makan (People from a Place), and Station. A solo performance by Ahmed El-Sawi was followed by an ensemble performance by Mohamed Antar and Spanish guitarist Fernando Perez.

During all the events hosted by the Farah Al-Bahr Festival, the ALF provided space for various cultural organisations to advertise their work. It is also helping civil-society organisations working in the areas of children's literature, cultural dialogue and climate change.

According to the supervisor of the Qaitbay Fort, Osama El-Sayyad, the Fort now hosts a book fair every year, as well as music and opera performances. It has become a kind of "fourth pyramid" in Alexandria, he says.

After this year's success of the Farah Al-Bahr Festival, ALF media assistant Inji Sidqi says that due to this year's success, the public should expect even more events next year.

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