Fishing for spirituality
visits Alexandria to trace anything related to spirituality in our hasty material life
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Clockwise from top left: Saint Mark's Cathedral; paintings by Fedawy; Hassan Fedawy; participantsat the Spirituality Workshop
When I first heard about this "Spirituality Workshop" I was completely confused, but having been invited to attend the event by its convener, the established caricaturist Hassan Fedawy -- who is known for his crazy and unexpected ideas -- I grew more and more enthusiastic to learn about it.
Spirituality is a term that yields many interpretations; it could refer to our relationship to God and religion, or to music that has a Sufi beat, or for some others it might refer to witchcraft or astrology.
However, what would you make of combining art and spirituality together? It could be a highly refined product.
Spirituality (rawhanyat in Arabic) is the name of a weekly workshop convened and supervised by Fedawy, a creative caricaturist and associate professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria.
Dozens of young people from all walks of life attend the workshop on a weekly basis. Sufi music by legendary musicians such as the famous Nubian singer Hamza Alaa Eddin, widely known internationally, or Sufi chanter Ahmed Barin, give a special contour to the creative atmosphere. The workshop also invites famous literary figures to join and enrich the experience -- one good recent special guest was the Nubian novelist Hagag Odoul, who resides in Alexandria.
During the three-hour workshop, which takes place in the historical Saint Mark's Cathedral on Nabi Danial Street, participants are given a unique opportunity to dig deep inside themselves and come up with something unique that reveals their inner spirit.
There are papers and pencils ready for an outpouring of what is going on inside the creative self. And occasionally, this unique spiritual experience is artistically interrupted by small discussions between Fedawy, the master, and his students.
Are we talking about a healing session here? Most probably, yes. The place itself is already infused with a kind of spirituality thanks to its great history and architecture, and position among other churches in Egypt.
After a delicious lunch at the Greek Club, which overlooks the sea and the Qait Bey Fort I asked my friend Fedawy what triggered the idea in his mind, and why now?
"The idea is simply an attempt to establish a basis of reconciliation in our society. Egyptians, Muslims and Copts, need to conciliate," he said. "In this critical juncture of time, Egyptians need to refresh their spiritual memory. Egypt was the first country in the world to believe in the unity of religions; it is a shame that we were forced to fear each other."
Although himself a Muslim, Fedawi opted for the courtyard of St Mark's Cathedral to host his workshop. "Mosques have become less spiritual. Most Imams argue for verbal violence rather than tolerance, and the worshippers finish their prayers and leave the mosques with a sense of anger," he laments.
"My aim is to simply bring to life the idea that I have always believed in: tolerance and spirituality should be restored to our society. I want artists and people in general to rediscover their language, their rich verbal and body language; because when our dictionary of words diminishes, we tend more towards violence."
He emphasises his words. "I want participants of all walks and ages to attend this workshop to discover the language of art, and therefore to discover themselves and act in a positive way."
Fedawy is not just a creative artist, not just a professor; you can regard him as a fugitive philosopher, running away from the sad and crowded cities to a landscape of wisdom. You can therefore listen to his words in awe, and try to understand what he has said later on.
In 1986 Fedawi obtained his BFA from the faculty of fine arts at Alexandria University, later receiving an MFA for a thesis on the television reforming of place and time in the art of Naguib Mahfouz from the same university. He went on to receive a PhD in 1994, also from Alexandria, on the modern technology of making puppets for science fiction movies. From 1998 to 2000 he studied for a Certificate in 3D Art at San Francisco State University (MSP).
Among many other posts, Fedawy, who turned 50 this year, has worked for more than 20 years as associate professor at the faculty of fine arts. He has also worked in the Decorative Arts Department and for the Arab Academy for Science and Technology as a computer program coordinator.
For many years he has been the leading caricaturist of the daily newspaper Rose Al-Youssef and its weekly magazine, and he was one of the caricaturists who helped flourish the Caricature monthly magazine in the 1990s.
I asked Fedawy if he thought art, spirituality and religion should be in a connected circle?
"Well, art is about originality, and origin refers to God; true artists search for the origin of things, for meaning, and therefore for the spiritual," he said.
This unique workshop began only a month ago, and is one among dozens of workshops Fedawy has convened and supervised.
"I have tailored so many artistic workshops before, but I hope this one will be self-developed; in other words, I don't want to put forward all the answers. I want participants to become truth seekers themselves.
"I want this workshop to develop without a leader, adopting the philosophy of the 25 January Revolution which broke out and advanced without a leader, as a model," he argued.
But if spirituality is well connected to religion, why do we Egyptians no longer feel this spiritual atmosphere, even though our country boasts thousands of mosques and churches, and a rich historical heritage?
"The spirit of Egypt has been murdered in the last 30 years. We actually stopped searching for real meanings a long time ago; we have developed taboos about sex, creativity and religion, and it is high time to get rid of all these ailments," he said with a note of sarcasm, adding, "We have suffered from oppression all these years, and this has literally killed our spirit. This is why we have lost our unique spirit -- because of the long ignorance of imagination and appreciation of the arts.
"We are waking up as a society, but it will take a long time to wake up after 30 long years of sleep," he added.
"The educational system in Egyptian universities should be revised, especially in the artistic departments; freedom of thinking should be established as an asset."
I asked what, as a distinguished creative artist, was his source of spiritual inspiration?
"Well, I do not restrict myself to certain spiritual rituals, and I never force myself to practise art. I believe there is no real barrier between true art and spiritual experience; I mean you don't intend to expose yourself to spiritual sources to produce art. It is simply an ongoing mutual experience," his face beams with a big childish smile.
Fedawy emigrated to the United States some 13 years ago, and lived in California. There he embarked on a long journey to trace spirituality around and inside himself.
He went from local Egyptian music by legendary musicians such as Abdel-Halim Hafez, Hakim and Ahmed Barin, through black American Imams such as Sheikh Malik and Rashid Patch, two well-know preachers in Saint Francisco, to Saint Francisco's spiritual centres. "This relentless search for truth has helped me a great deal in restoring my dignity as an Egyptian in such a dominating, hegemonic, highly civilised society as that I lived in for 10 years.
"My dream is to establish a spiritual centre in a spacious place in Alexandria, to act as a recreational, artistic and spiritual centre where seekers of spirituality and art can enjoy a comprehensive programme of healing that will put them on the track of the quest of knowledge, and exploration of their relationship with nature." Fedawy's conclusion was spoken hastily, as the time for the workshop was fast approaching.
The workshop begins at 5pm sharp. In the courtyard of St Mark's Cathedral in Manshiya, one of the most crowded areas of Alexandria, dozens of young people were waiting for their master. It was a hot day, one of these very humid days of July, but all the participants, including me, felt isolated from the outer sphere. It was as if we were taking our first steps along the path of finding our own spiritual wells.
Throughout the three hours Fedawy flew like a butterfly from one flower to another, giving instructions, encouraging, exploring, joking with his 'kids' as he likes to call his students. At the beginning of the session the participants stood up and connected in a circle, hand in hand, to chant Al-Fatiha, the first verse of the Qur'an.
Then the session proper commenced with a discussion of the value of meditation and its close relationship to spirituality, and from time to time the class was interrupted by other discussions on the value of time, forces of metaphysics, the need to draw in a free sense, or the need to wake up the inner forces inside each one of us.
Each class has a different vision and theme, but the ultimate aim is to reflect your own spirit on a sheet of paper in an artistic way. And the assignment for this session was drawing three different shapes of birds. What a subject, and what an experience, letting the birds fly out of your body!
With the development of the workshop, a Facebook page called Spirituality has been added recently to reflect ideas and upload video clips on spirituality and the history of leading spiritual figures such as Al-Ghazal or Ibn Arabi.
Ahmed Magdi, a young artist and architect and organiser of the workshop, said the number of participants was steadily increasing to the extent that they would soon need a larger space. Rather than sketching, drawing and painting, the participants are planning to produce a 3D cartoon film on a theme related to spirituality. "Funds are needed to enlarge the scope of our activities," Magdi told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Nader Wanis, director of the Cathedral's cultural activities, said that hosting the workshop and having Muslims and Copts together on Coptic property for prayers, was a clear indication of the success of our revolution. "Such event would have never been allowed before, because we were taught to fear and suspect each other. Now we have the courage to face our weaknesses and restore our unity, and this is a vital step towards freedom," he said in his welcoming address at the workshop.
By the time the workshop ended I was feeling so elated that I wished to see similar events being held in Cairo.
And I am sure I am wicked enough to drag Fedawy and his clan to as many cultural outlets in Cairo as our spiritual strength allows.