Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 September 2012
Issue No. 1113
Youth page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Stage demonstration

Gehad Hussein listens to a voice of discontent

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As the opposition grows stronger, the monitoring of the current regime becomes more intense. And if a state-owned institution rejects art for political reasons, be sure that the artist will become an effective, critical component of the backbone of the country's opposition -- and thus, influential enough to be censored.

The revolution took place with the aim of getting rid of censorship and not only allow, but also promote freedom of expression, especially in the intellectual and artistic scene. Any setback in that sense is faced with scrutiny and a public scandal on social networks and/or the media.

The theme of this story is a random, ever-changing collection of Egyptians with an undying love for their country and a passion for music. Together, they are called "Mashroua Choral" or "The Choir Project" (TCP). Their artistic director is Salam Youssri, a 30-year-old writer and director. Youssri explains that the aim of TCP is "collective participation. We want to create a safe atmosphere for people to freely express how they feel and what they think."

Being financially independent and dependent on volunteer work, the creation and execution of the choir's projects and songs takes place in workshops and so are free from censorship. Time and place are announced through Facebook and Twitter and anyone can join. "These people learn how to listen to each other and how to stop judging others in a superficial manner," Youssri elaborates. The group sits together and starts brainstorming about what it wants to sing about -- and voil≥, a song and sometimes even a whole show is created.

In May 2010, TCP was founded as the Complaints Choir with 22 members who wrote, composed and sang four songs, complaining about everything that was annoying them. The show was portrayed by the media as "singing demonstrations on a stage", as the content of the songs heavily criticised the Mubarak regime. Journalists felt like this was a different way of voicing people's discontent with the political situation -- far from the standard "20 people on the stairs of the Journalists Syndicate" prototype demonstrations at the time. Immediately after the show, State Security threatened the venue Townhouse Gallery, and consequently, it became very hard for TCP to find a venue to perform in, so their songs were mainly published online.

The Choir Project kept rolling, bearing new themes every time, like "Advertising Choir" and "Proverb Choir" and getting invitations to Oman, London, Munich, Berlin, Beirut and Istanbul. Members increased, but the real boost in numbers occurred right after the revolution in their workshop called Utopia where the members sang about the kind of life they wished they had in Egypt.

It seemed like the time of censorship was over, yet, to everyone's disappointment, the mentality of self-censorship still bore its fruits at the core of the state's institution, even those related to art.

As the Cairo Opera House prepared its Ramadan events, it included some revolutionary artists like Rami Essam, Eskenderella and TCP. The performances of the two artists ended with the audiences chanting against the military and army, yet with no direct action or violence. The people working at the Cairo Opera House were not used to this kind of upheaval since they have been working all their lives in a governmental state environment. Hence, the opera's PR manager called Youssri one day before the TCP show, asking him about the content of the songs they were going to perform and informing him that they were not welcome to perform the next day.

According to Youssri, the State Security did not directly call the Opera House and ask them to stop the show, but the people there were used to stopping any opposition before it could get started. Immediately, he wrote a statement about the incident and published it on the Facebook page of the choir. As the social wildfire spread, some journalists started writing about the incident and the story was extremely popular in only a couple of hours. After noticing the heat, the authorities of the Cairo Opera House contacted Youssri again in order to sort out the incident and allowed the Choir Project to perform, after the institution officially apologised for the inconvenience which they branded as a "managerial error."

Shadi El-Husseini, a frequent member of TCP, was not surprised by the incident. "I felt like this would be the normal reaction of a state-owned facility, especially the Hanager Theatre [where the performance took place]. It is just the continuation of the old regime that is still present. It is their loss anyway. But all in all, I believe that this is a positive experience because in the end we were allowed to perform without any censorship."

Youssri further explained: "The move was not specifically against The Choir Project, but rather a fast reaction to what happened in the previous performances with Rami Essam and Eskenderella. As our group is famous for being on the side of the opposition, the Opera House thought it had to act somehow before things got out of hand, which is all a hallucination." He believes that the workers at the Opera House still need to get used to the new things that are going on and to the heat and pressure that social media can trigger.

"In the end, this is our stage, the stage of the people. The Opera House noticed that the self-censorship it had been practicing has no basis," Youssri said.

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