Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A new cultural map

Much of Egypt’s cultural wealth is unknown even to Egyptians, writes Ashraf Aboul-Yazid

Al-Ahram Weekly

On my recent visit to the Indian capital, Delhi, we were driving down a quiet street when I saw groups of Indians, most seeming to belong to a single family, arrange themselves in a queue in front of a small villa. The villa was set in the middle of a garden and surrounded by a white wall.

I turned to my driver and asked him what the place was. It was the home of Indira Ghandi, he said. Born almost a century ago (in November 1917), she was the first Indian female prime minister. She served three successive terms and was assassinated in her fourth term, in October 1984 by an extremist Sikh.

Entry into the premises of the famous prime minister was free of charge. The visitors appeared to be an orderly crowd as they cast a look around the place and its contents, which seemed as though their owner had just left them behind yesterday instead of over 30 years ago.

The most important feature of the house was the library. Extending through several rooms, it reflected Gandhi’s great heritage and her passion for reading. Her grandfather, from a prominent Kashmiri family that blended East and West, also possessed a large library. The rooms were also filled with personal photographs, sculptures and commemorative gifts.

I contemplated the place from another perspective. Many of the homes of major politicians, industrialists, artists and men of letters that are scattered throughout every Indian city I have visited have been turned into museums.

An example is the textile museum Ahmadabad, near the residence of Mahatma Gandhi, which has also become a major museum. Similarly, the elegant palaces of the maharajas that once governed the provinces of Rajasthan have been converted into hotels and spas. They retain their original splendour and allow their 21st-century guests to imagine the lives of the ancient owners and inhabitants of these palaces.

I could not help but ask myself, as an Egyptian, where are the homes of our famous politicians, intellectuals, artists and writers?

True, some of these are still “alive”, thanks to considerable efforts. An example is the villa of Taha Hussein, or Ramatan, which the Ministry of Culture converted into a museum. It contains the artefacts, books and medals of the celebrated “Dean of Arab Letters.” Entrance into this cultural oasis is set at a nominal fee and is free of charge during the two weeks that start from 28 October every year.

Then, too, there are the Ahmed Shawki Museum (Karmat Ibn Hani), which the Ministry of Culture has transformed into a vibrant cultural centre, and the home that this famous poet built on the Corniche in Giza. It is surrounded by a garden that features, in its centre, a bronze statue of the “Prince of Poets” by Egyptian sculptor Gamal Al-Sagini.

In addition, the Ministry of Culture has converted a number of historical houses and palaces into museums and cultural and artistic centres. These include Beit Al-Suheimi, Beit Al-Sinnari and Beit Al-Sitt Wasila.

In Alexandria, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina created a permanent “corner” dedicated to Shadi Abdel Salam, with personal pieces of furniture and other items arranged to produce a vibrant flavour of the life and work of this famous Egyptian filmmaker.

However, the above examples are hardly commensurate to Egypt’s ancient history. In quantity and quality, they fail to reflect Egypt’s rich heritage or offer a comprehensive panorama of the people who forged Egyptian culture.

A chief function of such homes is to entrench identity by transforming them into beacons of light that touch as many people as possible, and that make us wish that every Egyptian street possessed a similar house of its own. Unfortunately, what we hear from time to time, instead, are the tragedies of historical houses that have fallen prey to destruction, fire, decay and neglect.

At one point in that interim between the 25 January and 30 June revolutions, when I was visiting Asilah Morocco, Séverine Gilet appeared on my TV programme, “The Other.” This was not the first time Gilet had visited Morocco and Asilah was not her final destination on the trip. The purpose of her journey was to create a programme called “Cultural Tours.”

For several months prior to the trip, the French intellectual, along with a group of volunteers, had read a variety of Moroccan literary works, choosing excerpts or passages that would reflect a map of Morocco, from Tangier in the north to Ouarzazate in the south. The excerpts or passages were used to create the audible segment that would form the basis of the cultural/touristic programme she is creating.

Gilet then visited the towns, oases and other locations she and her team had selected as landmarks on the trail. They might feature a coffeehouse frequented by Mohamed Shukry, a house inhabited by Mohamed Zifzaf, or the markets and lanes through which passed the luminaries of Moroccan fiction and poetry. These she photographed, preparatory to creating an audio-visual map for the tourist.

Gilet will return to Paris to complete the third phase of work, which will be to compile, edit and produce an audio-visual recording of what she saw and read. When purchasers of this cultural touristic programme come to Morocco, if they happen to find themselves in Jemaa Al-Fna Square in Marrakesh, for example, they will be able to put on their earphones, press a certain number and listen to a description of the place read by the relevant author, if possible, or by another professional voice. Perhaps they will even have the opportunity to meet the author, if he or she is still alive.

In response to my question as to where her next destination would be, Gilet mentioned Sardinia, a region that the French have historical ties and shared memories with. She added that she had visited Egypt and would like to create a similar programme, which would be possible when the situation calms down.

I have a map of Egypt in front of me as I recall that conversation. As I look at the place names, another map ⎯ a cultural one ⎯ comes to mind filled with names etched in my memory. Suddenly, the cities, towns and villages come to life through the words of novelists, short-story writers and poets whose ardour was fired by the land where they were born and the streets where they lived, and who sought to convey this passion to others through recollections and imagery that reverberates among us all today.

I do not want to create a similar programme for a cultural map of Egypt just for tourists. I hope to make it available to my fellow Egyptians as well. This is not a mere luxury. The better one knows one’s country, the stronger is one’s sense of belonging.

I picture a clever and dedicated Arabic-language teacher at a preparatory or secondary school taking his class on an outing to a field near Ramla Al-Angab, Menoufiya. The village was the birthplace of the poet Mohamed Afifi Matar (1935-2010). I picture the students listening to a recording of his poetry, read in his own voice, and presenting readings that connect with his works.

There are numerous other possibilities, from the Cairo of Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006), the Alexandria of Edouar Al-Kharrat (1926), the Mansoura of Fouad Higazi (1938) and the Nubia of Haggag Adoul (1944). I fully believe that regular trips to the landmarks of Mahfouz’s Cairo (as an example) will instill many concepts and images of Cairo’s contemporary history among students and others citizens alike.

The thousands of members of the arts and literature syndicates and unions revolve in a narrow orbit. Writers read each other’s works and, in closed circles, they are heard by a tiny elite. Private and public publishers share their printed works with storehouses and closed rooms. As a result, the letters die on their pages before seeing the light of the vast cultural map of Egypt.

The same applies to artists, whether visual, dramatists or filmmakers. Very few of them gain prominence, while the rest wait for an opportunity that may never come, although the opportunity could be available with broader audiences.

The Egyptian people have known all the arts. Shadow puppetry was one that addressed them directly. An artistic documentation of the history of the nation, shadow puppet theatres orally preserved the personalities and icons that symbolised Egypt from the north to south, and that embodied its friends and enemies. It shaped the consciousness of audiences in every neighbourhood, as the oldest shadow puppet artist Saber Al-Masri, now 75, told me.

The mawlid, or commemoration of the anniversary of a major religious figure, has always been an opportunity for performances of the Sira Hilaliya, in which the musical narration of the epic poem of the Beni Hilal tribe flows, like the Nile, nurturing and giving root to concepts of belonging to this nation.

I should add that Egypt, today, strongly needs a cultural map that combines both the artist and the artisan, enabling the works of both to complement each other. This will help the elites to present themselves to lay people and it will enable a reading of the spirit of Egypt in its broadest meaning.

Our cultural map will remain incomplete unless it includes the traditional crafts. It is sufficient here to note two examples: the tentmakers street in Cairo, where Egypt’s ancient heritage in applied arts using coloured fabric is still alive; and the alabaster workshops on the west bank near the Pharaonic temples, where artisans reproduce the artistic works sculpted by our Pharaonic ancestors.

These two examples, as well as others, such as carpet weavers and pottery manufacturers, should have a map that helps promote them by guiding Egyptians ⎯ even before tourists ⎯ to the places where they produce their arts. Let’s make a new cultural map of Egypt, a vast field of lights powered by our innumerable cultural leaders, artists, writers, dramatists, filmmakers, artisans and craftsmen.

 Industrialised nations, such as South Korea, promote their culture through songs, television serials and films, reaping millions of dollars in revenues every month. Egypt’s vast and multi-specialised cultural warehouse can also become a new source of national income.

The writer is the Editor-in-Chief of The AsiaN.

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