Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1334, (2 - 8 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The European connection

Al-Ahram Weekly explores one side of the intercultural exchange game

The initiatives of cultural cooperation have been present in Egypt for decades. The British Council opened in 1938, the Goethe Institute came on the scene in 1951. Tthe French Institute (previously known as the French Cultural Centre) has had headquarters in Alexandria since 1967, and Prohelvetia (the Swiss Arts Council) has been active in Egypt since 1988. Although the activities of those foreign cultural centres vary from language courses and diplomatic representation to cultural exchange, they have nonetheless played an influential role in feeding the Egyptian cultural scene with new trends.

With the specificity of theatre being a live art that cannot be transported via other media without losing its essential identity and becoming something else, the performance trends remained mostly imprisoned in their local context. Travelling to see theatre in Europe is largely impossible, but there is less impossibility about bringing a few performances from Europe to Egypt. Part of the contribution of the European cultural centres in Egypt is their presentation of theatre and dance performances from their own contexts. The Nineties in particular witnessed a vivid landscape of artistic activities from all the aforementioned centres. They worked hand in hand with the rise of the independent theatre groups, interweaving and gradually creating new artistic alliances.

The Goethe Institute on Bustan Street, downtown Cairo generously offered their small performance space for independent theatre groups to rehearse and perform in a period when the cultural scene was almost void of independent venues and collective rehearsal spaces. The Goethe Institute’s generosity somehow balanced out the lack of state recognition of those groups, which extended Students’ Movement activism into the arts, providing social and political criticism with their provocative performances. The gallery in the basement was home to several training projects, such as dance theatre workshops that helped develop prominent choreographers on the Egyptian scene today, among others.

In 2002, Prohelvetia (the Swiss Arts Council) fearlessly plunged into the unique adventure of creating a pioneering independent international arts festival in Egypt, Jadayel. This was the time when the the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) was the only international theatre gathering in Egypt. Prohelvetia was a pioneer in creating an independent alternative to the state-owned event. Not only did it provide a new model for cooperation with the independent performing arts scene, it also triggered new opportunities for collaboration among the European cultural centres operating in Egypt, some of which will later become long-standing partnerships .

The French Institute will soon be celebrating the 15th anniversary of its outstanding initiative (created and managed by the brilliant Latifa Fahmy), the Festival des jeunes creatéurs dedicated to supporting the new creations of young theatre makers by presenting their work and offering a competition that can lead to attending the Avignon Festival, the dream of any theatre artist.

One cannot ignore the nourishment that many of the European cultural centres have brought to the Egyptian performing arts scene. Even the CIFET could not have developed without massive contributions from those organisations bringing over, managing and hosting productions from their respective countries. Yet one cannot help wondering about the flipside of the operations of cultural exchange.

It seems that most of the time the exchange moves in only one direction: bringing the foreign performance to Egypt, bringing the foreign trainer to Egypt or bringing an artistic leader-theatre director to work with Egyptians. With all due respect to the cultural policy of every relevant organisation, one cannot ignore the cultural and political hierarchy that may be projected in the structures of those projects.

I believe the question is worth debating: why does the artistic leader of an exchange project have to come from the European side of the exchange? Does the position of the artistic leader reflect the hegemony of the funding partner? Does this strategy reproduce the hierarchy of colonialism?

In many cases one can monitor a positive impact on Egyptian artist circles that participate in such programmes, especially in the way they move forward, but in many cases the image of the foreigner as mentor, teacher, leader and provider becomes the status quo. From the Western perspective, the artistic exchanges and their resulting productions are considered intercultural performances, but the term refers to a team coming from different cultures rather than an actual intersection and interaction between cultural representations within the project. Interculturality in this sense remains a matter of mixed nationalities and not a real operation of interweaving cultural knowledge and artistic practice.

Nonetheless it is only fair to admit that the Egyptian side has also contributed to this scheme not only by accepting the formula but also by failing to provide any alternative structures. The Egyptian cultural policy needs to make room for cultural exchange and co-production in the state’s vision. The arts have a prominent role in extending an international presence to Egypt, just as the European arts play a vital role in extending a European cultural presence within Egypt and the Arab world. The European cultural centres are doing this job for their own countries but who is doing it for Egypt abroad?

Since the Arab Spring many European international festivals have been interested to curate Arab productions of theatre, dance and music. There is a growing hunger among European spectators to explore the culture and thought of this part of the world. It is sad to know that the Egyptian theatre has had little participation in these contexts compared to Lebanese and Tunisian theatre. The highly vivid and abundant Egyptian theatre scene is hardly reflected in the European sphere at all. The contributions of some prominent theatre makers like Ahmed Al-Attar (of The Temple Independent Theatre Group) and Hassan Al-Geretly (Al-Warsha) are not to be neglected, yet they remain individual interventions amid the evident lack of policy towards outreach and international touring.

The recent wave of Syrian refugees in Europe has fuelled new artistic initiatives hosting the artistic production of the new community as well as providing a cultural bridge for European societies to understand them. The Syrian immigrant population has demonstrated an outstanding ability to integrate within European culture and to survive its initial traumas. Many Syrian artists have managed to create their own performance collectives, especially in Germany and within the city of Berlin. Their performances are part of their strategies of survival and their effort to re-shape their identity and move forward by creating their own expression, voice and platform. In this sense, we can witness artists taking full agency of their work and message in a way that reverses the traditional power structures and the colonial hierarchy.

But the term “Arab Spring” is apparently no longer an attractive marketing label in the West. Many claim that the Egyptians are not producing the necessary standards in performance to become attractive for a Western audience. Although several Egyptian artists and performers have recently moved to Europe and tried to find artistic opportunities there, models of success remain rare.

This year two excellent exchange and funding schemes in Germany – Tandem for Culture and Change of Scene (ITI/Robert Bosch Foundation) – have announced Egyptian winners. Among the lucky artists are Ossama Helmy, Beshoy Makram and Ali Al-Adawy. I eagerly await the products of those initiatives hoping they will contribute to creating a new image and presence for the Egyptian performing arts scene in Europe, and potentially bring a fresh breeze back home. 

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