Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1354, (27 July - 2 August 2017)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1354, (27 July - 2 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

From conflict to healing

Nora Amin celebrates theatre from Spain to Egypt, and back

From conflict to healing

The worldwide centres of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) gathered in Segovia, Spain last week to hold their general assembly and celebrate the diversity of the performing arts within the historical spaces of the old city. 

The International Theatre Institute is not a pedagogical entity, but rather a civil society foundation that was luanched by the UNESCO in 1948 to support the culture of peace by connecting theatre communities across the world, promoting artistic development and advocating cultural understanding and mutuality via artistic exchange. There is no doubt that the ITI is the biggest theatre organisation in the world, with its national centres covering 60 countries so far. The history of its projects is unique when it comes to bridging performance cultures and preserving the stages of the world. Several months ago, I wrote about the rebirth of the Egyptian centre of the International Theatre Institute under the leadership of the late professor Nehad Selaiha. The newly registered NGO had been one of her most important dreams. She believed that such an Egyptian entity would support the performing arts scene in Egypt and promote it internationally. The association organised monthly play readings and contributed annually to the celebration of World Theatre Day by delivering the local speech. 


From conflict to healing

This year the general assembly in Segovia was ITI’s 35th, and the second time Egypt has been present since the new launch of its centre. With the theatre critic Mohamed Al-Khatib and the famous stage designer Hazem Shebl, who is also the secretary-general of the Egyptian ITI, I was part of the Egyptian delegation travelling with the support of the Ministry of Culture. It was a unique chance for our Egyptian association to participate in all the activities of the assembly, specifically the different international committees set up to support various kinds of performing arts activities. These committees include: theatre training and education, traditional performing arts, international festivals, playwrights, young practitioners, dance and theatre in conflict zones. The ITI does not necessarily provide funding for the committees’ projects, yet the presence of prominent international theatre figures within each committee usually guarantees that the proposals formulated collectively have a good chance with international funding bodies. The name of the ITI as initiator of those proposals is also a way to facilitate the presentation of the committee’s projects worldwide.  

The N-HIM committee covers heritage, indigenous performing arts, immigrant artists and theatre in conflict zones. The committee first started with a focus on identity and development in developing countries, then 10 years ago it shifted to theatre in conflict zones in order to advocate theatre as a medium for understanding and tolerance for communities who live in conflict or are engaged in wars. At that time it was clear that the initial component of identity-heritage within the old composition of the committee had to be channelled into creating a separate new committee which later became the committee for traditional performing arts. Now the N-HIM is headed by the prominent German theatre director and educator Alexander Stillmark, and it has extended its work to cover immigrant artists and support their work in the new land or in their asylum, as well as to preserve the indigenous forms and practices of theatre that are threatened with extinction. Besides the great work carried out by all the ITI’s committees, the N-HIM remains the most vibrant and politically driven. It is defined as both an artistic and humanistic entity. Its work ranges from creating workshops that gather actors from communities fighting each other, like the exceptional series of workshops “My Unknown Enemy”, to conferences that examine and document the cultures of conflict from a theatrical perspective, and to designing pedagogical opportunities that support the development of artists in unstable regions.  


From conflict to healing

While attending this committee’s meetings and round tables I continuously thought of the potential that exists in our theatre scene in Egypt to step into that area of theatre work and contribute internationally. I believe that Egyptian theatre artists have a strong embedded knowledge of how to create work under danger, how to deal with political conflict and how to survive in austerity and animosity. This knowledge is hardly put forward in our artistic culture, it is even taken very lightly as a necessary condition of survival without really appreciating the faith behind it, or the expertise it generates. We do not think of our Egyptian theatre as one that is operating in a conflict zone, although this by and large is the flagrant reality. The Egyptian artists have never used the internationally recognised label of “theatre in conflict zones” but they have lived and experienced all the aspects of this label. I invite our performing arts community to create a platform for the examination of the conditions of work offered to Egyptian artists, and I believe such a platform should result not in self-pity but in self-appreciation, empowerment and shred knowledge. It would definitely be the right opportunity to cooperate with the committee of theatre in conflict zones if the Egyptian association of the ITI welcomed the idea. Nevertheless we should not ignore the importance and necessity of including a special part of the platform to pay tribute to the Syrian artists living in Egypt, their experience could serve as a live model for survival and transformation. It is also the case of acknowledging their presence as part of the Egyptian performing arts scene, an acknowledgment that would celebrate their full integration into Egyptian society, as well as celebrate the diversity of the existing spectatorship which includes several Arab identities within the scope of the Egyptian arts scene. To acknowledge is also to empower and to invest, and it is a fact that with the huge numbers of refugees in Egypt now it is impossible not to acknowledge the existing diversity as a source of cultural and artistic power.


From conflict to healing

From 16-22 July, the small city of Segovia transformed into a live and hybrid stage representing a wide range of performance cultures. It was breathtaking to witness the historical centre of the city become a stage on which practices and aesthetics were interwoven and offered as an urban act, as a public statement on creativity, beauty, mutuality and the power of imagination. The scene of spectators-citizens filling the main square every evening was a reincarnation of the meaning of festivity. A festivity that transforms the streets and squares to spaces of entertainment and representation, and turns the image of the city into a scenography of the stage. Such festivity was primarily achieved due to the young management of the assembly which guaranteed that the event should go beyond the closed doors of discussion, voting and organisation, and break through the city like a brilliant festival reshaping the identity of the assembly itself. 

Amidst all this richness the leading artistic figures were not forgotten. The assembly celebrated itself as a festival while celebrating the pioneers of performing arts. The iconic figure of Ballet met with the iconic figure of Flamenco and brought tears of love and of faith in imagination and beauty to the spectators’ eyes. The president of the world ITI, Mohamed Al-Afkham, commemorated Nehad Selaiha and paid a special tribute to her pioneering role in Arab theatre. It was a beautifully emotional moment for all ITI members who knew her personally, and they were many. 

The assembly announced several motions and petitions in the closing ceremony, among them ways of confronting the visa issues that deprive many Arab and African artists from international mobility especially when it comes to the European Union. The ITI will issue a symbolic passport dedicated to artists so that they can present it across airports and visa appointments as an international artistic statement against any mobility restrictions and political power structures. Several official declarations were also made in support of the freedom of artistic expression and for the protection of artists’ rights and safety via the committee for artists’ rights, ACAR. Those declarations remind us of the crucial role of civil society for artists in times of danger and under oppressive systems. To preserve the right to creativity and cultural production is also to preserve a society’s future and safeguard freedom and knowledge, something that is vital for the survival of the human community especially when it is the artist who always pays the price of being on the side of the opposition.

Next year the ITI will be celebrating its 70th anniversary. Egypt should not miss this historic occasion, especially since it was among the very first members of the ITI, directly after its launch in 1948. The Ministry of Culture should not miss the opportunity to cooperate with a non-governmental entity such as the Egyptian association of the International Theatre Institute. Imagine what it would be like to host the next assembly in Egypt, how would it feel to transform an Egyptian city into a live and urban stage of performance and diversity, how such an event might contribute to the image of Egypt on the international performing arts map... and how it would transform the image of a conflict zone into an image of empowerment and healing. 

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