Free at last ???
AhMM el Attar - 22/04/2011
Two scenes have haunted me since Mobarak left power on the 11th of February and the roller coaster of contradicting emotions, including anger, fear, joy and hope, eased their grip on my senses.
On the 25th of January 2011 I was in Paris visiting my eleven-year-old son. I met with my life-long friend, the visual artists Hassan Khan, who was there preparing for a large solo exhibition. As usual, our conversations revolved around politics, sex, freedom, frustrations, religion, women, Egypt, corruption, love, revolution and death squads; in other words, everything.
That day the demonstrations in Egypt were on the agenda. I remember telling Hassan that having seen how the demonstrations in Egypt over the past few years had never brought together more than a few hundred people at the most, I did not think that what had happened in Tunisia would happen in Egypt for another 10 years.
I returned to Cairo the next evening and went down to join the revolution on Friday the 28th of January. I kept going down almost everyday until Mobarak was pushed out of power on the 11th of February and I still go down almost every Friday until now.
One week after the fall of Mobarak, like many Egyptians, I was trying to make sense of my new life. Questions were ringing in my head. Again I called Hassan Khan, who has since returned to Cairo to participate in the second half of the revolution, to share my thoughts with him.
As independent artists and cultural operators the main drive behind our artistic and cultural work over the past two decades, since we left college, was to try and present, dissect and expose the oppressive situation that we, and the whole country, were subject to on a daily basis. Our main focus was to have a voice in a voiceless society and to try as much as we could (later, through the institutions we created) to help others to have a voice of their own.
The question that was imposing itself after the revolution was how could we continue doing what we’d been doing when the entire environment and premise upon which we’d based our work had completely changed?
After many early mornings and late nights, hundreds of smoked cigarettes and tens of conversations exchanged with loved ones, friends and family, I was able to see clearly.
The two scenes are directly connected, not only because Hassan Khan and I are the common denominators in both scenes, but mainly because they are engaged in a subtle cause and effect relationship.
The fact that myself and many others in my generation and the generation before me, who had always dreamt of a revolution that would change the political, social and economic reality in Egypt, never saw the revolution coming or believed it would happen, only shows the chronically deep state of depression and pessimism we had been in over the previous years.
This state was pointed out to me by my friend, Mokhtar Kokache, in a meeting we had a month after the revolution. He explained to me that for the first time in a couple of years I sounded optimistic and that the fatality I had been voicing about the situation in Egypt every time we met was gone.
Our desire to reflect, dissect and portray the state of our society through our artistic work obliged us to delve deeper into the realities that were surrounding us. We had to fully absorb the dynamics of oppression and injustice to be able to portray it and present it. Year after year and project after project we got deeper into what we were doing, to the point that we stopped seeing the change our work was generating.
Our work became the only light we saw in the tunnel but the constant marginalization, the lack of recognition, the lack of concrete signs of change in addition to the deterioration of the situation around us, made us lose sight of the change that was taking place and the fact that we were an integral part of it.
The reactions of our supporters, whether they were funding institutions or co-producers, did not help. With the exception of a few people who work closely with us and understand the environment we are working in and the hardships we go through to do our work, our supporters bombarded us with questions that only reflected their own insecurities about our work, its value and its importance.
The main question we were facing when applying for funds to produce our work was how can you justify the need to support art and culture when this same money could go into education, health or political awareness programs in a society that is in deep need of support on all these levels?
We wrote lengthy proposals and complicated matrixes explaining how a quality artistic project that subtly carries the values of freedom and self worth and shows a small example of an alternative view and independent way of thinking is as valuable, if not more, than a direct approach that tries to motivate people politically or tries to teach them how to take care of their environment and their health etc.
We always felt that we were on the defensive. We had to constantly defend the concept that art and culture, which is not directed towards clear social and political development agendas, was something that needed to exist even if it did not carry the pre-established ideas about development.
We always felt threatened that the grants and production support we use to communicate with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people from different generations and backgrounds would be stopped for the benefit of a more concrete development plan, one which could quantify, in a clearer way, PROPER development results like how many people in some village can now brush their teeth or how many children can now go to school wearing new shoes.
Even when we created institutions that allowed for others to engage in artistic activities like making theater or music or dance on an amateur, professional or semi professional level or that allowed others to develop their artistic skills of acting or lighting design with local, regional and international expertise, we still had to explain why it is important. Why are our institutions as important as the human rights or the women’s rights or the children’s rights institutions?
Year after year we had to sit in groups for hours talking and arguing, trying to formulate what was so obvious to us and what we hoped our supporters could see.
We started to doubt our own beliefs, our own worth and the worth of our actions.
The support that we were supposed to receive actually sank us deeper into the depression and pessimism that had controlled us for the last few years and had stopped us from seeing the revolution coming.
Luckily we still had the intelligence and instinct to recognize the revolution when it happened, which allowed us to immediately join it.
Today, it is as if we are reborn again. Not only are we completely motivated by the incredible energy that the revolution liberated in the entire country and throughout the different classes and composing elements of Egyptian society, we also are filled with the satisfaction of knowing that our years of work did not go down the drain, that they were for a purpose, and a clear one for that matter.
We are confident that we were part of the cultural development that led to the change; that the awareness the younger generations have of their rights to express themselves, to dream of a better future and to see reality as it is and not as it was presented by the old regime through its incredible, infernal, media machine, was directly connected to the change in the culture of this generation.
Their culture of independent thinking, free expression and faith in the power of the individual to change is directly related to their access to forms of expression, both cultural and artistic, and to pockets of freedom within the now gone oppressive regime, which allowed them to form their own visions and to sharpen their determination.
Today, the question “what do we do next?” seems to answer itself.
We need to reconfirm our beliefs in the role of art and culture in accomplishing what other forms of development cannot accomplish on their own. We also need our supporters to reassure themselves, to stop questioning the necessity of their and our actions and to stop trying to quantifying these actions with only numbers, figures and statistics.
The revolution was only the beginning of a long and rough road in which an entire society needs to replace its culture of fear, apathy, oppression, lack of civil responsibility, corruption, lack of democratic process, lack of political life, inequality, lack of social justice and many more negative ingredients that have been deeply engraved in its soul with new values of freedom, equality and social justice.
For us the role of art and culture in this configuration is even more important then ever before because what needs to change today is not just the institutions, the government and the political system but also the culture that will create the new institutions to come.
So we will continue doing what we do with even more determination and might, hoping that this time, it will be clear that we have proven our point.
Independent Theater director and playwright, founder and general manager of Studio Emad Eddin Foundation in Cairo.
My gratitude to Brita Papini, Boel Hojeberg, Ninni Rydsjo, Anja Van de Putt, Anne Marie Veltman, Mokhtar Kokache and Giovanna Tanzarella for their valuable support and confidence during the difficult times.