April 8, 2014

Step Beyond report: Excited me in Tunis.

As part of my reporting upon receiving an ECF grant to travel to Tunis to engage in some work, this factual report emerges


The recent uprisings and their political consequences  in Tunisia have led to a creative release of unprecedented scale. Youth groups, but also more established organisations, have discovered their voice, power of self- organisation and the possibilities open to a civil society long repressed by a totalitarian security state under Ben Ali. 

My journey to Tunis was motivated by a deep curiosity for the effects this outburst of artistic energies had on the cultural scene in the country, glimpsed only fleetingly from images in media and a brief visit, confined to a hotel, in November 2013. A desire to see new faces and experience new locations and feelings and gain insight into the changes on a local level that would otherwise not be reached. 
My journey to Tunis was a very welcome opportunity to see the city and meet many cultural actors, not all from the expected countries and some old friends. I am grateful for this opportunity to spend more time than expected in this wonderful country and explore its history and current cultural production. We found many points of intersection, both on personal levels and in cultural production- a fruitful journey in many ways. 

I went there representing Plays2Place productions, a Greek production company with whom we are running- and planning- several long-term, transnational projects. The trip was divided between three main project activities, described below. 

1) Tandem/Shaml
The Tandem/Shaml meeting brings together cultural managers from the Middle East and EU to meet and participate in a year-long project that takes place in two countries.

I went there to represent Plays2Place productions, a Greek production company which I have collaborated with on previous occasions. 

After three days of intense networking, discussions on cultural policy, sustainability and collaborative project management, I am happy to say that P2P productions will be participating in the second round of the Tandem programme. 

We developed a programme concerned with the Greek History of Alexandria and the cities fading cultural diversity, after many years of existing as a cosmopolitain hub of arts and culture in Egypt. 
We will be tracing histories of migration, cultural parallels in the cities and the traces of Greek culture that remain in Alexandria. 

The main participant in this project will be Martha, who will collaborate with Abdallah Sharkas from Janaklees in Alexandria on the project. 

I also engaged in many fun and some serious conversations with cultural managers from Serbia, Syria, Egypt, Tunis and the Yemen, while widening my personal network in Germany. 

We will also collaborate with Ettijahat in the framework of the Artivists4Change programme in the production of a work of cultural relief in Syrian Refugee camps in Lebanon, hopefully helping, in a small way, to ease the prevalent conditions in those camps.


2) Street Art
Though often underestimated, Tunisia boasts a vivid and productive street art scene, mixing elements of the activistic with ideas of tagging, pieces and throw-ups more familiar from New York or Europe. 
I met with Karim ben Smail, the head of Ceres Publishing in Tunis, to discuss the possible production of a book on the street art of the Tunisian Revolution. After some comparative studies with Egypt, and the book Walls of Freedom, which I had previously worked on, we came to the conclusion that allthough the street art scene in the country remains lively, it would be a more feasible approach to focus on the artistic aspects of street art in the country, as street art as media is not as prevalent as the more familiar aspects of the form. 

In the course of my journey, I met many artists, who prefer to remain anonymous- we discussed the various difficulties and joys of producing art in public space in Tunisia. They face many of the same problems as do artists in other countries- illigality, persecution and rapid overpainting - new canvas for their expressions. 


However, I was able to find a partner for the planned continuation of Infiltri, the topical street art archive, in theAssociation Chaabi, who organise  the only Hip Hop festival in Tunisia and use street art as part of their efforts in alternative cultural education in the country. It will hopefully be a long- term cooperation that lasts several years and spans several projects, including a network of production studios, free for most use, around the country.


3) Demystifying FTCA
The only point of regret in my journey is that I did not have more opportunity to interact with the members of the FTCA, the Tunisian Amateur Filmmakers association than I did. In spite of some attempts at contact, it was difficult to meet them in the planned framework, though I did have the pleasure of meeting some of their members and engaging in preliminary talks surrounding training and longer term project planning for a project that is due to take place over the course of 2015 and 2016.
However, a beginning has been made. I also had the opportunity of visiting other potential collaborators in the field of film and cultural education through film. 


Overall
The two weeks spent in Tunis were a very enriching experience. Personally, they were, after a first, very brief visit, a welcome opportunity to explore the country in some more detail and walk the meandering maze that is Medina, the old city in Tunis. Through planning and some chance, it became a success on a professional level as well, allowing me to establish new connections and find partners for projects that are currently in preparation. 

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March 14, 2014

External Interview: Egypt Now Looking For Hope // Huck magazine Issue 43

Today, I would like to share an interview I recently gave to the UKs Huck Magazine on Street Art and current developments in Egypt in relation to an article in the Book Walls of Freedom, which will appear in March 2014. It is published by From Here To Fame Publishing and can be purchased through their website



By Alex King
Huck asks Cairo-born activist Caram Kapp what are the prospects for positive change in today's Egypt.
Over eighteen momentous days in 2011, protestors occupied one of Cairo’s main road junctions, Tahrir Square, and stood their ground against attacks by security forces until Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down. This was a time when Egyptians forgot their ethnic, religious and social differences to come together as one, demanding social justice for all. Graffiti was just one of the many forms of expression released as ordinary people found their voices. After years of enforced silence, they rushed to express themselves in political debate, via social media and on the walls of towns and cities all over Egypt.
Today, the mood in Egypt has darkened. After a military coup led by General Fattah el-Sisi, the military are back in power and thousands of people have been killed, injured or imprisoned by the new regime. Freedom of speech has been severely curtailed, with three Al-Jazeera English journalistscurrently imprisoned on charges of terrorism.
The Cairo-born, Berlin-based graphic designer and activist Caram Kapp looks back to 2011 with considerable nostalgia. “Tahrir had the carnivalesque atmosphere of a people who were in revolt and enjoying it,” Caram wrote afterwards. “There was freedom of speech and assembly, camaraderie and food. After thirty years of leaving the rest of Egypt outside as soon as they entered their flats, people came together in this place to celebrate values and rights they barely even remembered under Mubarak’s dictatorship.”
How much of a role do you feel street art played in the 2011 revolution and does it still have a role now?
Apart from chants, graffiti became the most popular public mediums of self-expression in an ongoing battle for territories. Walking through the various city districts you could see tags and street art on almost every surface that could be written upon. It served as both a reminder of aesthetics long absent from the public sphere and as artists’ commentary on events.
As one of the most well-documented aspects of the revolution, the walls serve as an immediate memory of the last three years, whether it be the martyrs, elections, or return of the military to power. Street art also served as an easily shareable medium for opinions. The visual nature of graffiti allowed it to become an understandable source of information for those outside Egypt following events and help to connect them with the struggle.
Today I believe that graffiti still plays an important role in the direct communication of messages on the streets. It will continue to do so as long as artists and activists have topics and counter-narratives to communicate. It also still plays a role in youth empowerment through workshops and as an indicator of political processes in Egypt and beyond its borders.
What remains of the love that you felt so strongly in Tahrir Square – after the Sisi coup and the violence that has followed?
The ‘love’ that permeated Tahrir for those 18 days – a united standing behind a cause – started fading soon after the ousting of Mubarak. There remains a strong emotional bond between individuals involved in various stages of the uprising, but the love quickly gave way to the interests of political parties and individual factions. When the people took to the streets they never thought they were unleashing a political process, and they were apparently not quite ready for that outcome. Within Egypt it has become difficult to talk of a deep unconditional love in light of recent events, although all parties profess to love Egypt and strive to improve it. Unfortunately, this seems to prove the old saying that you always end up hurting the one you love.
You wrote about the inclusion and respect for women as one example of a socially inclusive atmosphere in Tahrir Square. Has any of that survived?
From observation and discussion, I can’t say that the condition of women in Egypt has improved. They have become politically manipulated in ways that they were not before and harassment continues unabated. Yet Egyptian women have their ways of defending themselves and making themselves heard, while many occupy senior positions in cultural and societal organisations.
Women have always been a strong part of Egyptian society, due in part to the repression they have suffered. There is a growing class of well-educated women who see that they can affect change. I believe they will ultimately improve the situation – not only for themselves but for country as a whole. This will not happen on a governmental level, but rather through their individual actions and collaboration between women of all classes in society.
To what extent has freedom of expression been repressed since 2011?
Freedom of expression since the Sisi coup has been on a downward spiral. There have been arbitrary imprisonment of journalists and activists as well as an active campaign against critical opinions from outside Egypt. The military and the state are attempting to take control of the national narrative. The recent introduction of the term ‘terrorist’ to describe anyone expressing opinions counter to the official line is an attempt to turn Egyptians against one another.
Most media outlets have become mouthpieces of the current government after threats of closure and editorial reshuffles. The journalists syndicate has declared its allegiance to the state and those that control it. Coming after two years in which it had become easier – and necessary – to express your opinion publicly, it is sad to watch freedom of expression in public space affected by repressive new laws, a strong military presence and a wide distrust of anything out of the ordinary.
I get the sense that we are far from the end of the story. What is the next chapter for Egypt?
Many elements remain volatile and unpredictable, so the next chapter is hard for anyone to predict. Events are definitely ongoing and we will move past the current return to military rule, but it is an ongoing process that may take many years to unfold. The elections in 2014 will happen but are likely to be used to reinforce an outward impression of democracy while clamping down on activists and critics of the system at home. Egypt will continue to be polarised, but I would not expect spontaneous mass expressions of political opinion in the near future. I hope to be proven wrong.
I would like to believe that we will see an ongoing strengthening of civil society and a continuation of the resistance and criticism of the system that began in 2011. Eventually, this should lead to a more just Egypt that treats its citizens with equality, providing them with education and freedom of expression. It is difficult to say when this process will become visible, but as long as there are individuals and networks who do not lose the courage to fight for their respective causes, at the very least, there is hope.
Caram’s incredible essay, “The Utopian State of Tahrir,” appears in Walls of Freedom, a collaborative book project on Egyptian revolutionary street art, out March 2014.
To read more from Egypt Now: youth, music, street art and revolution in today’s Egypt, pick up a copy of Huck 43 – Street Photography With Boogie.

February 3, 2014

Rant: Marco Wilms Art War — a Dangerous Document

Over the past three years, a great number of films dealing with the Egyptian Uprising, whether documentary, docufiction or pure invention have been brought to screens and festivals around the world. The latest such offering I have watched, Marco Wilms documentary Art War, is an interesting and polarising case. 


ART WAR - Trailer from HELDENFILM on Vimeo.

"ART WAR is the story of young Egyptians who, through art and enlightenment, and inspired by the Arab Spring, use their creativity to salvage the revolution. Using graffiti murals and rebellious music and films, they inspire the youth culture around the world and throughout the streets of conquered Egypt.

The film follows revolutionary artists through 2 years of post-revolutionary anarchy, from the 2011 Arab Spring until the final 2013 Parliament election. It describes the proliferation of creativity after Mubarak’s fall, showing how these artists learn to use art in new ways--as a weapon to fight for their unfinished revolution."

A subjective review:

 It is a well-made film, with some truly impressive images, an engaging soundtrack, a tightly- edited narrative structure. A film that follows the actions of four artists over three years, he picks out the most visible events of the Egyptian revolution, highlights their motivations and production at various stages of the uprising.  It is a kick of artistic energy in the pants and a reminder of the long memory that walls have. It is a subjective exploration of the arts as a means of recording and resistance and expressing personal politics. It is a tale of peaceful revolution in the midst of street battles, arrests, deaths. It is a tale of those that have become the memory of the Egyptian uprising, the writers of the first draft of history.

His four main protagonists, Ganzeer, Ammar, Hamed and Bosaina come from very different backgrounds and may be said to represent the more liberal factions involved in the uprising. Ganzeer, a multifaceted graphic designer from Cairo, adopts methods of direct participation and expands the Egyptian world-view on sexuality and womens desires. Ammar, from Luxor, is a classically trained artist with an almost pharaonic penchant towards large scale murals he considers to be the newspaper of the revolution. Hamed, the writer and militant anti-islamist, provokes and reflects in equal parts. The reciepient of  death threats from the Muslim Brotherhood, and later abduction by forces "unknown", he is almost as radical as those he opposes. Bosaina, a electro-pop singer reminiscent in style and content of a tamer version of the Berlin band Peaches ("Fuck the Pain Away"), admits that she has segregated herself from the mainstream of Egyptian society- "It's Easier", she tells us.

We also see some others- Rami Essam, a singer who rose to fame during those 18 days between January 25 and February 11, 2011; Alaa Awad, a mural artist who employs contemporised ancient Egyptian motifs to express himself, Ammars teacher- the relation between the characters remains tenuous- a Salafi PR persons, who has very white teeth and shows us the anti- secular propaganda. We visit Sufi ceremonies in Upper Egypt. A Muslim Brotherhood demonstration. Many brief glimpses into lives along the lines of an uprising, its ups and downs. But they remain glimpses out of context.

In spite of a time-line that guides the viewer through the events that surround the "art war", ongoing in Egypt, it is hard to put the scenes of the film in relation to the events of the last three years. At times, lost between the internal chronology of the film and the timeline of the Egyptian uprising, I found myself asking which narrative to follow and adhere to. The context of the actions is very sparsely explained, except in the case of the Port Said Massacre. My biggest disappointment was the brief image of millions of Egyptians taking to the streets to topple Morsi, omitting to mention the Tamarrod campaign that lead up to it, the electoral promises broken- commented only as such. And then the film ends, leaving us with the impression that events in Egypt end with the rise of the military to power- and that the Egyptians always wanted a military dictatorship to be instated. 

Although this is more indicative of when the photography of the film ended- around the 5th of July 2013, it is also representative of a film that chooses to elicit emotions from its audience, rather than inform them about the history of the events that it depicts. While this is a valid, filmic, approach, it is also one of the dangers of watching that film without prior knowledge of the events that unfold within. It is not a film that asks questions, nor is it one that adds to the information already available. Rather, it chooses to show the audience moments of artistic heroism and defeat, catering to the mainstream with luscious pictures, the energy of a teenager in rebellion and very rare moments of insight. Even though it offers some interesting reflection on graffiti and public art as a medium of grass-roots expression, it does not follow this reflection with much depth. 



Another note has to be made of Bosaina, she of the Wetrobots. This comes in the form of the admission that I have a more than passing familiarity with the Cairo Art scene, and so far, those that have heard of her do not live in Cairo. She represents an edge to sexual liberation that the city finds hard to accept, with her lyrics laden with sexual references and not-so-innuendo. She is booed out of the Cairo Jazz Club, by an audience who cannot relate to this woman, wearing a full-body leopard print suit. She converses with her friends in English- the only character in the film to do so continuously- and cries. While her inclusion in the film does allow an exploration to another angle of an art war, the personal battle for acceptance of a different point of view and sexual liberation, she caters more to the eyes and ears of a Western Audience than that of the local scene. She is later to leave Cairo, vowing not to perform in Egypt again- for a while at least. 

She is the only female protagonist in the film, reducing the aspirations of revolutionary women in Egypt to the liberation of their sexual identity and desires. Aliaa Al-Mahdy makes a brief appearance in stencil form. A counterpart less focused on sexual themes, fighting for a right to a voice, equality at the workplace, against the harassment endemic to Egyptian society, academic freedoms, religious interpretation, the ownership of public space or freedom of press and expression, is absent- and there are many. Moving within the Graffiti scene, Wilms might have shone a light on the NoonElNeswa collective, who thematise sexual harassment in murals. Moving beyond, he may have explored the efforts of Mahatat, an initiative led mainly by women, to give art a place in public space. He might have featured Aida Al-Kashef, a young, outspoken Filmmaker who was arrested with Ganzeer for putting up "Mask of Freedom" stickers in 2011- but is also an excellent filmmaker in her own right. He might have talked to Hanaa El Degham, a painter and muralist who lives between Berlin and Cairo, to gain her insight into Egyptian society. All these voices are lost to one instance of electronic music and reduce the film's value as a document.  

The third note is of the trips Ammar takes to upper Egypt. Even though, once again, the film treats us with beautiful pictures, we are never given enough background to fully understand those pictures in the context of the art war- Sufi Shrines, certainly an inspiration for the artist, and sun-boat ceremonies feel, except as a breath of air, out of place in the world Wilms creates for his audience. The revolution is hardly mentioned in these segments, nor are the events that happen within used to illustrate any discernible point- they are a welcome escape from Cairo, but that is where the film leaves them. 

Finally, the film feels very much like it was produced for a western audience, looking for highlights, heroes and inspiration, rather than political process and backgrounds in the Egyptian uprising. It simplifies the complexity of Egyptian society and discards many processes that have led some real changes in that society- which is partly due to the limits of the medium, but also owes a lot to the perspective of the authors. 

And maybe this is my main issue with the film- while it holds up well as a piece of entertainment to be consumed, enjoyed, then forgotten, it does not leave me with the satisfied feeling of having watched a finished piece of cinema. There are 120 hours of material available to the filmmaker. His film may benefit from an extra 15 minutes, which spread around the film, would add the much-needed context that so far eludes him. 

I watched it twice, thanks to some very peripheral involvement, and come out of it with this: If you are expecting a film that explores the contexts of the Egyptian Uprising of 2011 in depth and allows for new insights into a society on the brink of transformation and collapse, don't watch this one. If you are interested in the Cairo art scene, have an active engagement in graffiti, street art and electronic music, some background on the "Arab Spring" and are looking for an evenings entertainment, this may be the one for you. 

And here ends my highly subjective review of Art War. 

+ Thanks to Tieke and Fred for their input on the role of women in Egypt. Upon their suggestion, I added a paragraph on their lacking representation in the film

Now also on Scoopempire

January 26, 2014

25 Jan 2014

Don't you miss 
the easy days
the black and white days
when you didn't wake up 
to wonder where you stand

The early days
when you thought you were old
and the world no longer the place 
you once knew?

A reboot, a reboot!
A loss of innocence regained.

Days of wonder, long passed
the red days are here
what was once true
is not, but is
but wasn't when you look again

But you can't forget

— Begun in August 2013. It's not over



January 22, 2014

Rant: poverty in numbers and media





In the past months, it has become increasingly difficult to write about Egypt. On an emotional level, it is disappointing to watch hope for change turn into a desire for stability and a return to the way things were. On a more political level, the Committee to Protect Journalists has ranked Egypt as one of the most dangerous places on the planet to report from, along with Syria and Iraq.

That it ranks there, along with a country in which people are reduced to nourishment from blades of grass, and one devastated by almost 20 years of ongoing civil, secterian and militant strife, is worrying. The reasons for which it is ranked there- according to me- are quite different from the two other countries: while in Syria and Iraq, I count casualties of war, in Egypt, they are casualties of politics.

In the aftermath of the June 30th / July 3rd coup (soft, or otherwise), the powers that currently steer Egypt towards an Orwellian police state, revived the old idea that "no bad news from Egypt" should reach the rest of the world- that the foreign press, and all its representatives were guilty of skewing the image of the country and the political processes unfolding within to international onlookers. That those powers themselves have repeatedly used independent and state media as a tool of skewing within the country is an irony that hopefully does not escape them.

Hani Shukrallah, former editor of the Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online publications, writes, in a scathing essay on the failure of mainstream media both at home and abroad.

"Intense political polarization after June 30, coupled with the bellicose posture occasioned by the severity of the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood, did away with whatever diversity had existed in journalism beforehand. Television presenters and anchors have been transformed into overzealous preachers shouting harangues from their various pulpits. Meanwhile, the few exceptionally talented and ethical among them, such as ONTV’s Reem Maged and Yousry Fouda and the enormously popular CBC satirist Bassem Youssef, have disappeared off the airwaves."

and in the foreign press reporting on Egypt, he reminds us that 

"Western media and experts would also pontificate on how Egyptians are indoctrinated from childhood to worship their armed forces, neglecting to even note that just a mere year before, and for a full year and a half, “down with military rule” was being chanted by hundreds of thousands in the country – and that in fact it was the fierce resistance to military rule by these hundreds of thousands that brought down the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). This resistance, incidentally, was consistently boycotted and condemned by the Muslim Brotherhood."

When caught in a 24- hour news cycle, ever feeding the events that it is fed by, it becomes very difficult to understand what the latest news report was about- almost as difficult as keeping track of what happened yesterday in the same place. It is, without taking the time to read up on contexts, actors and backgrounds, a daunting task to form an own opinion and follow through with it. And yes, it is very difficult to find any media outlet, whether mainstream or otherwise, that does not establish a narrative according to its own bias, on events anywhere- the classical example is the fear-mongering of a Fox News channel, or in the case of Egypt, the misdirections of State Television.

Reliable, independent news written for an audience outside Egypt by Egyptians has become hard to come by, after editorial restructuring of Egypt Independent, formerly one of the most widely- read foreign-language publications with a reputation of independence, the relaunch of a defanged Daily News Egypt (which, incidentally, for a while shared some editorial staff with EI). Above, Hani reminds us of what many other outlets became- spokespieces for political propaganda, Egypts very own "War on Terror". Mada Masr, founded by those journalists who left both the above, fills part of the gap- with the caveat of a slight 2011 bias. Al-Ahram- in particular the Arabic edition- has, in spite of articles such as the above, been reduced to its former politicising state of reporting. 


And yet, even as I, the recepient of this news, sit 4000 KM north of the epicentre, await events that were deemed newsworthy and look for those that are not, a referendum has taken place in the country over the past two days. Another election for Egypt! For another constitution! Hooray- after a transitional constitution, an imposed constitution, the country- or a rough 40% of the electorate- has voted, almost unisono, to ratify a constitution that the few who have taken the time to read it consider, at best, worthy of improvement. At worst, it can be considered a document that enshrines military trials, continues legislature based on religion, and gives Al-Azhar control of the Arabic language as it is spoken in Egypt. This document received the support of 98.1 per cent of the voters- a number reminiscent of an era thought to have ended on the 11th of February 2011. 



For a variety of reasons, the electorate has voted for what they believe to be security and a measure of stability. In a country that has seen the hardships it rose up to combat worsen, in which an already wide societal gap has only grown in the three years, deepening into a chasm that is uncrossable for most, it is understandable that the current developments do not inspire a desire for further national experiments in the near future. But in the face of the arrests of activists attempting to urge a no vote, lawsuits raised against puppets and a ubiquitous yes campaign labeled as the only way out for the country that ran along with the writing of the draft constitution, it is hard to call this vote free and/or fair. The Strong Egypt party, founded by Monem Abdel Fotouh upon his departure from the Muslim Brotherhoods ranks, went so far as to claim it signals Egypts return to "the club of totalitarian and authoritarian countries". In a recent opinion piece, the BBC also explores the rethoric of the election, singling out the term "a democratic ceremony", a term that has not been heard since Hosni Mubarak was in power (begins at 10min20sec).

It is hard to draw any conclusions from the current state of events on where the country will finally end up. Presidential election are the probaly next election the country will face, and in spite of persistent rumors that AbdelFattah El-Sisi may become the next president, a poll by Al- Masry- Al- Youm, the Arabic edition of Egypt Independent (or rather vice versa) shows 86% of over 330 000 participants do not wish the most unpopular Job in Egypt on the man who is considered by many to be the strong man who could lead the country to some form of glory. In spite of that, strategically, the cons outweigh the pros for him- and weren't we promised a civilian government? 

What is maybe the most cynical development is the appropriation of the revolution by the state itself- the Ministry of Interior, one of the state organs the 2011 uprising demanded to change, calling on the people to go out and demonstrate in masses amidst tight security on January 25. A mother reports her son as a member of the April 6th workers movement. The arrest warrants against activists associated with the early days of the uprising, such as Mahienour El Masry, Ahmed Maher and many others issued are worrying signs of the shift in perception that the new, old, deep state is attempting, with some success, to engineer. 


In 2011, walls of fear came crashing down. Block by block, they are being rebuilt. 

* The picture above is from berlin and reads "today used to be the future"