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Civilisation and the Cultural Explosion in Egypt

In my ongoing series of rants on  Arab culture, I offer you this:

In the venerable computer game of Civilisiation, the borders of your nation are set, amongst other things, by the amount of culture you produce. In this game, culture is calculated by taking the artistic, religious and technological improvement you have built in any given city, then multiplied through wonders or global improvements you have built in your capital cities. Occasionally a great artist or other personage will appear, allowing you to further enhance your cultural reputation. You can even set the national budget to support culture, which makes people happy.

This metaphor is not that farfetched: Reality requires similar structures to exist for culture to become a meaningful tool of politics and diplomacy: places that represent your culture, whether it be religious, artistic or a philosophical point of view. People who identify with the flavour of the culture on display are needed to populate those locales. Every now and then one of them will gain a reputation that goes beyond the borders of your country, even though this is far more random than Civilisation makes it appear.  The cultural message the population puts out is multiplied by the media and institutions located in various metropolæ.

But before looking at the broader picture,  let's focus on the act of producing culture for a moment. The so-called creative moment. The myth of the creative spark that floats unto the artist from the heavens is much overhyped. Having said that: It usually begins with an inspiration. This is usually caused by various factors in your surroundings: The beauty or brutality of a moment. The way the light streams through the leaves of the trees. A new smell. Social injustice. You perceive something and think "I have something to say about that". That's about all there is to it.

Now, an idea has been planted in your head, one that will not go away. Not only do you have something to say about it, you have a rough idea what your skills will allow you to make of it. The way you approach it separates culture, in this context the arts, from politics, academia, or journalism. And again, separated into various subgenres of art. Painting, writing, singing, designing, installations, performance art – and from there onwards to further subdivision. What the initial idea finally turns into is as dependent on the person doing the turning as it is on what surrounds that person.

And now, the word revolution has been used. Specifically Egypt, as I am more familiar with the changes the Egyptian revolution is bringing to artistic thinking and the perception of the artist in what I consider to be home than in the other countries.

In interviews, cultural activists talk about the ignition of creativity in the population. Many people turned to the arts to express themselves - doctors discovered their talent for comedy, such as the brilliant Mr. Nana from India on Tahrir, the countless graffiti found decorating the walls around the plaza, the stages on which many singers and poets found their voice and lent it to their listeners, Political art was created in amazing quantity by what seems from after to be just about everyone.

Not all of this art was of a high quality. This is to be expected. It takes the average or superior artist their whole life to perfect their chosen form. To expect a sudden awakening of talent to also convey the skills of someone training themselves for years instantaneously is overly optimistic.

But it also gave many artists their first opportunity to talk freely about subjects they feel passionately about. Under the Mubarak regime, very few artists managed to do their thing without government interference or fear of imprisonment. Art, and the perception of it, degenerated to a point where the entire country seemed to be producing kitschy landscapes, papyrus or pop songs. There was an underground, of course. But where can the underground express itself when the state seems to loom everywhere, even in your most secret hiding places.

And when you did produce something worth showing, you still had to present it, in most cases, to a state-sponsored censor, who would suggest changes to the work that would undermine its relevance. Even the more liberal galleries were careful not to show anything too subversive. "We would love to, but it's too loaded, we'll lose our license" was a commonly uttered sentence.

It felt slightly pointless, even though many persevered on principle. A good film to watch about this is Microphone, by Ahmed Abdallah. Banned until the 25th of January, it was first shown to an Egyptian public on the 26th.  Based on true events, it documents an attempt to stage a small music festival in Alexandria. It was first shown on the 25th of January.

The change in the perception of the role of art that Tahrir brought with it can not be understated. The long Arab tradition of political songwriting was revived, uniting the masses and giving them hope and courage to continue in their struggle. Suddenly, visual artists with political messages no longer had to hide behind facades of conformity. They are now able, repression from the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (one of the most pompous monickers to ever spring from a revolution) nonwithstanding, to display their interpretation of events and opinions freely. Political awakening, accompanied by artistic awakening. Subtle subtextual messages are no longer required to bring your point across.

The cultural production generated on Tahrir was, along with the politics of the event, the first thing to reach us in Germany. Who was writing the new songs? Where did the graffiti come from? Which minds were thinking up installations? Who are the bloggers? Which opinions were being expressed, in which language? How is art affecting popular opinion?

Which brings us back to Civilisation. The cultural border of Egypt before the revolution was nonexistent. Even though culture was being produced, most of the cultural exports were of such low quality that visiting an exhibition on the Pharoes reavealed more about the current character of Egyptian society than visiting an exhibition of contemporary, government-sponsored art. We were aware of some breakout artists- Khaled Khamissi, Tamim Barghouti, Yasser Gaessa come to mind- but where were the others? Where was the mass of young artists those who visited the country knew existed. They did not make an impact beyond their circle of friends at home. You had to discover the hidden channels through which this culture was being published. There were no magazines, or websites openly dedicated to art. *

The perception was that Egypt was mostly being influenced by Western culture and did not add very much to global culture. Egypt was the Pharoes, Mubarak, Khan-El-Khalili, Soufi Dancers, Om Kolthoum and Mohammad Mounir. There was no new artistic edge, nothing that warranted much discussion or particular attention, again, with some exceptions. The films and music that did make it here made it as much by hype as by the desperation of people to say "Look, we have produced a film that is being shown in foreign cinemas". This did not mean they were particularly good, or representative. They were there, and we were somewhat proud of it. The Yacoubian Building is one of those examples, though I am presenting it through the filter of my own perception.  

Contrast this perception with the cinematic and cultural output from the 1950s – 70s and how Egypt was perceived then. A picture of steady decline, erosion of artistic freedom and dumbing down of art. The choices were to emigrate and do your thing, or stay home and be schizophrenic. Schizophrenic in the sense that you went about your day job and hid your evening activities. And in many cases, abused drugs to get over the depression this caused. Being a fulltime, young artist, was even more impossible than it is anywhere else. This has hopefully changed, even if I still hear some people have to keep up their day jobs a bankers while flying to all manner of events to perform there. You know who you are. 

Munich Freisprechanlage
But the fact that they are being flown to such events, the fact that many websites dedicated to art and culture have sprung up, that they are freely accessible to those outside Egypt, that the concept  Egyptian Pavillion in Venice revolved around a young artist killed, or martyred during the revolution all point to a change in the way Egyptian art is percieved outside the country. There is now a perception of a young, energetic art scene, prepared to go to great lengths to get their message across. They export current social and political opinions in ways even people who do not understand Arabic can relate to.** 

A good part of a recent poetry festival in Berlin was dedicated to young Arab spoken word performers. Panels are being held, amongst them a panel by the Anna Lindh-Stiftung in Berlin, and that of the Freisprechanlage in Munich, on the changing role of culture in Egyptian and Arab society. Do I have to mention Londons Shubbak Festival? Young artists are being flown in, along with their art, to allow us poor foreigners to catch up with the last 30 years of underground production. Even though pop culture is an important part of culture, it seldom yields deeper insights into the problems affecting a society, or the opinion of the man on the street, unless he happens to be in love or cruising in his car.  

Now, a few months later after the revolution,  observers of the Egyptian cultural scene cannot help but be familiar with names such as GanzeerEl_TeneenMariam and AbouMasar EgbariDeeb,  and of course many many others, not to mention the websites and blogs. They spring up by the day. They have political and social views they are expressing through art. They are reaching a global audience. 

To return to gaming terminology: Level up. ***

* Even though this is changing on a grass-roots level, the state has yet to embrace the explosion of soft political power its people are putting out. In fact, I hear that they are trying to repress it- again. 
** The use of Arabic in songs and on blogs has increased manyfold since January. Apart from a growing national pride, this also reflects whom the artists are trying to reach.  
*** I seldom play Civilisation as the Egyptians. Their attributes are simply too weak. Let's see what future versions bring. 

Small disclaimer: This is a rant, put together from observation, personal impressions and discussions. I am intentionally leaving myself wide-open to critisism and discussion. 


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