In Egypt, change comes slowly to pop culture


Many artists hoped that the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime would signal a radical shift from fluff to substantive fare. They are still waiting.



When filmmaker and Egyptian democracy activist Amr Salama watched Hosni Mubarak’s regime collapse in 2011, he couldn’t have been more heartened. Salama had been making films for years and had found himself hamstrung by the government’s censorship board. This was finally the opportunity he’d been waiting for.

So shortly after the regime fell, Salama resubmitted a script that had been rejected under Mubarak — one whose story centered on tension between Cairo’s majority Muslim population and its Coptic Christian minority. But it was soon turned down for the same reasons that it had been nixed before. No such tension exists in this city, members of the board told him; where would he possibly get such an idea?

“If ever there was a moment to make a film about a subject like this, it was after Tahrir Square and the revolution, when we were dealing with all of these serious issues,” Salama said over breakfast in an upscale neighborhood of this bustling city. “But a lot of us learned quickly that nothing’s really different.”

In the 30-year reign of Mubarak, Egypt solidified its position as home to the largest cultural industry in the Middle East, churning out entertainment for both domestic and regional audiences. Most of what was produced was television soap operas, cheesy pop songs, goofy film comedies. Serious material was scarce; political content was even scarcer. The censorship board, along with government-overseen distribution systems, kept a tight lid on alternative voices.

When Mubarak fell in February 2011, artists like Salama hoped that stories that had long been kept under wraps could now blossom and a citizenry that had been lapping up fluff might turn to more substantive fare. The stakes were high — with a tradition of cultural exports, Egypt’s entertainment zeitgeist has ripples far beyond its borders.

But as with many of the country’s political changes — witness the soap opera in the past week as presidential hopefuls scramble to reverse court-imposed bans — these shifts have happened unevenly as each entertainment realm has made progress at its own, sometimes turtle-like pace. The shows that drew an audience in the popular Ramadan television period last year tended to be the same limited-run soaps, known as the mousalsalets, that were popular before the revolution while slapstick comedies have proved to have staying power at the multiplex. Creating a post-Tahrir pop culture is harder than it looks.

“The government may have fallen, but the censorship apparatus is the same, and a lot of the people in power are the same,” said Ziad Fahmy, a professor of modern Middle East history at Cornell University.

It’s not clear, Fahmy added, that the country’s post-revolutionary artistic movement has cohered. “The events in Tahrir were a carnival-esque atmosphere that allowed many people to mix in interesting ways, but no one really needed to think about [art]. The question now for artists is how to turn that into a lasting movement,” he said.

Music has seen the most change — perhaps because it’s easier than ever for musicians to cut a new track and distribute it — thanks to websites like YouTube. (Compare the current moment to the 1970s, when underground cassettes made their way, person by person, around cultural black markets in the Middle East.)

Early last year, the indie-rock band Cairokee — which existed under Mubarak but had never garnered more than a niche following — cut a video for a feel-good democracy song titled “Sout al Horeya” (Voice of Freedom) in which various faces in Tahrir mouth the song’s lyrics. The video got several million YouTube hits and became the unofficial anthem of the revolution. The band has gone on to achieve mainstream popularity with several new, socially minded tracks.

Cairokee represents the first tentative steps to a new musical culture. While Egypt’s signature pop stars — sugary love-song types such as Tamer Hosny and Amr Diab — still enjoy ample airplay in this country as embattled Egyptians seek a little joyful escapism (sample Hosny lyrics: “Your love fills me/ Every other day inside me it grows”), their fame has slowly begun to be challenged by revolution-minded performers like Hamza Namira.

After gaining fame during the uprising with a song he recorded several years before titled “Ehlam Ma’aya” (Dream With Me) — an uplifting number that nonetheless suggested that Egypt has been enduring a period of darkness — Namira later last year released the record “Insan,” about education and other post-revolution social issues; in one song, titled “El Midan” (The Square), he suggested that Egyptians should fight to be known for more than just historic achievements like the pyramids. The album climbed to the top of the charts, an extreme rarity in Egypt for a record that isn’t filled with schmaltzy love songs.

“I remember right after the revolution putting on an album of love songs from one of our biggest pop stars,” said the film director Mohamed Diab, a friend of Namira’s and another artist trying to steer the country in a different direction. “I played one track and I couldn’t listen to it anymore.”

The director was sitting in the garden restaurant of an upscale Cairo hotel. Less than a mile away, across a ferry-dotted Nile, the situation was getting ugly. Clashes between protesters and the reigning Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, over the group’s refusal to turn over power, had intensified. A hail of gunfire, rocks and Molotov cocktails would claim more than a dozen lives on that day. The country’s hard-right Islamist party, the Salafists, had just scored surprising wins in parliamentary elections, and the air crackled with tension.

As if underscoring the point, a man spotted Diab and whispered to a waiter that revolutionaries should not be welcomed here.

Diab has learned firsthand the perils of nudging a country along too quickly. A longtime screenwriter, he made his directorial debut in 2010 with a feature about sexual harassment in Egypt titled “Cairo 678.” The film was embraced by liberal critics, as it was at festivals around the world. But it was deemed too provocative by conservative voices in his home country. Three lawsuits (including one from Tamer Hosny) were filed before it even came out. Egypt’s United Nations delegation boycotted a General Assembly screening scheduled to support it.

The best way an artist might communicate more liberal thoughts is to do what Salama did with his latest movie — slip in social messages covertly. The filmmaker recently released “Asmaa,” a feature about an HIV-positive woman who is told she can receive a life-saving medical treatment only if she reveals how she contracted the virus; she decides to hold her ground in the face of religious conservatives.

Though it never speaks of national politics, the film’s defiant heroine has become a metaphor for a generation that feels like its point-of-view has been suppressed.

“[I] wanted to make a movie about the fear of speaking out and overcoming that fear. I think people after the revolution are reacting to that,” Salama said. At a downtown Cairo screening on a recent weekday, the film was given a standing ovation.

Experts say that, from a cinematic standpoint, a certain kind of suppression can actually be beneficial. “If there’s less freedom of speech, the dramas actually have to be more subtle,” said Cornell’s Fahmy. “That’s a paradox, but it can be good. I mean look at ‘A Separation,'” he added, referencing the nuanced 2012 Oscar winner from Iran.

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