Once the entertainment centre of the Arab world, Egypt now plays second fiddle to the Gulf States. Despite the challenges, independent practitioners are striving to get back on top, sustained by a loyal home audience
Has Egypt lost its capital? The once entertainment centre of the Arab world attempts a comeback
In downtown Cairo a multi-storey car park stands in the place of the old Khedivial Opera House. Built in the 19th century, the opera house was a symbol of cultural prominence in North Africa and the Middle East, but it was also part of an urban plan that didn’t confine itself to high art within high walls: the surrounding Azbakiya Park had bandstands, parades, and a theatre where Oum Kalthoum sang early in her career. Mona Adeeb Doss, a teacher, recalls the atmosphere on a cultural outing: “It was a leisurely and relaxed affair. We enjoyed classic pieces like The Nutcracker.” After the opera house burnt down in 1971, it was almost 20 years before a new one was rebuilt in the affluent neighbourhood of Zamalek. These days the required attire is more formal, with men normally wearing shirts and ties. At the height of its cultural production in the 1940s and 50s, Egyptian music and cinema had a quasi monopoly over the Arab entertainment area. Oum Kalthoum was “the star of the East”, and a favourite in all Arab countries as well as Europe. Other singers such as Warda Al-jazairia, “the Algerian rose”, and Sabah Fakhri, “the legend from Syria”, also had Egypt to thank for their rise to fame.
“In the 1940s and 1950s, there was no difference between Egyptian and Western cinemas, techniques, film sets,” says Medhat El-adl, co-founder of the El Adl Group, one of the biggest film production houses in Egypt. In the 1960s, Egyptian cinema generated about 25% of the country’s GDP. The crisis year of 1967, however, s e nt s hoc kwave s ro u nd t he Ara b world and signalled the end of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-arabism project and of Egypt’s creative golden age. “Many things ended in the sixties,” says contemporary Palestinian composer Issa Murad. “The 1967 military defeat [against Israel in the Six-day War] affected the self-confidence of Arab[s], [their] sense of identity. […] There was also a backlash against the arts in Egypt and in the Arab world, with a very striking, albeit absurd, image of Egyptians
and Arabs too engrossed in writing songs or listening to Oum Kalthoum’s two-hour long performances to get busy and ready to fight.” Several countries took advantage of Egypt’s demise, but none became ‘the new Egypt’.
Today, film festival selections often go to directors from North African and Levant countries, singers from Lebanon and Syria have taken on the mantle of Oum Kalthoum, TV series, once from Syria, now from Turkey, compete with Egyptian ones, and increasingly money poured into the entertainment industry comes from the Gulf countries. But it would be an exaggeration to say Egypt is no longer a big player. It is the most populous country of the Arab world, which means its own public can still make or break the box office. Arab globalisation started long ago. The saying goes: ‘Books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut and read in Baghdad’. There was a time when many singers who were not Egyptian would sing in Egyptian dialect ; now Gulf dialects are more common. Egyptian artists today are happy to sign with Rotana, a Saudi group founded in 1987 that produces films and music on more generous terms than Egyptian producers can offer. Saudi-owned pan-arab television channel Al Arabiya also pays rates that Egyptian channels cannot compete with. For Medhat El-adl it’s a matter of soft power. “The Gulf wants to compete with Egypt,” he says. “Egypt used to produce a hundred films a year, now it’s ten. For El Adl Group, we stopped producing films and have focused on series since 2005.” Gulf financing of films for television in the ’80s and satellite production in the ’90s had a secondary effect on movies, with Rotana censoring foreign films it airs and Egyptian films it cofinances. “The Egyptian public is keen on Turkish series, because they have more freedom than Egyptian series, less censorship,” El-adl says. Screenwriter Abdel Rahim Kamal laments the effect on young Egyptians: “The youth don’t know our identity anymore,” he recently wrote. “They know more about Turkish and American cities and places than about here, and know more about the Vietnam war than about the 1973 war.” A 2016 study, ‘Media Use in the Middle East’, from Northwestern University in Qatar and the Doha Film Institute, paints a different picture of Egyptians. Surveyed by Harris Poll, 88% of Egyptian respondents said their favourite entertainer is from their own country, 95% that they watch films from their own country compared to 22% for films from the Arab world in general, and 99% that they watch Egyptian programmes with only 12% for programmes from the Arab world. In all these cases Egyptians scored far higher for local content than respondents from the other countries surveyed (Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates [UAE]). The report describes Egypt as “still the most prolific film production hub in the region” and “[one of the] top producers of scripted TV programming in the region”. When it comes to music, once again Egyptians buck the trend: “Over 70% of nationals in each country listen to music from across different Arab countries, except for Egyptians, who listen almost exclusively to Egyptian music,”the report claims. The 2011 uprising gave hope to many, with a bubbling of songs and films about the revolution. Cultural spaces opened with new theatres and cinemas. Zawya is one of them. Opened in 2014, it is the first arthouse cinema in Egypt, with plans to set up screens across the country. It is also cheaper to buy tickets for Zawya films than blockbusters, and it is one of the few places in Cairo that screens short films, arthouse films and documentaries. Zawya also organises festivals – most recently Cairo Cinema Days in May this year – and encourages local independent cinema.
With the country’s economy still struggling to bounce back to pre-revolution levels, investment in the arts is not easy to come by. Mohamed Gaber, business development manager for Mazzika, which had 85% of the market share in the Egyptian music industry in 2002, says the profits made in the business are so low or so slow that the company doesn’t take as many risks to discover new talent any more. He adds that with the fall in tourism since 2011, live events attract only 35% of the income they used to. With the comeback of the Cairo International Film Festival in 2014,
Egypt is the most populous country of the Arab world; its own public can make or break the box office
film critics and writers have expressed confidence in the strengthening of the country’s film industry. But censorship remains a huge deter rent. “During Mubarak’s era there was less censorship of cinema, especially in the later years when the government was becoming weak and had other priorities. Now there seems to be more fear in general and artists are practising more self-censorship,” says film director Khaled El Hagar, whose film El Shooq (‘Lust’) won the Golden Pyramid award at the 2010 Cairo Film Festival – the first time an Egyptian film had won the trophy in 14 years. Reflecting the regional shift in film production, there are a growing number of film festivals in the Gulf. They are well attended and have diverse selections. At the 2013 Dubai International Film Festival, Egyptian director Mahmood Soliman won best director and best documentary for We Have Never Been Kids, a co-production between Egypt, the UAE, Qatar and Lebanon that was critical on social and political issues. However, last year, at the same festival, Ahmed Roshdy’s animated short The Unknown Sweet Potato Seller, about the true murder of a 12-year-old potato-seller by a police conscript near Tahrir Square in 2012, was pulled just 24 hours before it was due to be screened. Mavie Maher, a young filmmaker in Cairo, wants to bridge the gap between popular and critical appraisal. With her Egyptian and French producers she is still trying to find funding in the face of likely objections from the censors. Her latest film follows the private lives of security services members and churchmen, and deals with sectarianism.
“Censorship in Egypt is really a matter of people. If the censor is an educated guy, he will be more flexible. Also, if the filmmaker is famous, it will definitely help” says Medhat El-adl. Fame and international attention garnered at the Cannes Festival was surely what allowed Mohamed Diab’s Eshtebak (‘ Clash’) to be screened in Egypt last year (see box), Maher believes. “But the authorities also knew it is a very arty movie and [thought] not many people would see it anyway.” Maher thinks a co-production with foreigners would alleviate censorship problems and make it easier to film on the street, even if she may have to have two versions of the movie. She is cautious, though, not to have her characters stereotyped by Western backers who would want her to modify the script. Despite all these challenges, many artists still make the pilgrim age to Egypt to become famous, in the footsteps of those that came before them. “Egypt is a stepping stone,” says Mazzika’s Gaber. “It allows a singer to be known in the whole Arab world. Then, with the Gulf money, you can get famous internationally.”
The Metro Cinema in downtown Cairo once boasted an interior like an African savannah, complete with masks and wild animals
Left: Oum Kalthoum, “the star of the east, and Youssef Chahine’s neo-realist film Cairo Station epitomised Egypt’s cultural golden age. Right: Present-day star Amr Diab had the clout to fight Saudi record label Rotana in the courts, while the Cannes success of Arab Springthemed movie Clash put Egyptian censors in a bind