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

The Africa Report - - CONTENTS - So­phie An­muth in Cairo

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

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