By Sally Zohney
The revolution drastically transformed everything in the lives of Egyptians. Yet while there has been quite a bit of attention paid to the dramatic political changes, more attention needs to be paid to the cultural and artistic scene that has been taking Egypt by storm since early 2011. Rather than being confined to art galleries or movie screens, this new wave of artistic expression is spilling over into all areas of life and causing previous boundaries to crumble.
Since Mubarak’s removal in February 2011, anyone walking the streets of Cairo might see stencilled graffiti calling for protests and encouraging people to join them. The proliferation of this type of socially-engaged graffiti becomes even more significant in the context of increased control over political participation, including mass arrests of young activists, as well as brutality by police and military forces against protesters and revolutionaries. When you walk now in downtown Cairo and see graffiti portraying a young man or woman, it’s likely that he or she either died in the revolution or was arrested.
But art is not being used only to inform the public, it is also used to bridge divides. Art has always been a successful tool in bringing people together, and this is especially true of Egypt after Mubarak. The revolution broke many boundaries and stereotypes: in the streets, men and women became equals and rich and poor people shared food and slept in the same tents. All demanded equality and justice.
Gradually music, chants, jokes, theatre, poetry and literature began to reflect these new realities. Young revolutionaries started to identify more with the Arabic language, as well as Egyptian culture and identity. The working classes began to feel more important and appreciated; previously marginalised groups saw their problems discussed openly through street songs, videos and community events.
“Tahrir Monologues” is a fine example of revolutionary art and one that I am personally linked to. This independent project uses a series of chronological monologues and aims to recreate the emotions and experiences of different people during the 18 heady days that toppled the Mubarak regime. Conceived by a group of amateur young Egyptians artists, the monologues serve as a cathartic reminder of the uplifting local scene during the uprising. The monologues not only reflect the lives and emotions of the revolutionaries, but also take you through the feelings of very different characters: a young female revolutionary who challenged her family to take the streets, a mother who brought food to the square every night, an artist, an old street vendor, a police officer, young members of the upper class and individuals who felt they had nothing to live for.
As different as they may seem from us, we as audience members learn to identify with each of their stories and motives. By highlighting individual stories from such diverse people, the monologues also treat other social and cultural issues: the limitations on women’s participation in public life, freedom of expression and sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians. They thus challenge earlier social norms about staying silent on these issues and limiting individual freedom.
Another inspiring project led by a talented group of young artists is the Mars Project, which is now travelling across Egypt visiting communities in the south where young people rarely receive attention, as well as Bedouin groups, in order to hold open-microphone community events which allow everyone to express themselves. Bringing energy, warmth and creativity to the streets, this project encourages people to embrace their national identity regardless of any possibly divisive affiliations. This wave of art is brand new in Egypt, challenging preconceived notions of certain communities or sectors of society that have long been misrepresented despite their rich heritage.
In this newly liberated creative space of post-revolutionary Egypt, artists of all kinds continue to blossom. Beyond mere self-expression or art for art’s sake, the significance of this artistic renaissance is also clearly social and political. It promotes education on a broad scale as well as challenging issues once considered taboo, such as women’s freedom, limits on political participation and the oppression of minorities. In the new Egypt, art is an instrument for social change.
Sally Zohney is women’s rights advocate, storyteller, amateur photographer and member of SAWA Egypt and the Tahrir Monologues.