Parallels
2:39 pm
Thu May 16, 2013

From The Heart Of Egypt's Revolt, The Pulse Of Artistic Life

Originally published on Thu May 16, 2013 7:34 pm

Egypt's capital, Cairo, is now synonymous with protests and sometimes violence. Late at night, the once-bustling downtown streets are largely empty these days. People worry about getting mugged or caught up in a mob.

But the recent Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival is an attempt to revitalize the area with music, art and culture in the old and forgotten venues of downtown Cairo, like the Qasr El Nil Theater.

Its candle-shaped lights and dusty red velvet curtains hint at it glorious past — never mind the curtains' missing tassels or the smell of smoke and urine in the lobby.

After years of sitting unused, the Qasr El Nil Theater echoes once again with music. It was the site of the art festival's final concert. The decision was deliberate: to breathe new life into Cairo's decrepit architecture.

"Cairo is a city that needs a lot of dusting," says Ahmed El Attar, the festival director. "It's almost an unloved city."

He chose the venues to highlight Cairo's trove of theaters and hotels that languish dusty and unused.

"It's a city of a lot of things hidden and because of neglect and a general feeling of apathy over the last 50 years of military rule and dictatorship and oppression and a general feeling of not valuing your own self as individuals and also of society," he says. "So the city is abandoned."

Downtown Cairo is filled with beautiful architecture. Built during the brief French occupation of Egypt under Napoleon, it's Parisian with an Egyptian twist: stunning window arches; delicate iron-wrought balconies overlooking the streets; apartments with high ornate, ceilings. But now, dust masks the beauty, the architecture lost in decay.

Since the revolutions that swept through Egypt, Tunisia and beyond, the arts scene has exploded. Artists are freer to express themselves publicly, and there's a willing audience searching for something new.

Egyptian folk singer Dina El Wedidi shot to fame after the revolution. Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi is known as the voice of Tunisia's revolution. They made up the double bill of the festival's final musical performance.

In her song "On My Mind (Fe Bali)," Mathlouthi sings about Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian man who set himself on fire, an act that sparked what was called the Arab Spring.

"What I see in the audiences, they feel in a way my music gives them some power, some hope, some strength," Mathlouthi says. "There aren't so many people that sing about freedom, about human beings, about society, about problems."

At the heart of festival director Attar's efforts is a hope.

"Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, culturally, intellectually and artistically," Attar says. "There is a revival now and it's important that we believe in that and start putting it back."

Inside the theater, Mathlouthi wows the crowd. By the end of the night, the audience is weeping as she sings songs about continuing a struggle for freedom.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The center of Cairo is now synonymous with protests and sometimes violence. Late at night, the once bustling streets are largely empty. People worry about getting mugged or caught up in a mob. But there are efforts to revitalize downtown Cairo.

NPR's Leila Fadel sent this story about a recent contemporary arts festival.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The haunting voices of revolutionary female singers fill the air in this old and decrepit theatre. It is a space that tells of a glorious past. Candle-shaped lights adorn the walls and there are dusty red velvet curtains on the stage. Here, the legendary Umm Kulthum, the Arab world's most adored female singer, once sang about love and loss for packed audiences.

UMM KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

FADEL: Today, after years of sitting unused, this theater once again echoes with music. It was chosen to host the final concert in the contemporary arts festival. The decision was deliberate, to breathe new life into Cairo's decrepit architecture. The audience is taken by the voice of Dina El Wedidi, an Egyptian folk singer who shot to fame after the revolution and Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer/songwriter who is known as the voice of Tunisia's revolution.

As Dina sings, she is masked by fog and bubbles. And later, Emel dances across the stage strumming a guitar and singing about freedom. Probably no one notices the missing tassels on the curtains or the smell of smoke and urine in the lobby. Ahmed El Attar is the director of the festival.

AHMED EL ATTAR: Cairo is a city that needs a lot of dusting. It's almost like an unloved city.

FADEL: Just before the show, he sits on the steps outside the theater as artists do their soundchecks inside. He chose the venue to highlight Cairo's trove of theaters and hotels that languish dusty and unused.

ATTAR: It's a city has of a lot of things hidden. And because of neglect and a general feeling of apathy over the last 50 years of military rule and dictatorship and oppression and a general feeling of not valuing your own self as individuals and also as a society, so the city is abandoned.

FADEL: Downtown Cairo is filled with beautiful architecture. It was built during the brief French occupation of Egypt under Napoleon. It's Parisian with an Egyptian twist. The window arcs are stunning, delicate balconies overlook wide streets and the area is filled with apartments with high, ornate ceilings. But now that beauty is masked by dust, the architecture lost in decay.

Since the revolution that swept through Egypt, Tunisia and beyond, the arts scene has exploded. Artists are more free to express themselves publicly, and there's a willing audience searching for something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Emel Mathlouthi plays us a song before the show called "On My Mind." It's a song she wrote as an homage to Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian man who set himself on fire, an act that sparked what was called the Arab Spring.

EMEL MATHLOUTHI: What I see in the audiences, they feel in a way my music gives them some power, some hope, some strength because there aren't so many people who sing about freedom, about human beings, about society, about problems.

FADEL: Just after her set, Dina El Wedidi sits in the room where Umm Kalthum once sat backstage.

DINA EL WEDIDI: I was very excited before I go because it's a different energy backstage, you know.

FADEL: She says the efforts to open the theater and other venues are important because right now there is an explosion of new musicians with nowhere to play.

WEDIDI: We have, like, 200 or 300 bands independent and we move in three theaters. It's terrible. All of us have to support this festival because they're trying to open new places and old theaters.

FADEL: Beyond the venues, director Ahmed El Attar hopes to make this festival internationally famous.

ATTAR: Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, culturally and intellectually and artistically. There is a revival now and it's important that we believe in that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Inside the theater, the Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi wows the crowd. By the end of the night, the audience is weeping as she sings songs about continuing the struggle for freedom. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: