Friday, January 4, 2013

Alexandria living

The article in Hyperallergic, “Artists On the Frontline of Egypt's Societal Revolution,” written by Jillian Steinhauer and published Dec. 26, 2012 (the day I left for Egypt), resonates with the project I’m doing here. Another very helpful one is “Artists and Islamists going head-to-head” by Rowan El Shimi, (Dec. 25). Rowan is a staff here on my IPP. This one is very comprehensive, it gives a bit of history and explanation for those uninitiated (which are most of us since we read primarily western media sources).

I spoke to an American poet who lives in Cairo, and she says she relies on Twitter for her news of Egypt, and follows a few key people. When I expressed my incredulity, she explained that in fact all media here is either run by government or is Islamist, so it is necessary. There is (rightly) much mistrust of both.

Mubarak and his military cronies allowed Egypt to disintegrate over the last 30 years. As one artist said, it’s a “failed state.” There is very little in the way of a solid infrastructure. Alexandria is chaotic and filthy, even by New York City standards, most apparently in the buildings that are crumbling inside and out. The streets, allies and airshafts are littered with garbage, sometimes piling high like sand dunes. 

Mind you, my view is limited to the downtown Alexandria area, but as this must be a central tourist spot, I thought it would be representative. It seems like the more control Mubarak had, the more apathetic people got and the fewer rules they followed. Traffic is many times more congested than New York, as there are no stoplights in a city of 5 million (imagine that)! Thus, crossing the street is a challenge. Day and night we hear a symphony of car horns, short and long beeps that overlay with one another near and far. But it becomes a kind of music, and mixed with the Muslim call to prayer (which is very beautiful), it blends in a Cage-like way.

Listening now to local artists talk about what they’re accomplishing in terms of change, and what they plan to do, is like watching the inside of a chrysalis evolve. It is slow, and at the same time an immense (and mostly hidden) transformation. While creative expression has always taken place, it was mostly a private affair. Censorship was a fact of life, and politics were far underground, if not nonexistent. The group of artists that formed Gudran (the organization we’re partnering with) has been trying to change this for 15 years, well before the revolution. But the revolution has given them a credibility (or permission) that took years to eak out, with their painstaking yet persistent work in local communities. They began by transforming a small fishing village, the residents of whom had been slated for relocation to the desert (fishermen?!). By introducing art to kids and murals on buildings, they eventually created a permanent artists’ space called El Max. I hope to visit there at some point.

The oppression that artists, musicians and filmmakers experienced prior to the revolution is practically incomprehensible to this westerner, but despite the unsure political future of Egypt, the artists and their supporters are determined to prevail in their newfound freedom.