In Egypt, change comes slowly to pop culture (LA TIMES) By Steven Zeitchik CAIRO, EGYPT 04/22/12)
LOS ANGELES TIMES
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Many artists hoped that the collapse of Hosni Mubarak´s regime would
signal a radical shift from fluff to substantive fare. They are still
CAIRO When filmmaker and Egyptian democracy activist Amr Salama
watched Hosni Mubarak´s regime collapse in 2011, he couldn´t have
been more heartened. Salama had been making films for years and had
found himself hamstrung by the government´s censorship board. This
was finally the opportunity he´d been waiting for.
So shortly after the regime fell, Salama resubmitted a script that
had been rejected under Mubarak one whose story centered on tension
between Cairo´s majority Muslim population and its Coptic Christian
minority. But it was soon turned down for the same reasons that it
had been nixed before. No such tension exists in this city, members
of the board told him; where would he possibly get such an idea?
"If ever there was a moment to make a film about a subject like this,
it was after Tahrir Square and the revolution, when we were dealing
with all of these serious issues," Salama said over breakfast in an
upscale neighborhood of this bustling city. "But a lot of us learned
quickly that nothing´s really different."
In the 30-year reign of Mubarak, Egypt solidified its position as
home to the largest cultural industry in the Middle East, churning
out entertainment for both domestic and regional audiences. Most of
what was produced was television soap operas, cheesy pop songs, goofy
film comedies. Serious material was scarce; political content was
even scarcer. The censorship board, along with government-overseen
distribution systems, kept a tight lid on alternative voices.
When Mubarak fell in February 2011, artists like Salama hoped that
stories that had long been kept under wraps could now blossom and a
citizenry that had been lapping up fluff might turn to more
substantive fare. The stakes were high with a tradition of cultural
exports, Egypt´s entertainment zeitgeist has ripples far beyond its
But as with many of the country´s political changes witness the
soap opera in the past week as presidential hopefuls scramble to
reverse court-imposed bans these shifts have happened unevenly as
each entertainment realm has made progress at its own, sometimes
turtle-like pace. The shows that drew an audience in the popular
Ramadan television period last year tended to be the same limited-run
soaps, known as the mousalsalets, that were popular before the
revolution while slapstick comedies have proved to have staying power
at the multiplex. Creating a post-Tahrir pop culture is harder than
"The government may have fallen, but the censorship apparatus is the
same, and a lot of the people in power are the same," said Ziad
Fahmy, a professor of modern Middle East history at Cornell
It´s not clear, Fahmy added, that the country´s post-revolutionary
artistic movement has cohered. "The events in Tahrir were a carnival-
esque atmosphere that allowed many people to mix in interesting ways,
but no one really needed to think about [art]. The question now for
artists is how to turn that into a lasting movement," he said.
Music has seen the most change perhaps because it´s easier than
ever for musicians to cut a new track and distribute it thanks to
websites like YouTube. (Compare the current moment to the 1970s, when
underground cassettes made their way, person by person, around
cultural black markets in the Middle East.)
Early last year, the indie-rock band Cairokee which existed under
Mubarak but had never garnered more than a niche following cut a
video for a feel-good democracy song titled "Sout al Horeya" (Voice
of Freedom) in which various faces in Tahrir mouth the song´s lyrics.
The video got several million YouTube hits and became the unofficial
anthem of the revolution. The band has gone on to achieve mainstream
popularity with several new, socially minded tracks.
Cairokee represents the first tentative steps to a new musical
culture. While Egypt´s signature pop stars sugary love-song types
such as Tamer Hosny and Amr Diab still enjoy ample airplay in this
country as embattled Egyptians seek a little joyful escapism (sample
Hosny lyrics: "Your love fills me/ Every other day inside me it
grows"), their fame has slowly begun to be challenged by revolution-
minded performers like Hamza Namira.
After gaining fame during the uprising with a song he recorded
several years before titled "Ehlam Ma´aya" (Dream With Me) an
uplifting number that nonetheless suggested that Egypt has been
enduring a period of darkness Namira later last year released the
record "Insan," about education and other post-revolution social
issues; in one song, titled "El Midan" (The Square), he suggested
that Egyptians should fight to be known for more than just historic
achievements like the pyramids. The album climbed to the top of the
charts, an extreme rarity in Egypt for a record that isn´t filled
with schmaltzy love songs.
"I remember right after the revolution putting on an album of love
songs from one of our biggest pop stars," said the film director
Mohamed Diab, a friend of Namira´s and another artist trying to steer
the country in a different direction. "I played one track and I
couldn´t listen to it anymore."
The director was sitting in the garden restaurant of an upscale Cairo
hotel. Less than a mile away, across a ferry-dotted Nile, the
situation was getting ugly. Clashes between protesters and the
reigning Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, over the
group´s refusal to turn over power, had intensified. A hail of
gunfire, rocks and Molotov cocktails would claim more than a dozen
lives on that day. The country´s hard-right Islamist party, the
Salafists, had just scored surprising wins in parliamentary
elections, and the air crackled with tension.
As if underscoring the point, a man spotted Diab and whispered to a
waiter that revolutionaries should not be welcomed here.
Diab has learned firsthand the perils of nudging a country along too
quickly. A longtime screenwriter, he made his directorial debut in
2010 with a feature about sexual harassment in Egypt titled "Cairo
678." The film was embraced by liberal critics, as it was at
festivals around the world. But it was deemed too provocative by
conservative voices in his home country. Three lawsuits (including
one from Tamer Hosny) were filed before it even came out. Egypt´s
United Nations delegation boycotted a General Assembly screening
scheduled to support it.
The best way an artist might communicate more liberal thoughts is to
do what Salama did with his latest movie slip in social messages
covertly. The filmmaker recently released "Asmaa," a feature about an
HIV-positive woman who is told she can receive a life-saving medical
treatment only if she reveals how she contracted the virus; she
decides to hold her ground in the face of religious conservatives.
Though it never speaks of national politics, the film´s defiant
heroine has become a metaphor for a generation that feels like its
point-of-view has been suppressed.
"[I] wanted to make a movie about the fear of speaking out and
overcoming that fear. I think people after the revolution are
reacting to that," Salama said. At a downtown Cairo screening on a
recent weekday, the film was given a standing ovation.
Experts say that, from a cinematic standpoint, a certain kind of
suppression can actually be beneficial. "If there´s less freedom of
speech, the dramas actually have to be more subtle," said Cornell´s
Fahmy. "That´s a paradox, but it can be good. I mean look at ´A
Separation,´" he added, referencing the nuanced 2012 Oscar winner
Documentary filmmakers face a tougher climb; a nonfiction film
doesn´t allow for nearly as much cloaking. Karim El Hakim, an
Egyptian American living in Cairo who co-directed the vιritι
documentary"1/2 Revolution," about the seminal 18 days in Tahrir last
year, found himself swept up in a government raid and held overnight
in a desert prison cell during the revolution.
"The camera was a cover at the beginning. But then we were targeted
for it," Hakim said over dinner one night, gunshots from a clash
between protesters and the army echoing in the distance. Hakim´s
movie has been shown at festivals around the world, screening in
competition at January´s Sundance Film Festival in Utah. But because
El Hakim is not a member of Egypt´s cinema syndicate, he says, it has
not been shown in his homeland.
Others have found ways to work within the system. Bassem Youssef, a
heart surgeon who tended to the wounded during the revolution,
vaulted to fame when his homemade YouTube videos pointing out the
foibles of those in power caught on in the months after the
revolution. Soon he became a star, landing his own television
show, "El Bernameg" (The Program) on an independent satellite
station. Working with a staff of just four, Youssef has pulled off
what is exceedingly rare in any Middle Eastern country a satire
program along the lines of "The Daily Show" that stands in sharp
contrast to the party-line programs that populate state-run news
stations. (In June, he will spend a few days at the Comedy Central
series´ New York set.) Bits on his show frequently lampoon
pronouncements of SCAF or the Muslim Brotherhood by contrasting them
with footage and facts from modern-day Egypt.
But even he has run up against obstacles. "When you hit on the SCAF
stuff, people accuse you of being anti-military; when you hit on the
Salafists they call you anti-Islam," he said. "He pauses, ´The same
thing happens with [Jon] Stewartand [Stephen] Colbertin America the
right wing says they´re anti-Christian. It´s just that in Egypt the
religious forces are a lot more powerful." The government hasn´t
pulled his station´s license yet.
But some of the post-Tahrir entertainers´ biggest impediments come
Like other artists, Namira must juggle the demands of his emerging
career with the reality of a nation in flux and his
responsibilities, as an activist, to that nation. On a violent day of
protests in December, Namira cut short a conversation with a reporter
to head to the protests and bring aid to the wounded.
Others have simply grown tired. Several months after Diab was eyed
warily by pro-military types in a Cairo hotel, he came to Los Angeles
for several weeks with his wife and young child to get away from it
all the media appearances, the rallies, the endless hours spent on
Twitter. He is working on a new script, an apolitical science-fiction
film about a dystopian society where the old are forced to die to
make room for the young though even that might have some social
"I guess it´s really what I´ve been thinking about this last year,
this whole generational shift," he said, then stopped, realizing the
subject´s political resonance. "Even when I´m trying not to make a
movie about the revolution, I guess I kind of am."
And some artists say that the very idea of trying to respond to the
revolution poses a problem. Mohamed Khan, a prolific director who at
69 is an elder statesman of the Egyptian independent-film movement,
said he thought all storytellers should wait before incorporating
current events. "It´s too soon," he said. "I don´t think we´re ready
for a film or television show that deals with the revolution."
Khan said he is working on a movie about an older police officer who
was active in the country´s 1952 military coup now crossing paths
with a young activist. "But it will take years before it will be
ready," he said, "and before we´re ready, as a country, to process
it." (Copyright © 2012 Los Angeles Times 04/22/12)
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