Home  > Israel-News Today  > Week in Review  > Year in Review
In Egypt, change comes slowly to pop culture (LA TIMES) By Steven Zeitchik CAIRO, EGYPT 04/22/12)Source: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-egypt-20120422,0,6490394.story LOS ANGELES TIMES LOS ANGELES TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
Many artists hoped that the collapse of Hosni Mubarak´s regime would signal a radical shift from fluff to substantive fare. They are still waiting.

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 borders.

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 it looks.

"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 University.

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 from Iran.

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 from within.

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 overtones.

"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)

Return to Top