Crowds gathered at Abdeen Square in downtown Cairo on Saturday for the second al-Fan Midan (Art is a Square) event – a cultural festival held on the first Saturday of every month in squares in Cairo, Alexandria, Minya, Suez, Port Said, Luxor and Assiut.
“We chose the name, al-Fan Midan, to emphasize that art is everybody’s right,” said Abir Ali, one of the festival’s organizers and a member of the Independent Arts Coalition.
A group of independent artists, intellectuals and cultural institutions, the coalition was formed two months ago as a civil society organization supporting the demands of the 25 January revolution and working on culture-specific issues. Key issues include promoting freedom of expression and ending all forms of censorship on artistic production.
Another priority area for the coalition is to engage the public in dialogue through art, music and theatre. Before the revolution, organizing a street festival was very problematic for a variety of reasons, and it is in large part to break through previous limitations that al-Fan Midan was created.
“The coalition wanted people to reclaim the streets, not only through demonstrations – and hence we decided to bring arts to the street,” explained visual artist Hamdy Reda.
Based on this principle, al-Fan Midan was born as a festival of alternative theater and music performances, poetry readings, short film screenings, mini book fairs and children’s workshops in various Egyptian governorates.
On Saturday night, playwright and theater director Laila Soliman presented "No Time for Art 1" for the first time in Cairo. The play was originally commissioned for the Meeting Points 6 festival in Beirut.
Three actors and an oud player told the stories of protesters attacked and detained by the police and the military since the revolution began on 25 January. “The testimonials about military abuse have been haunting me for months, especially the one made by Egyptian actor Aly Sobhy,” Soliman told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Sobhy was detained on 9 March when the military police dispersed the Tahrir sit-ins. He was accused of thuggery and was to undergo a military trial. A popular campaign in support of Sobhy pressured the military to release him.
“I already had experience with documentary theater, so I decided to juxtapose the stories of abuse by the police and military to show that the difference is not so stark in certain respects,” Soliman explained.
Al-Fan Midan's fan base has grown considerably since its inception. “In April, attendance was low. People were unsure what the event was about… This time, however, we got to know many of the neighbourhood residents. Some even helped us to set up the show,” explained Ali.
Among the fans of the event is Tarek, a fine arts student at Helwan University. He sees the festival as “a space where artists from different generations can meet and express the spirit of the revolution.”
Perhaps more unexpected is the support from a group of residents of Madinet al-Salam, who have been staging in a sit-in for over a week in the garden in front of the Cairo municipality building next to Abdeen Square. The protesters, who have been demanding housing from the authorities, had not heard of the festival before their arrival at the square. However, they told Al-Masry Al-Youm that they not only enjoyed the event, but that the profile of their cause had been raised by the arrival of a such a large crowd in the area.
While the festival is already proving successful, its organizers are constantly trying to develop and expand its reach. “The space needs to be better organized to accommodate the work of more artists,” said Reda.
Ali added that the event is run on a voluntary basis. All participants are volunteers and the organizers donate money to cover installation costs. In the long run, this might not be sustainable, and so the coalition needs to start fundraising for the monthly event.
A key concern for its members, however, is that external funding might jeopardize the artistic and intellectual independence.
“So far, coordination with other governorates has been quite successful, but our dream is to have the festival happening simultaneously in all Egyptian governorates, and ideally the local communities would participate and show their work.”