The wandering box: Storytelling in the age of the megacity

Come and hear the story of the yellow mountain full of ice, beckons the Wonder Box.

Rolled from the back of a pickup truck onto Cairo’s streets and assembled and wired with a laptop, projector, LED lights, pop-up paper characters and musical instruments, the Wonder Box reflects the late afternoon sun from hundreds of laser-carved mirrors on its exterior.

A glimpse through peepholes into the dark interior of the glimmering sphere is meant to transport viewers to a world of strongmen and fairies, fire and ice. Two storytellers standing next to the box weave that tale and others, singing, chanting and mesmerizing the audience.

It’s a practice so old that it almost seems new.

The Wonder Box, deployed in various neighborhoods in the city over two weeks at the beginning of May, is the latest project from Mahatat, a Cairo-based contemporary art collective founded in 2011 with the aim of making art more accessible in public spaces.

Mahatat co-founder Heba El-Cheikh says the project’s curator, actor and filmmaker Aida El Kashef, conceived the Wonder Box from an old folkloric tradition called “sunduq al-dunia,” in which an entertainer would travel around with a magic box.

Storyteller Ahmed Mostafa narrates tales taken from taxi drivers as the audience watches an animated puppet show inside The Wonderbox. May 2014

A second box that looks like an ice cream truck has three levels of staging inside and the audience can move animated fish by waving their hands, outfitted with LED rings, inside it. The truck also toured Cairo this month.

“It has to be magical, it has to be dazzling a bit,” Cheikh says of the technological embellishments, but the basic concept of storytelling set to music remains the same.

“The old sunduq always had a folk hero, so we were thinking we needed to serve a new hero. We decided that taxi drivers witness everything, meet all kinds of people, and somehow we wanted to tell stories that they encounter in their daily life.”

Two actors interviewed taxi drivers and built on their stories with fantastical twists, from mermaids to talking statues. The group of nine artists, musicians, architects and a creative technologist has been working nearly full-time since January to bring the scripts, original music and crafting of the box together.

Actress Layla Fahmy brings the folkloric stories of The Wonderbox to life. May 2014.

Navigating power outages, technical difficulties and inquisitive police officers, that the performances go on at all is an accomplishment.

Perhaps the process is not as smooth as the artists would like, but it intrigues passersby nevertheless.

At a recent performance in the upscale district of Zamalek, the group expressed some disappointment at the crowd’s reaction. Mostly young journalists and Mahatat friends surrounded the box, more intent on filming the process with their cell phones and cameras than on engaging with the magic inside.

It was very different in Shubra, says creative technologist Yasmin Elayat, explaining that in the poorer, north Cairo neighborhood a bevy of children stood on boxes to reach the four peep holes, fighting each other for second and third turns at a viewing.

“That’s really who this is for, the kids,” she says. “We want to make sure we’re bringing different quality and different stories with positive messages to kids.”

The response from adults has also been touching, she says, like when a young mom in Moqattam told the artists they should come every day, or when a female taxi driver who inspired one of the heroines got to watch her story told in Zamalek, or when tuk tuk drivers became excited to pose with the box after hearing a story based on a fellow driver.

With funding by the Swiss Development Corporation, Mahatat plans to bring the boxes to Nile Delta cities where they have worked before, including Mansoura, Port Said and Damietta, in the fall.

“Choosing to do this is very fascinating,” says Elayat of shifting away from producing art for mass consumption to something more personal. “You’re investing all this time to create a very intimate thing for four people at a time and it’s kind of beautiful.”

Mahatat's latest public art project raises the curiosity of bystanders as it tours Cairo neighborhoods. May 2014

Lindsey Parietti 
Lindsey is a founder and the multimedia editor of Mada Masr and a former Reuters video producer. She studied journalism and political science at Boston University and covered politics in the U.S. before moving to Cairo in 2008.

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