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A year in culture writing
Magdi Mostafa, "Surface of Spectral Scattering" - Courtesy: Magdi Mostafa / Townhouse

Mada’s culture section found its feet in 2014, developing into a more daring, experimental platform for new forms of arts writing, while also wading into difficult debates and exploring a broader pool of writers and subjects.

Here’s a summary of some highlights.

An anti-Jewish autobiography?
In January, Ahmed Zaki Osman’s review of a memoir by writer Abdel Hameed Gouda al-Sahar (1913-1974) challenged the pervasive tendency to portray Egypt’s so-called belle-epoque era as religiously tolerant and socially open.

Keep it in the family and spare us
In a review of Hani Fawzy’s film Family Secrets filled with her trademark biting humor, Sarah Carr wrote: “I left wondering whether anyone involved in the making of this film has ever actually met a real, live gay person.”

Lexicon of a revolution’s insults
In February, Andeel wrote a funny but serious piece called describing how people use terms such as “revolutionaries,” “glue-sniffers” and “sheep.” He says of the atmosphere since January 25, 2011: “Due to this labeling, many have complained that opinions are not being discussed as much as the individuals behind them are.”

The past and future of the bomb-damaged manuscript museum
In the wake of the bombing that damaged the Museum of Islamic Art and Dar al-Kutub Bab al-Khalq, Elena Chardakliyska shone the spotlight on the latter while everyone else either remained focused on the art museum, or kept getting the two institutions confused. She describes the history, damage and plans for its beautifully presented collection of rare books and manuscripts.

Urban visions: Two dances don’t quite fulfill D-CAF’s ambitions
Laura Cugusi tackled the potential pitfalls of presenting contemporary dance in public space. Reviewing a performance that seemed “parachuted-in,” she wrote that “it confirms remarks typically made by those who see contemporary dance as pointless and hard to distinguish from the random improvisation of someone who wants to mock it for fun, trying to interpret an undefined ‘inner struggle’.”

Lotus Notes
Nida Ghouse began an ongoing series for Mada as part of her writing project called Inner States. With images by Jenifer Evans, it represents a step toward Mada becoming a space for artist’s writings and longer-term projects. The texts have moved from the start of the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization to Youssef ElSebai’s assassination in Cyprus in 1978 to Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The next episode will be published in January.

Songs for voting to
In the run-up to the presidential elections, Andeel and Jenifer Evans took the opportunity to talk about propaganda music. This includes some nice quotes from songs, such as: “We run in his blood, Ahmed Shafiq! And we all love him, Ahmed Shafiq! And he loves us all, Ahmed Shafiq! He’s very smart, Ahmed Shafiq! And he’s very capable!”

‘The Infiltrator’: Shedding light on invisible hands
In June, Heba Afify reviewed a documentary about Mohanned Galal, who over the past three years has infiltrated the ranks of state-serving civilians: “Often dubbed ‘honorable citizens,’ until now they have been largely dismissed as angry neighborhood residents acting spontaneously.”

Censoring creativity
It’s been a year filled with censorship controversies, and Mai ElWakil wrote succinctly but comprehensively on censorship in Egypt in a review of the 83-page report Censors of Creativity. This complemented a Q&A with Egypt’s then-head of censorship, Ahmed Awaad, contributed by Maxa Zoller in January.

A guest without host is a ghost
Turning to the field of contemporary art, Malak Helmy (with Jenifer Evans) wrote an in-depth, thoughtful text about objects, auras and setting up art exhibitions in Egypt. “Out-arting the art with artful narrative does not, ultimately, do anything for the actual artwork in space. The power and politics of space and the body and how it senses and knows must be respected.”

An artwork of scales and planes
A very different kind of review, in which the author goes on a kind of thought-trip through the experience of looking at art, was written by Jahd Khalil about Magdi Mostafa’s exhibition at Townhouse, The Surface of Spectral Scattering. He talks about the size of the universe and the sound of light years.

Mostafa Hussein and mentioning the sins of the deceased
Andeel wrote a deceptively light-hearted piece that started with the reputation of late writer and cartoonist Salah Jahin, and was sparked by rumors of the death of veteran cartoonist Mostafa Hussein. He argues that focusing on the good deeds of certain people because they have just passed away contributes “to the creation of the boring, useless manufactured images of fatherly figures that this country is already full of.”

Crossing lines with PalFest
This summer another brutal attack took place on Gaza, and we published a few pieces relating to Palestine as a way to keep it in our minds. Ursula Lindsey wrote eloquently about her experience of PalFest, and Jenifer Evans reviewed a talk she attended at London’s Tate Modern with members of the Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency and Ilan Pappe, asking whether the Palestinian experience can point a way toward a collectivity beyond the state and beyond citizenship.

Pop, patriarchy and fake nostalgia
“Sexist pop music transcends all borders and cultures. Like other Arab stars, since the rise of satellite channels in the early 1990s, Egyptian pop singers have become embedded in ‘western’ formats and production patterns. And in the resulting videos, a loud sexism is acted out,” wrote Maha ElNabawi and Andeel. “But it wasn’t always like this.”

The contradictions of independent music
As part of ongoing discussions about cultural funding and what “independence” really means, we translated this piece by musician Ramy Abidir, originally published on Ma3azef. It generated various responses, two of which we also published. Arguing against the use of the word “independence” in Egypt’s cultural scene, he said that the concept is a disintegrating and contradictory one.

Toward an art that nothing can hide behind
Architect Adham Selim responded persuasively to a piece written by artist Ganzeer in the Cairo Review: “Viewing the art itself as a secondary category reflects a tendency to believe that art should be about something else outside art itself,” he wrote. “Instead of fully experiencing art, indulging our senses in the erotics, humor or playfulness of artistic expression, we’re turned into the poor subjects trying to outsmart each other fathoming the depth of the work.”

Too smooth: A show about objects of resistance
Judith Evans wrote a celebratory but critical review of Disobedient Objects at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which brought together “a series of things, from home-made placards to giant inflatable paving stones, made and used in protest: objects used to concentrate messages and remake public spaces to the will of angry people seeking change.”

The conscript in Egyptian film
In August, Adham Youssef wrote a two-part survey of portrayals of the military conscript in cinema, a subject that was very close to home for him at the time. It starts with a personal anecdote: “A Central Security Forces conscript was reported killed in North Sinai on September 4. An officer apparently beat him to death with a stick. As a news reporter, I called the sources, confirmed the facts, wrote the article and sent it to the editor. A moment later, I realized that in four months I could be that soldier.”

Notes on belly-dance
We published English and Arabic versions of Ismail Fayed’s text on the history and current perceptions of belly-dance. It sought to remind those who lament the “dancers of the golden era” that dancers do not dance in a social, political or economic vacuum, and pointed out that the art form’s marginalization gave it a margin of freedom: “There was never a ‘high council for belly-dance’ to determine accepted standards.”

Laila Soliman’s Whims of Freedom
Laura Cugusi wrote an impressed but critical review of theater-maker Laila Soliman’s new play, which draws parallels between the 1919 revolution and that of 2011. She described it as poignant and rich, entertaining and informative, but said: “I felt we were being reassured that we stand on the ‘right side’ of history.”

Joussour in Cairo: Music and fusing identities
Reviewing a performance by composer and oud player Issa Murad’s group at Cairo Opera House, Kinda Hassan broached the thorny issue of “fusion” music and audience expectations of the oud. “This process of denaturalizing a sound by fusing it with ones that come from an almost completely separate world puts the tune’s emotional intensity at risk,” she wrote — thoughts which were later followed up in her Q&A with Maurice Louca and Maha Maamoun.

My pragmatist friend surrenders
Toward the end of the year, we translated this sad piece by Shady Lewis from Al-Modon about how recent politics has effected culture. “During my last call with my friend, who has been worn out by three years of personal and collective adversities and of unyielding efforts for El Fann Midan, the Independent Culture Coalition and Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy, in addition to countless sit-ins organized for the release of detained friends and bidding farewell to others, he told me in an unusual pragmatic tone that ‘unconditional surrender’ is the only available choice, albeit an unsafe one.”

C​lap​ping​ along with everyone else​: ​A short play about a dance meeting​
On a lighter note, but on a related topic, Lara El Gibaly whipped up a witty play out of a week-long conference about contemporary dance, a piece which complemented Sama Waly’s ruminative review of TransDance14.

Last but not least: Our growing series of cinematic gems, which comes out every Saturday, and will continue until we run out of great Egyptian films to review, and our fairly regular conversations about cultural events and phenomena.

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