A year in critical culture writing

There’s always room for improvement, but in 2015 Mada’s culture section included more diverse voices and formats and became both more prolific and critical. We also tried to extend our writing to include arts events and phenomena beyond Egypt’s borders. Here are some highlights. (Bear in mind they don’t include our new weekly culture tips, increasing culture news coverage, more regular book reviews, the growing cinematic gems series nor the exciting content we’ve published from the MHWLN project!)

Poem: After Aleppo. In January we published Jehan Bseiso’s short, moving poem to the families and lovers at the bottom of the sea, fleeing the Syrian war trying to reach Europe.

How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the Kindle and Who do stories belong to? Lara El Gibaly and Laura Gribbon respectively reported edifyingly on regional electronic publishing and the early Arab novel.

‘Take it’ back please, Ramy Essam. In February, an angry Andeel wrote about a video clip that seemed to say that the best way to bring back justice is to carry guns (or kneel and be sodomized), using it to reflect on “revolutionary art” and sentimentalizing a revolution.

The Arabist: Interview with Trevor LeGassick. Also in February, Hadil Ghoneim contributed a fascinating, revealing interview with the translator of Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley, a teacher of Arabic literature at the University of Michigan since 1966.

More readers, better designs and unlikely bargains at the Cairo book fair. Ahmed Naji, Lara El Gibaly and Habiba Effat went to the Cairo International Book Fair and came back with an entertaining report on increasing numbers of readers, publishers, colloquial Cairene poems and copies of Fifty Shades of Grey.

A history of CIC’s 10 years in posters. For the 10th birthday of the Contemporary Image Collective, Jenifer Evans sat with Andrea Thal, its new artistic director, to discuss its history through looking at posters.

Globalizing dissent, Egyptian civil society, and the limits of translation. In March Ahmed Refaat cleverly highlighted many key debates brought up in a three-day conference at Townhouse Rawabet organized by Mona Baker, Yasmin El-Rifae and Mada. It contributed, he said, to “a moment of questioning the flow of footage, institutions and practices that came after the revolution of 2011.”

A growing niche: The rise of English as a literary language in Egypt. In April, Rowan El Shimi reflected on the recent history of education in Egypt from colonialism to international schools to explain the disconnect of some Egyptians from their mother tongue and the rise of English publishing here. “Egypt has a culture that’s strong enough to exist on its own, while always including other cultures,” she was told. “We forget that sometimes.

Controversial tunes: D-CAF’s music, 100Copies and mahraganat. Maha ElNabawi incisively zoomed in on the music program of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival to figure out what it needs in order to survive and improve (especially in terms of sound, audience and funding structures), and reflect critically on where mahraganat music is at now and on D-CAF at large.

Graffiti, capital and deciding what’s inappropriate. The same month, Ilka Eickhof investigated Women on Walls: Street Art Workshop Unchained, also part of D-CAF. She discussed the commodification of “revolutionary art” and the moral authority intrinsic in empowering the other.

El 7ara: How the other 95 percent lives. Also in April, Eddie Bower wrote an engaging review of the American University in Cairo’s Theater and Film Club’s rather reckless project El 7ara at the AUC New Campus. “Many rich men would not want their daughters to visit a place like this in real life, it’s too dangerous,” he was told.

Legally or illegally? How to make a film in Egypt. Filmmaker Aida El Kashef’s April piece kindly took us step-by-step through the awkward logistics of actually making an indie film in the country.

People with vision: On jewelry maker and artist Zeinab Khalifa. In April (sorry, it seems it was a good month), Amany Ali Shawky and Jenifer Evans profiled veteran jeweler and artist Zeinab Khalifa, known for her her elegant, unmistakably Egyptian work with its strong graphic language, and her efforts to open an education institute for the craft.

Empty archives: What do we do with what we do not know. In May, Laura Cugusi wrote about the current power of silence and invisibility in her report on an AUC conference tackling the “Euro-American dissertation industry” and highlighting the necessity of considering absence in the collection construction of history, as opposed to evidence.

Buyer beware: The rise of art fraud in Egypt. A legal case by the family of late Egyptian modernist artist Abdel Hadi al-Gazzar against art forgery opened a Pandora’s box, and Fatenn Mostafa Kanafani wrote eloquently about why this is happening and what can be done about it.

Dismal state: The 37th General Exhibition. “Nothing speaks to the trouble with the current state as much as the 37th General Exhibition at the Palace of the Arts,” wrote Ismail Fayed in June, going on to systematically point out how it has instrumentalized culture as propaganda and failed to encourage a critical milieu in which artists can work and exhibit.

Why watching soap operas won’t make you rich: A TV history of Egypt. In what was for him a rare moment of research-based journalism, Andeel examined the evolution of Egypt’s soaps from the 1960s to the present.

Ramadan series ‘The Jewish Alley’ to ‘show birth of sectarianism in Egypt’. “I discovered that many Jews were patriotic, and that you cannot stereotype that Jews are traitors,” Medhat El-Adl told Rowan El Shimi in June.

Four Egyptian wartime B-movies: Nudity, sex and a dash of politics. Amany Ali Shawky’s look at a specific type of film made during the 1973 war did particularly well in terms of readership.

It’s sink-or-swim for Egypt’s TV industry. In July, Eric Knecht explained why local TV channels can no longer rely on Ramadan serials to stay afloat, and what that means for the whole field.

NO HOPE FOR SAKAKINI. The same month, Yazan El-Zo’bi created an artwork in the form of an article around a shuttered palace in Heliopolis.

Girls gone wild, parties gone bad. Naira Antoun had been pleasantly surprised to find that the much-discussed Ramadan TV series Taht al-Saytara (Under Control) focused on three women addicts, but increasingly realized that the way they were represented didn’t sit right with her because of how addiction was fundamentally misunderstood by the show.

Capital Cairo: A regime of graphics. In August, Adham Selim spelled out how the maps and images produced by the government for its new Egyptian capital city had such a potent make-believe effect that the value of properties located within several dozen kilometers of it spiked out of proportion just a few minutes after the press release was issued.

Farmer, worker, soldier, Sisi: What the songs for the New Suez Canal all have in common. The same month, Rowan El Shimi looked carefully at the 27+ songs that made up the ecstatic soundtrack accompanying the New Suez Canal launch. “Given the repetitiveness of this swarm of songs,” she explained, “it’s perhaps more instructive to look at the various tropes that they have in common to understand their collective message.”

The strange Middle East focus of Banksy’s Dismaland. In September, Naira Antoun and Maha ElNabawi talked to many of the region’s artists selected for Banksy’s large-scale UK “disappointing visitor attraction,” offering an alternative view of the much-hyped endeavor.

Father Egyptian Atheist and the sheikhdom of atheism. Looking at some online videos in October, Andeel offered a critical look at a discourse increasingly taken up by Egypt’s atheists online, in particular how they use the same language and condescending relationship with the audience as their religious counterparts.

The knife-sharpener’s wheel: A review of Ayman Ramadan’s Mere Real Things at Townhouse West. In October Mia Jankowicz wrote perceptivly about Ayman Ramadan’s show at the new Townhouse West, pointing out that for the art world, “we must decide which compromises are investments in the long game, and which are ultimately detrimental to both art and its publics.”

Greetings to those who asked about me. Lina Attalah reviewed a difficult exhibition about imprisonment at the Contemporary Image Collective with thoughtful criticism.

‘Literature’ is on trial in Egypt. The news of Ahmed Naji’s being taken to court by a gentleman whose heartbeat fluctuated and blood pressure dropped on reading his book The Use of Life, reminded Teresa Pape of the trial of the Lebanese author Layla Baalbaki in 1964.

In November, Ilka Eickhof, Hanaa Safwat and Alexandra Stock wrote a trio of very different, thought-provoking texts about Mahmoud Khaled and Christodoulos Panayiotou’s Postponed Dates on a Disappearing Coast.

November and December saw the launch of FestBeat, a blog by Nour Elsafoury providing intensive coverage of the Cairo International Film Festival, the Panorama of the European Film and the Cairo Video Festival. The last entry about institutions and fluidity, is a must-read. Nour also wrote an inspiring book, review: Hanan al-Cinema: Caring critique of an Arab filmmaking rebirth.

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