The lights come back on after an engrossing two-hour journey with Das Experiment (The Experiment), a German fiction film from 2001 inspired by the 1971 Stanford prison experiment recreating the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard.
The film is intense, both in terms of its content — a damning comment on human power struggles, oppression and control — and its relevance to Egyptian politics at this point in time.
We’re at Megraya, an independent culture center in the town of Mallawi in the Upper Egyptian governerate of Minya, 250 miles south of Cairo. Located in the center of Egypt, Minya is famous for its array of pharaonic artifacts and tombs but is largely neglected as a tourism center since terrorist attacks occurred in Egypt in the 1990s.
It’s a small audience that comes for the weekly screenings at Megraya — on this particular Wednesday, five in total, plus the two organizers. But the discussion afterward is rich. We talk about the experiment itself — the film program’s curator Peter Ishaq, 24, has come well prepared for this – and its relevance to our security forces. We speak of the revolution, its failures and hopes. We also exchange opinions on the film’s aesthetics and storyline. No one is particularly impressed with it beyond its focus on the prison experiment.
Megraya was founded by Hamada Zedane, 31, and Tony Salib, 24, in November last year. A small space on the ground floor of a residential building, it lies directly on the street, opposite an internet cafe. Its surrounding streets follow the informal, disparate nature of the rest of Mallawi, a small town housing over 150,000 people.
Megraya has a unique DIY feel to it. There’s a colorful, playful atmosphere and a welcoming open door to the neighborhood.
Like the rest of Minya, Mallawi has an almost 1:1 ratio of Muslims and Christians. While an outsider to Upper Egypt would likely assume that this means this leads to a higher level of tolerance and understanding, Zedane and Ishaq insist that the reality is not so rosy.
“In Upper Egypt, communities are closed,” says Zedane, who studied law but ended up working in journalism, culture and development. “Christians and Muslims can be living on the same street, they say hello to each other and are polite to one another but they don’t really deal with each other beyond that. They believe the worst of each other. Both are raised away from the other and even if they are in school or university together, they stick to their sects.”
“Parents even tell their kids before going to school very directly to stick to their kind,” Ishaq adds.
Zedane tells me that he met Salib in Cairo. “In Cairo, I have friends from different religions, but to have a Christian friend, let alone a work partner, in Mallawi — that’s a huge issue,” he explains, referring to the religion of his Megraya partner.
“Our problem in Upper Egypt is that we don’t know each other, really,” Zedane says.
These young men wanted to challenge this reality through art. Zedane believes art brings people together to share experiences, whether through consuming or producing it.
Inspired by Tahrir Square in 2011, and the revolution’s impact on a social level, Zedane and Salib wanted to bring their experience in Cairo to their hometown.
“We see the revolution as a social change, not just a political one,” Ishaq says. “But the revolution opened new possibilities. It pushed us to change and do things differently than how they’ve been done.”
And so they founded Megraya. Its name refers to distributaries that take Nile water to agricultural lands.
“We have a rich heritage, natural resources and many young people who are creative, but they need a way to connect to people and people need a way to connect to these resources,” Zedane explains.
Megraya works on two main fronts: preserving the area’s heritage and supporting contemporary culture. So far it has been funded through its tea sales, book sales and donations by an anonymous friend of the founders.
The space’s first activity was an initiative called “Minya in a Photograph,” which brought together a group of photographers to capture three historical sites around Minya: Tal al-Amarna and Touna al-Gabal (Akhnaten’s New Kingdom capital of Egypt and its western boundary) and Beni Hassan (where tombs from the Middle Kingdom shed light on the daily life of ancient Egyptians).
They hosted the exhibition in Megraya, then took it to Cairo’s Beit El-Sennary and the Saad Zaghloul Cultural Center in January 2015.
The duo also host a group working to produce documentary films on wedding traditions and music in Mallawi, as well as on the natural resources of the area.
Books are important for Megraya. It has a small library put together through donations from Megraya’s team, visitors and neighbors from their personal collections, while its bookshop stocks new publications. Among the library’s activities is a literary salon, where discussions take place around a certain book, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad.
The weekly cinema screenings focus on films that are not from Hollywood or Bollywood, Ishaq says, which are generally the only cinema industries people are exposed to in Egypt besides commercial Egyptian cinema.
Sometimes they branch out to a cafe to screen films or hold concerts or open-mic poetry nights.
There is also an educational element: Megraya hosts workshops in photography and journalism by field professionals such as Al-Badil newspaper’s local correspondent and a photographer from newspaper Al-Shorouk, as well as art workshops for children led by the Megraya team.
Lastly, there’s theater, which Zedane says has been a strong part of Mallawi’s culture for generations. Theater troupes have traditionally formed and performed in the town’s state-run culture palace or in churches, but recently many have started to work independently from state or religious bodies and need spaces to rehearse and perform.
Megraya offers its space to them, and organized a one-day theater festival in March. It hopes to expand this when it has more resources.
And more resources do seem to be coming its way: Megraya has just been selected for an incubation program for cultural/creative entrepreneurs in Egypt’s governorates that is funded by the EU and managed by the Goethe-Institut in Cairo, the Robert Bosch Foundation and Mahatat for contemporary art. They hope this will support some expansion plans they have.
“It’s also just a space for people to find a place to be free,” Zedane says. “I can be free to use it, to perform in it, to meet like-minded people.”