On El Cabina’s exit from the Alexandrian art scene: A new beginning for Gudran

Visiting El Cabina for the first time in 2012 marked the beginning of my love affair with Alexandria. Completely transformed from an abandoned building that once housed the air-conditioning unit for the adjacent Cinema Rialto into a unique microcosm of all the creativity the city has to offer, El Cabina inspired me in my hopeful post-revolution haze.

And indeed, the colorful two-story building and adjacent outdoor space in the heart of the city center has developed a community of young artists and art lovers around it over the past five years. With its library, music studio and self-service cafe, El Cabina became a space for freelancers to work, for musicians to jam and for intimate concerts and literary discussions — a hub for those seeking a free space to be themselves, find like-minded individuals and start intellectual debates.

So why has El Cabina closed? When Gudran Association for Art and Development, the energetic Alexandrian non-governmental arts initiative that has operated several spaces around the city since 2000, announced El Cabina’s final program this August, the space was flooded with culture lovers, and I joined them to find out why.

Titled “San Saba Complet,” in reference to the street that houses it, the program was selected to give a taste of El Cabina’s activities over the past half-decade. There were film screenings, book signings, a researcher’s presentation and concerts throughout August as Gudran and El Cabina regulars enjoyed its last days.

Cabina transformation

A literary and musical space

Many people were eager to talk about El Cabina, its history and achievements.

Gudran was on the hunt for a large space for different art practices in 2010. They had already acquired Dokkan in 2008, a small shop in the middle of Manshiya market, for exhibitions, workshops and small literary events. They had also been running their Qahwas project, which brought readings and performances to local cafes.

“We found we needed to provide a space that was free and safe,” Gudran programs director Abdalla Daif said when we met in a seaside cafe, along with Ayman Asfour, who headed El Cabina’s music program, and Abdelrehim Youssef, who headed the library. “It needed to have the necessary facilities as well — music equipment, adequate furniture, programing, and so on. And we wanted a space that had no boundaries with the street, no security at the door, no fear of going in to take a peek.”

For Youssef, a colloquial poet and writer, El Cabina’s library needed a system that encouraged reading. They opted to offer books on loan for free, only taking a phone number and ID copy to follow up on returns. They allocated a budget for buying books, and channelled it toward contemporary literature and philosophy, while several writers from the city donated personal libraries.

Youssef and Ali El-Adawy, who ran the library together, focused on offering a different way to consume literature in Alexandria. They didn’t want regular literary salons or a membership program, but for all talks and readings to be open to whoever was interested. This model was used by some private bookstores in Cairo and now Alexandria, but in 2010 bookstores Diwan and Alif didn’t exist in the city, so the public had little access to authors and new releases.

Abdelnaby book discussion

El Cabina’s official opening event in May 2011, a discussion with veteran novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, saw its biggest-ever audience. It went on to host other big writers, such as Khaled Fahmy, Sherif Younes and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, along with young authors such as Mohamed Abdelnaby, who gave El Cabina’s last book signing event in August. They were always careful to allow the audience to interject, steering clear of lecture formats.

“There was democracy in how the place was run and everyone who wanted a chance to speak and share their thoughts had space to do so,” freelance literary critic Mohamed Ganady told me after Abdelnaby’s discussion and signing.

“In the past five years El Cabina has become the go-to place for literary life in Alexandria,” novelist and critic Maher Sherif told me. “Some other spaces in Alexandria offer books and literary discussions, but what’s happening in El Cabina is coming from an independent NGO in Alexandria working in the realm of literature, which is important. Most other cultural NGOs work in theater or music, but literature is often overlooked.”

A popular event series called “Noqadem Lak” (We Present to You), after a National Center for Translation book series that simplified the ideas of historians, philosophers and schools of thought, hosted young Egyptian researchers presenting their subjects, from the history of Cairo’s sewage system to renewing religious discourse.

Besides El Cabina’s own work, the space was also open to other groups, for example a student-led film program called Cinamatics, and events run by non-governmental cultural awareness group El-Tohfageya, centered around discussing a specific artwork.

“But most of these groups stopped organizing events by the end of 2013,” Youssef told me. “They seemed to have lost their drive, and were frustrated and disappointed with the political situation.”

Musician Asfour envisioned El Cabina’s studio and performance venue as part of a larger project he was working on dubbed Al-Mashtal (The Greenhouse), aiming to nurture and grow the city’s independent music scene.

In 2007 Alexandria had a few bands playing instrumental music and only a handful of music studios, which were all expensive to rent, according to Asfour. Rap had been going strong since the 1990s, while heavy metal, which had been a strong self-sufficient movement in the city, was hit in the late 1990s by the state’s widespread attack on the genre’s fans.

As there was little opportunity for either practice or performance, El Cabina came to be the home for Al-Mashtal. Under this umbrella, a rehearsal studio was offered to musicians at a symbolic price of LE5 per hour — the only condition was that they use it to develop their own original projects.

“It made us so happy that after the drought people suddenly appeared from underground and had a presence,” Asfour said. “In one year, the three to four instrumental bands operating in Alexandria became 14 or 15. Now there are almost 50 bands. Some used El Cabina as a pilot run, and others continued using the space.” When bands have a fixed rehearsal space booked rather than an on/off mechanism based on gigs, musicians and their projects can better develop,” he added.

For Alexandria-based Nubian band High Dam, El Cabina was pivotal. “When the band got together, I met Asfour, spoke to him about the idea, and he really supported me. I booked some days at El Cabina, and he helped us look into the re-distribution of Nubian heritage music and supported us in mastering our instruments,” High Dam’s Mohamed Gomma told me. “When you have passion and you find someone who can help you, it can really make things a reality.”

The studio space was also a small concert venue, hosting 40 people at most. In 2012 Asfour decided he wanted to challenge the idea that a musician had to play on big stages to large audiences. He used El Cabina to create intimate concerts, both in response to the lack of spaces and to start a movement of small concert venues.

El Cabina was also a hub for many musicians from Cairo who wanted to play in Alexandria, along with musicians from the region, with the help of Tamer Abu Ghazaleh’s booking agency Eka3. Artists such as Maurice Louca, Abu Ghazala, Aya Metwalli, Nadah El Shazly and Ghalia Benali performed at El Cabina for free.

The first Oufuqy Music Forum took place in 2012 at El Cabina, with bands from Alexandria and Cairo, as well as music films and workshops. In its last edition in 2015, Oufuqy spread through the city, using almost all its independent and foreign spaces.

“El Cabina is what started the scene. Before, there were isolated projects,” jazz musician and El Cabina regular Ahmed Hemaya told me. “Look at the number of musicians in Alexandria before and after El Cabina, there’s a massive difference. It also connected people to each other.”

What now?

It turns out that El Cabina’s closure is due to a contract ending by mutual agreement, a changing urban site and changing needs — and perhaps a fading of that initial post-revolution energy.

According to Daif, Gudran’s contract with the family-run hotel and restaurant management family company Enosis, run by Greek Alexandrian Nicola Katsprisi, was up. The Katsprisis had offered the space to Gudran for free in spite of its high rental value.

“Five years of support from a small company is more than enough,” Daif told me, emphasizing that both sides decided it was time to end the contract.

Besides Enosis, El Cabina was supported for the last five years by the Ford Foundation, Foundation for the Future (which was based in Amman and is now closed) and Al-Mawred al-Thaqafy (which stopped operating in Egypt in 2015).

Daif also explained that with Cinema Rialto’s demolition in 2014 the wall separating El Cabina from the cinema was replaced by empty land awaiting the construction of the Rialto megamall. The lot brought equipment-damaging dust into the space — not to mention animals and insects. El Cabina was getting too popular for its size, and this, along with Gudran’s assessment that it had achieved its mission, prompted the search for a new space and new ways of contributing to the scene.

“The elephant is in the taxi, as Asfour keeps saying,” Daif said. “Over the five years El Cabina was operating, a movement happened in the city’s cultural scene, from the literary front to the musical front. This movement needs a future. According to our plan in 2008, our strategy was to create spaces for more artists to join the scene with new ideas and approaches so that it spills back onto the streets, which is where our starting point as Gudran was.”

The closure has been met with both sadness and forward thinking.

“El Cabina was a safe space for people to practice, talk, learn. It’s hard for young bands to find studio space to practice,” Gomaa said. “I really feel the difference without El Cabina in the city.”

Hemaya is optimistic. “I think El Cabina impacted the neighborhood, the space, the scene. This can continue to happen in a new location with new blood.”

Gudran is re-structuring their programing and drawing out a new three-year strategic plan. While they search for a new venue, they’re moving El Cabina’s library to Dukkan (which has been less active since El Cabina launched) and will continue hosting literature events both there and at Wekalet Behna, which was founded in 2014.

“We want to focus on new things,” Daif said, mentioning specifically production and education. As of this year, Gudran are now running an online and print publication on urban and art discourse called Tara al-Bahr, and hope to use it as a platform for both literature and critical writing.

“Sustainability is an important point for whatever Gudran ventures into next,” Sherif said, adding that he believes it’s important to continue focusing on young critics.

Now that there are more music studios and more bands, Asfour suggested there needs to be a focus both on getting people to learn instruments and on advanced workshops and lectures for experienced musicians. He already started such initiatives in El Cabina’s final year. “The dream is an alternative academy for music,” Asfour told me.

“El Cabina helped a lot of bands come onto the scene, but the quality of a lot of the work produced by the bands is questionable,” Telepoetic’s Ahmed Saleh said, adding: “Venues are tough to find in Alexandia, people don’t get to play a lot. The Alexandrian scene is slowly dying, spaces are slowly closing or becoming less accessible.”

“We also want to reconsider our role on the street,” Daif says more optimistically, “our role in the urban change in Alexandria within our limited resources, whether material or human.”

As I walked out of El Cabina I couldn’t help but remember how it filled me with hope that a different life was possible in Egypt — that there was space for an open, pluralistic society amid domineering religious and nationalist discourses. El Cabina exits Alexandria’s art scene at a time when pluralism seems further away than it did when I first set foot there, but after my conversations during its closing program, I found myself still hopeful about the efforts of Gudran and the city’s other arts initiatives, and the impact they are having — slowly but surely.

Rowan El Shimi 
Culture journalist

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