2016 in critical culture writing
Car painter Ahmed "Saiidi" Abdel-Tawab Ahmed in his workshop at 10 Nabrawy Street. - Courtesy: Alexandra Stock

In spite of last year’s unique challenges, we tried to continue to grow Mada Masr’s culture section in ambition and scope. In terms of archeology, design and architecture we at least succeeded in increasing our coverage, the latter two fields in part due to a productive partnership. We’ve also tried to balance strong opinion with information, and include a range of styles and approaches. Here’s a concise, non-comprehensive list of highlights. (These exclude our ongoing cinematic gems series, our new literary gems, and the Cinematology videos, which we began translating this year.)

A reading into the history of Egyptian Jews: Grand narratives and fragile identities and The ambivalent hybridity of pre-independence Arab societies. Ismail Fayed started the year running with two edifying research-based texts on history and identity.

Out on the Street: Playing the ‘good guys.’ Andeel and Jenifer Evans found that Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk’s hybrid documentary about labor strikes has a sharply thoughtful approach, both politically and aesthetically.

Feyrouz, child prodigy forever. In response to Feyrouz passing away in January, Randa Ali wrote a beautiful paean to the Armenian child star that touched many fans of 1950s cinema.

Beyoncé, Coldplay, and why we can’t let exotica become banal. In February, Maha ElNabawi got polemical with her eloquently outraged response to an orientalist Beyoncé-featuring video by British band Coldplay.

How the discovery in King Tut’s tomb could change the history of ancient Egypt and How the discovery in King Tut’s tomb is changing the field of Egyptology. Egyptologist Meredith Brand explained why three mysterious names and an unlikely tomb may elucidate what happened to Nefertiti, as well as why the case is an landmark moment for the field’s collaborative future.

The police and citizens’ hair. We published several pieces on the ordeal of novelist Ahmed Naji, who was jailed in February. This March text by Iman Mersal includes the idea that “shock is one of the main attributes of productive reading.”

On Hassan Khan’s ‘Alexandria marathon,’ translation and control. Also in March, Nour El Safoury reflected on the types of encounter offered by the work of visual artist Hassan Khan, touching on the 1990s art scene and the corrupt intellectual.

Zig Zig: Bridging an unbridgeable distance to rape in 1919? In April, Naira Antoun wrote a thoughtful critique of Laila Soliman’s play Zig Zig, which explores archival material around an atrocity committed by British colonial soldiers.

Hepta: Do you need to learn how to love? In this balanced review of an extremely popular new film, Andeel was disappointed in its phallocentric and patriarchal viewpoint but glad of its hopeful approach to love.

Five critical days in the life of 10 Nabrawy Street. After a partial building collapse in downtown Cairo, Alexandra Stock skilfully wove together various accounts to create a picture of how its dramatic aftermath effected tenants, from the Townhouse gallery to car accessories salesmen.

Q&A on why Theater is a Must in Alexandria. Also in April, Rowan El Shimi went to Alexandria to investigate why a forum for political theater established after the 2011 revolution had reluctantly decided to cease operating.

Bread, salt and film. In May, Andeel attended one of the Dinner at the Movies evenings run by Cimatheque and Eish & Malh, and was “incredibly excited” by it.

Against helplessness in the arts. That same month, as a series of disasters hit the non-state-affiliated arts community, Mia Jankowicz wrote an impassioned plea for us not to give in to the idea that we’re nothing but private citizens.

Completely horrific and painfully plausible: Mohamed Rabie’s Otared. In June, Lara El Gibaly recommended this hard-hitting dystopian novel to “anyone who has a faint sense that something has gone terribly wrong with our lives, our morality and our city.”

Notes on mental health after watching Soqoot Horr. As part of our Ramadan TV coverage in July, Naira Antoun elaborated on some dangerous ideas about mental illness in Soqoot Horr (Free Fall).

Afrah al-Qobba: A spectacle of disappointment. Yasmine Zohdi also succinctly explained why this Naguib Mahfouz adaptation for Ramadan TV wasn’t just a let-down from a great novel, but a moral and artistic failure.

Om Kalthoum: Appropriation so sexy? For our second Beyoncé-themed text of the year, Ismail Fayed wrote a historical explainer on why the pop star’s mistake in creating a dance routine to Om Kalthoum’s Inta Omri was not its bootyliciousness.

Mohamed Khan: In your face, sadness. When filmmaker Mohamed Khan passed away in July, Andeel wrote a tender eulogy to a man with a steady compass who made films with pain, deprivation, beauty, persistence and sensitivity.

Lessons in manoeuvring: Zawya heads a scheme to decentralize film culture in Egypt. In August, Yasmine Zohdi reported on a landmark initiative to bring together young cinephiles for a workshop on managing alternative screening spaces outside Cairo.

Masafat Cairo: Within striking distance of larger musical aspirations? In September, Habiba Effat used a new British Council festival as a starting point to reflect on functioning as a musician in Egypt, and ask when will we move away from pouring resources into fleeting events that prioritize short-term success.

On El Cabina’s exit from the Alexandrian art scene: A new beginning for Gudran. In September, Rowan El Shimi went back to Alexandria, this time to witness the closure of El Cabina, a multi-purpose art space that has played a big role in the city’s art scene since opening in 2011.

On the importance of post-1967 alternative cinematic adventures in Egypt. We translated a text Ahmed Refaat text wrote for Malaffat, a new publication brought out by the Network of Arab Arthouse Screens — it’s a fascinating article on a remarkable and relevant moment in film history.

The art disasters that led to a ban on unauthorized work on public statues. Jano Charbel reacted to news of a ban with this useful list.

Indigenous Dog: Iconoclasm makes sudden entrance, sudden departure. Reviewing another film hit, Andeel wrote that the taboo-smashing Indigenous Dog is like the internet and those young people on it: angry, disgruntled, rude, intelligent and funny.

Cairo, coffee, headphones and a conversation with Ismail Hosny. Kamila Metwaly’s first contribution to Mada Masr was this in-depth long-form interview with young electronic musician Ismail Hosny — the first in a series.

Keeping track of the artifacts: On the Egyptian Museum’s Registration, Collections Management and Documentation Department. Meredith Brand went to the Egyptian Museum, an institution often accused of mismanaging Egypt’s cultural heritage, and found a small but remarkable women-led team achieving great things. Also the first in a series.

Slums, gated communities and public space. Adham Selim’s informed polemic on global cultural policies and the architectural stalemate in Egypt argued against the trendy idea that architecture is the spatial dimension of the political, and as such too complex to be left to architects.

Living temporarily, thinking temporarily: Artists on Cairo’s everyday design solutions. In October, Rowan El Shimi devoted a piece to artists working with the city’s makeshift creativity.

‘The future is here:’ On design education in Egypt. Yasmine Zohdi investigated the state of design education in the country and found a lot to be optimistic about, despite ongoing problems such as censorship.

On Samir El Kordy: Dystopian architecture and new fantasies. Jenifer Evans profiled architect Samir El Kordy, from the impact of his early years in Marsa Matrouh to the challenges of his most recent project, a house that’s mistaken for a gym.

Modern Egypt: On objects that represent the world. Despite or because of it’s experimental format, Mohammad Shawky Hassan’s critical piece on the launch of the British Museum’s Modern Egypt project received a lot of positive feedback.

In conversation: On After Eight closing, the Cairo party scene, gentrification and ‘downtown rats’. Rowan El Shimi, this time with co-author Maha ElNabawi, again went to investigate why an arts space had closed — this time downtown Cairo’s long-standing nightclub and live music venue After Eight.

Observations on the Cairo International Festival for “Contemporary and Experimental” Theater. Natik Awayez wrote a strongly critical take on this state-run event, arguing that running a festival involves crucial artistic responsibilities, and that moving away from modernism is key.

Whose surrealism? On When Art Becomes Liberty. In November, Ismail Fayed reflected on a fascinating exhibition that highlighted the Egyptian state’s deeply problematic relationship with its own legacy.

1st lesson learned from Ahmed Naji’s jailing: Individuality. We translated Nael El Toukhy’s article on why novelist Ahmed Naji is such an important figure for Egypt’s arts scenes, arguing that progress demands a long path of provocation and ridiculousness, in both of which Naji is very skilled.

The challenges of an independent art ‘scene’. Responding to claims of an independent arts scene in crisis, Ahmed Shawky and Peter Fares tried to create a re-reading of the situation from the perspective of those from working-class backgrounds who want to work in the arts professionally.

Dancing under cover of a fictional rhythm. Another piece that got experimental with approach and formatting was Daniel Blanga-Gubbay’s text in the form of a music album, about on the contemporary arts event Meeting Points 8: Both Sides of the Curtain.

Three films, one spectator and a polemic: Arab documentaries and ‘global’ audiences. Finally, in December we also published Alia Ayman’s angry piece about documentaries that promulgate the idea that Arabs need saving from their Arabness and have narratives that foreclose the realm of imagination.

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