What have we done with culture?
A collective practice review of Mada’s culture section in 2017
Courtesy: Andeel

This year began with the first Cairo International Book Fair after the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, with skyrocketing prices leaving many literature lovers dismayed, closely followed by a poorly-marketed third Cairo Literature Festival, with a focus on Arab women writers. Two first editions took place later in the year: Zawya’s Cairo Cinema Days, which showcased selected titles from contemporary Arab cinema, and El Gouna Film Festival, which shifted Egypt’s film festival map. An otherwise lukewarm Ramadan drama season witnessed what is considered by many to be a breakthrough in Egyptian TV with Haza al-Masaa (This Evening), while another TV series, Sabe’ Gar (The Seventh Neighbor), in an unexpected first, created headlines outside the Ramadan season. Mohammed Hammad’s film Withered Green (2016) finally saw a limited release in Cairo after a long battle with censorship, while Tarik Saleh’s The Nile Hilton Incident (2017) was not so lucky.

Flags were raised, kids were arrested and musicians were banned. After a successful 10th edition of the Panorama of the European Film, with an unprecedented 17,000 tickets sold, the 39th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival kicked off with a lavish opening and an underwhelming lineup. The director of Egypt’s official Oscar entry is currently under inspection by Al-Azhar, following accusations of being in contempt of religion. It was an eventful year for Egypt’s cultural scene, but how well did Mada interact with it?

On an unusually warm December evening, we asked filmmaker Mohammad Shawky Hassan, who has previously contributed to our section, and translator Amira Elmasry, who often works with us on translations to and from English and Arabic, to help us evaluate the performance of our culture section over the past year. The idea was to think about a strategy that reflects our efforts to straddle the space between different forms, languages and fields of interest — a space that is uncomfortable at times, yet also filled with possibilities.

Did we have some blind spots?

Yes, we had many.

Our discussants suggested that our coverage, which focuses a lot on cinema, doesn’t give sufficient attention to theater, dance and performance, or literature.

These are some thoughts from our conversation:

Shawky: It is great that, as an independent website, you do not only focus on the independent art scene, but cover significant commercial releases as well. Publishing reviews of Sherif Arafa’s Al-Kenz (The Treasure, 2017) and other mainstream releases this year was a good move.

Elmasry: More film-related events take place than any other cultural mediums, but I believe there is more to cover when it comes to other forms too. There isn’t much coverage of theater and dance, and with music specifically I feel like there is a lot more to explore, not only in terms of festivals and concerts, but also individual online initiatives, which are frequent and I think quite relevant.

One of the most significant events that I noticed you didn’t extensively cover was the Cairo Book Fair, and I also think the Cairo Comix festival could be featured within the scope of literature, since comics are a form that is increasingly gaining momentum here. There is also tons to speak about within the publishing industry itself, especially with the current political and economic conditions. All the issues Mada covers in relation to cinema, for instance — from censorship to funding, distribution and centralization — can be applied to the publishing sector.

Nael El Toukhy (Mada’s Arabic opinion editor and former Arabic culture editor): Our literature coverage was lacking, especially that most of it took place during the Booker Prize season. I feel that we should focus more on new releases throughout the year.

Elmasry: Not just newly published Egyptian or Arab works, but also newly translated titles, how and why they get translated — to critically engage with current translation trends. I think this is very important to address in the Arabic section, since it targets Arabic readers who would naturally be interested in world literature that is newly available in Arabic.

Still from Sherif Arafa’s Al Kenz

How do we cover culture?

Gaps aside, we seem to have an issue in the forms of coverage we propose and the language we use. In other words, we seem at times to be limited to the traditional review form, which addresses cultural works from a technical perspective, while at other times, we publish pieces that try to situate a cultural work within another context, typically either personal experience, or a broader cultural landscape, or even a broader socio-political context. Here are some thoughts.

Lina Attalah (Mada’s editor-in-chief): We often succumb to the typical method of writing reviews about novels and books, and I think we should embrace more experimentation. For example, I really enjoyed Jailan Zayan’s piece about Hisham Matar’s The Return, because she drew a parallel between her personal trajectory and that of Matar’s in the memoir, so it was a fantastic experience delving into the book in that way. I’m not saying all reviews need to have a personal touch in order to be interesting, but the point is to find a way around traditional forms of writing reviews.

There is a problem of reproducing established ways of writing about certain fields, such as contemporary art, with their unwavering dependence on jargon that is exceedingly niche and mostly borrowed from western formats. I think we should do more to challenge existing forms, and it’s a challenge that can’t be reduced to, “How can we simplify a complicated text?” — this is the wrong question to ask. Rather, the issue is how to introduce fresh, compelling forms of writing that have the ability to overcome the problems posed by current trends.

Ahmad Wael (Mada writer and copy editor): I think we can definitely do with more pieces questioning literature forms as well. For instance, when writing about Charles Akl’s new book, Food for the Copt, we could’ve tried to explore why there hadn’t been any similar forms of writing before, rather than just starting by saying it’s formally unique. This year has also witnessed other releases that are similarly challenging in form, like Haitham Al Wardani’s Book of Sleep, so that could’ve been a trigger to discuss different forms, and go back even to Youssef Rakha’s works, some of which are marketed as novels even though they are not.

El Toukhy: It’s good to start publishing creative writing pieces as part of the culture section — be they short stories, poems or excerpts from novels that are yet to come out — as long as they are included as part of a clear, consistent line.

Shawky: It was rather refreshing to come across several poems by Jehane Bseiso. In general, I noticed that there’s a diversity in formats within the section, and a good balance between reviews and conversations or interviews. I particularly enjoyed the podcast on the Cairo International Film Festival, because there’s something about the language and attitude of certain groups that sound captures, and that is usually lost in transcripts. It’s very interesting to observe.

Haitham Al Wardani’s Book of Sleep, published by Al Karma in early 2017

How do we write critically, in general?

Aside from reacting to cultural production, how do we push a new language of criticality in general, assuming we are in a position to do that, as a progressive publication and particularly as a culture section? Below are some reflections on this question:

Shawky: I don’t know where to place Mada’s culture section. The content is neither very specialized, so as to be targeting professionals, nor is it common enough for the mainstream. It is rare to find a piece that is in equal parts sophisticated and accessible. One example is Alia Ayman’s piece from 2016 on Arab documentaries and global audiences. I was really happy when I came across it because it made me feel like this balance was possible: we can push the level of sophistication without resorting to a language that is complicated and opaque.

I sometimes feel that there’s a tendency to simplify texts in order to appeal to larger audiences, which often leads to pieces becoming mild and losing their edge. I think this kind of intervention is unnecessary, because it doesn’t really have to be a definitive choice. Why not include complex pieces side by side with easier reads? There is no need to try and dumb down content. Sometimes the argument is that a piece is too “academic,” but what does this really mean? This is a question that is worth asking.

There’s also an issue of depth, I think. For instance, there are many articles about representation in artistic works — representations of women, representations of LGBTQ characters, representations of the 1977 riots — and most of them are surveys. I was wondering if perhaps, in light of this focus on representation, there could be a piece reflecting on the concept itself: to question why representations are important in the first place — what do they signify?

El Toukhy: The increasing tendency to “sociologize” writing about art and culture is reflective of the interests of the current generation of young Egyptians, which have largely been shaped by their involvement in the revolution. Our audience is made up of the supporters of the January 25 uprising, who speak about films and books the way they speak about politics or religion. It’s all interrelated. I actually thought this sociological aspect could be the characteristic that distinguished our section, forming its identity: viewing culture through a social lens rather than a purely artistic one.

Shawky: I don’t think arts writing has to either be about form or content, a work of art is more than the sum of its parts. I feel like we should try to tackle the work as one complete whole: what does it do in the world? We can take the current debates around Sabe’ Gar (directed by Heba Yousry, Ayten Amin and Nadine Khan) as an example of that limited way of approaching art. Everyone is focused on the criticisms the show is subjected to because of its untraditional portrayal of relationships within the Egyptian middle class, and we get dragged into all these arguments instead of analyzing the series’ accomplishments in terms of craft. We talk about which character is pregnant and which character is drinking beer and blah blah, when there are very interesting things to discuss about the directors’ visual choices and how they construct their scenes and manage their actors, for instance.

Still from Sabea Gar TV series, set to resume on satellite channel CBC after the holidays

Zohdi: One way to address the issue, is deeper exploration of the relationship between form and content, rather than focusing on one or the other. In what way do the artist’s choices serve the statement they are trying to make, or the story they are trying to tell? How is one reflected in the other? I think the attempt to answer this question is a major component of critical writing, yet it’s almost always missing in the works I read.

Shawky: There is space within Mada to transcend being reactive to cultural trends and set agendas instead, reshaping the cultural map in the process. In his Sheikh Jackson (2017, Amr Salama) review, Ahmed Refaat writes that the film “can be viewed as a single component in a much larger picture, and therefore cannot be analyzed in isolation.” This is a huge statement in itself, one that opens up many big questions about whether a work of art should be interpreted independently or as part of a larger context. An internal discussion where this paradox is addressed could prove to be a valuable exercise that you could later publish.

Leila Arman (Mada writer and culture sub-editor): I’ve often noticed how people are very sincere and unrestricted when discussing a film at the coffee shop after they’ve just come out of the cinema, for instance, but then when they try to write about it, some of the edginess is gone. They end up toning down their views because they believe there’s a correct way to write.

Shawky: A lot of writing in Mada is also Eurocentric. Why are there pieces about Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin, but not Islamic or Eastern philosophers for instance? To start to change that as well, discussions could be initiated where unexpected figures discuss culture and art, such as (writer and researcher) Amr Ezzat, for example. Similar discussions can also help with other dilemmas we grapple with when it comes to culture writing and translation, such as writing about contemporary and conceptual art in Arabic. There is a recurrent complaint that most Arabic writing about visual art reads as though it’s translated from English, even when it’s not. Why don’t you invite a group of individuals — artists, curators, writers and translators — to speak about this together? It would better frame the issue, and put it out there as a cultural concern to be addressed.

And what do we translate?

For a long time we have been trying out different configurations for the relationship between Mada’s Arabic and English culture pages, wondering how they might be constructed. The content is not identical, but to what extent should it be connected? And is attempting to create a unified identity for two pages with different audiences and different concerns even a good idea?

Our views on the matter can be summarized as follows:

Elmasry: In the beginning, the Arabic page was entirely in the shadow of the English, but now this is changing, slowly but surely. With a strong editorial direction, the Arabic page will pick up, and I think relative independence from the English page is the best way to achieve that.

The virtue of independence is ensuring that Arabic content stems organically, reflecting the ideas and concerns of individuals who write in accordance with the reality of their cultural environments and backgrounds, rather than pieces that seem contrived because they are a mere reflection of the English page.

Attalah: To me, the virtue of interconnectedness lies in the value that a constant process of translation adds. Often, when you work on a translated text, you find yourself auto-editing the original text in your head, and I am really fascinated by this dynamic. I also think there’s meaning in the challenge of writing about certain things in Arabic. It’s difficult to write about contemporary art in Arabic, for instance, but we should try to do it, not to be politically correct, but because it’s useful to explore how we rethink certain things when they move to another language.

Artwork from Nadia Mounier’s exhibition, ‘I Will Defend Myself,’ which ran in October and November at Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective

How do we engage with Egypt’s culture scene as a whole?

We should spend more effort on fully engaging with the cultural scene, rather than relying on individual reactions to different works produced. Features that focus on the cultural industry — from the dynamics of independently produced art, to grants and funding institutions, to censorship and state intervention — tend to give our culture coverage a comprehensive dimension and create a context for the works of art we choose to cover independently.  

To elaborate, most discussants had something to say:

El Toukhy: A comprehensive coverage of the Egyptian cultural scene cannot be complete without writing about the black hole that is the Culture Ministry. There must be tons of interesting stories within the state’s cultural institutions, but we need writers willing to commit to them, and to cover them intelligently.

Arman: Most of our writers are either active in the cultural scene or have many friends who are. The result is that a lot of what we write is often celebratory, even if it appears to be critical. We pat ourselves on the back, priding our scene on its accomplishments, instead of confronting its problems and limitations, or posing significant questions about its inner workings within the larger context.

Zohdi: We need to increase conversations not only with artists, but also with cultural practitioners, such as curators and programers, in an effort to document the different aspects of the current cultural scene as a product of a particular social, political and economic environment. It is the challenges the people who work in these institutions face on a day-to-day basis that create the specificity and uniqueness of this scene, from issues of censorship and endless bureaucracy to precarious rent laws. The art produced and displayed in this scene cannot be isolated from these circumstances.

Elmasry: It also important to detect and follow the progression of subcultures, many of which are thriving outside of Cairo. I realize the difficulty of covering other towns and cities around the country with limited resources, but it’s worth trying every once in a while, because it’s these small movements that end up influencing the big whole. The now wild phenomenon that is mahraganat music was once only a subculture after all.

Yasmine Zohdi 

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