Can Egypt's Arab Spring Revolution Produce Great Art?

Tamer Abdelmoneim
Denis Dailleux / Agence VU for Newsweek

The cosmetics shop, situated inside a mall on the outskirts of Cairo, is called Kamanana. The word is plastered above the doorway on a garish yellow sign. It means nothing—a nonsense word, as musicians say. It was introduced by Mohamed Fouad, the famous Egyptian singer, in the hit song from his 1997 film Ismailia Back and Forth. The movie was so successful that the word became embedded in the popular consciousness. It is understood to be synonymous with “everything.” “What do you want?” Fouad asks in the song. “Kamanana.”

Fouad lives a short walk from the mall. Seated at a restaurant near the mall’s entrance, smoking apple-flavored tobacco from a water pipe, he is subject to a steady stream of adoration. Members of the wait staff thank him for coming. Women inch over to ask for photos. Men shake his hand. Fouad takes it all in stride, barely interrupting the rhythm of his pipe. “Mohamed Fouad is for all,” he says.

Or at least he used to be. Fouad has a problem. He doesn’t know how to sing for anyone these days.

To Fouad, each of his songs is a miniature drama, boiled down for quick and easy consumption, and conceived with a finger on the popular pulse. It has a beginning, middle, and end, just like a film, but its message is distilled into a few short minutes, making it more like a movie trailer. “A song is the same,” he says. “You can convey a picture: what is the moment that we’re living?” A successful song, for Fouad, is something like a trailer for the times—or a good ad, resonating with regular Egyptians because it reflects how they’re feeling and what they want.

Now “something is not right,” Fouad says. He was against Egypt’s protest movement when it began last winter. He went on television, crying, and pleaded with people to leave the streets. This earned him the ire of the revolutionary crowd, but Fouad says that, like many Egyptians, he was simply afraid. “We were thinking like the country is on fire,” he says. He came around to embrace the revolution, but he feels lost in the murkiness that has settled in since. The old Egypt is gone, and a new one has yet to take shape. Instead, things only seem to keep changing—“we’re standing on shifting sands,” it is often said. The uncertainty has been wearing on mainstream artists, like Fouad, who flourished in simpler times. Fouad no longer knows what his audience wants to hear, or even what he should say. “It’s just as if I’ve never sung before,” he says.

After Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president in February, some popular artists got right to work. Yousra, Egypt’s iconic actress, took a role in Interior/Exterior, a fictionalized short about a middle-aged couple, conflicted by the revolution, who finally decide to join the crowds in Tahrir Square. The drama was part of a compilation by some of Egypt’s top writers and directors called 18 Days, which screened at Cannes in May to warm reviews. Yousra says she won’t make another film about the revolution anytime soon.

There is a large portrait on display in Yousra’s living room in Cairo. The actress, in a white gown, stands thigh-deep in the Nile, which fades into the sky. She cups a lotus flower in her hands. The sadness in her eyes speaks to the country’s turbulent history. Her poise shows the will to overcome. “So this painting is Egypt,” she says, seated on a nearby couch.

Yousra saw a perfect picture of Egypt when people first filled Tahrir Square. The entire country seemed connected, she says, as if everyone were bound together by an invisible string. Then Mubarak left, and the spell broke. “There was a magical moment in the revolution,” she says. “And now I don’t see this anymore. I see killing. I see blood. I see miscommunication. I see fitna.” The word fitna takes its root from the process of heating metal to find out its purity. It means something like “creating rifts between people.” Yousra cites a Quranic verse calling fitna more dangerous than murder. “We are living in this time. It’s horrifying,” she says.

Yousra won plaudits for the pro-revolutionary character she played in Interior/Exterior, but she feels torn about where things are headed. “There are moments when my heart really feels for the situation, and then there are moments when I think it is false,” she says. It feels wrong to make a film about something that seems so un-certain. “Whenever anyone asks me what I’m doing, I say I’m sitting and watching. When you don’t shout, you listen, and when you listen you might understand something differently.”

Once the revolution took hold, everyone from poets to punk rockers flocked to the cause. Egyptian graffiti gained global fame, and museums put together showcases of revolutionary art. The most popular song of the protest movement came from a struggling acoustic guitarist named Ramy Essam. He wrote the compilation of popular chants and some improvised lines in a few minutes from inside Tahrir. Banning Eyre, a producer for the public radio series Afropop Worldwide--which is now running a 5-part series on Egypt--says the time is ripe for what he calls “people power” music. “You could record a song that was an expression of being free,” he says. “It felt right.”

Many stars found it hard not to get caught up in the rush. “At the beginning there were many arguments between artists,” says the actress Nelly Karim, who starred in the socially conscious 2010 hit 678. There were also career concerns on the line. When crooner Tamer Hosny first appeared in Tahrir, he jumped onto a stage and told people to go home. Days later, when he tried to apologize, the crowds drove him away, dealing a massive hit to his reputation. (“I lost my shoes in this way,” says a culture writer from Egypt’s largest newspaper, Al-Ahram.) Fouad found his motives questioned thanks to his friendship with Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal. Critics accused Yousra, too, of being too close to the old power structure in which she’d found so much success. Writer and producer Tamer Abdelmoneim, the former head of cinema for the Culture Ministry, had strong ties to Mubarak—his father was Mubarak’s press secretary, and his wife’s father is Mubarak’s lawyer—and no qualms about voicing his disdain for the revolution. At the height of the protests, he appeared on television and railed, “Tahrir is shit.” He has since lost his post and, with the film industry afraid to work with him, started hosting his own talk show. “Everything you say now will be held against you,” he says.

Tamer Habib, a well-known screenwriter, found himself hurrying to join the protests in Tahrir. Inspired, he wrote Interior/Exterior, the short featuring Yousra. Despite the praise from critics, Habib can’t tell if it’s any good. Accustomed, as a writer, to viewing his subject from the outside, he now finds himself embroiled in the drama. From that vantage point, he says, it’s hard to get a good look. His view only seems to grow more muddled by the day—so much so that even the characters in the apolitical sitcom he’s currently working on have become difficult to write.

It’s late one night in December, and Habib sits at a desk overlooking the Nile. A new surge of protests and violence is slowly burning out in Tahrir. Islamists are dominating parliamentary elections, and no one knows how the country might look under their watch. The movement that ousted Mubarak has fragmented, meanwhile, and the new political players often seem impossible to distinguish from the old. There are rumblings of foreign interference, and of counterrevolution, while the military regime looks to be consolidating power. “What happens in Tahrir is very different from what happens in homes,” he says. “There are completely different opinions out there. Even between you and yourself, you may have conflicting opinions. It can drive you mad.”

Nelly Karim Denis Dailleux / Agence VU for Newsweek

When Habib was a kid watching classic Egyptian films, he used to notice small, blurry patches on the screen. Those were portraits of King Farouk, rubbed from the negatives after the country’s last revolution, in 1952. Then, Gamal Abdel Nasser and a consort of Army officers overthrew the monarchy, drove out the British colonial powers, and lifted masses of Egyptians out of poverty. They also planted the seeds for military rule. Habib, like a lot of cinema aficionados, thinks it took years for good films about the revolution to appear. “For a very long time we thought the kingdom is the black team and the revolution is the white team. Then after 10 years we discovered there is no black. There is no white. Both of them are gray, in a way,” he says.

Each year, Egypt’s entertainment industry prepares its best stories for Ramadan season. Families fast all day, then spend their evenings gathered around the TV set watching a condensed season of primetime, with commercial breaks staggered so viewers can switch between shows. Last sum-mer’s efforts were widely considered to be the worst in recent memory, as audiences turned their noses up at plotlines crammed with revolutionary themes. “Everything that came after the revolution, as it stands now, just seems naive,” says Joseph Fahim, the arts and culture editor at Daily News Egypt. Though Fahim is optimistic about a few upcoming films, such as a drama from Yousry Nasrallah, one of Egypt’s most respected directors, he thinks mainstream artists have failed to keep pace with the difficult times. Even that initial burst of “people power” creativity has seemed to dry up. “I think there is a break in revolutionary art,” he says.

In fact, Ted Swedenburg, an anthropologist at the University of Arkansas who specializes in Egyptian popular culture, notes that some of the most enduring works from the revolution have been blasts from the past, such as remakes of old songs. (When pressed on why he wasn’t working on a script about the revolution, Lenin El-Ramly, the legendary screenwriter and playwright, banged his fist on his coffee table. “Because I have already written it!” he said.)

The natural choice for singer of the revolution was Mohamed Mounir, who’s known as the Voice of Egypt. He has long pushed a dissident sound, and his song “Ezay,” which compares Egypt to a beautiful woman, became the mainstream counterpart to Essam’s acoustic riff. But Mounir made the song in the fall of 2010.

Sitting on his couch in a hooded sweatshirt and flannel slippers, Mounir says great songs come from living the struggle. A recurring theme in his music has him wandering alone through cities or deserts in search of answers, and he feels a duty to find some. “The true artist is the one who sees further than the people see,” he says. “There is a calling for optimism. And there is a calling for me to explain what happened briefly. And why did we do this? And how can we in the middle of the revolution sing and dance?”

Mounir has an album in the works, but the answers aren’t coming easily. “It’s keeping my mind busy,” he admits. “Every day I have another answer.” The problem, he says, is in coming to grips with the country’s tumultuous state of mind. “Believe me when I tell you,” he says. “More than anything, the Egyptian people need psychological help.”

Bruce Ferguson, an art critic and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the American Uni-versity in Cairo, makes the psychotherapy analogy as well. The real struggle begins after a person finds his voice, he says. In Egypt, that struggle is playing out against a backdrop of national trauma. “Works of art come out of some sort of contemplation, and really good works of art slow down the culture,” Ferguson says. “The post-revolutionary moment is a moment of confusion. You’ve got this trauma now. What are you going to say with your new voice?”

Nasrallah, the famous director, has responded to the confusion by embracing it. His movie about the revolution doesn’t have a script—he’s shooting as he writes, and writing as he shoots. “It’s one of the toughest experiences I’ve been through in my life,” he says. “More often than not, when you write scripts you need answers. And the period we’re in right now raises more questions than it provides answers.”

Nasrallah’s experience sounds something like documentary filmmaking, and lately the genre seems to be generating a lot of buzz. When star documentarian Jehane Noujaim was arrested in Tahrir recently, the international media storm was so intense that the regime released her in 36 hours. She and her team have been in Tahrir from the start, recording everything they can. One afternoon last month, her Cairo workshop was swarming with activity. “Isn’t it in these kinds of times when art flourishes?” she said.

As Noujaim ran off to a room with a bay of computers, where a handful of people were poring through eight terabytes of footage, Christopher de la Torre, a 29-year-old editor, sat alone at a MacBook with his hand on his face, trying to put together the trailer. “There’s so much footage. So much footage,” he said. “The film is kind of an endless process. Where does the film end?”

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