Culture in the time of Corona

How Covid-19 challenged-and inspired- Egypt's culture sector

By Yasmine Nazmy
Yasmeen Nazmy surveys the Egyptian culture scene’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Speaking to gallery owners, government officials, curators, musicians and others, Nazmy’s story reveals an already struggling arts ecosystem that has been hit hard. Some culture players ended up working on creative solutions, others gave up and shut down. The insecurity surrounding when things will get back to normal, and what exactly that new normal might mean, is also of great concern to the culture community. The article was accompanied by actual surveys with both audiences and operators, and the results are presented in a visual format.

For the independent culture scene in Egypt, which, under normal circumstances, has scarce resources and limited audience, the indefinite lockdown proved to be a test of endurance, resourcefulness, and agility.

On March 7, 2020, I took my three year-old daughter out for a “culture day” at Tahrir Cultural Center, to see three performances at the 10th edition of Hakawy International Children’s Festival. It was, in fact, the first time Zeina had been inside a theater, and she was fascinated – partly by the performances, but also because it was the first time that she had experienced live theater and sat with an audience. When asked not to speak during performances, she quietly observed the silence of others and followed suit, making me wonder if herd mentality wasn’t all that bad.

Little did I know that this would be our last “normal” collective experience, and that the months to come would alter how we experience live performances and share public space. Murmurs of COVID-19 making its way to Egypt had been getting louder in the weeks leading up to our day out, but public life was yet to be affected. At the time, I had debated whether the risk was worth it, and decided to go anyway. But even then, the idea of sharing breathing space with a group of children during a visit to the Planetarium – a giant tent-like structure erected in the fountain area of the Main Campus – induced a quiet anxiety in me and left me fumbling to find my way out of the pitch black enclosure. The last performance we attended – the world premiere of La Poetique De L’Instable, which was performed on the stage of Ewart Hall with audience members seated in a semicircle on the stage around the performers, all their scents and body heat pooling together – made me conscious of how something that had once delighted me about sharing culture experiences with strangers now made me uneasy.

Less than 10 days later, the Egyptian government announced a lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19, and culture venues across the country shuttered their doors indefinitely, with no promise of when they would re-open. Culture operators, like everyone else, had no idea how long the pandemic would keep them at home or what kind of losses it would incur, and a few months down the line, some were forced to trim salaries or shut their doors altogether. By August, some had managed to re-open, venturing into uncharted waters as they worked through endless logistics and the liability that came with reopening.

The response among artists, musicians, and performers was as varied as it was for culture spaces: for some, the lockdown provided ample time to sketch, draw, write, compose, and complete unfinished projects, while others were forced to take on other jobs to make ends meet. Some opted to sell their instruments for next to nothing just to put food on the table. Musicians that previously relied on concerts and weddings to make money found themselves relying exclusively on royalties, forcing them to re-calibrate their main sources of income.

And while a handful of online initiatives emerged that gave select artists the opportunity to perform, the vast majority were out of work. Both globally and locally, it was freelancers in the culture sector that were most affected, which includes everyone from actors, musicians, performers, and technicians to other support staff, many of whom have no safety net to fall back on.

A Test of Endurance

For the independent culture scene in Egypt, which, under normal circumstances, has scarce resources and limited audience, the indefinite lockdown proved to be a test of endurance. As the pandemic dragged on, it also became a test of resourcefulness and agility. Some culture spaces stayed connected with audiences by sharing archival material on social media or launching new products and platforms online; others made conservative choices to cut unnecessary costs to make it through the four-month-long lockdown; and others still made the difficult but inevitable decision to halt their activities and shut down altogether.

Necessary relief funds for cultural institutions have been rare to come across, and ultimately can only have limited impact on an industry that relies heavily on freelancers and informal work that was strapped for cash, even before the crisis. In June, music streaming giant Spotify teamed up with AFAC (the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture) to launch Spotify COVID-19 Music Relief Project in MENA in an effort to raise funds for musicians impacted by the pandemic. Similar initiatives were undertaken by Art Jameel Research and Practice Forum, Al Mawred El Thaqafy, as well as Swiss Arts Council Prohelvetia. However, at the early onset of the pandemic, most donors froze new funding until end of year, continuing to finance only those activities that were approved before the outbreak. This left countless artists and cultural operators out in the cold.

Cathy Costain, Head of Arts and Programmes at the British Council, suspects that it is likely that donors will allocate more spending to digital in the coming years. Costain notes that the dearth of funds to the performing arts in Egypt means that, in many ways, the sector’s growth is already stunted. “That’s the sad thing about the size of the [culture] scene here. The scene is tiny compared to a country the size of Egypt,” she says. And because subsidies to the performing arts in Egypt hardly compare to countries like the UK, the pandemic has magnified pre-existing risks for the sector.

A battle on two fronts

Still of Elissa singing from her home during lockdown.

A Hani Shaker concert was held without an audience at Abdeen Palace.

For musicians, the lockdown obviously resulted in gigs, concert tours, and weddings being cancelled or postponed indefinitely. In their efforts to “go digital”, between May and July, telecoms giant WE streamed a series of concerts shot in various locations around Cairo, featuring performances by the likes of indie artists Massar Egbari and Dina El Wedidi, trap rappers Wegz and Marwan Moussa, and mega-star Mohamed Mounir, among others. Amal Maher, performed in live-streamed concerts, while other stars, like Hany Shaker, capitalized on the momentum that streaming network Shahid VIP created during the lockdown to perform online concerts. However, these piecemeal efforts to divert concerts online, largely targeted established mainstream artists, again, leaving newcomers to fend for themselves.

In June 2020, in front of an audience of zero at the iconic and historic Ewart Hall, the Tahrir Cultural Center hosted a landmark concert for Masar Egbari, one of the most popular bands in Egypt and the Middle East. Nearly 90,000 people joined the livestream, which was part of WE telecom’s online music festival “Stay at Home.” Hundreds of thousands more have since been watching the recording of the event.

Mahmoud Refaat, founder of 100 Copies – one of the few underground music labels in the country – is skeptical that things will go back to normal anytime soon, likening the impact of the pandemic only to 9/11. He projects that it’ll be a couple of years at least before concerts return full force, but it’s questionable whether artists and producers will hold out until 2022. Refaat, who works with upwards of 100 musicians, including mahraganat musicians like Hamo Bika, Sadat, and Islam Shipsy, says that morale has and will continue to take the biggest hit among independent culture producers in Egypt due to the pandemic. He explains that the underground and independent scene made important strides in the early 2000s and successfully established venues for independent culture, developing different palates and audiences, and detaching culture from its conventional, often patronizing tone. Refaat fears that the current crisis will reverse that. “In the 1990s, culture and art and general taste were controlled by large institutions and corporations, and there is a risk that we return to that as this crisis drags on,” he says.

As a small record label that works with musicians who rely heavily on concerts and weddings, at the end of March, 100 Copies made the decision to funnel extra funds into producing more music. By August, they had already tripled their output for the year in order to support the artists they work with. “It was a personal decision of mine to stand by my artists,” says Refaat.

The surge of interest in mahraganat music, which many consider lowbrow art, has helped 100 Copies to stay young and nimble and connected to the street, and their response to the crisis reflects that. Refaat is clear that he is not looking for handouts or relief funds; for now, he’s working to find a place for his company in a market that is being doubly challenged by trying to survive during a crisis while global and regional giants continue to eye the untapped potential of the North Africa market.

That hasn’t stopped 100 Copies from collaborating with global giants like Spotify and Sony, as well as regional music provider Anghami, in an effort to expand their audience, improve their streaming presence, and sidestep takeover. Refaat is clear that going digital is key to staying in the game, and the only way to ensure that they survive the crisis is by making alliances with experts who can market their work and their artists. “As audiences, there is no other way of consuming music except digital platforms. This is the case now and that might be the future,” says Refaat.

“A Long Pause”

In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, the Ministry of Culture created platforms for artists to showcase their work online through initiatives like “Culture Between Your Hands,” which launched on YouTube in March. In June, the Ministry reported that it received 25 million visitors from 28 countries in just two months. Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem told Ahram Online that the Ministry used the platform to create paid work to support Egyptian artists through the crisis. They also collaborated with the Ministry of Information to broadcast performances on television as part of the initiative to encourage people to stay home. By mid-June, they opened three open-air venues at The Cairo Opera House to promote culture while observing social distancing.

In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, El Sawy Culture Wheel used cardboard cutouts of famous silver screen stars between seats to enforce social distancing. Photo courtesy of El Sawy Culture Wheel

For some independent culture venues, the pandemic has been an eye-opener, revealing inherent weaknesses in the sector, pushing them to find new ways of doing business. El Sawy Culture Wheel, which utilized its online platforms to keep audiences engaged, offered free online workshops that would otherwise have been conducted in-house – something that many cultural venues did during the lockdown. When The Culture Wheel reopened its doors in July, it capitalized on outdoor spaces and enforced the idea of social distancing indoors by placing cardboard cutouts with pictures of famous silver screen stars between chairs. Hanan Omar, Media Relations Manager at The Culture Wheel, explains that, although audience numbers were still relatively low in July, there was a huge appetite for culture among showgoers.

“People were very happy that we opened, they wanted to see something other than television and Netflix, they want to feel that things are back to normal,” she says. Performers, too, were eager to make a comeback, she says, with some musicians performing two shows a day to allow audiences to attend while abiding by 25% occupancy rates. For her, the biggest takeaway was the need for the brand to refresh its online presence, which the team worked hard to do during the lull in activities.

Tarek Atia, who manages Tahrir Cultural Center (TCC), the recently renovated American University in Cairo (AUC) Campus in downtown Cairo (TCC is also the publisher of Jacaranda), postponed over a hundred events scheduled in the second quarter of 2020. For Atia, who runs a young organization with a strong cultural legacy, they were just gaining momentum when they were forced to take “a long pause.” He explains that the organization was wary of launching products that would “get lost in the tsunami of online events” or didn’t aptly reflect its identity to viewers.

According to Atia, resuming operations required a change in mindset, and they focused on small events and outdoor performances, before scaling up to host the Cairo Jazz Festival in November. By then, social distancing, sanitizing, and mask wearing had become business-as-usual for all public gatherings.

Located in the heart of Old Cairo in El Fustat, Darb 1718 – which has worked to create an iconic space for underground contemporary artists to showcase their work and to cultivate an audience receptive to a different aesthetic for the past 13 years – also took to the cybersphere in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, organizing talks and discussions with musicians, artists, writers, and international curators. They invited artists to do Instagram takeovers using the hashtag #Artisnotcancelled to show how, in spite of cultural spaces being shut down, artists continued to work on their own projects, providing them with a space to share their process and interact with viewers.

By the beginning of July, when Darb opened its doors to welcome visitors to workshops for the first time in almost four months, “there was a hunger,” explains Moataz Nasr, visual artist and founder of Darb 1718. Nasr explains that the lockdown encouraged them to introduce new activities online, and, as they slowly re-opened their doors, to better utilize the outdoor spaces they are fortunate to have.

Nasr, like others in the field, also believes that the current crisis has magnified pre-existing weaknesses in the sector; he notes that the two biggest challenges to advancement in the cultural sector are management and funding, and for him, this experience could be a learning opportunity for all those working in the independent cultural sector. “I hope that this experience teaches us that we need to cooperate more together. That we can work together to develop and strengthen the local sector, and that there is no value in working alone in the sector in Egypt. Culture and art are very important to all of us, and they must continue to exist and to be [unrestricted],” he says.   

Magic and the Theater: Finding Audiences Behind Closed Doors

While visual arts have found workarounds like Instagram to stay afloat, and musicians utilizing digital platforms to generate revenues, other performing arts had few alternatives during lockdown. Even after venues resumed operations, the challenges for performing arts remain. With audiences wary of taking unnecessary risks, cultural venues have had to manage endless logistics to create the intimacy of collective cultural experiences while maintaining social distance – not to mention make money.

Projects like Medrar Cultural Center’s “With Doors Closed, Artists Go Viral,” invited artists to use digital tools to record and stream performances, including folkloric songs, dance, lecture performances, and digital art, to audiences. Co-founder and director of Medrar Mohamed Allam explains that they are continuing to explore ways of working digitally, not just because of the current crisis, but also because they are invested in developing digitronic work and art that utilizes new technology.

In June, experimental video artist Mohamed Allam, designed what he calls “a social engagement experiment: in the neighborhood of Mounira, which entailed screening projects of concerts of Arab diva Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Quranic reciter Abdul Basit Abdul Samad on the walls of the neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Medrar.

One unusual approach was that of Effat Yehia, founder of Caravan Theater Company, who in April performed the two-actor play Lungs by British playwright and director Duncan Macmillan, over the phone. For one week in April, she called 10 audience members each evening at 8:00pm and performed the play live. Although it was a workaround, Effat looks forward to doing more audio projects in the future. In spite of that, she is certain that nothing can match the experience of live theater and the “magical relationship between the audience and the performers.”

Ahmed El Attar, founder and director of D-CAF (the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival) and Orient Productions, explains that his team used the lockdown to complete renovations of their physical spaces, including the recently acquired Rawabet Theater, creative coworking space Maktabi, and rehearsal space Studio Emad Eddin. In March, D-CAF announced the launch of their festival then found themselves having to postpone it indefinitely the very next day… 

In June, Orient Productions launched Mawgat Audio Drama Festival online, which was supposed to launch in April as a series of face-to-face interactions with audiences. The program planned to gather audiences to listen to audio drama pieces and then share their thoughts in discussions; instead, the team shared the content produced for the festival with audiences through social media and on Soundcloud. Heba Rifaat, director of Mawgat Festival, explains that, although the team pivoted quickly to launch the festival online, because the Internet was flooded with content, it was difficult for them to stand out. In spite of that, the project received some traction and Rifaat is optimistic that next year’s edition will reach a wider audience. “We were experimenting, we didn’t have the experience of organizing an online festival, so there were a lot of learnings for us,” she explains.

And while Orient has increased its investment in its online platforms – and will continue to do so post-COVID-19 – El Attar is clear that online mediums will not replace the experience of live theater or cinema, and that live theater companies like Orient (who re-opened to the public in October) cannot forget their raison d’être. “We are social animals, we can’t live with masks and on screens. We can do it temporarily, but thinking that this is going to be our life doesn’t make any sense. The world has known the plague, cholera, and the Spanish flu, and that didn’t change our basic principle that we need to be together, we need hugs and we need to share dinners and have shared experiences.”

Seven months after her first theater experience, I took my daughter to see another Hakawy performance, Noussa and Zarif: From Strangers to Best Friends, at Studio Nasibian at the Jesuit in Downtown Cairo. By then, my experience of public space and personal contact was characterized by curbing my natural impulses. No more extending of hands to strangers, hugs and kisses were limited mostly to family, closed public spaces were experienced through foggy glasses and the sound of labored breathing in cloth masks. Upon arriving, Mohamed el Ghawy, founder of Hakawy Festival, squirted sanitizer on our hands and checked that we were wearing masks. In the theater, 2-3 chairs were placed between audience members. We took our place on a mat on the floor at the front, spaced two meters apart from our neighbors, and watched the silent dance performance unfold against a white screen with projections. In spite of the barriers erected by COVID-19 precautions – or perhaps because of it – the novelty of watching live performance with an audience was not lost on us.