The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
Egypt's first private sector arts and culture facility, Cairo's El Sawy Culture Center
Mohamed Abdel Monem EL SAWY
Can you tell us about the culture policy in Egypt?
Egypt’s Ministry of Culture is responsible for promoting activities in the area of culture and the arts. The Ministry of Culture operates several funds for the purpose of supporting all kinds of activities in culture and the arts. There are also organizations under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture such as the regional culture facilities known as “Arts Palaces.”

I believe that flexibility is an important attribute of organizations like the Ministry of Culture that promote the arts and culture, but government agencies have the problem of a bureaucratic system. So, from the standpoint of promoting the arts and culture, there is the important problem of relaxing regulations. Also, I believe that a transfer of power to subordinate organizations in a manner that will strengthen their operating capacities is necessary.

On the other hand, there are foreign arts and culture support organizations in Cairo like the France Culture Center and Germany’s Goethe Institute, and these organizations not only introduce the arts and culture of their own countries but also provide support for Egyptian artists and contribute to the development of Egyptian arts and culture. As private sector supporters there is also the Ford Foundation actively provides funding for young Egyptian artists. Although they are few, there are also universities that also provide funding for students doing independent works. But on the whole, there is not enough support for the arts in Egypt, especially for the performing arts.

Are there times when there is difficulty getting approval from the censor authorities to in order to get permission to stage a play? Please tell us about censorship in Egypt.
To tell the truth, I don’t know why but for some reason we have a very good relationship with the censors at the moment. I don’t know if it is because the censor bureau has a strong trust in us, but they don’t interfere with our activities at all. I think it may be that our ethical standard of respect for people and determination to uphold the peace and stability is more than censorship policies demand. Of course, our policy is to not accept contents that are injurious to people or contain radical or inflammatory expressions.

In February or 2007 the El Sawy Culture Wheel will be entering its fourth year. In these four years have there been any changes in conditions in the culture and arts world of Egypt?
In Egypt we have a unique annual theater festival called Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. Thank to the support from the government it seems that the quality of these festivals is getting higher in recent years. Many foreign artists are participating, including artists from Japan, and it has developed recently into an important venue where theater groups from around the Arab world are competing with each other in trying out new ideas and techniques.

Meanwhile, although our Culture Wheel has only just begun activities, we are attempting new challenges from our base here in Cairo. In September of 2006 we opened a new facility that will serve as a branch of the El Sawy Culture Wheel. It is a facility on the outskirts of Cairo with a theater that belongs to one of the universities, which asked us to take over management of the theater. It is probably hard to envision a university theater facility but in fact it is more like an independent theater building with complete theater facilities and equipment. This new project will bring us into closer contact with students and children from the local community and make it easier to bring arts and culture to them, which is a big advantage. We want to continue to actively expend our bases through tie-ups with outside organizations like this so that we can send out our El Sawy Culture Wheel message to all areas of the country in the future.

That is why we want to change our status in the future from our present corporation status to a non-profit organization status. In fact restrictions regarding non-profit organization in Egypt today are still quite strict, so it is easier to operate as a corporation. As we gather more sponsors in the future and get more support, I believe it will be necessary to gain NPO status in order to operate more effectively in collaborations and the like.

What kinds of changes do you hope to see in the Egyptian arts world in the future?
One of the things that impressed me on my tour of Japan this time was the large number of young people I saw at the Noh and Kabuki theater performances. That was a wonderful thing to see. I would like to see this same type of strong interest and involvement in the traditional arts by young people realized in Egypt as well. That is my wish.

My father, who was a former Minister of Culture, used to say that before you can have true internationalization you first have to achieve “intra-nationalization.” In other words, in order to truly develop one’s country in a meaningful way, you first have to deepen your understanding of your own country. To do that I believe that we have to return to the cultural roots that are the soil of our spirit and reestablish the traditional arts and at the same time heighten the knowledge and learning of the younger generation, and to do that I believe that we have to stimulate all areas of the arts. This type of revival of traditional arts is never easy but if we continue to make efforts, I believe that it is possible to build bridges between present and the past and between tradition and the young generation.

Could you give us a message for the artists of Japan?
I strongly hope that the artists of Japan will visit Egypt once. And I hope that you will get a chance to experience all kinds of Egyptian and Arabic culture firsthand. Just as they say the soil where arts and culture flourish becomes enriched, just as they say that soil that arts and culture spring from is created by the environment, I hope you will have a chance to experience the arts born of the Egyptian environment in that same environment. Life in Egypt has been supported and enriched by our traditional instruments and folk songs, by clay sculptures, handmade rugs that are said to be works of art, by paintings on papyrus and many other kinds of art. Egypt’s traditional arts are full of the sensitivities and the appeal of the people of Egypt. I am sure that you will find something in them that will touch your hearts.
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