The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Mohamed Abdel Monem EL SAWY
Mr. Mohamed Abdel Monem EL SAWY

Sakia Abdel-Moneim El Sawy
“Culture Wheel”
Sakia Abdel-Moneim El Sawy  Culture Wheel
Presenter Interview
Egypt's first private sector arts and culture facility, Cairo's El Sawy Culture Center 
Opened in 2003, the Sakia Abdel-Moneim El Sawy (commonly called “the Sakia” or the El Sawy Culture Center) is a full-scale comprehensive arts and culture that is 100% private-sector financed and operated. Rare for Egypt, this facility is involved a wide variety of activities aimed at helping to solve the issues confronting Egyptian society through the dissemination of arts, culture and knowledge. The center’s director, Mohamed El Sawy spoke passionately about these activities during his visit to Japan in September, 2006.
(Interviewer: Al Moamen Abdalla, Instructor of International Relations, Daito Bunka University)

Isn’t it an extremely rare case for a private sector cultural center to be established in Egypt? Can you tell us briefly what it involves?
Sakia Abdel-Moneim El Sawy (El Sawy Culture Wheel), was opened in 2003. The section of central Cairo there is the bridge section where the El Sawy Culture Wheel facility is presently located used to be a gathering place for the homeless and petty criminal types and it had the bad smell of a garbage dump. I don’t think anyone would have dreamed that such a disreputable place would be transformed in this way to a place that generates culture and knowledge.
The Egyptian name for the center, Sakia Abdel-Moneim El Sawy, means “the water wheel of Abdel-Moneim El Sawy.” Just like we need water to live, I believe that knowledge and culture are important in peoples’ lives. The name expresses our wish that the waterwheel of El Sawy will bring knowledge and culture to people just like a waterwheel raises water from the river to nourish the fields. And, in addition to introducing culture and the arts, we will also work actively to try to make the waterwheel of El Sawy a balm to heal the wounds of society, a source education for the public, a hand that reaches out to the community and a place where people can pursue self-education. I hope with all my heart that people will come to the water wheel of El Sawy seeking the waters of knowledge and learning.

With the concept of “encounters with culture and knowledge,” the El Sawy Culture Wheel provides a wide variety of programs, from presentations of the arts and literature, including poetry readings and novel contests, to sports and educational programs such as seminars teaching skills necessary for seeking employment, cooking classes for women and Arabic calligraphy classes.

In the area of the arts, the center presents concerts of young musicians and singers, performing arts productions of theater and other genre, exhibitions of photography and painting and showings of film works. Every year the center holds a theater contest and a film festival for short films and documentaries. We are especially devoted to promoting and stimulating especially important “intangible cultural assets” of Arabian culture such as Arabian music. For example, we actively present recitals and workshops for performers of the traditional qanun, a stringed instrument [zither] similar to the Japanese koto. We are also working to revive a unique type of Egyptian folk song known as mauwa-l. At a recent performance we were encourage to see young people and office workers among the audience that we didn’t expect.

In the literature field, we hold a novel contest every year. We get many applicants from other Arabian countries for this contest besides Egypt. The winning work in this year’s contest was written by a man from Morocco. When we speak of Egyptian literature, poetry has traditionally been the mainstream, but in recent years young people are less interested in poetry. In an effort to revive interest in the traditional culture of poetry, we are holding events that cross the former boundaries of artistic genre by coupling poetry readings with performing arts. For events like these we seek to build interest and expand our audience by making the performances free to the public.

I personally believe that sports are a form of culture as well. This is because sports can provide an opportunity for exchange between our people in an atmosphere of mutual respect, without regard to who wins or loses. We also offer classes for children in the military arts and archery that have taken root in Islamic and Arabian culture. Recently, we are also promoting a type of military art called tahati-b that is similar to Japanese kendo with its bamboo sword.

What types of people use your facilities?
Since many of our programs are organized jointly with private schools and universities, we have a lot of students coming to the center, and we also have users from all the different age groups. We also rent out our theater space to local theater groups, producers and artists, which means that there are a great variety of events being offered. Many of our events are free and in order to make it easy for anyone to enjoy our offerings, we try to set the ticket prices as low as possible.

The main reason that we try to reach out to as broad an audience as possible is that we want to bring culture closer to the people. Although we do have a membership plan, we want to keep our ears open to the ideas of as many people as possible, regardless of whether they are members or from the general viewing public. There have been actual cases where ideas from the public have led to new programs and we always take the people’s opinions into consideration when putting together our programming. One day a person came in and asked us to hold a stamp-collector contest. I said to him, “Yes. Let’s do it.” But I added the condition that he take on the responsibility of being involved in the contest planning and organizing. I told him that the center would give him full backing if he participated in the project.
As this case shows, I believe that the systems and rules should be things that people create themselves according to the needs they perceive as relevant in each individual case. The programs should be things that people create freely by themselves, not things that are forced upon them. The important thing is to constantly strive for the goal of encouraging people to have the will to improve things for the better, to give people the means to better themselves and to heighten consciousness and understanding of the issues confronting society.
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