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Art, Performance, and Power in Modern Egypt

Panel II-17, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel will focus on the intersections of art and performance (practitioners, audiences, other relevant actors) with politics, race, gender, and economic change in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Egypt. The aim is to interrogate and engage with the ways political, social, economic, and cultural changes have been interwoven and shaped one another in specific periods and historical contexts. More specifically, the papers on this panel will focus on three different themes and periods but share common underlying questions. One will interrogate the stakes of British and French political vying for cultural control in interwar Cairo. Another will examine the use of nostalgia in a modern musalsal’s representation of Egyptian Jews of the late 1940s. And two will analyze the ways a contemporary original theater project uses participatory action research, site specific settings, and techniques from the theater of the oppressed to expose and address issues of sexual harassment. In this rich span of topics, the papers will engage with the following questions: Who gets to tell a story and what does that reveal about power and hegemony? What explains why a story is told—and is able to be told—in a particular time and context? Who is each story’s intended and unintended audience? What are the stakes of telling a particular story? Why and how does it, and those who control its telling, matter?
Art/Art History
Media Arts
  • This paper analyzes French and British competition for control of Cairo’s cultural institutions in the interwar years. Documents from the French and British Foreign Offices along with local and foreign newspapers in Egypt illuminate the specific sites of contestation between the two countries and highlight the fear that British administrators had of potentially losing control over Egypt’s art, antiquities, and, ultimately, it's educational systems. I argue that British officials interpreted French cultural activity in Cairo as a “cultural campaign,” a deliberate bid for predominance, and that this posed an existential threat to British hegemony in Egypt just as much, if not more, than Egyptian independence did. The interwar era is largely understood as a period when Britain and France divided the Middle East between them. Even before that, the 1904 Entente Cordiale ended nearly a century of antagonisms between the two countries and clearly demarcated each of their colonial possessions. British-French tensions in interwar Egypt, however, suggest that those agreements did not put suspicions and tensions to rest. Concerns shifted from the overtly political to the cultural as Egypt became nominally independent and struggled to develop its own institutions of power and culture. In this dynamic context, Egyptian artists, performers, audiences, and consumers were not bystanders but intimately engaged in debates over what Egyptian art and culture was, who controlled it, and the extent of its liberatory potential.
  • After many decades of a complete media blackout about the Jews of Egypt, suddenly a historical musalsal set in 1948 called ‘Haret Elyahoud,’ or the Jewish Quarter, hit the airwaves in Ramadan 2014. This was a time of great political turmoil in Egypt; Mohamed Morsi had just been ousted from power, and even though Adly Mansour was interim President, it was no secret that Abdel Fatah Elsisi was running the country from behind the scenes and that it was simply a matter of time before he officially became President. So, was this musalsal an early sign of Sisi’s intention to make drastic changes to both Egyptian foreign policy and media representation of the Jews of Egypt? This paper will analyze the depiction of the Jews of Egypt in Haret Elyahoud in comparison to information about their actual status, as conveyed in various documents in the archives of the Center for Jewish History in New York. The paper will argue that the musalsal did indeed give due diligence to important historical facts, such as how the Jews of Egypt included different Jewish sub-groups who largely led separate lives and did not intermarry and how many of them were educated in French schools and deeply influenced by French culture. But it will also show how other aspects of the musalsal contradicted with other important historical facts, so that it by and large painted an idealistic picture of the life that Jews once had in Egypt. Therefore, the paper will argue that this musalsal was indeed an early sign of the Sisi regime’s foreign policy of “unprecedented collaboration” with Israel, as Sisi himself put it in his infamous disastrous interview with CBS’ 60 Minutes.
  • Jillian Campana
    This paper examines how developing and performing a piece of theatre around the subject of sexual violence can elevate the discussion, educate participants and audience members and explore perceptions of victims and perpetrators. Performance has long been a way to educate society, allowing both artists and spectators a way to witness and discuss an issue. Playwrights, directors and actors we worked with on this project followed a participatory action research methodology to create an original play, “Mish Zanbik” (It’s Not Your Fault). The project, which collected data then wrote a play using the data, sought to educate students and others about the issue in an effort to effect change. The group first drew upon the 2013 UN statistic, that remains unchallenged today, that 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed and/or assaulted. Sexual violence in the country is broken down into misdemeanor and felony crimes, and victims of both are often viewed as having brought shame and dishonor to themselves and their families. Because of this, people who have experienced sexual harassment or assault are often unwilling to report these crimes and perpetrators often get away without punishment or repercussion. This project, and the performance that originated out of the work, sought to destigmatize conversations about the issue and to encourage discussions and ultimately encourage victims to report such crimes. The “Mish Zanbik” project used dramatic writing, theatre performance and original, curated training videos to discuss the issue of sexual violence in the aftermath of the 2011 Revolution. There have been some very recent high-profile cases and a subsequent more vocal concern about sexual violence in Egypt. And, though rates of reporting incidents have not increased significantly, agencies have been forced to pay more attention to this issue. Performance has long been a way to educate society, allowing participants, both artists and spectators, a way to witness an issue. In this case the project, which has led to two texts (in both English and Arabic), works to help the community understand the perceptions of the victim (protagonist) and perpetrator (antagonist).