This contribution has been written by Astrid Thews and Mayada Said. The two women have been living in Cairo, Egypt for several years now and have co-founded the organization “Mahatat for contemporary art” at the beginning of 2011. “Mahatat for contemporary art” is an initiative for art in public space and community art projects. Here on aminachaudri.ch, the women describe events and portray people they have encountered through their work in Egypt. They make no claim to generalisation in their writing; on the contrary, the authors aim to contribute to a more differentiated picture of the country. The present contribution is the second article they publish on aminachaudri.ch. It tells of young Egyptian women who, within the framework of a Mahatat project, went into Cairo’s metro to tell their and other women’s stories.
February 17, 2012. Cairo. It is afternoon: two young women approach the metro station “Opera”. To their right rises the imposing white building of the opera, built in the 1980s with funds from the Japanese development cooperation. Operas and concerts are staged here regularly – for those who can afford it. Behind the two women, the Qasr al-Nil Bridge leads to the Tahrir Square. On a normal day, the bridge is a place where young couples meet, stand hand in hand at the railing, or sit on the brightly coloured plastic chairs of one of the “flying cafés” while sipping drinks sold on the sidewalk either from a little cart or a hawker’s tray. The Qasr al-Nil Bridge gained sad notoriety beyond Egypt’s borders on January 28, 2011, when images of how Mubarak’s police brutally intervened in a demonstration, injuring and killing many people, went around the world.
Art Should Be Accessible to All
Two months after that historic day, the idea for Mahatat was born. To support the emergence of a civil society in Egypt after the revolution, to draw attention to the significance of public space – only recently re-conquered by the citizens – through art and culture, and to make art accessible to all; these are but a few of the reasons behind Mahatat. In January 2012, the first Mahatat project was organized in Cairo. It was called “Shaware3na” – our streets – and started with a series of performances under the title “Art of Transit”. For two months, these performances turned the carriages of the Cairo metro into a stage for different arts.
Stories by and for Women
The two women are Sondos Shabayek and Mona El Shimi. Both are in their twenties and both are story-tellers. They are on their way to the metro to perform in the carriages reserved for women (these metro carriages are meant to protect women from possible harassment by men at certain times of day). In 2005, Mariham Iskander, Naaz khaan and Menan Omar adapted the “Vagina Monologues” of the American author Eve Ensler with a group of students and turned it into play about Egyptian women. They soon realised that the “Vagina Monologues” did not truly reach the Egyptian audience, even as adaptation. The topic, however, appealed to their audience, especially to young women and men: they expressed the wish for stories which would reflect the realities of life faced by women in Egypt. Thus, they came up with the idea to collect real stories. They handed out flyers calling for women to send in their stories. The “BuSSy Monologues” – Explanation here – were born: these are true stories of love, marriage, and family – but also of domestic violence, of the daily harassment of women in the streets, and of rape. Seeing the performance by Sondos and Mona who had joined the group later on in different theatres, we were impressed and invited them to tell these stories as part of the performance series “Art of Transit” in the women’s carriages of the Cairo metro. They agreed. And despite the many difficulties encountered, the performances were to be a success. In an interview about the project, Mona said: “This was the first time I felt that we are telling the stories where they really belong.”
A Stage on Wheels: The Cairo Metro
We liked the idea of using the metro as a stage. It is a fascinating place where in one short moment, one meets hundreds of people of different age and background– a group of people one would not find assembled in any theatre or gallery. A cross-section of Egyptian society. In a certain way, the metro is already being used as a stage by the many hawkers pushing their way through its often crowded cars, advertising their goods with loud voices and lively gestures. It is not unusual for such goods, from sewing thread to colouring books or plastic wrap, to be presented and explained. Some read aloud from the Quran. The idea to stage art here, on this ‘stage’ in transit, therefore suggested itself. Despite the countless daily interactions taking place in the metro, it remains an anonymous place nevertheless. A means for people to get from A to B. They are in transit, share this special place for one short moment, and yet they all have different destinations.
Tension before the Performance
Sondos and Mona walk down the stairs to the metro station “Opera”. Though they are in a good mood and laugh, they also are visibly nervous. How will the women around them react to their stories? Are their voices loud enough to be heard over the noise of the metro? What should they do if the metro authorities catch them and demands an explanation? But Sondos and Mona are not alone on their journey. The Mahatat team is with them. They are accompanied by the two of us, as well as by the photographer Hamdy, the film maker Yara, the illustrator Amr, and the “bodyguards” Santos and Samati. Hamdy shoots a couple of pictures of the women, before they enter the metro. Being a man, he cannot set foot in the women’s carriage and therefore does not join us for the performance. Amr and the bodyguards get on the carriage next to ours and watch the scene through the window. Yara and we step into the women’s carriage with Sondos and Mona.
Artists in the Metro?
In Cairo, where art had hardly taken place in the public space before 2011, an art performance in the metro is more than unusual. And not being asked to pay anything amazes most people. Before our project “Art of Transit”, there was only one group of male drummers who had dared performing in Cairo’s metro. Yet, almost all the artists whom we told of our plan were enthusiastic about it. Many had thought about performing in the metro before, but had not dared to do it for very understandable reasons. The idea to try it within the framework of a larger project which offers some security, appealed to young artists. After a few weeks and many talks with artists, we had our troupe: Sondos and Mona with the “BuSSy Monologues”, the young mime Amr Abd Elaziz with a repertoire of eight different pantomime pieces, the clown troupe “Red Tomato”, and three actors with an invisible play.
How will the Passengers React …?
Sondos and Mona unpack their “BuSSy Monologues” poster and hold it up in front of them. The metro carriage is crowded; we are standing at some distance from the two women. Yara remains close to the artists with her hand-held camera – soon they begin telling their stories. Mona raises her voice, claims the space, and begins. Despite the background noise of the metro, she quickly draws the attention of the women around her who want to see the poster and read the project flyers which Sondos hands out. We are too far away to hear the stories word by word; the driving noise partly swallows them. Instead, we watch the mood and the reaction of the audience. We see a woman wearing a niqab – Explanation here – who gets angry as she notices the camera. Later we will learn that she had studied our flyer and had read something she felt to be amoral and outrageous. We hear and watch as she starts protesting and her voice gets louder and louder. Holding our flyer unfolded over her head, she rails against the “media harassment” (by our camera woman) and demands that the metro authorities be called immediately. Learning from the flyer that foreigners are involved in the project, she misreads the name Paulina as Polish in Arabic and screams: “They bring Polish women to dance in the metro!” Sondos and Mona interrupt their storytelling. At the next stop, our whole group steps off the metro; the men have seen the incident from the neighbouring carriage and get off, too. The lady in the niqab, who is by now screaming with rage and whom even our co-passengers cannot calm down, leaves the metro car, too, and chases us off the platform towards the exit of the station with her accusations.
They say „don’t talk!
Hide your feelings, don’t tell your story.
Pretend, lie to yourself.“
But why should I beautify the ugly truth?
So you ask what’s wrong about my aunt being divorced five times?
About my aunt’s husband beating her because she didn’t want to sleep with him?
About a guy passing by me in his car saying: “I want to put it inside…”
They say I should not speak like this and use such daring phrases!
Many Women in Egypt Want to Make their Voices Heard
Young women in Egypt do make their voices heard in public: they have been present in large numbers at the demonstrations in the streets of Egypt during the past two years. Female activists and journalists use many different channels to get their messages out, be that traditional media, social networks or their active participation in NGOs and in protests where they march in the front lines. In Cairo’s everyday life, however, outside the revolution and off prominent public spaces such as the Tahrir Square, the streets surrounding the President’s Palace or the Ministry of the Interior, certain neighbourhoods are still very much in the hands of men, especially during certain times of day.
The Doubts of the Team
Have we overestimated ourselves and underestimated the situation? Is our performance too provocative? Is it careless to film? These and other questions occupy our minds in the microbus as we drive to the next metro station. We make a few collective decisions: We will not film the next time, but only make audio recordings. Our Mahatat flyers and the BuSSy poster will remain in our bags and out of sight. And then we’ll see what happens. Arriving at the next station, Sondos and Mona are approached by a fully veiled woman who has observed the scene in the metro. To our surprise, she praises the performance, encourages the two story-tellers to continue, and tells them not to listen to anyone telling them otherwise. She adds: “You have to be prepared for such reactions. It happens. That woman was crazy. We all tried to calm her down, but nothing helped. Continue with what you are doing!”
I came here to talk about my pain,
Long time ago, I decided to forget and forgive,
I’ve forgiven and forgotten everything,
So, I’ve forgotten everything you said and did.
They always told me I should walk like a soldier,
So I walked and dressed like a man,
Now, I am frightened to look at the mirror.
Are We Guided by Stereotypes Over and Over Again?
The encounter with the two women makes us think and wonder. Both were wearing a niqab and called to mind the same optical stereotype: that of a religious, extremely conservative woman who is hardly open to art performances. We discussed our experience and realised to what extent even we, as young artists and culturally creative people who would describe themselves as open, critical, and flexible, are influenced by stereotypes. We admit to ourselves that each time we step into a metro carriage, we “scan” the passengers in order to judge who might react how to our performance. The fact that two women, whom we judged to be “the same” by their appearance, react in opposite ways and express opposite opinions, proves that our “strategy” does not work. Over the course of this project this was not the only time we were going to be surprised …
Reassured by the encouragement of the second veiled woman, we enter the next metro carriage with new confidence. The metro is a little less crowded by now and we find empty seats away from the story-tellers. We do not want to attract undue attention because of Astrid’s blond hair, because of the camera or the presence of a group accompanying the story-tellers too obviously. The mood in this carriage is completely different. Many women listen attentively and are visibly touched by the stories told. A fifteen-year old girl starts to cry and follows us into the next carriage to hear the stories again. At the end, she thanks Mona and Sondos: “Thank you for sharing your stories with us! I would like to share my story with you, too.” She waves the two women into a corner of the station at the end of our journey and silently tells them her own story. “It was heartbreaking,” Sondos and Mona later say.
Explanation: A niqab is a veil covering the face and worn by some Muslim women. It is worn in combination with a chador or another black garment. The smaller the piece of visible skin around the eyes, the more the niqab resembles the burqa (a veil/garment covering the whole body).
*First article – Democratisation of Art in Egypt? – published on 6.1.2013
Translation German to English: Claudia Walder
German version of this article
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Photography: Women Story-Tellers Sondos Shabayek (rechts) und Mona El Shimi (links), photo Hamdy Reda / courtesy of Mahatat
Illustrations: Amr Okasha / courtesy of Mahatat