By Maha ElNabawi
The cacophony of noise in Cairo is enough to drive a person mad. The sirens, ambiguous sounds of gunfire (or fireworks?), the out of tune Imams blaring sermons through distorted speakers, the bikya man’s piercing holler around every corner, the relentless horns incessantly beeping…let’s face it, Cairo needs a mute button. Or at the least, a moment of silence, because often in silence, we find clarity, a state most Egyptian’s are desperately yearning for in this current fog of socio-political uncertainty.
In an effort to make art more accessible to the public, the Cairo-based mobile art initiative, “Mahatat” (Transportation Stops) is currently providing a break from the noise and maybe, the ride of your life. All it takes is catching their pantomime, Amr Abdel Aziz, on Friday mornings performing in the city’s metro (underground).
Watching Abdel Aziz mime at the metro is likely the most disarmingly beautiful artistic experiences a person can stumble upon on a Friday morning in Cairo. Jumping from car to car, Abdel Aziz transforms the wagon into his stage. With his quirky movements, wide smile, and engaging aura, Abdel Aziz leaves a warming trail of smiles everywhere he goes.
The performance is part of the company’s launch project called “Shawaraena” (Our Streets). Their mission is to transform Egypt’s public access streets into art spaces that engage all citizens to express themselves, to partake in a cultural event, and simply, to bring joy to the streets.
Co-founder of Shawaraena, Astrid Thews, told Daily News Egypt: “The idea for Mahatat was sparked by the post-revolutionary spirit in Egypt. The goal is to promote positive change in public spaces, to enhance creativity, to increase accessibility of art, all the while, promoting freedom of artistic expression.”
Mahatat is the brainchild of five women hailing from various cultural origins —Astrid Thews, Mayada Said, Heba El Cheikh, Myriam Makhoul, and Marie Girod. The collective formed in late 2011 with the collaborative desire to bring different contemporary art forms to the streets of Egypt.
According to Thews, Shawaraena officially launched on January 20 and will continue performing until June 23, carrying out various performances in the streets of Cairo and around popular street institutions like coffee shops, famous buildings and yards, and the Cairo metro.
The project kicked off several weeks ago with the collective’s first activation, called “Art of Transit,” which aims to transform metro wagons into stages for various types of performances.
Usually taking place on Fridays and Saturdays, Art of Transit presents passengers with visual tales of pantomimes, actors, and musicians. The series of performances includes pantomime Amr Abdel Aziz, comedic clowns Aly Sobhy and Ahmed Mostafa known as “Red Tomato,” and a unique display of invisible theatre pertaining to sexual harassment called “Hara TV,” produced by Nada Sabet and Sally Sami.
Also participating in Art of Transit is “Tahrir Monologues” director Sondos Shabayek with her longstanding project “Bussy” which takes places in the women’s carriage of the metro. Based on Eve Ensler’s acclaimed play “The Vagina Monologues,” the performance discusses sensitive women’s issues built around a series of personal stories from everyday life in Egypt.
“It’s all about exposure and encouraging people to express themselves artistically while enjoying the performance they are watching,” Thews said. “The important thing for us is the audience’s reactions and interactions with the performances.
“Most of the performances are planned in advanced, yet they end up being slightly improvisational because it depends on the audience and the situations the artists face on that particular day. Nonetheless, the reactions have been predominately positive thus far.”
Starting on March 11, Shawaraena will launch its second initiative, “Cinema Sky.” The project invites entire neighborhoods to watch Egyptian short films and video art in the streets.
“We are trying to increase the audience for the short film sector by giving exposure to Egyptian shorts and, hopefully, some of the audience will feel encouraged to then create their own films,” Thews said. “Secondly, screenings in alternative spaces benefit the directors by allowing them to interact with a different audience than their usual festival goers.”
“Stop and Dance” is the third act in Shawaraena’s repertoire. Co-produced by Cairo’s acclaimed contemporary dancer and instructor Karima Mansour, the initiative is an inter-cultural contemporary dance workshop open to professional and amateur dancers alike. The outcome of the workshop will be presented in different stations of the Cairo metro within the first week of April, surprising passengers with flash-mob styled performances.
With performing artists often facing challenges in accessing rehearsal and performances spaces, Mahatat solves two great problems in Egypt’s cultural wheel: they provide Egypt’s shadowed performing artists with platform to show their work, while also bridging the gap between artist and the public.
Wrapping up the launch phase of Shawaraena is, “The Tree Project,” a participatory art workshop that invites Dokki’s youth to join Egyptian artist Yara Mekawei, Danish artist Nanna Guldhammer, and local art students to learn how to create art with recyclable and accessible materials.
The project seeks to interlink artists and residences in a creative collaboration to adorn the trees of the neighborhood with eco-friendly art. The project will close with a one-day tree festival inviting passersby to enjoy their streets and the beautified trees.
In just over a month, Shawaraena has succeeded in presenting over 12 performances, and if the rest of their acts are as touching as Abdel Aziz’s silence and his hundred smiles, then Mahatat is certainly on the right path.