Daily News Egypt

Life, Above All

By Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla /Special to Daily News Egypt August 25, 2010, 2:29 pm Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.” Anthony Brandt Two films at the recently concluded Durban International Film Festival epitomized this statement by Brandt. “Mammoth” and “Life, Above All” were poignant reminders of the familial relationships which shape us. It was difficult to keep a dry eye in both movies, yet the pathos is not soppily sentimental. The realities are portrayed with no polishes. Oliver Schmitz’s “Life, Above All” — which received overwhelmingly raving reviews when it premiered last May in Cannes — won the South African Best Feature Film award at DIFF. Based on Allan Stratton’s evocative novel, “Chanda’s Secrets,” this emotional narrative reveals a young girl’s loyalty and fearless courage in trying to keep her family together. Untrained local actress Kgomotso Manyake was discovered through auditions in a rural area, and delivers a powerful debut performance in here. When Chanda’s baby sister, who’s just a few months old, dies of a mysterious illness, rumors spread through her rural village. Her drunkard stepfather disappears, and when he returns, he shouts that his wife’s milk poisoned the baby. An estimated one in five South African adults is infected with HIV/Aids, yet as “Life, Above All” testifies, a positive status remains a shameful secret, especially in rural areas. Superstitious beliefs and prejudice results in people with AIDS being treated as outcasts. Twelve-year-old Chanda is forced to take responsibility for her family, as her mother falls progressively sicker. The community, most of whom are devout Christians, begins to shun them. Chanda tries, and fails, to get her mother to acknowledge she has AIDS. Their neighbor and friend Mrs Tafa perpetuates the hidden truth. Her mother is told by a sangoma (traditional healer) to travel to her home town to exorcize the demons inside her. After a fight with Mrs Tafa, Chanda visits her mother. There she discovers her mother has been left to die on the outskirts of the village, with other AIDS sufferers. “Life, Above All” is an illustration of how strength and courage of conviction can overcome adversity. It’s a tribute to child-headed households of AIDS orphans whom complacent South Africans now accept as a norm. “Mammoth” centers on a yuppie couple Leo (Gael García Bernal) and Ellen (Michelle Williams) who live in a fancy apartment in New York. “Mammoth” is an insightful, albeit somewhat conventional look at our globalized and material lives by Scandinavian director Lukas Moodysson. The film centers on a yuppie couple Leo (Gael García Bernal) and Ellen (Michelle Williams) who live in a fancy apartment in New York. She’s a trauma surgeon working nightshifts; he’s a dot-com entrepreneur who’s made millions through a videogame website. Their seven-year-old daughter is mostly looked after by the Filipino nanny Gloria, who has left her two sons and family to earn in dollars so she can build a home and give her children a better future. In an ironic scene, she buys a basketball in America, made in the Philippines. Set in three countries; America, Thailand and Philippines, the film is a call for evaluation on what ultimately matters. Nothing is tied up; it’s a seamless screenshot projection into psyches which leaves one discomfited. When Leo and his business partner travel to Thailand to sign a business deal, Leo feels distanced from the opulent world he inhabits. He longs for simplicity, checks out of his five-star hotel, and checks in to a beach house. Meanwhile, Ellen feels ravaged by her job, maternally jealous of Gloria, and distanced from their daughter, who prefers spending time with the nanny. Despite their careers, wealth and material possessions, they feel empty. In typical male fashion, Leo seeks to fill the void by sleeping with a Thai prostitute he strikes up a meaningful friendship with. Pitying her poverty, he gives her a pen gifted to him, which at $3,000, is the most expensive pen in the world. The pen and a Rolex watch fetch her just $25 at a pawn shop. It is Gloria’s sons’ plaintive need for their mother, and hers for them, which repetitively builds on a viewer’s sympathy, climaxing in an outpouring of grief. In an attempt to find work so his mother can come home, her eldest son is molested and beaten by a white male tourist. It is the weak and poor who are taken cruel advantage of by the wealthy and powerful; it is the children who suffer most. “Mammoth” is about the small details which make life so worthwhile, and the infinite yearning of humankind for love and companionship.

Dancing to an African Beat


South African artist Thandiswa Mazwai.


By   Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla/Special to Daily News Egypt May 26, 2010, 4:57 pm
Egypt has always been in a unique socio-political, geographic position. Situated at the very north of the African continent, and bordering the Middle East; it is regarded as both an African nation as well as a Middle Eastern one.

Egyptians are firmly rooted in the Arab world, and few have any conception of an African identity. Egyptians do not perceive their country as African, nor themselves as Africans; they are Arabs in an Arab country.

Despite Egypt winning the African Cup of Nations football tournament a record seven times, there remains an absence of African pride, and almost an implicit rejection of the idea of an African identity. It took a South African musician and her band to instill a new sense of belonging.

Multiple award winner Thandiswa Mazwai was the closing performance for this year’s Spring Festival organized by Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy (Cultural Resource). From May 6 to 22, artists and authors from 15 countries entertained and enlightened audiences in Cairo, Alexandria and Beirut. Last Saturday, Mazwai, together with her band members, literally had the mixed Egyptian and expatriate crowd dancing to an African beat.

Dressed in a traditional African dress made of shweshwe fabric, and with her hair braided into a Mohawk, decorated with coins; Thandiswa is a modern African sensation. Her Converse clad feet stomped the ground, while her tongue ululated the joys and sorrows of this continent.

Born in Transkei, a Bantustan created by the apartheid government for Xhosa speaking people, Thandiswa grew up in Soweto in the 1980s. It was Soweto which bore painful witness to the brutal killing of schoolchildren protesting against being taught in Afrikaans instead of English in 1976, the year she was born. Soweto became the heart of the resistance movement, and Thandiswa was a child of the struggle.

She started her career as lead vocalist for kwaito band Bongo Maffin in 1997. In 2004, she released her first solo album “Zabalaza,” a mix of kwaito, gospel and jazz sounds. It took her five years to produce her second album, “Ibokwe,” which blends traditional Zulu and Xhosa melodies with contemporary pop and jazz tunes.

In her song “Nizalwa Ngobani” (Who Has Given Us Life?) she pleads with young South Africans to remember that struggle, and the leaders who led South Africa to freedom: “The world changes, revolutionaries die, and the children forget. The ghetto is our first love and our dreams are drenched in gold. We don’t even cry. Have you forgotten where you come from?”

Hailed as the Miriam Makeba of this generation, she paid tribute to the late Mama Afrika, by singing Makeba’s signature tune, “Qongqothwane” (the click song), sung when a girl is married. She endeared herself to the audience, encouraging them to sing along. The crowd was eager, merrily stumbling over the myriad of clicks in the Xhosa language, which appear deceptively easy to pronounce.

From the struggle to marriage to the bittersweet drink of love in “Ingoma”. The catchy repetitive chorus “Ngoma we Ngoma we” with its fast rhythm fading to a beating of the drums had the audience up and dancing by their seats.

The South Africans at Geneina Theater could not resist the call of the music of their homeland, and made their way to the area in front of the stage. Whilst the Geneina staff tried keeping people off stage, Thandiswa welcomed them. The rest of the crowd danced their way down too, and then it was a concert to write home about.

Mazwai’s daughter, Malaika, made a brief appearance on stage, dancing with her mum. The backup singers Nogwazi and Slindile performed a traditional Xhosa dance, exciting the crowd with their twisting of waists, shaking of hips, and raising of legs.

There was palpable disappointment when the final song was announced, and the band was called back by a thunderous encore.

“I am an African” was a magical potion wafting through the air. “I want to be South African!,” proclaimed Egyptian-Australian Heba.

Mazwai is aware she has chosen the less popular route to fame. She sings in a language few are familiar with. “The world is interested in the political situation in South Africa. I’m interested in freedom,” she told Daily News Egypt. “My subject material may not be popular, but music makes it easier to deal with serious issues.”

Although the words may not be understood, music does not require language, and Mazwai represents an authentic view of South Africa. Her outlook is simple, “I want the audience to have a spiritual experience. Music is meant to create magic between us and the audience. Music is divine.”


Remnants of the Future


Silence lies at the core of Uriel Orlow’s communicative work.

By   Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla /Special to Daily News Egypt March 23, 2010, 2:00 am

Who will write our stories when we are gone? Will we be chronicled in history books, or will we be forgotten footnotes? Swiss artist Uriel Orlow is drawn to the stories that aren’t told; the discarded footnotes of a time past, which are the remnants of the future.

Speaking to Daily New Egypt, he says, “I’m drawn to the leftover dregs. When the party is over, I want to tell the story of what’s left behind.

Currently in Cairo on a Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council residency program, Orlow screened and discussed his latest work, “Remnants of the Future, at Darb 1718 last Monday. Despite the blustery wind, the audience braved the cold at the outdoor evening screening; huddling into cozy beanbags, tightly wrapped in the shawls provided by Darb.

As a prelude to the film, Orlow showed a series of death masks – including Lenin, Tolstoy, Eisenstein and Mayakovsky – made by Sergey Merkurov, a Gyumri-born sculptor. The masks are displayed at a site close to the film’s location. “Let those who have something to say come forward and be silent, appears on the screen.

Silence lies at the core of Orlow’s communicative work. Focusing on the visual artistry of storytelling, Orlow has created an evocative piece of almost silent film. “Every place has a way of showing itself, of telling its own story, he explains. Accompanying the visuals is the sound-scape by Mikhail Karikis, using the radio waves emitted by dying stars (pulsars), which still reach us after the star has died.

Described as a contemplative sci-fi documentary, “Remnants of the Future is set in the town of Mush, a discarded housing project just outside of the north Armenian town of Gyumri and named after the once flourishing Armenian town in Eastern Anatolia, which in 1915, during the Armenian genocide, became the site of massacres and deportations.

Construction of the ‘new’ Mush began a few months after the major Spitak earthquake in 1988, which destroyed many of Gyumri’s housing blocks and left thousands of people homeless. Promised to be completed within two years, construction of the new Soviet-style suburb eventually came to an abrupt halt as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Russian construction workers were recalled by Moscow.

The landscape speaks of barrenness, but potent symbols of life are clearly visible. The film uses the timeframe of a single day, from dawn to dusk. As an artist, Orlow finds inspiration in what others may perceive as desolation.

The sun rises on a wide screen shot of concrete shells, starkly grey against the rosy hues of dawn. A flock of birds chirp life into the frame. The human presence is introduced with a burning cigarette butt.

Mush is a ghost town brought to life, with washing waving limply on a line strung between buildings, with people moving lethargically from dawn to dusk.

“The only sign of vigorous life, says Orlow, “is a blue plastic bag flying in the wind. But there are children too, playing in a time-warp, waiting for the future.

The inhabitants make their living by selling the stolen scrap metal. Both the birds and metal are symbolic of life, malleable in nature. Orlow refers to the place as ‘inverted ruins.’ decayed before completion. “But life continues, and nature takes over.

It is fitting that Orlow ends the film by using the work of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a disillusioned Soviet revolutionary. The people of Mush are visited by the Phosphorescent Woman, a time traveling character from Mayakovsky’s play “The Bathhouse, which was intended as an attack on Soviet bureaucracy.

“The first-time shuttle for the future leaves at midnight, intones the voice.

The future can only be accessed by knowing the past. Orlow is masterful in allowing the silence to speak, documenting that which isn’t told.

“I’m attracted by absence rather than presence, he reveals. Orlow’s next project will tell the story of the absent footnote of the ships which were passing through the Suez Canal, and got caught in the Six Day War of 1967. They were eventually held there for eight years.

He’s also fascinated by the rich history of downtown Cairo, leaning toward the less famous; choosing the absence of fame of Groppi over the infamous presence of Café Riche.

Orlow’s work can be found at http://www.urielorlow.net/


Hijabi Monologues: Muslim women share their stories

“Hijabi Monologues” reveals multi-dimensionality of Muslim women.

By   Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla / Special to Daily News Egypt April 8, 2010, 2:00 am
CAIRO: “Do you know what it feels like to represent a billion human beings every day when you step out of your house? To be looked at as a representative of an entire world religion. Do you know what that s like? It feels exhausting, and so heavy.

These are the emotionally charged opening words of one story of the “Hijabi Monologues , words any Muslim woman who portrays her Muslim identity through her dressing, can relate to. Although “Hijabi Monologues (HM) is modeled on the popular “Vagina Monologues , there s an inverse aim. While the latter made something from an intensely personal realm public, the HM seeks to make what is visibly public, personal.

The image of a veiled woman has been used over time to portray seduction, with a hint of dangerous intrigue. Post 9/11, it s become almost synonymous with terror. The dress code of Muslim women has been hijacked, and the women who wear it held to ransom. But the seductive element remains, and curiosity is invariably piqued.

One such inquiring mind was Dan Morrison, a non-Muslim white American male who constantly questioned his female Muslim friends on their lives. In the summer of 2006, he suggested the idea of HM to fellow graduate students and friends, Zeenat Rahman and Sahar Ullah, who became the creative force behind the conception of HM.

Ullah says, This is not about hijab itself, which is already over-analyzed. This is about the stories of Muslim women.

HM s Facebook page describes it as a space for Muslim women to share their voices; a space to breathe as they are; a space that does not claim to tell every story and speak for every voice.

When you speak for everyone, you silence other voices, explains Ullah.

Through sharing stories, strangers touch and connect. Through stories, we are challenged. Through stories, we are humanized.

This humanity is evident in the kaleidoscope of stories. They reveal the multi-dimensionality of women who are as complicated as others, and who do not exist solely within a religious bubble.

The stories told vary in depth and emotion, from a woman who contracts the HIV virus from her husband, and the comedic lines used to hit on hijabis, to the heartbreaking story of a young woman with self-esteem issues, who falls pregnant.

While any girl would be judged for falling pregnant out of wedlock, the censure a hijabi faces is magnified.

Ullah poignantly points out, Women in hijab are tired of being judged, of being put on a pedestal we didn t ask to be placed on, and then criticized harshly if we fail.

Since its inception, the one-woman storytelling act was performed across the US. Last Wednesday, via a video teleconference organized by the US Embassy, Ullah performed for a standing-room only audience in Cairo. The monologues she narrated were of American women, but many could be seen nodding their heads in empathy.

Not all were in agreement. Heba, a 19-year-old Cairo University student, differed, These stories have nothing to do with Egyptian women. We don t experience the same problem of being discriminated against because of hijab.

That is why HM is now expanding its reach. It wants to collect the narratives of local women around the world, making their stories global. Ullah is aware of how different each woman s context is, dependent on numerous factors.

The burden of representation and judgment is raised again in a skit where a woman is sworn at by a man in public. In anger, she wants to return the verbal abuse, but her hijab is a deterrent.

“I’m a hijabi by choice, but I did not choose to wear hijab because I wanted to represent Islam. That is a responsibility that’s way beyond me to handle. I make mistakes and I’m far from perfect. The mistakes I make should be a representation of me, and not my beliefs.

Ullah possesses a strong, warmly engaging personality and she reveals how she learned about herself and America only when she was outside of the US. Of Bangladeshi origin, it was while studying in Cairo that she became cognizant of how much of her identity is that of a minority, and how different it was to be in a country where she was mistaken as Egyptian, making her a part of the majority.

She narrates how the issue of ethnic identity was powerfully demonstrated in one performance as co-performer Rafiah Jones, who s African-American, responded to a question from a Caucasian-American asking where she s from. Do you really want to have this conversation? Do you really want to talk about history? Because we can have this conversation if you want to know how 300 years ago, my ancestors were forcibly removed from a country in Africa I don t know the name of.

During the audience discussion, a pertinent point was raised. Non-hijabis in Egypt can feel just as judged as hijabis in non-Muslim countries. Assumptions abound on all sides. It s through listening to the stories that stereotypes are broken, and understanding forged.

Interested individuals and organizations can purchase the scripts from HM, and stage their own performances. EmailHijabi.monologues@gmail.com


Gaza graffiti: The art of war




By   Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla/ Special to Daily News Egypt November 3, 2010, 3:43 pm
The people of Gaza have been dehumanized. This was the overarching message at the Cairo launch of Swedish journalist Mia Grondahl’s book “Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics.” Organized by the Embassy of Sweden in Cairo and the American University in Cairo Press, Monday’s event drew a large crowd that included dignitaries and what appeared to be the entire Swedish community in Cairo.

Swedish Ambassador Malin Kärre explained the embassy’s involvement. “Firstly, there’s the Swedish-Egyptian connection. Mia is Swedish, currently living in Cairo. Secondly, freedom of expression is embedded in the Swedish Constitution. The people of Gaza have a right to speak up and have their stories heard.”

A panel discussion entitled “Gaza Today: What’s happening behind the closed borders?” opened the evening. Renowned Egyptian journalist Amira Howeidy moderated the session with Swedish journalists Cecilia Udden, Lotta Schullerqvist and Grondahl. Palestinian journalist Sami Abu Salem, the only male, completed the quartet.

The discussion began on a personal note, with Salem relating incidents from his daily life. He last left Gaza in 2005, and was only able to travel to Egypt with the assistance of the Swedish embassy. Salem wryly mentioned how even his desire to sleep with his wife is curtailed by Israel. “If there’s no water we can’t shower afterwards,” he remarked.

When asked by Howeidy if they feel their work has influenced Western public opinion, the Swedes were uncertain. “It’s important to break through the anonymity of victimhood, to tell the stories of individuals,” said Udden. “Gazans don’t want to be seen as beggars and victims. They want to be seen as real people. Despite their suffering, they are able to laugh at their misery, and this spirit must be captured.”

Schullerqvist was vocal about the Rafah border crossing. “Israel’s so called easing of the blockade is not true. Essential goods are still not being let in. UNRWA cannot build urgently needed classrooms, because of a lack of building materials, so 40,000 children cannot go to school annually. We have to spread this information,” she emphasized.

“The problem is the European Union not speaking to Hamas,” added Udden. “The people suffer, not Hamas. Western powers should have put a warning, like on cigarette packs, that voting for Hamas would result in a siege on Gaza.”

Graffiti of resistance

Grondahl was fascinated by the unique graffiti she saw in Gaza. Works of art adorned grey walls which would otherwise look desolate. Graffiti of resistance was born during the first Intifada of 1987. In the absence of Palestinian run television, radio and newspapers, graffiti became an important means of communication.

In her book, Grondahl writes, “In graffiti, the Intifada’s activists had found a way to inform Gaza residents about what was happening: the walls told them who had fallen in battle, summoned them to take part in new protest actions, and encouraged them to continue resisting.

“The occupying power was well aware of the graffiti’s explosive potential. The Israeli military often invaded a refugee camp at dawn and forced the inhabitants out of their graffiti-covered houses with the order: ‘Wash the walls clean!’ But as soon as the soldiers had disappeared in their jeeps, the graffiti activists returned with their battery of paint cans and sprayed new slogans in the fight for a free Palestine.”

Following Arafat’s signing of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority sought a new beginning. They attempted to whitewash the graffitied walls, and failed. In the words of one graffiti artist: “Suddenly all these naked white surfaces were all over Gaza, as if the walls had been prepared especially for us. All we had to do was to start spraying!”

Today it acts as both a tool of resistance and a form of healing. One artist lost both his legs and his family in an Israeli raid. From his wheelchair, he paints a mural depicting his painful experience.

Salem’s brother was killed by Israeli soldiers while painting graffiti, protesting the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

Graffiti in Gaza is not about rebellious youth vandalizing property. Artists are trained, and commissioned to write political slogans. Hamas offers the best training, and has the best calligraphers. They believe Arabic is the language of God, and thus the script must be beautiful.

Howeida asked the panelists their perceptions of resistance. Udden answered, “We have a problem defining resistance. For Palestinian rappers, their music is resistance, but others see it as imperialism.” All agreed the resistance must continue.

‘Gaza Monologues’

The El Warsha Theater Company also presented a mosaic of songs and readings of the “Gaza Monologues,” stories of youth’s individual experiences, their dreams, fears and hopes. “The Gaza Monologues” first opened on October 17, 2010 around the world. On November 29, each participating country will send a representative to the UN where “Gaza Monologues” will be recited in a multitude of languages.

A stirring rendition of the song “The Most Beautiful of Mothers: Mother of the Martyr” instilled silent rapture in the audience. The evening ended with Palestinian music producer Said Murad’s song of resistance, which had the crowd erupt into an encore of applause.

“Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics” is available in bookstores across the country.


Art is Life

On art and life: Biennale winner speaks out

Amal Kenawy.

By   Bibi-Aisha Wadvalla/ Special to Daily News Egypt January 7, 2011, 6:17 pm
T here’s something about Amal Kenawy. Intriguing, warm but with a hint of coolness, open yet reserved, Amal Kenawy is like her living room which inspires wonder the moment one enters. It’s a clearly unique space, with her multi-faceted personality asserting its identity. It’s colorful and playful, a room which draws you in, and encourages you to touch, imbibe the sensory experience, feel.Born in 1974, this award-winning Egyptian artist says that since she was a child, she knew what path her life would take. She studied Fashion Design and Fine Arts, but was not impressed by the mediocrity of the classes. “I was inspired by my older brother, an artist, who taught me what to learn and what to leave,” she explains. 

Inspiration is the core of what Kenawy believes it takes to be an artist. “If you can inspire others through what you do, be it cooking or writing, and if you do it with love, then you are an artist,” she exhorts.

“Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?” is the oft-asked question. For Kenawy, art is life. She rejects the clichéd portrayal of misunderstood artists filled with angst, wanting to live in creative isolation. “The media has created a kitsch, unrefined image of artists. Art is about expressing life, and connecting with life through the audience,” she says.

Kenawy did just that for her performance art piece ‘Silence of the Lambs’ which won her the Grand Prize in the Cairo 12th Biennale this year. In 1998 the Biennale had awarded her the UNESCO Grand Prize. Her piece was interactive and multi-sensory; a living room and kitchen decorated for Christmas, live cooking, a video playing.
Kenawy feels the need to bridge the gap between artist and audience, and to merge life and art. She took to the street for the video installation in her piece. In downtown Cairo, she, together with a group of actors and her 10-year-old son, engaged with people, drawing them into the performance. Her work was a social statement on the condition of Egyptians. The lambs are people, silenced by their feelings of powerlessness. And in the voicing of daily frustrations, there’s only noise.

The silent performance was more potent. She ‘shepherded’ a group of workers, as they crossed the road on their knees. This particular act was met with alarming hostility. One bystander protested, and others followed blindly, accusing her of humiliating Egyptians. The social attitude is that of self-censorship. National Security was called, and Kenawy was arrested, thus exemplifying an artist suffering for their work.

“It was difficult explaining performance art to the police,” she recalls. “They didn’t understand it, and thus didn’t see it as real art.”

Kenawy is visibly shaken recollecting her night in prison. “They wanted to humiliate me too, so I was placed in a mixed prison. Men and women have to share one cell.” She’s also still upset by the lack of support from Townhouse Gallery upon hearing of her arrest. “It’s a sensitive issue, but they could have stood by me. I felt no respect as an artist.”

The Ministry of Culture tried hard to step in to help her but State Security said that it was too late. Kenawy is accepting of this. She doesn’t want to be the person who’s called a complainer, and she doesn’t want to attract unwanted attention from authorities.

Despite the difficulties faced here, Kenawy has not considered moving abroad. “Before, it was because I was married with a baby. But as an artist, I wouldn’t want to move,” she says definitely. “We are all influenced by where we come from. My identity is here, it’s flexible and I have been shaped by the good and bad. I understand Egypt and it understands me.

It takes a long time to find a clear identity in another country. That’s risky for an artist.”

Kenawy’s work encompasses all mediums, and she draws on the laws of biology, nature, physics. “I lean on physics for a sculptural installation. It’s all about unity. Everything has a function, and the form is perfect depending on the function.”

There is also a spiritual element to her work. She studied Sufi arts for a limited time, but does not regard herself as a Sufi. She does, however, find understanding in Sufi ideologies. “There’s a balance in the Sufi way of connecting the soul and energy to life,” she explains.

Just as artists have been portrayed as misunderstood, the general public have been portrayed as not being able to understand art. Kenawy reiterates, “Art is life. People think they don’t understand, but they do.”

She believes we all have an artistic gift within us, we just have to broaden our definition of what art is.

“Booby Trapped Heaven” video animation shown in 2005 Venice Biennale.

Kenawy was arrested while filming her award-winning “Silence of the Lambs.”

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