Translator, author, and editor Yasmine Zohdi writes in Mada Masr on art, maneuvering, the freighted idea of “relevance”, and persistent precarity:
“What we talk about when we talk about trees” opens at the Gouna Film Festival, with its surreal opening advertisement, and ranges across the Egyptian art scene as it stands in late 2019:
The culture scene is rapidly being absorbed by the state and its allies. There are only a few platforms left where artists can hope for some real exposure: official events, like CIFF; semi-official ones that are run by businessmen but adopt more or less the same rhetoric as the state, such as the GFF; initiatives intended to strengthen the local art scene but are now sponsored by the very entity adamant on gentrifying the center of that scene (DCAF); or barely curated art shows that double as tourism campaigns, like those organized by the now-ubiquitous Art d’Egypte. Even TV, the most mainstream of all mediums, has undergone a systemic process of near-total monopolization by intelligence-owned companies over the past two years.
Being an artist or a creative practitioner of any kind in Cairo has become akin to attempting to dance in a broom closet. Try as you might, there’s just no space to move. That is how physical the confines are starting to feel. And the results are palpable. When nothing moves, when movement is slight at best, nothing is moving.
There is no longer room left to maneuver, and we are left with two choices: to withdraw entirely, or to talk about trees. How do we create a third option?
Issues of control have long plagued Egyptian arts, those that have public showings more than literature, but literature as well, and increasingly. Zohdi writes:
As my husband gets ready for a TV interview about his latest short story collection, he receives a phone call from the host, asking: “What are we going to do about January 25?” My husband is puzzled; the revolution’s defeat is pretty much the central theme of the work. Yet they can’t really discuss that on live TV — they have to find a way around it, he is told.