Egypt’s capital, Cairo, is now synonymous with protests and sometimes violence. Late at night, the once-bustling downtown streets are now largely empty. People worry about getting mugged or caught up in a wrong mob.
But the recent Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival is an attempt to revitalize the area with music, art and culture in the old and forgotten venues of downtown Cairo, like the Qasr El Nil Theater.
Its candle-shaped lights and dusty red velvet curtains hint at it glorious past — never mind the curtains’ missing tassels or the smell of smoke and urine in the lobby.
After years of sitting unused, the Qasr El Nil Theater echoes once again with music. It was the site of the arts festival’s final concert. The decision was deliberate: to breathe new life into Cairo’s decrepit architecture.
“Cairo is a city that needs a lot of dusting,” says Ahmed El Attar, the festival director. “It’s almost an unloved city.”
He chose the venues to highlight Cairo’s trove of theaters and hotels that languish dusty and unused.
“It’s a city of a lot of things hidden and because of neglect and a general feeling of apathy over the last 50 years of military rule and dictatorship and oppression and a general feeling of not valuing your own self as individuals and also of society,” he says. “So the city is abandoned.”
Downtown Cairo is filled with beautiful architecture. Built during the brief French occupation of Egypt under Napoleon, it’s Parisian with an Egyptian twist: stunning window arches, delicate iron-wrought balconies overlooking the streets, apartments with high ornate, ceilings. But now, dust masks the beauty, the architecture lost in decay.
Since the revolutions that swept through Egypt, Tunisia and beyond, the arts scene has exploded. Artists are freer to express themselves publicly, and there’s a willing audience searching for something new.
Egyptian folk singer Dina El Wedidi shot to fame after the revolution. Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi is known as the voice of Tunisia’s revolution. They made up the double bill of the festival’s final musical performance.
In her song “On My Mind (Fe Bali),” Mathlouthi sings about Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian man who set himself on fire, an act that sparked what was called the Arab Spring.
“What I see in the audiences, they feel in a way my music gives them some power, some hope, some strength,” Mathlouthi says. “There aren’t so many people that sing about freedom, about human beings, about society, about problems.”
At the heart of festival director Attar’s efforts is a hope.
“Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, culturally, intellectually and artistically,” Attar says. “There is a revival now and it’s important that we believe in that and start putting it back.”
Inside the theater, Mathlouthi wows the crowd. By the end of the night, the audience is weeping as she sings songs about continuing a struggle for freedom.