Writer's Block in Cairo

By Giglio, Mike | Newsweek, January 23, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Writer's Block in Cairo

Giglio, Mike, Newsweek

Byline: Mike Giglio

Can the Arab Spring's Revolutionary Fervor translate into great art?

The cosmetics shop, situated inside a mall on the outskirts of Cairo, is called Kamanana. The word is plastered above the doorway on a garish yellow sign. It means nothing--a nonsense word, as musicians say. It was introduced by Mohamed Fouad, the famous Egyptian singer, in the hit song from his 1997 film Ismailia Back and Forth. The movie was so successful that the word became embedded in the popular consciousness. It is understood to be synonymous with "everything." "What do you want?" Fouad asks in the song. "Kamanana."

Seated in a restaurant near the mall's entrance, Fouad is subject to a steady stream of adoration. Members of the wait staff thank him for coming. Women pose for photos. Men shake his hand. Fouad takes it all in stride. "Mohamed Fouad is for all," he says.

Or at least he used to be. Fouad has a problem. He doesn't know how to sing for anyone these days.

To Fouad, each of his songs is a miniature drama, conceived with a finger on the popular pulse. It has a beginning, middle, and end, just like a film, but its message is distilled into a few short minutes, making it more like a movie trailer. "A song is the same," he says. "You can convey a picture: what is the moment that we're living?" A successful song, for Fouad, is something like a trailer for the times--or a good ad, resonating with regular Egyptians because it reflects how they're feeling and what they want.

When Egypt's protest movement began last winter, Fouad went on television, crying, and pleaded with people to leave the streets. He says that, like many Egyptians, he was simply afraid. He has come around to embrace the revolution but now feels lost in the murkiness that has settled in since. The old Egypt is gone, and a new one has yet to take shape--"we're standing on shifting sands," it is often said. The uncertainty has been wearing on mainstream artists, like Fouad, who flourished in simpler times. He no longer knows what his audience wants to hear, or even what he should say. "It's just as if I've never sung before," he says.

After President Hosni Mubarak left power last February, Yousra, the country's iconic actress, took a role in Interior/Exterior, a fictionalized short about a middle-aged couple who wrestle over whether to join the crowds in Tahrir Square. It screened at Cannes with a compilation called 18 Days, to warm reviews. Yousra says she won't make another film about the revolution anytime soon.

The actress saw a perfect picture of a unified Egypt when people first filled Tahrir Square. Then Mubarak left, and the spell broke. "There was a magical moment in the revolution," she says. "Now I see killing. I see blood. I see miscommunication."

Yousra won plaudits for the pro-revolutionary character she played in Interior/Exterior, but she feels torn about where things are headed. "There are moments when my heart really feels for the situation, and then there are moments when I think it is false," she says. It feels wrong to make a film about something that seems so uncertain--both all around her and inside her head. "Whenever anyone asks me what I'm doing, I say I'm sitting and watching," she says. "When you don't shout, you listen, and when you listen, you might understand something differently."

In the revolution's early days, everyone from poets to punk rockers flocked to the cause. Egyptian graffiti gained global fame, and museums put together showcases of revolutionary art. The most popular song of the protest movement came from a struggling guitarist named Ramy Essam. He wrote the compilation of popular chants and improvised lines in a few minutes from inside Tahrir.

Many stars found it hard not to get caught up in the rush. "At the beginning there were many arguments between artists," says the actress Nelly Karim, who starred in the 2010 hit 678.

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