Last week in Cairo saw the second of two workshops take place at Ain Shams University, entitled “Egyptian women artists and writers, and cultures of resistance.” In partnership with one another, the University of Manchester hosted the first workshop in November 2012, entitled “Women and political activism in Egypt.” While the focus of both workshops was clearly on the role of women in Egypt during and after the January 25 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the focus in November was on the political dynamics of Egyptian women and its nuances, while last week saw papers and discussions centred on art, literature, music, and other popular and less popular mediums of expression that evoked the image of Egyptian women during and after the revolution.
For three days these students were unassuming tireless ushers who ensured us delegates never wanted for anything. Always polite and friendly, they appeared just as happy that we were at their university as we were to be there. But it was our (or at least my) mistake to forget that for all the academic and technical discussions about the future of Egypt through the lens of women and artistic expression, the answer to all our questions can sometimes be staring you in the face. The highlight of the conference came in the very last hour of the conference on the final day: the students of Ain Shams, faculty of arts, showed us exactly what effect the Egyptian Revolution has had on both the young adults of the nation and the immediate future of the nation’s artistic expression.
After we had all been seated, students Gehad Minshawy and Mai Hassan Ali stepped up to the front of the lecture hall and in a moment they were transferred from background ushers to frontstage performers. With a brief introduction about the song they were going to sing, (Eskenderella’s version of “Yohka anna”), the two young ladies produced this performance which both captivated the audience in a deafening silence as they sang, yet produced enthusiastic applause at their final chord. No academic or writer over the three days had received anywhere near that reception, and for good reason too. It is to the credit of the organisers of the event, Dr. Dalia Mostafa from the University of Manchester, and Professor Faten Morsy from Ain Shams University, that they left the work of these remarkable and talented students until the very end – showing us in live and living colour what we had all been talking about for three days. The song itself portrays the intense national pride Egypt had during those utopian eighteen days, and Gehad and Mai sing it with equal amounts of passion and emotion.
As we recovered from their performance, Mina Wilson was then introduced by a member of staff from Ain Shams University. As I looked around wondering who Mina Wilson was, the only person I could see standing near the podium was the young man in a suit who had tirelessly helped all us speakers for the three days with all our technological issues before we presented. He was always smiling and polite despite, I am sure, our annoying questions like “Are you sure it’s going to work?” and “Can we test the video I’m going to show one more time?” And then Mina approached the microphone on the podium and I realised, just like Gehad and Mai, it was his time to graduate from the unassuming to the no longer to be ignored. As he began trying to set up the video he had created, even affording an ironic smile and a laugh from the audience as the big screen displayed in large capital letters “ERROR,” his video started and we once again fell into a shared silence. Here is Mina’s video, which I must confess I have now watched up to a dozen times since seeing it that Wednesday afternoon. It needs no description from me, but if ever there were proof needed that Egypt’s awareness of gender relations had been raised, it is the work of a young man focusing his time, effort and talent like this to document a cause that he believes in.
His choice of footage and accompanying soundtracks left us all once again applauding him as the video came to a close, and I was astounded at how differently I now looked at Gehad, Mai, and Mina. I did not know their names prior to their performances, nor did I ever say anything more than “please” and “thank you” in those three days except in that final hour where I once again thanked them from the bottom of my heart. Myself, and I am sure the audience of academics, now understood, more clearly than any academic paper could ever reveal, the true extent to which Egypt’s young adults have been affected by the past two turbulent years - two years of revolution, two years of uncertainty, but also two years leading to endless possibility that these three students showed in fifteen minutes.
They were old enough to be in Tahrir or watch Tahrir on television, mature enough to now understand that they are living in extraordinary times, and from their performances and my brief talk with them afterwards, passionate enough about Egypt to drive it forward. They stole the show, which is how it should be, because the show was meant to be about them in the first place.