Artscape - Storyteller in Egypt

Whose country is it anyway?

The youth of post-revolution Egypt are puffed with pride at what it now means to be Egyptian.

Eighteen days of relentless protests involving hundreds of thousands of people led to the end Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule in February [Neil Brandt]

When Artscape went to Cairo to film the story of Abeer Soliman, a storyteller who recasts the classic tales of One Thousand and One Nights to reflect modern-day Egypt, a revolution was sweeping across the country. Here producer Shameela Seedat writes about filming in a city undergoing a historical transformation.

One of my first assignments on this production was to look for any signs of physical change that separated pre- and post-revolution Egypt. The director wanted to capture these visually.

On our second day in Cairo, while walking along the Nile to the heavily guarded Television Headquarters to get our filming permit, we stumbled upon what is perhaps the most striking physical embodiment of a “break from the past”.

The enormous, multi-storey building, previously the headquarters of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, dominated the river landscape with its blackened, scorched façade. It had been set on fire during the revolution, burning for three days.

In pictures: Signs of change in Egypt

Across the road, along the banks of the Nile, we witnessed merry scenes of young people; talking, playing and laughing – and it was difficult at that particular moment not to associate these images with the thrill and optimism which accompanies a country’s new-found freedom.

We were, of course, curious to discover what change really meant for Egyptians – beyond obvious signs and symbols, and what was now expected as the country charts a new course for itself. As we delved further into our production, exploring the views and predicaments not only of our main character but also of other artists and performers we encountered along the way, the picture became both more complex and uplifting.

Many people puffed with pride and enthusiasm over the peaceful toppling of the regime in February, and spoke passionately about what it means to be Egyptian today. However, there was great anxiety about the worsening economic situation and the uncertain political future. 

Difficult issues remain. Economic improvements, effective political party competition and justice for crimes committed by the Mubarak regime, are seen as critical themes for a post-revolution Egypt. The future role of the army, the role of religion in politics and the recurrence of the old regime in new guises were also questions that attracted passionate debate in both everyday conversation and local newspapers.

It was evident from our stay in Egypt that people have strong views and are committed to playing their part in the reconfiguration of their country. As one actor at Beit El Sehmy put it: “We are free now, we have choices. That is the most important thing. It does not mean that we all agree. But it is better than anything we had before because freedom means that, now, one person can say something, and another person can say ‘no, it is better to do it this way’.”

We were also extremely inspired by various tales highlighting the place of art, music and performance in the January revolution, and in this current period of flux. An actor, who we interviewed, described how humbling it was to see protestors at Tahrir Square using various artistic forms to express themselves; to keep spirits up and to build unity – in a manner that appeared effortless.

In our last week of filming, we were, however, caught up in an unfortunate incident. While filming an artists’ gathering at Tahrir Square on Labour Day, a few ‘thugs’ shut down a scheduled performance of music and theatre, heckled the minister of culture and forcibly prevented our director from using his camera. These ‘thugs’ argued that art and performance constituted an affront to the memories of martyrs who had died in the revolution. Yet one of the artists involved in the fray – a prominent theatre director who has worked tirelessly in independent theatre for the last 30 years, remarked that while he was disturbed by these “troublemakers”, he would never be deterred by them, and would continue to do exactly what he has been doing for the last 30 years, which is to wake up each morning and make political art with added vigour.

Having returned to South Africa after an extraordinary experience, my most enduring memory is that of an encounter between our 32-year-old local production assistant – who did not miss a day of protest at Tahrir Square – and a uniformed policeman as we were filming a scene in a quiet part of the city. The policeman, who was on duty nearby, loudly remarked that it was fine for us to film that particular scene and we should thus carry on with our work for as long as we wanted. Our production assistant, justifiably fed up with police control for all his life under the Mubarak regime, turned to him defiantly, and replied: “There is no need for you tell us that we can film here. We know that we can – because it is our revolution; it is our country now – it is not yours.”

Shameela Seedat has studied law, politics and human rights at the University of Cape Town and at Columbia University in New York, where she was a Fulbright scholar. She has worked in the public interest field for 14 years – as a researcher for the Constitutional Court of South Africa; a legal consultant for UNIFEM in New York; and as senior researcher and policy analyst at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA). She is currently working on two documentaries taking place in Egypt and Turkey, directed by Emmy-award-winning director Francois Verster.


This episode of Artscape can be seen from Friday, July 8, at the following times GMT: Friday: 1930; Saturday: 1430; Sunday: 0430; Monday: 0830.

Click here for more on the series.