News Overview 2013

"Our work is especially important now"

Angela Verweyen lives and works as a Robert Bosch cultural manager in Egypt, where she plans and organizes cultural events. In this interview with the Robert Bosch Stiftung, she talks about what has changed since Mubarak’s fall and why advertising with flyers does not work in Egypt.

A nightly curfew is currently in effect in Egypt, and violent political protests continue to occur. How is cultural work even possible in these conditions?

You are right; it really is a bit difficult for my colleagues and me in the Robert Bosch cultural manager program at the moment since our offices are located in Cairo. But that is not where we do our work. In my case, I am currently working in the Nile Delta. My coworkers are in Upper Egypt, and it really is not clear whether the roads there are clear. This means that, at the moment, we are a bit cut off from the places where we carry out our cultural work.

And our ability to plan is also limited. Right now it is difficult to make decisions such as whether we can hold a festival three weeks from now, because no one knows how the situation is going to develop over the coming three weeks. The same thing applies when we invite guests from Germany. When carrying out these projects, you are not only responsible for yourself but also for the partners and guests.

At the moment, events are still being held in the cities – for example, movie screenings. But it has become more difficult since you now need to carefully consider everyone’s needs; you do not really want to hold a cultural event a day after severe riots.

On the other hand, at the moment I have the feeling that our work is important, and we should not stop. This does not mean pushing forward at the expense of my own safety, but it is too important for me to just bury my head in the sand. We receive a great deal of positive feedback when we hold events now, although they may be smaller and not include any foreign guests. But you can still act as a contact person. And it goes without saying that I hope things cool down enough that we can work normally once again.

You are familiar with Egypt from time you spent in the country back in 2005. What has changed since Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011?

Many things – both for the positive and the negative. Some things have not changed: the city of Cairo is still chaotic and will always be that way. Yet I am extremely happy that many issues, particularly political issues, can now be discussed more openly. I recently noted with surprise that my friends were sitting in a café talking about politics. This was never the case earlier. Politics was always a topic that you did not speak about in public. And why should you when it is clear that you cannot have an impact on things? But that has changed. I also have noticed that it is not only politics. Other issues have also come out into the open, like sexual harassment. People’s interest and the feeling that they can have an influence in politics have been aroused. This is an extremely new realization, especially for young Egyptians.

Which projects are you working on in the Nile Delta as a cultural manager?

My main role is to offer something that goes above and beyond sitting in a café and smoking a water pipe. For example, we have had a German film club since the beginning of the year where once a month I drive to the location, show a German movie, and afterwards talk about it with the audience. This is popular, since previously the people only had limited access to European movies. We also had a break-dancing project with several workshops that will hopefully end with a festival in September. The festival will act as a platform for break-dancers and other underground artists, like hip-hop and rap musicians, to show off their skills. But at the moment, we are not sure whether the festival will even take place.

We also organized a comic competition entitled “A Hero from My Hometown” that was open to applications from across the country and encouraged people to turn their gaze back toward their own city – since everything in Egypt is focused on Cairo at the moment. This competition ended with a workshop that saw a German comic-strip artist spend a weekend working on comics with twelve artists from across all Egyptian provinces.

How do you come up with these ideas?

A lot of it has to do with what the local people want. When I first started working here, I traveled around a lot, meeting with the cultural community as well as possible partner institutions. I made a conscious decision to spend a long time just listening to the issues important to the people. Film is a major focus in Mansoura. There are a couple young filmmakers and a large group of people interested in film here. So this is what led me to want to offer something here on an ongoing basis – the film club. Then there are projects that I developed together with my two colleagues. Some of them are simply experiments. Before offering the break-dance project, I was not sure if anyone would even be interested. Now I have found a group of seven people who break-dance in Mansoura.

You often invite artists from Germany. How do you select them?

For us, it does not matter whether or not someone is famous in Germany, since they certainly are not famous in Egypt either way. It is important to me that I find people who are willing to accept the realities of the local situation. In the Nile Delta, the structures are rather simple; the public is not as well versed in the subject matter as they might be in other places. For example, during a reading we discuss the literary subtleties less and focus more on who the author is and why they are writing.

We think about a potential candidate who we can get up close and personal with, who will get involved, and who will not be scared by a lot of people clustering around them. The Goethe Institute advises us from a professional standpoint and recommends artists. And the topics we deal with need to be issues that mean something to the local population. For example, in January 2014, the German author Hussain al-Mozany will pay us a visit. He has written a lot about topics related to foreignness. For example what it is like when someone comes to Germany as a foreigner. I think this will be an exciting combination, bringing him together with the many young people in the cities who believe that Germany is the place they need to get to in order for their lives to be just fantastic.

Who comes to your event: People who are already interested in Europe and belong to a more educated part of the population?

Primarily students between 18 and 23 years old. In addition to them, other people, particularly older men, come to things like our literature events. You could definitely call it a culturally interested and more educated group. We do not really reach the very poor and uneducated classes. Reaching them is a difficult job to begin with, although not impossible. But our core audience is comprised of students, like those who are studying medicine and want to work in Germany one day. They are really happy about the fact that there is someone from Germany here at all who they can come to with questions.

And how do you make the public aware of your events?

Through local partners who also offer us the locations for our events. I work with a bookstore in Mansoura where I show movies and hold readings. A large part of our audience comes through them. We also have a Facebook page that we use to present our work and publish event announcements. Facebook is the main platform we use to present ourselves externally and invite people to our events. This is an important tool, especially in the Egyptian provinces. Flyers and posters do not really work that well. People simply are not familiar with the idea of flyers lying on tables in cafés that you can just take. We do most of our organizing via Facebook and – particularly when it comes to the Egyptian provinces – through personal relationships.

Have you ever faced criticism or hostility?

No, not in the Nile Delta. Sometimes when I went to a public institution to introduce a project, they did not have much interest in a partnership. But that was not ever negative criticism, simply an objective statement: “We have our own program and do not see much benefit in a partnership.” Otherwise, the Nile Delta is an extremely thankful environment. It is not as though the British, French, or Italians are also all here offering cultural activities in addition to ours. We are the only ones active in the Nile Delta. Everything else is focused on Cairo and Alexandria. The activities I offer stand out and are interesting. And sometimes not even because people are really interested in the film, but simply because “the German lady” is in town.

(Julia Rommel, September 2013)

Picture Gallery

A young theater actress presented a short story by Christoph Peters in Arabic
An audience of amateur poets, book-club members listening to Christoph Peters' reading in a bookstore in Mansoura
Many of the participating artists drew their first comic-strip
Discussing ideas with a German comic-strip artist
Working through the lunch break, since this was a one-of-a-kind opportunity to meet a professional comic-strip artist
Presenting the results of two days of intense comic-strip work
The workshop's subject: "A hero from my home-town"