They have explored new worlds with children, drawn comics with teenagers, and discussed current affairs with people of all ages. Over the past 15 years, the Robert Bosch Stiftung fellowship recipients have organized a wide variety of cultural projects in different regions of Egypt as part of the “Robert Bosch Cultural Managers in the Arab World” program. Four cultural managers share the story of their adventures during their time in Egypt.
Buses filled to the brim with the curious from the surrounding villages, carpets laid out on the ground in the open spaces, an artist on a pyramid-like structure performing tricks: Hélène Aury remembers the scene in the Egyptian village of Abu Mangog vividly – it is ingrained in her memory. “There were around 3,000 people visiting. We hadn’t expected so many,” says the 30-year-old former cultural manager for the Robert Bosch Stiftung. In this role, she co-created the circus project in the Nile Delta in 2016. Clowns, gymnastics, music, and even fire performers entertained the audience. “The great thing about the project was the sharing between people on all levels,” she says – among artists from different countries as well as with the visitors and children that were able to learn about the work of circus performers through workshops.
Hélène Aury, 30, now lives in Paris and works for the Musée de l’Histoire vivante. She worked as a cultural manager in the Nile Delta from 2015 to 2017. Before that, she studied Political Sciences, International Relations, and New Media and interned with a journalism blog in Tunisia. Examples of her projects include bringing jazz music to the opera house in Damanhur and touring Egyptian villages and towns with circus acrobats.
Intercultural communication was a key component of the “Cultural Managers in the Arab World” program organized by the Robert Bosch Stiftung in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut. The 21 fellows who were part of the program in Egypt since 2005 not only established networks and collaborations, but also launched various cultural event formats and worked closely with people in Egypt.
For instance, they organized film screenings and explored public spaces on bikes with groups of women, made art out of plastic waste with children in the Siwa Oasis, and brought the first jazz concert to the opera house in Damanhur. Initially, the cultural managers mostly came from Germany; for the past two years, they worked in German-Egyptian tandems. Since the beginning, the focus of their work and projects was primarily on the more rural parts of Egypt. As a result, they were most active in the Nile Delta and the southern and northern regions of Upper Egypt.
Upside down: The artists of the circus project organized by the Robert Bosch Cultural Manager had a lot of fun with the participating children.
Cultural life revolves around urban centers
Cultural life in Egypt primarily revolves around urban centers such as Cairo and Alexandria. This is where the majority of Egyptian creatives gather. “For us, it was important to go against this trend,” explains Laura Stauth. For the past two years, the 30-year-old was responsible for the northern region of Upper Egypt, together with her tandem partner Asmaa Ghareeb. The idea was that locals should not have to travel more than six hours by train to be able to experience culture, she says.
Also, there are committed people in the countryside who are not drawn to the big cities and want to create something for their communities. “They approach this task with great dedication. I find that impressive,” adds Laura, who worked with some of them. She is impressed by Egypt’s diversity: “So many realities, so many cities, so many experiences. There are so many worlds to be explored if you just open the door,” she says.
Laura Stauth, 30, studied Development Sociology and Global Anthropology along with Visual Anthropology. As a cultural manager, she primarily worked in the northern region of Upper Egypt. She was a fellow from 2018 to 2020. She mainly focused on the areas of film, gender, oral history, and urban heritage. Her take on Egypt: “So many realities, so many cities, so many experiences. There are so many worlds to be explored if you just open the door.”
Along with her tandem partner Asmaa Ghareeb, Laura Stauth ran film-related projects, among other things, because they both share a passion for this art form. Consequently, they collected films from young Egyptian filmmakers and brought members of the film scene together. When working in rural areas, key is to listen to the locals and organize projects based on their input.
Crucial considerations include: How should cultural work be approached? What is the available infrastructure? What environment am I working in? “Sometimes that means re-thinking things. It’s a process of give and take,” Laura summarizes her experiences of working on projects. It also involves getting closer to the people. “The fellowship work forces you to think freely, but also to think in new ways,” she explains.
In the Siwa Oasis, the local children explored the area together with the Cultural Managers - and collected garbage to transform it into art.
Supporting projects from start to finish
Right from the outset, the cultural manager program also aimed to give fellows room for personal growth and gain a wide variety of experiences from their work, preparing them for positions in the culture sector. Yasmin Ouberri describes her time as a cultural manager in Egypt as the most valuable and formative professional experience she could have had. “If you have ever been a Robert Bosch cultural manager, the world is your oyster,” the 32-year-old sums up her time as a fellow. She worked in southern Upper Egypt from 2016 to 2018 and helped organize cultural activities in the region.
Yasmin Ouberri, 32, is the network manager for The Candid Foundation in Berlin. She worked as a cultural manager in southern Upper Egypt from 2016 to 2018. Before that, she studied Islamic Studies and German Studies. She was most excited about a project in the Siwa Oasis, where she helped children collect plastic waste and use it to make colorful artwork. Her recap of the fellowship program: “If you have ever been a Robert Bosch cultural manager, the world is your oyster.”
Again and again, different obstacles, big and small, needed to be overcome when planning and executing projects. “When I was there, there were many road blocks,” she remembers. You always had to think about such eventualities when planning a project. “Or you are planning a project and then Ramadan gets in the way,” the 32-year-old adds. Quickly rethinking plans, finding new ways of doing things, and being flexible were key qualities needed day-to-day.
One premise of being a cultural manager was always that the same person had to plan and supervise a project from start to finish, from the initial idea to the execution and follow-up. Much of what Yasmin Ouberri learned during her time as a cultural manager in Egypt is still helpful in her work today. “You learn so much, and you can transfer those experiences from Egypt to other countries too,” she says.
Drawing under the blue sky: The paticipants of the projects organized by the Robert Bosch Cultural Managers were always allowed to get creative themselves.
The Goethe-Institut takes up the reins
“All in all, we completed ten or twelve projects in completely different areas,” says Egyptian Doaa Ahmed about her time as a cultural manager over the past two years. She worked in the southern region of Upper Egypt along with her tandem partner Katharina Karpa. From the start, fellows were free to choose the topic on which they wanted to focus their efforts, as the program was also about trying things out and forging new paths. “Another benefit of the fellowship program was that we didn’t have to work under time pressure,” Doaa comments on her projects for the program. What has she learned? “You need to be open and willing to compromise. And, most importantly, you need to be flexible,” she summarizes her experience of the past two years.
Doaa Ahmed, 30, grew up in Cairo and continues to live there. Before she was awarded the fellowship for the cultural manager program, she worked as a German teacher at a language center. She describes a three-month stay in Berlin at the Ballhaus Ost theater as a turning point in her life. She fell in love with theater work so much that she decided to change careers and work in the culture sector. In the past two years, she worked with her tandem partner on various cultural projects in the southern region of Upper Egypt. As of June 2020, she will be coordinating the cultural manager program in a new form at the Goethe-Institut in Cairo.
The 30-year-old’s eventful time as a cultural manager in Egypt is coming to an end in May this year. At the same time, she is beginning an exciting new phase of her life: As of June 2020, she will be coordinating the cultural manager program in another form for the Goethe-Institut in Cairo. After 15 years of collaboration, the Robert Bosch Stiftung is handing over the program to be further developed under the sole responsibility of the Goethe-Institut, where it will continue in a new form with an even greater focus on the partners in the regions.
Not only the colors used by the children in diffrent art projects were colorful, also the many experiences that the Robert Bosch Cultural Managers were able to collect during their time in Egypt were a colorful mix.
“It was important to me that one of us six current cultural managers would stay on going forward,” says Doaa Ahmed. This way, the knowledge and contacts the fellows have developed over the years won’t be lost, and the new team will be able to build on previous accomplishments. “It’s too bad that something is coming to an end, but it’s good that something new is evolving,” she says.