By Hannah Wilkinson
Artellewa, the unusual and unexpected arts space in the Ard El-Lewa neighbourhood, continues to serve a public most venues simply ignore by presenting an accessible programme of events during the month of Ramadan.
Whitewashed and welcoming, the arts space throws open its doors every Friday night, offering free concerts, plays and film screenings to the local community.
“We normally offer art… but we wanted to do something a little different… and music is very attractive to people,” Hamdy Reda, Artellewa’s general manager, explained. The first Friday’s events included a Shaabi music group, and next Friday there will be a concert from a group based in Alexandria. “Each group has a different background,” Reda said.
Friday 19 July’s act consisted of a group of local musicians who played classical Arabic songs from composers such as Said Darwish and Sheikh Imam. The group are not a formal band; they live locally and came together for the event. “It was a nice chance to sing together in Ramadan,” lead singer Ahmed El-Nasser said.
As El-Nasser was singing, the back of the stage was open to the hustle and bustle of the crowded street. Passersby often stopped, listened and sometimes came in and took a seat.
The concert was not a sit, listen and concentrate affair. People milled around, took their kids in and out, changed place, danced, sang along when they knew the words and left if they got bored.
“This can be strange for some artists,” Reda admitted, but El-Nasser relished the free and friendly atmosphere. “This is a real audience, if they do not like you, they just get up and leave,” he said.
Although it might intimidate some performers, the local crowd obviously feels right at home in the casual party atmosphere of Artellewa, which is encouraged by Reda. Last Friday he was unable to talk for more than two minutes without being interrupted by a gaggle of excitable children, asking him questions about when the next event will start. “Soon,” he assured them, patient and affable, obviously pleased at their enthusiasm.
Shortly afterwards, said gaggle of children were seated in front of a short play by the Third Eye Theatre group, giggling manically as the performers fell over and play-fought on stage.
Cultivating this casual, inclusive atmosphere helps Artellwa encourage people in the neighbourhood to enjoy cultural activities, fulfilling their aim of bringing culture to a different crowd.
“Most events happen in Downtown… and people in more shaabi places like Ard El-Lewa do not get anything related to culture,” Artellewa’s programme manager Amira said. “We try to bring art to this audience.”
Over and above their stated goal of arts outreach, which is crucial to their activities all year round, Artellewa’s Ramadan events are a welcome distraction from the problems Egypt is currently facing; just down the street a cafe’s TV screens broadcast scenes of unrest from elsewhere in the city.
“It has been a hard year for all of us in Egypt,” El-Nasser said, who welcomed the opportunity to use music to distract people from their problems.
“People gather naturally in Ramadan,” Amira added. “We try to gather the people of Ard El-Lewa,” she said, noting that those in attendance came from Somalia, Eritrea, Syria, and elsewhere. “They need the feelings that Ramadan brings… they need these feelings of joy.”