The Renaissance man: Mohamed El-Sawy

Chitra Kalyani
11 Min Read

CAIRO: Age 15 was admittedly special for Mohamed El-Sawy, the 47-year-old director of the Sakia El-Sawy (Sawy Culture Wheel), Cairo’s foremost cultural hub. It was during this time, in high school, where he was introduced to what would become life-long passions: marathon running and puppetry.

An architect with a degree from the Faculty of Fine Arts, El-Sawy is a man of many talents. Also co-owner of Alamia Advertising Agency, a family-run business, El-Sawy is on the board of the Gezira Sports Club and the Advertising Association of Egypt, to both of which he was elected with the largest number of votes. He is also a selected board member of the Youth Council of Egypt.

“I am always acting as an architect – utilizing space, lights and the engineering mind, said El-Sawy, who has supervised the construction of El Sakia.

El-Sawy regards life as a set of measurable variables. “You don’t have to be an engineer to have an engineering mind. He said. “You can see the real value of things – 9 m, 9 km, 9 kg, 9 minutes – the values are very important.

Yet it is the personal resilience and untiring work ethic that makes El-Sawy the multi-dimensioned personage he is.

The Marathon Runner

Running marathons, in particular, represents for El-Sawy the “spirit of challenging yourself. [Because] in marathons, you’re not racing with others. He has just returned from the Marathon of Prague, held last week.

He has now been running for 37 years. “I calculate that I cover 2,000 km a year, which makes it over this time 70,000 km so far, he said. “Very soon, I can announce I’ve been around the world two times.

His personal best record is 3 hours and 40 minutes, accomplished at the run in Hanover, Germany. Since a marathon usually covers 42.195 km, El-Sawy’s speed averaged 12 km per hour. He hopes to better it still.

Perhaps one secret to his success is applying and combining what he has learned from one field to the other. Marathon running has provided him with “the patience, the ability of changing your mood.

It has also taught him to be more flexible. “You might injure a muscle and change the style of running; you change the load and redistribute. No wonder he knows how to seamlessly juggle his hobbies.

The puppeteer

Puppetry is another passion that began in El-Sawy’s high school, American City College, after he responded to a small announcement that sparked a lifetime calling.

“When I went for the first time to the puppetry workshop, I felt ‘this is what I’m after’, he recalled. Within a year he had become the most devoted student of the group. “I began inventing and trying to develop the puppets from the first year.

Challenges furthered his growth. After producing a German performance the first year, El-Sawy and his peers wanted to produce an Arabic play replete with musical numbers for their second presentation.

When approached composers requested hefty sums of LE 500, a fortune at the time, the idea was scrapped. El-Sawy went home and thought of giving writing lyrics a try. In a classic case of coincidence and good fortune, a music teacher in Zamalek offered him free composition, “And they became songs, and I discovered I can write.

“From that year on, I wrote the plays we performed.

“I never had a single free second, said the ever-so-busy El-Sawy. “Every second I had, I was drawing the knee of the puppet, or the control cross.

Combining German and Rumanian techniques in puppet designing, El-Sawy eventually created his own design patterns, still used to date at El Sakia Puppet Theater. He teaches puppet-making in his theater, continues to craft his own dolls, and gives workshops and performances.

This month, he gave a performance at the Korba Festival that was co-organized by El Sakia. “People were throwing flowers at [the puppet] Abdel Halim Hafiz until I was playing in flowers, remarked El-Sawy. “It wasn’t easy because the flowers were as big as his foot.

El-Sawy’s career as a puppeteer lasted for 10 years after graduating from school and until his group dispersed. It was only with the establishment of the cultural center when he decided to return to performing, producing a play about street children.

“El Masoora El Kabira (The Big Pipe) centers on street kids who live large pipes situated near construction sites. “It’s one of the best houses they can have, said El-Sawy, whose story was inspired by Ibrahim, a boy who used to live next to a pedestrian walk near El Sakia.

“I always say ‘Mutaassif we Mutashakkir’ (Sorry and Thank You) are me,

El-Sawy commented about his second performance of the same name. “If I could only say one thing, it would be ‘mutaassif mutashakkir.’

El-Sawy harbored the dream of producing this play for 20 years. “It was always in my mind as a comeback. It was my favorite one.

Mutassif and Mutashakkir are two undervalued brothers, who eventually find recognition through art. The message of his second work emphasizes that human behavior and values are what counts.

A dream come true

The Sawy Culture Wheel is a natural brainchild for El-Sawy. Over its five-year run, the center has built its name by showcasing emerging artists alongside established ones, and providing a venue that brings art to the masses through affordable prices.

Never having imagined the sweeping success his project would enjoy, El-Sawy is eyeing bigger, more ambitious goals. “Now, I wish to see a chain as strong as McDonald’s.

He wishes to provide others with a manual to replicate his success, applied everywhere, even in remote areas with small, unutilized spaces that could be developed into art venues.

“I don’t have one secret that I don’t want to share, he said.

“We depend on three major sources. One of them is sponsorships, the second is entry tickets, and the third is membership fees – we have 15,000 people paying LE 20, amounting to LE 300,000 a year.

Social and cultural development, rather than pure profit hunting, drives the work of the center, according to employee Nora Amin. “He’s not just another man who owns a business. Doors are open for anyone who can help develop our society, said Amin, adding that the center had encouraged many new ideas.

El Sakia was the first to host stand-up comedies, for example, presenting Azhar Usman’s “Allah Made Me Funny last August. Three months later, El-Sawy himself participated in the free-for-all stand-up comedy auditions following the hugely popular Axis of Evil comedy tour at Sakia last November. The tradition continues through monthly meets where jokes are exchanged.

El-Sawy has also supported the Cairo Cycler’s Club, providing meeting space, ideas and promotional material to the group that aims to use more bicycles than cars, reducing traffic and pollution in Cairo while encouraging exercise.

El-Sakia is meant to be a friendly environment, that “brings people of all ages together, said Amin. “The brilliance of the center is that it has everyone participating.

The center’s monthly programs clearly ban misbehavior and cigarette smoke in an attempt to advocate a healthier, more civilized life in the capital.

Yet rather than vehemently opposing smoking, the center follows a positive paradigm of labeling the self as part of a “White Circle that is “proud to be a non-smoker.

Meticulously well-mannered, El-Sawy himself refuses to throw away food remains or use foul language. As a father, he encourages imagination and independent thought. Always the inventor, El-Sawy even came up with a unique way of playing with his children. The idea sprigged to his head after his daughter got disappointed when her parents forgot to fetch her ball during an outing. As a result, Sawy and his daughter decided to play “catch with an invisible ball and continued to do so for years to come.

Imagination, coupled with courage, can change the world, according to El Sawy. “I believe that so many things can be changed right away if people believe it. Why take ages? Why not tomorrow? Now? If everyone goes out and says, ‘I will not allow it to happen in front of me.’

In the same vein, by decl
aring 2008 the Year of the Mind, El-Sawy aims to promote creative thinking. Previous years have promoted the use of Arabic, and Personal Rights. Next year, he revealed, shall be the Year of the Neighbor. And soon, El Sakia will officially launch its own online radio station “Sawt Al-Sakia.

For an architect who knows “the value of things, El-Sawy provides an example of a man whose success can be measured on the basis of sheer determination and belief.

“It’s not that I’m a genius; it’s not that I’m talented. I believe everyone can become Einstein – the first attitude is to think.

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