Watani talks to Minister of Culture Helmy al-Namnam
Writer and thinker Helmy al-Namnam was appointed Minister of Culture on 19 September 2015. All who know him can see that he never changed a bit. His intellectual convictions remain unaltered, and he is constantly engaged in war against the forces of darkness wherever they may be, even though this means he has to sustain harsh criticism by hardliners. Solid as a rock and uncompromising in his quest to spread enlightenment, Mr Namnam now aspires to take cultural and fine arts activities to the four corners of Egypt. For the first time, practical steps are being taken to establish the first opera house in the south of Egypt, in Luxor. For the first time too, opera concerts are held in the campus of Cairo University.
Watani talked to Mr Namnam.
I think it is important to start with a case that is preoccupying the cultural community at large. The writer Ahmed Nagui has been referred to the Misdemeanors Court on charges of ‘offending the modesty of the community’ through a chapter of his novel Istikhdam al Hayah (Exploiting Life) How does this affect what Egyptians term ‘freedom of creativity’, the freedom to create and innovate?
The chapter in question was published in the weekly literary newspaper Akhbar al-Adab in August 2014. A number of lawyers are defending the writer and there is a good chance the court will rule in his favour. The real problem lies with outdated laws that hamper freedom of creativity. The 2014 Constitution secures freedoms, including the freedom of expression. We are waiting for the new parliament to draft new legislation and laws that would turn the freedom of expression into a reality on the ground and not mere ink on paper.
This is as far as laws are concerned; but how can the ministry support freedom of expression and creativity in a society plagued with hardline ideology?
Our strategy is to face dark ideologies with art and creativity, which we offer through the various institutions affiliated to the Ministry of Culture. I am personally optimistic and believe that the influence and weight of these hardliners is significantly decreasing in our society.
This is obvious in many instances. The first phase of the current parliamentary elections ended in the near-complete defeat of the Islamist party that ran, the Salafi al-Nour Party, clearly indicating the decline in Islamist popularity. This is also palpable by the swelling audiences that attend various cultural and musical events; the concert of world-renowned artist Yanni sold out in just a few hours despite the highly priced tickets, and most of the events held at the Cairo Opera House’s Main Hall sell out in no time. We are also noticing a comeback of reading activity and large attendance at the ministry’s cultural events.
How can the propagation of enlightenment translate on the practical level?
The enhanced public awareness and interest in culture has encouraged us to create new channels to communicate enlightenment to the average citizen. We are establishing an opera house in Upper Egypt. We are presenting concerts in university campuses; the first was a concert by the renowned pianist Omar Khairat at Cairo University on Monday 16 November 2015. We also made an agreement with the Minister of Higher Education to perform in the southern universities of South Wadi, Assiut, Minya and Sohag. Other concerts will follow on a monthly basis.
The publishing budget of the General Organization of Cultural Palaces and the Egyptian National Library and Archives was also increased, regional publishing was promoted. The number of publications of the National Center for Translation (NCT) has risen and an ambitious plan is being set for the number of these publications to match those of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO). I would also like to point out that GEBO organises year-round book fairs in all Egypt’s governorates.
Do you think the results of the first phase of the parliamentary elections confirm your opinion that Egyptians are by nature instinctively secular?
I believe that the people of Egypt have natural civic, secular inclinations. These traits, however, only surface under duress or when necessity calls. We must not forget that it is this people who overthrew the Turkish viceroy Khorshid Pasha and replaced him with the Albanian Muhammad Ali in 1805, making popular will prevail over that of the Ottoman Sultan. This incident is a clear example of Egyptians’ opposition to the concept of an Islamic caliphate and to the intrusion of religion in politics. We must also remember that during the revolution of 1919, it was the people of Egypt who coined the famous slogan “Religion is for God and country is for all”. It is a slogan that personifies the highest values of citizenship and indicates that Egyptians are in general against fundamentalism but need to nourish these values with culture and creative thought.
Allow me to ask why is Upper Egypt culturally deprived? And why do cultural palaces fail at satisfying its cultural needs?
Surprisingly, cultural palaces in Upper Egypt governorates such as Minya, Assiut, Sohag and Luxor surpass those of Cairo in terms of space and equipment. But the problem is multifaceted. For many decades, people imagined that spreading culture in Upper Egypt was restricted to cultural palaces whereas spreading culture in Cairo was restricted to the Cairo Opera House and the Cairo International Book Fair. By our own hands we created isolated islands; Cairenes refused to perform in Upper Egypt and those in charge of the cultural palaces in Upper Egypt locked them up on themselves. I recall a strange incident which occurred a few years ago; a theatre ensemble led by director Khaled Galal wanted to perform in a cultural palace in Upper Egypt. The workers at the cultural palace tried to discourage them by all means and when the ensemble insisted on performing, the workers deliberately cut off the theatre’s power supply.
How do you intend to change this situation?
I will be honest with you; the solution of this problem is twofold. The first part of the solution is in our hands and consists of sending more artistic groups and theatre ensembles to perform in the cultural palaces, inviting regional groups to perform in Cairo, and arranging for cultural icons to hold conferences and seminars in cultural palaces. The second part is, unfortunately, not in our hands for the time being and involves the laws and bylaws that ban us from appointing intellectuals or artists as managers of cultural palaces. This means that such posts may not be assumed by someone with strong cultural interest. A law issued in 2011 by the Prime Minister prohibits the appointment of any person from outside the Ministry of Culture in key positions. All these laws need to be amended; so, for the time being, we just try to get around them.
Why isn’t there a protocol of cooperation between the various cabinet ministries which tackle related activities? Currently, these ministries are isolated and do not cooperate with one another, which negatively affects their performance.
In fact, we are in the process of breaking barriers within the government because no minister can succeed on his own; either the entire cabinet succeeds or it fails. But another important problem is that there are long-existing barriers within the same cultural institution which we are currently trying to break to achieve cooperation in setting goals and achieving them. I can’t deny that there are some ministries which welcome this initiative like the Ministry of Higher Education with which we have already made a number of agreements. These include organising cultural events in universities and making use of the theatres inside these universities to give theatres performances in the governorates where cultural palaces have no theatres.
What is the biggest problem facing you at the Culture Ministry?
There are actually not a few problems but the most frustrating is the media’s lack of interest in culture and cultural activities. On both national TV and satellite channels, culture is marginalised; there are no TV shows that raise the audience’s interest in culture. Very often we invite the media to cover the different events of the ministry free of charge but the answer we get exposes a notorious lack of interest.
The increase in the number of the ministry’s publishing outlets resulted in a resemblance in published works. How did you handle this problem?
I established a higher committee for publishing which will work as a coordinator between the various institutions to prevent such similarities from re-occurring.
Several art and cinema festivals are organised by the Ministry of Culture but don’t enjoy much popularity, an example of these is the Egyptian National Film Festival, why don’t you cancel such events?
I am for improvement, not cancellation. I established a committee to investigate the National Film Festival and attempt to find means to improve it and make it more appealing for the audience.
Is the Culture Ministry doing anything to rescue the Egyptian film industry from the doldrums?
It has always been the norm that films are produced by private producers. Nonetheless, the National Film Institute and the Cultural Development Fund frequently support the production of some films. An example is the 2014 production La Mu’akhza (Excuse me) which represented Egypt in international film festivals and won several awards. The production of this film was completely supported by the Ministry of Culture.
Is there a specific reason why the theatre festival recently honoured Anba Moussa, Bishop General of Youth in the Coptic Orthodox Church?
Egyptian culture owes a lot to Anba Moussa and the activities of the Youth Bishopric. We appreciate his support for the theatre, the youth and theatre groups. He truly deserves to be honoured not once but several times.
After your appointment as Minister of Culture, do you still find the time for reading and writing?
I manage to find the time to read regularly. As for writing, I am trying to finish writing two books. One more chapter is needed to complete the first book which comes under the title Al Tagdeed Dharura Misriya (Renovation is an Egyptian Necessity) and discusses the issue of renewing the religious discourse and thought, in a social and historical context. As for the other book, I still need to write two more chapters; it is titled Thaqafat al-Fasaad (The Culture of Corruption).
Speaking of renewing the religious discourse, why can’t we feel any tangible change on this front even though President Sisi repeatedly asked for this reform?
I agree with you, but actual steps have been taken to renew the religious discourse. For instance, al-Azhar [the venerable institution and university founded in the 10th century, which has today become the topmost authority worldwide on Sunni Islam] has revised its curriculum and deleted many texts which no longer stand to reason today and which promote violence, even though they have been taught to students for centuries. The Ministry of Education is also revising school curricula to check there is nothing that promotes hatred or violence. There is also a great initiative by some religious scholars to embrace the arts, which have been condemned for so long by fundamentalists. The President of al-Azhar University attended the opening ceremony of the Arab Music Festival; this is an unprecedented gesture of huge significance.
We sometimes feel that Coptic cultural events exist on the Ministry’s programmes only during special occasions like Christmas?
This is not true. Anyone who follows the NCT and GEBO will find year-round publications that focus on Coptic culture. This is very important to affirm the diversity of elements that form the Egyptian character. In addition, the Opera House frequently offers performances by several religious choirs.
18 November 2015