Preserving Egypt's modern and contemporary heritage was the focus of an energetic recent youth meeting in Cairo, reports Rania Khallaf
The Qusseir Citadel
Nass wa Turath, or People and Heritage, is the title of a joint project that kicked off at a thoughtful inauguration held last September at the Flamenco Hotel in the Cairo district of Zamalek. The project was started three years ago by the Union for Egypt's Heritage (UEH), an NGO, with support from the Flemish Cultural Institute in Cairo.
Young volunteers came all the way from seven governorates to convene, connect and share views about their initiatives. Attending such a unique interactive grouping of young and enthusiastic people, most of them young architects eager to save Egypt's modern and contemporary heritage, was stimulating and energetic.
Hans Nielsen, director of the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute (DEDI), said it was a pleasure to follow up the developments happening in the different cities. "Egypt's heritage is marvellous, rich and diverse; we all know a lot about the ancient, Coptic and Islamic heritage, but we know little about the contemporary heritage that includes the beautiful architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries," he noted.
He told Al-Ahram Weekly that the DEDI had granted local initiatives logistical support and some financial support. "A collective exhibition of all the photography and sketches will be exhibited at the DEDI and then outside Egypt," he noted.
Ali Sayed from Qusseir said that the UEH had started in 2016 in Alexandria with the aim of increasing the public's awareness of the living heritage that exists in their own neighbourhoods.
"We also aim at documenting that heritage. Young artists from various governorates will help sketch the historical sites, and these will be exhibited in an open area accessible to the public," he added.
Free exhibitions, cultural tours, seminars and art activities will take place in September and early October in all seven cities involved in the project, including Cairo, Minya, Mansoura, Alexandria, Qusseir and Port Said.
In some of the cities, more creative projects are taking place. In Alexandria, a cultural guidance tour of the old tramway will take place, in addition to a photographic exhibition of the site by amateur photographers. In Qusseir, there will be a sketching event of the old buildings and a simsmiya (a traditional musical instrument) night.
Mohamed Ramadan from the Save Minya initiative echoed that the aim was to improve the public's awareness and urge local inhabitants to protect their own heritage. Save Minya started in 2012 as a reaction to the demolition of many heritage buildings, he told the Weekly.
He added that the group's activities had included saving the Malawi Museum after it had been robbed and partially destroyed and documenting and sketching historical areas in Minya. On 29 September, Save Minya celebrated the renovation of the Cinema Malawi, built in the 1930s as the only cinema in the city. "We are always keen on focusing on common features between Muslims and Copts to maintain heritage owned by all the country's citizens," Ramadan, a cultural activist, said.
"Our foundation aims at protecting the collective memory of Heliopolis to sustain the cachet of the district by encouraging the community to take part in more public activities," said Shokri Asmar, head of the Heliopolis Heritage Foundation, which started as an individual initiative in 2011 and became community-based in 2015.
"We have encountered many obstacles, but also achieved a number of targets. Our biggest achievement so far is the partial renovation of the Baron's Palace, one of the iconic features of Heliopolis, which will include a theatre and restaurants," he told the Weekly.
"We have also renovated the Merryland Garden, which is partly open to visitors. The protection of the old tramway is the third target of the foundation's current plans, since we believe it can help deal with the traffic in Heliopolis. We are also encouraging local residents to use bikes," he said.
Asmar underlined the necessity of networking between the Heliopolis Foundation and other similar initiatives in Qusseir and Mansoura to help develop volunteering and working mechanisms.
"We believe we can be a catalyst for change. Working with the municipality has never been an easy task. In the beginning they treated us as if we were coming from la-la-land, but then they started to accept us and even use some of our terminology and strategies," Asmar said.
Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a young architect from Save Alex, a heritage group in the Mediterranean city, said that its activities included an interactive photography competition in early October. "Our activities, which will take place in the Saint Stefano district, aim at sharing experiences and memories among residents as a way of rejoining the different generations," she said.
Rania Khallaf travels back to the 18th century and beyond on a weekend trip to the historic Red Sea city of Qusseir
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