Mohamed El Sawy
Mohamed El Sawy is the creator and director of the Sawy Culture Wheel, a vital venue for alternative art and culture in Cairo. Opened in 2003, Sawy has four stages, as well as galleries, office space, and an outdoor café along the Nile River. The entire complex is nestled into the spaces around and beneath two intersecting highway overpasses in the island neighborhood of Zamalek. After attending concerts at Sawy—from classical music to heavy metal—Banning Eyre paid Mohamed a visit in his office in the early days of Ramadan, 2011. Here’s their conversation.
B.E.: Thanks for taking time to talk, even during Ramadan.
M.S.: Yeah, yeah, I do work starting from eight AM. I don’t really think it’s too tough. You know that I’m a marathon runner, so I have good stamina.
B.E.: Well that is good training for your job, isn’t it? Why don’t you start by just introducing yourself.
M.S.: My name is Mohamed Abdel Monem El Sawy. I was born November 2, 1956. I was in the German school of Cairo, and it is a really old one that has traditions, over 100 and I believe 35 years now. A real old one. It’s got a good image. When I used to hear my father answering the question, “Why especially the German school?” he used to answer about his appreciation and respect for the German culture after the war, and how people really are very much big believers of freedom and justice, especially being fair, especially after all those who suffered during the Hitler times. So I think he thought of giving my brother and myself this education, believing that it is not only about getting the knowledge. It is the education. And I was privileged to visit the school, because it made me really enjoy sports of all kinds.
Lately, I became a real addict of jogging and running, and doing marathons at this stage of… I’ll be 55 this November. I also got to start my best and favorite hobby, which is puppets, marionettes, at the same school, so I can say I have been puppeteering for more than 40 years. I’m really proud of it, and I hope I never stop. This Thursday I will step on stage again to play Umm Kulthum with puppets. It is one of our very successful shows. We have a big group now. We do the whole job. We create and produce our puppets, and the stage itself and the soundtrack. So we really have a complete theater at Sawy Culture Wheel.
For further education, I went to the Faculty of Fine Arts, also in Zamalek. So I am very much a Zamalek citizen. The school, which is now in Dokki, used to be in Zamalek. The higher education was as well in Zamalek, the fine arts. I started architecture, which I really loved and still feel very much in relation with architecture. People tell me, “You don’t work as an architect?” And I tell them no, I work every single minute as an architect. Because I’m in such a space and creating it from scratch was surely architectural. I always say, and I have heard from many architects, that architecture is not only about building a space. It is really a full study of how people would feel, and the functions of this unit. Architecture is the contribution of humans to nature, or to environment. You complement the environment that was created by God, to make it fit your needs and requirements.
B.E.: You’ve done a remarkable job of that here, the way this whole enterprise coils around these highways and overpasses, and all these performance spaces. It’s very in usual. Remarkable architecture.
M.S.: I am really honored, and I feel so privileged to have had this chance. So we’ll jump from studying architecture to the next important stop of my life. Together with my brother, this was forming a company for advertisement. This one still exists, and this is where we make our money. From day one, when I go back to my memories, from day one, we really were very much for arts, and coloring the streets of Cairo. We made the second month after opening, a festival in the streets, with flowers and big sculptures done on trucks, to go through the various big squares. And after that, the second time we wanted to do it, we really had to suffer with the security measures in Egypt. At that time, everything was refused. Anything you applied for was refused.
So, it was so funny. We were sitting, my brother and myself, the night before the second festival that was planned for camels. We thought, “Why don’t we remind people of the beauty of camels and have them walk through the streets of Cairo from the pyramids, actually to downtown to Tahrir, and to a club, a sporting club, and have a big show at the end.” At that time, we received, the last night before the event, the refusal from the Minister of the Interior. My brother and I decided not to respect this refusal, and we said, “What can they do to camels?” We will just simply start it as we planned it. We’ll go through the streets, and we will see if they stop us. We shall find out what will happen. It would be too stupid to cancel it at this moment, only a few hours before the scheduled plan. And we did. Everywhere we arrived at any spot of police, they used to ask us, “Where is your approval? The paper for approval?” We used to say, “Are you crazy? Would you expect us to plan such a big event without an approval?” So they took it for granted that we were telling the truth. That was really something.
B.E.: What year was that?
M.S.: It was probably 1982 or 83.
B.E.: So, right at the beginning of Mubarak.
M.S.: Yes. Yes. Yes. They were very sensitive. All the way. We managed only to do street activities again during the last five or six years, when Mrs. Mubarak decided to celebrate the Heliopolis Centennial. We were invited to join the celebration as a company with a big history in organizing events. In that time, everything was very smooth and easy, since it was under the auspices of Mrs. Mubarak. So we could do very big gatherings in Korba Street, out there in Heliopolis. No problem at all.
B.E.: Well when you have the first lady on your side, you can do no wrong. So tell me the story of this establishment, the Sawy Culture Wheel. When did it start?
M.S.: It started the year 2003, but like 18 months before the opening date, I came to this spot to rent the advertising space at the bridge. And when I applied for it as Alamaya, our company, we received a request from the government of Cairo that we have to put up marble in the tunnel that splits are space from the river side to the land side. We said, “Fine. We’ll do it.” This was the request, a silly one. A very silly request, because such a country like Egypt with all those poor people and needs, and you decide to put very expensive marble on the walls of the tunnel, for no reason. No reason. But they did that in many places, those funny decisions. They spent maybe 1,000,000 pounds putting up marble while in Paris, and in much richer countries, you have concrete tunnels. This is one of the stupid decisions. But no one could argue.
So when I came to inspect the tunnel to discover how solid the walls were, I discovered that the wall of this side, which is now the wall of the Wisdom Hall, was a very bad one. It couldn’t really carry marble, so I requested that the workers… There was a small hole in the wall where you could sneak through, but I felt I might cut my clothes so I asked them to break a bit more of it. And when I entered the space where the Wisdom Hall is now, and it was terrible. A space full of remains in rubbish. Also, you can easily tell that drugs were used and syringes on the floor. But when I raised my head and looked in the direction of where you have now the stage of the Wisdom Hall, honestly tell you I could see a stage with lights and curtains. Through all these hills of rubbish and stones and everything, you could expect in a place that had no rules at all, it was really terribly used, until they built this wall that I was just mentioning. They built the wall only to stop people from throwing more things inside. So it turned into a hole for illegal use, or even a very good hiding spot. We later discovered that people were hiding inside the walls of the bridge itself, the upper ones, the rooms of concrete.
So, that moment when I could imagine a stage, with curtains of lights, I said I have to do something. I can’t leave this space like this. So I talked to the governor of Cairo. Every one of my friends who I told, I mean, spoke about this project, and the idea that I received that moment, everyone was telling me, “Don’t be crazy. Don’t try. They will never give you permission. Better to just forget it. Make the maintenance needed for the wall, and forget whatever is inside it.” But I never listened to them. I said what can I lose? I will make the request and see what will happen. To my surprise, the governor of Cairo at that time, Dr. Ibrahim Shahata, said only these two words: go ahead. Go ahead. He never signed anything. And I started cleaning up the space and really putting every penny we could spend on it, without having any legal paper or any written permission. And I used to tell everyone who was telling me don’t be crazy, one day they will tell you to go out, and he will spent all that money. I said, if it was a commercial project for me, I would’ve thought the same way. But for me, it was totally something I was ready to sacrifice for. So the first time we received a paper was after like six months, when I invited the same man to come back, the governor of Cairo, to have a look at what we were doing here.
It was much, much less sophisticated, not even air-conditioning. And it was summer. The guy was sweating. He almost died, I would say. But when I told him, I mean politely, “Can you please explain to me why did you approve it, why did you say, ‘Go ahead.’?” And he surprised me by saying, “I wouldn’t have refused anything related to Abdel Menem El Sawy.” My father, who had been gone for 18 years of that time. But he probably respected him and thought the guy was doing a good job. My father was at Sadat’s time the Minister of Culture and Information. He was an author, a journalist. He was the founder of the syndicate of journalists of Africa. So many things. Actually, this place is named after him, not after me. I always tell people, “Don’t mix me up with Abdel Menim El Sawy
So after that, we started. We operated softly. I mean, the amount of appreciation we received was so big that we really had to do everything possible to continue equipping the place. I can tell you that also one guy I do always mention, because he was the first contributor to the place, who is Naguib Sawiris. His office was in Sphinx Square here at that time. And I know him from the same school. He is only a few years older. I went to meet Naguib and I told him, “Can you look from this window? Right there under the bridge, we are doing this and that.” So Naguib took my paper and wrote on it, addressing his assistant, “a very important project that we have to support.” And this was the first check we received, and after that we started.
We had Mobinil as a sponsor for up to the year 2010. At the end of 2009, they decided not to continue sponsoring, for marketing reasons. When we approached Vodafone, they decided to come immediately, and we now have Vodafone as a sponsor.
B.E.: So you switched from Mobinil to Vodafone.
M.S.: Like that. Yeah, but we were very, very honest in this procedure. We kept telling Mobinil, “Please, please, think it over. Because Vodafone, when they realized that we don’t have you on our printed materials of this month, they contacted us and they’re willing to do it.” We still think that we owe you a lot and if you want to continue… it’s not that we needed them to pay more. We never played this game. But Mobinil said, “Unfortunately, we have new management, new strategies. We can do nothing.”
B.E.: What was the artistic vision for this place?
M.S.: You know, lights. Lights. I always like to put everything in this single and simple word. Lights. Egypt needed light. People lived too long in darkness. And this is what we are suffering of until now. All those people with very good intentions, the so-called Islamists, these are good people. These are believers. These are people who think they want the best for the country, but since they lived too long in darkness, the measures are all lost. They really don’t know what they want, what the formula that fits everyone can look like. And that’s why I always say our only role is to put light on things, and let people see the various paths and ways, and decide for themselves.
No one should decide for anyone. But I’m sure anyone who gets a good scope and can see from different points of view will choose the formula that gives everyone space, and makes Christians feel safe, and makes women feel safe, and makes handicapped people feel safe. It’s not only about Muslims and Christians. There is so much in this majority and minority issue to look at. What are we doing in this nation for handicaps? There’s only token efforts, very little serious effort.
B.E.: I have long heard of this as a place that brings marginalized kinds of music to light. Give us a sense of the variety of things that you present here.
M.S.: The very easy thing for people to realize what we’re doing is encouraging group creation—the bands rather than a star, a single name. Shakira, or Michael Jackson. It is more of the Freedom Band, the Unity Band, the Light Band. I mean, bands are ours stars in most cases, and this is the real difference. These people were never accepted or welcomed anywhere else, and for them, this place was the place to get their chances every month, and all year round, and come up with ideas and different approaches. We never told anyone, “No, this is not our regular procedure.” We accepted the bands to play on the ground, and the audience on the stage. We accepted people to make shows in the afternoon, or even in the morning, or late at night. I never considered anything refused. If it makes any sense, if they really come up with a reason, even if the reason was just to be different, it was good enough to give them the chance to do it.
B.E.: So, bands. That’s everything from very popular rock bands like Wust Al Balad and Cairokee, even to things like heavy metal bands.
M.S.: And young kids. We never told anyone you are too young to sign the contract. We had kids from 14 years coming to form a band and approach us. We had them sit at the table and sign the contract and do the reversal and present. In many cases it was a success.
B.E.: I was very struck we were here the other night for the heavy metal night. Very young kids. And I know there’s a history with this music. People were afraid of it. But you brought it here. Talk about that decision.
M.S.: We always think that you should never send anyone away. I was attacked by some of these traditional thinking people. How come you open your space for metal? Hard rock? All those things. This music is related to, I mean, being nonbelievers or whatever it is. I don’t know. The first thing. I never interfere with beliefs. I believe that beliefs should remain personal and something that no one can touch or come close to. But again, even those people, if you simply close the door in front of them, they can go anywhere, rent a villa or garden, and really keep this association of music to drugs, or to any bad thing, any misuse. Being drunk. When they come to us, they don’t use drugs, they don’t get drunk, and they listen to their music. They move. They enjoy it. And they leave happily. So he proves to everyone by experience, by this event that takes place, that it is possible to listen to metal, and yet keep your decency and go home in fine shape.
B.E.: That’s what we saw. It was very striking. Very different than you would have in a heavy metal concert in America. People were very polite, very friendly. They were having a lot of fun, so happy just to be free. So that’s a great thing. Talk about some of the other kinds of music that you present here.
M.S.: I can tell you that even the Opera House of Cairo is doing a great job for classics. But not everyone goes. It’s a place that many people wouldn’t dare to enter, not only because of the pricing. Sometimes they do have decent pricing. But it was always being looked at as a state place. The government is doing this. So when we decided to go for a full program, for a full year– we do include classics, and it costs us a lot. We have expensive musicians, but still I believe this is something we have to support and stand by. We have opera singing in this place. We have three beautiful girls and two men, sometimes only one, and the piano plays, and it’s a beautiful presentation for an hour and 15 minutes every month. We do have this in the program. We call it El Sawy Opera.
It’s doing great. It’s picking up. At the beginning, very little audience. I always get told by my colleagues, “It’s not worth it. Only 45 people.” I tell them, “Wait. See next time.” And it becomes 55 the next time. And they come back to me. What is 55? Even 80. We are paying so much. I say, “Just wait.” And the number keeps increasing. Patience is one of our very valid tools of doing things. Yes, yes, yes. It’s again the strategy of jogging. The first day you can only run for 2 km, but if you try the second day, 2 1/2 km, and feel this likr progress, you will make it to the 42.195 km. The buildup is very important. And there s also the lesson of having a baby that slowly becomes a grown-up.
B.E.: We’ve been having a lot of discussions since we got here about where the music of Egypt is going. Some people are frustrated that the music hasn’t been progressing, that it’s been stuck. Then people that are doing more underground music have been frustrated by being marginalized by state media and so on. And people who are just fans find it hard to connect all these different worlds of music, Sufi music, popular music, underground music. So much great music is never presented on television or radio. You are in the midst of a political revolution, but I wonder, what is your vision of where and musical revolution is going. What’s the future of Egyptian music after the revolution?
M.S.: I can tell you something that will not remain for long as a secret. We are in the process of studying, putting up a television station, because we really think that a good television station to support all these kinds of different approaches and creations will get a good part of the cake. I think it will grow very fast. So a television station, radio station, all these media will definitely help in establishing that. And in addition, forming a group… we are working, the young man you spoke with outside, Shady, is also involved in setting up a database for the different bands. I want to make any kind of platform, a virtual one on the Internet, where you can search and find people. So these people are there, and you can easily find them and have access to them, instead of hiring a famous singer to any concert or any party. Even weddings.
You know Eskenderella? They started here as well. And now Eslenderella is now being invited everywhere. They just came back from Tunisia. They were invited there as well. I think they are back today.
B.E.: Good. We were hoping to interview Eskenderella, and also the jazz band Eftekasast, which I think also plays here.
M.S.: Yes. And now people started on television getting to know Eskenderella. But remember, for six months, Egyptians were doing nothing but politics. It’s been like a kid that was never allowed to go to gardens. All of a sudden you put them in a huge garden. He will keep running and running. So we are doing that. Even women’s discussions include a big portion of politics. People are really interested, and they want to know more and more. The sad part of it is that they never got used to accepting that there might be two different views, and both are right. They could both be right. This is what I always tell people here. I learned that it is not only one idea that is right. Is it really good for you to drink of this bottle now, or to wait for an hour? Can anyone tell me? No one can tell me. But you might be very convinced that it is better to drink now, yes. And someone else will say exactly the opposite. No you have to wait for an hour. It is better for you. And they both might be right.
B.E.: Interesting. That’s an idea that applies both to the political discussion and in the culture one.
M.S.: Sure. And even people working together in a family, working together in a place. This spirit is very, very important. And in many cases, the proof is there for the need of two angles of views. Think of your eyes. If you use only one eye, and hide the other one, you can only see a 2-D picture. But with two eyes, you can see the 3-D, the depth. So it is needed. If you only use one foot, it is not half the stability. It is much less. One foot is not really half of 2 feet. It’s much less, when it comes to stability. I mean people were never exposed to this way of thinking. It was only, “If someone is against what I’m saying, he’s wrong.”
B.E.: It’s very hard to come out of a period where there was so much dictating. I keep asking people, if you look at the musicians who are emerging from this time, who are going to be the new voices? Mostly people just say it’s too soon to say. But you hear a lot of people. Do you have any ideas about who’s gonna be the next Mounir? The next voice of Egypt. Do you see any candidates?
M.S.: Hmm. Really difficult question to answer. Because, as I was telling you, we hear are more into bands, into groups. I think that the top ones that are becoming bigger and bigger are Wust al Balad and Black Teama and Eskenderella. There is also another formation called Ayana Helwa. The conductor is called Mohammed Afman. There are many. I will arrange also for you to see our radio people. Menna Maasarany is doing a good job with the Sound of Sawy. I think she will also have things for you.
(Wust al Balad)
B.E.: Okay, we are just about done here. I would just like to get a sense of the other kinds of things that you do here, music, music instruction…
M.S.: Visual arts. And you know what we tried to promote here? It’s to give people experience drawing and painting. Or making a small sculpture. I always tell people, “You don’t have to be gifted or talented to do it. It feels good even if you are not talented.” Even if you are alone, drawing something, the worst drawing ever, at least you express yourself. You feel the spirit of arts.
B.E.: And you improve. What about theater?
M.S.: Yeah, sure. We do all kinds. Recently, I made last week, we had pantomime competition, a very successful one. It was good. And we have the regular theater competition every year. We have monologues. For theater, we try much, but one fact for theater that you will easily find out is that they don’t make money. The poor guys. That’s why they really go and have full passion and try their best, and then they really fade out and don’t continue. It’s not easy to keep them alive.
B.E.: You have to develop the audience. That’s difficult.
M.S.: The audience, yes. And to try and find some sponsorship, to give them courage.
B.E.: What about dance?
M.S.: Umm. We have only the more traditional ones. From Spain, we just had a new approach from the Spanish Embassy for flamenco. We do have the Egyptian folklore dancing. We don’t really support belly dancing, because it would ruin the image in a way. People would look at you differently and think you are trying to make use of the woman’s… It’s a bit tricky. But we welcome troupes whenever we receive them. Americans brought a dancing group, more of modern dance. The stages are too small for ballet.
B.E.: I see. Coming back to music, and its prospects, I’ve had a lot of discussions with people but the future of Egyptian music. Some people say that the big problem is the decline of education, especially arts education in schools. Fathy Salama was telling me that you can’t put together a good orchestra now because you don’t have enough well-trained musicians. And even the audiences. They turn on the radio in either they are hearing Umm Kulthum, old music, or else Amr Diab, shababi, music that doesn’t really change. There is nothing that challenges young people to think about making something new and different. It’s always education, education that keeps coming up as the thing that has to be addressed in order for the music to really advance. When you think of that?
M.S.: I definitely believe that education is lacking. Because it was all about grabbing certificates. People don’t go to school to learn. They only go to bring back a certificate. I can bet that if you ask a regular Egyptian who has kids in grades two and three, and ask the father, “Are you ready to buy them their graduation at 20,000 pounds now?” he would do everything possible to collect the money and collect newspaper that says, “your boy has graduated from school.” It’s ridiculous. People don’t really value the knowledge as knowledge, and the values that they should give their kids. They believe that values are there. Who doesn’t get the values? He will, one day. I mean, you see a father with a kid, and the kid throws something on the floor. So I ask the father, “How come you don’t say something. This is wrong.” And he says, “The days will teach him.” It’s madness.
B.E.: That’s a deep problem.
M.S.: It’s a very deep problem.
B.E.: And to address it, that’s going to take a really strong initiatives from the new government. Do you have hope that the new government that’s coming will make a priority of this?
M.S.: Which one? Not the one that is there now, because this will only stay for a few months. And the new parliament will be… well, a big question mark. But I am not one of those who believe it will be only those rigid Islamists who will dictate things. No. No, no. But we have all of us to work hard to make people realize that it is not a joke. It is not a simple thing to just pass by. We have to make sure that every vote counts, and try to think Islamic, but not the way the others try to make us believe.
Islam is not the ghalibaya and the beard. I tell people that if people around Muhamed were living today, they would have been driving BMWs and using blackberries and iPhone’s, and living in beautiful, fully equipped houses. Definitely. They wouldn’t have said that this is haram [forbidden]. It is not haram to enjoy life. Because Allah loves us. He created us not to give us a hard time. What did he create us for? If it was only about being so tense, then there’s no sense in having us from the beginning. But I’m sure that Allah created people to have a good life and be responsible for each other.
I personally believe that in a good Democratic scene, it is not an advantage to be part of the majority. Because you will only be responsible to make sure that the minorities are happy. Being a minority should be an advantage in a real democratic environment. Because you will be privileged of giving the others the task of satisfying you. But I hope that really people realize that. And I do write in my articles. I wish I had a way to have some of them translated. I have an article that’s very clear that says you have a full right to choose your religion. This is something that people don’t know about Islam. It is true that in Islam, it says that in all ways you have full rights to choose your religion, or even be a nonbeliever. It’s your decision. People don’t know that.
B.E.: So what you are saying is that it is possible, and in fact necessary, to be both Islamic and progressive.
M.S.: Yes, because if you tell people we are now giving you a formula against Islam, or to replace Islam, you will fail. You will never make it through. You can sell a good Islamic formula to Egyptians, and have them choose it rather than the other that would be too conservative and tell women to stay home. I’m sure no woman in Cairo would love to live in an environment that would tell her, “You cannot leave your house,” and, “You cannot turn on the television.” No one would accept this.
I am writing an article, it will come out this Thursday, to say how important it is to realize that God created us to be able to choose every single second. You are choosing between good and evil, between supporting the poorer ones or simply let them suffer. You are choosing. So no one can come and tell us, “No more choices. You can only do this. And this is good and this is right and you have to do it.” This is not human at all. The most advantage of being a human is the right to choose. It’s not something that needs a long debate.
B.E.: Interesting. I hope we can stay in touch.