Next week, a very unique and talented group of Egyptian singers called Fabrica will be touring the northeastern United States and performing a musical theater version of Les Miserables in Arabic.
The initiative, however, is one of the launch projects of an interesting and ambitious new organization called Izdahar, founded by Yasmin Tayeby to promote artistic exchange between the United States and the Arab countries, Egypt in particular. Because of these creative purposes which blend with the visions of Ameen Rihani and the Mahjar writers of New York, I chose to interview Yasmin about her organization and the upcoming Fabrica tour.
What, in your view, makes Fabrica a unique and rewarding act for an American audience, and what is the significance of their Les Miserables performance?
While all of the performers in Fabrica are fantastic singers and musicians, there is more to the group than just their skill. These young adults are helping to enhance the arts scene in Egypt by organizing types of productions that are relatively new to Egyptian audiences. In the same vein, while the art of musical theater is very familiar to Americans, having a group perform in Arabic is a rare treat. The story of Les Miserables is well known, and the similarities between the French and Egyptian revolutions resonate even louder when the singers recite the lyrics in their native tongue. The great thing about this production, is that even though so many people have seen Les Miserables performed both on stage and on film, seeing it translated and performed by this group gives a fresh, new take to the classic.
How has the artistic scene in Egypt responded to the chaotic events of the last several years? Does art retain any role in trying to unify the country and inspire?
One of the best things that has happened since the 2011 uprising is the growth in freedom of expression. During those initial 18 days, protesters actually built a giant stage in Tahrir Square, and various singer-songwriters seized the opportunity to perform songs about oppression and human rights. Graffiti has also become a popular art form, and can be seen both on the streets and in art galleries around the country. Arabic hip hop is seeing a surge in popularity, as rappers have found a voice to express how they feel about the political and social circumstances. Through these earnest types of art, people are able to relate to one another and find commonality in belief. Many also feel that for the first time in as long as they can remember that there is a platform for them to address sensitive issues that were once too difficult to bring to light.
On the other hand, with Egypt's spiraling economy, the arts are becoming less and less supported. Annual arts festivals have had to shut down, venues are having trouble staying open, and artists are finding it difficult to support themselves doing what they love. Additionally, in the past few months, it seems that the country has started reverting back to its old ways. Freedom of expression is once again being stifled, and activists are being thrown in jail once again. Much of the country seems to be turning a blind eye to these acts, hoping for a return to security and stability.
What motivated you to initiate Izdahar and what are its core goals and objectives? What other projects do you hope to initiate?
After working for two years in concert promotions in Cairo, I decided to move to New York to work in the entertainment business. While working at a music management company, I found myself continuously drawn to Egypt and the Middle East, and felt that there was still so much that I wanted to do with artists in the region. It was actually Fabrica that gave me the final push that I needed. I saw their performance on Bassem Youssef's Al Bernameg, and decided that day to create Izdahar.
As a non-profit organization, Izdahar's main goal is to promote cultural understanding between the U.S. and the MENA region through artistic exchange. This art can come in any form -- be it music, visual art, film, or dance. Along with showcasing the artists that we work with, we also want to foster collaboration. With each project, we will always include workshops, master classes, joint events, or anything else that we feel encourages local artists and artists from abroad to work together.
For our next project, we are taking Grammy Award-winning cellist Eugene Friesen to Egypt where he will host a week's worth of workshops at the Cairo Opera House, ultimately ending in a collaborative performance. Another project that we are working on is a Middle Eastern pop-art festival. We plan on bringing over a number of artists from around the region to the United States to perform/exhibit in a multi-purpose venue. These artists include rappers, breakdancers, and graffiti artists from places like Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan.
Supported by Meridian International and the U.S. Embassy-Cairo, the performances will be free, and the venues include:
Jan. 20: Washington, D.C., Busboys and Poets (14th St Location), 10a.m.
January 24: Boston, Massachusetts, Emmanuel Church, 7:30p.m.
January 26: New York, NY, Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater, 2p.m.