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    Taking Culture to the Provinces
    The Educational Work of the Robert Bosch Cultural Managers

    The cultural activities undertaken by foreign cultural institutes in the Islamic world are concentrated on capital cities; the provinces tend to get a raw deal. The Robert Bosch Stiftung’s Cultural Managers want to change this situation. Taking Egypt as an example, it’s clear how rewarding, but also how difficult their task is.

    We are sitting in a dark little basement room in the centre of Mansoura. A TV hangs on the wall, with rows of chairs packed close together in front of it. There is a rehearsal space next door, and the soundproofing is only partially successful: while Schubert is being played in the film, other, wilder melodies can be heard through the wall. The bookshop Books & Beans, in the centre of the Delta city of Mansoura, is a refuge for artists and liberal minds. Books are sold on the ground floor, and here in the basement musicians can rehearse their latest pieces. And once a month, film fans and Germanophiles meet here to watch productions from Germany.

    On this particular evening, around thirty people have gathered to watch 4 Minutes, a 2006 feature film from the German director and producer Chris Kraus, starring Monica Bleibtreu and Hanna Herzsprung. It’s the story of the pianist Traude Krüger, who has been giving piano lessons in the Luckau women’s prison for more than sixty years. There, she meets Jenny: aggressive, unpredictable, withdrawn, convicted of murder – but extremely talented. Violence is one of the film’s major themes, in the form of prison brutality, Jenny’s abuse by her father when she was a child, and the violence of the war in which Traude lost her lover.

    Serious discussions

    Every last seat in the basement room is taken, and people are even sitting on the stairs leading up to the bookshop. As the last four minutes of the film are over, and the final notes of the ‘Negro music’ fall away, an animated discussion breaks out among the viewers. One man in his mid-forties sees the film as racist, because jazz is repeatedly referred to as ‘Negro music’: ‘The film only escapes this in the final four minutes.’ Another man of the same age sees it as a portrait of German society, which in his opinion always sees the good in people, ‘and this film shows that clearly’. In spite of Jenny’s conviction for murder, and the outbreaks of violence, the piano teacher only sees her talent. ‘In my opinion the film doesn’t talk about German society, but about people and personalities and their fates,’ argues a young man in the audience. The film could be set anywhere. No, says the man he is addressing, this is a German film about German problems. There are no gay people or child abuse in Egypt. The comment is met with disbelief by some people in the room, who strongly disagree. The discussion is in full swing.

    Angela Verweyen is the organiser of this film club, which meets in Books & Beans in Mansoura once a month. She has been the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s Cultural Manager for the Nile Delta since May 2012, working with bookshops and libraries, and organising readings, concerts and film evenings. ‘The great thing about the programme is that we can try so much out, and have such a free hand in shaping it,’ she says. The basic guideline is that the cultural manager should convey an image of a young, modern Germany. The foundation has three cultural managers in Egypt, and their programmes mainly target a young, student audience. It’s exciting, says Angela Verweyen, to work in a region and in cities that aren’t as saturated with cultural events as, for example, the capital city, Cairo.

    The ‘cultural managers in the Arab world’ are part of a joint programme by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Goethe-Institut. Cultural managers from Germany have been sent to institutions in the Arab world since October 2005. They are awarded stipends, and have the task of creating events and initiatives that encourage cultural interaction, in order to promote German-Arab dialogue. To start with, just one cultural manager was sent to Egypt in 2005, and was based in Upper Egypt. Since 2012 there have been three of them: Angela Verweyen, Christian Salman and Alexander Besch, in the Nile Delta, northern Upper Egypt and southern Upper Egypt respectively.

    New territory

    When Angela Verweyen began her work in the Delta in May 2012, she was entering unknown territory. ‘My area was the Nile Delta, but I had no guidelines on which cities I should choose for my work,’ says the 31-year-old, who studied Arabic, politics and Islamic studies at university. She was familiar with Cairo and Alexandria from her studies and her work experience with the Goethe-Institut. But she had hardly any experience of the Delta. She did some research and started speaking to people, several of whom pointed her towards Books & Beans in Mansoura. Mansoura is the capital of the Dakhalia Governorate and home to one Egypt’s largest universities, internationally recognised for its faculty of medicine. So Angela organised a meeting in the bookshop, bought a train ticket, booked a hotel room and set off. The train reached Mansoura after dusk. She couldn’t find a taxi, and was left standing on the street, in the dark, in a city she didn’t know. ‘Suddenly a young woman came up to me’, she remembers. She said she knew how it felt to be alone in a strange city: she had spent the summer in London not long before. She drove Angela to her hotel. ‘I had been feeling pretty desperate, and then this woman came along. For me, it was a positive sign that Mansoura was a city where you can feel at ease; and I do, to this day, absolutely.’ She has been welcomed with open arms.

    Thanks to Mansoura University’s faculty of medicine, the city has a large audience of people interested in Germany and German culture. ‘A lot of the prospective doctors want to go to Germany, and are learning German. Hence all the interest in everything to do with Germany,’ says Angela. They are eager to understand German culture, and to have the chance to talk to a German native speaker. This means that Angela has also become the go-to person for all questions about Germany. ‘We are seen very much as German points of contact, as German representatives, with no distinction made as to who we work for.’ Creating a space where Egyptians can meet her, and German artists, is a central aspect of her work.

    Angela also organises cultural activities in Damanhour, another city in the Nile Delta: film screenings, concerts, and activities for children, who are introduced to the German language through games. ‘That’s always a good way in, then you win over the parents as well,’ she says. In Damietta, her third mainstay in the Nile delta, the city’s first ever bookshop is about to host a reading: ‘The owner is in her early twenties, and full of enthusiasm.’

    Back to Mansoura. The afternoon before the film showing, Angela has a meeting in another bookshop where she organises readings. The managing director of Al-Asreya is keen to put on more German-themed events. There are enquiries about German courses, and they want to hold a German culture week, with music, films, art, and of course literature. ‘Readings are my favourite thing to organise, because there is a direct exchange with the audience’ says Angela, who over the next few months will be travelling the Nile Delta with authors Michael Roes and Hussain Al-Mozany. But films are another good way of introducing an Egyptian audience to German culture.

    Learning about Germany

    Her colleagues Christian Salman and Alexander Besch also organise regular film evenings in their provinces. The Luxor Film Festival has just finished, at which Germany was this year’s focus country. The films shown there included Run Lola Run, Nowhere in Africa, The Lives of Others, Distant Lights and Almanya. ‘The audience consistently liked the films,’ says Alexander. He and Christian were responsible for the German selection. The aim of the Film Festival is to appeal to the resident population, with a focus on young people, and women in particular. Alexander has also started showing films in Minya, where he works as a cultural manager. The University of Minya’s faculty of languages has a German department, the only one in Upper Egypt. In addition to around four hundred students majoring in German, there are another eight hundred or so at the university who take German alongside medicine, pharmacology, tourism and media studies. But knowledge of German culture is still very poor, as Alexander explains. ‘This means there’s a great deal of interest in learning about Germany,’ he says. A lot of people have a very naïve idea of Germany. ‘Through the films, they see that there are social problems in Germany, too.’

    The cultural managers have two main criteria for selecting films. Can they be shown to a conservative audience, who have often had a sheltered upbringing, without shocking them with too much violence or with sexual scenes? Secondly, careful consideration is also given to the subject matter. ‘I want to show people something they can get their teeth into,’ says Alexander. The cultural managers always pay attention to a film’s content and message, with the aim of prompting an animated, critical discussion among the students after a screening. ‘I think it’s important that they form their own opinions, although they don’t get that at all at their universities,’ says Angela. For example, the cultural managers have shown series of films on the themes of family and immigration. This is particularly important to the students, since most of them want to be able to work in Germany later on. Almanya was especially well-received by the Egyptians. ‘The people here can immediately relate to this film: it raises an issue, and goes down well everywhere,’ says Alexander. In Damanhour, Angela says, it prompted an hour-long discussion. ‘The film draws on issues that are very relevant here.’ Many people here are thinking about emigration and life in a foreign country. Seeing how things go for people who have emigrated, and how family life develops afterwards, is something a film can communicate better than any conversation. ‘A viewer asked me after the film why I had to rob him of all his illusions,’ says Angela. The reality – albeit only portrayed in a fictional film – always looks different from how people imagine it at a distance. Sophie Scholl was another film that really spoke to Egyptians, as the theme, despite its specifically German background, was a very current one in Egypt: ‘How much do I stand up for my political beliefs, even if in doing so I am risking arrest and possibly death?’ explains Angela.

    The environment

    Another series of films was shown during ‘Green Week’, which takes places annually all over the world. The cultural managers were aiming to raise awareness of environmental issues. Christian Salman toured schools on the Red Sea with the film The Age of Stupid. This British docu-drama is set in the year 2055. The world is polluted, and only one man has survived; he looks back at what happened in the past with the help of old films from 2008, and asks why nobody did anything about environmental pollution and global warming while there was still time. ‘The project had some great side effects,’ Christian explains. The screenings led to local synergy effects: local authorities also used the film to really bring home the issue of environmental protection.

    In Hurghada, the well-known tourist resort on the Red Sea, Christian works with the Misr Public Library. The Red Sea Writers’ Association is among those invited to readings by German authors. ‘It’s very satisfying working there. The audience is incredibly grateful when someone comes over from Germany,’ the cultural manager says. His audience consists entirely of Egyptians, and mainly of writers, even though Hurghada has a sizeable German community. ‘These people don’t come just to be entertained, but for the exchanges with German colleagues.’ At a typical reading, around two-thirds of the time will be taken up by the discussion between audience and author.

    Exchange is a big priority for the cultural managers, and so they have a Facebook page, through which they stay in touch with their partners, the students, and participants in the cultural events. ‘We now have almost 2,700 likes, and around four hundred of those come from Mansoura alone,’ Angela says proudly. She feels at home in Mansoura, and the people of the city on the Nile – whose name means ‘the victorious’ – have welcomed her in return. In May, Angela, Christian and Alexander will be replaced by three new cultural managers. People in Mansoura find it hard to imagine how they will cope without Angela Verweyen. Everyone she has worked with there has taken this tall, blonde, Arabic-speaking woman with the big smile to their heart. ‘My successor will do a brilliant job,’ she assures me, with a laugh. And she'll use Facebook to stay in touch with all the young, talented creatives in the Nile Delta: the photographers, the breakdancers, and the members of the heavy metal band. ‘There’s everything in Mansoura,’ Angela says.
    Amira El Ahl is a cultural journalist and correspondent for German newspapers in Cairo.

    Translated by Ruth Martin

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2014

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