Six Years in Cairo “Cultural work here is rewarding”

Tahrir Square in Cairo
Tahrir Square in Cairo | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig

No other region of the world is as affected by such social and political upheaval as the Middle East. In an interview with Christopher Resch, Gabriele Becker talks about her six turbulent years in Egypt and the role that cultural dialogue can play in the development of civil society in the region.

Ms Becker, you were the director of the Goethe-Institut Cairo in one of the most exciting phases of its existence. What was Egypt like when you arrived in Cairo in late 2010?

Gabriele Becker has been director of the Goethe-Institut Cairo for six years. Gabriele Becker has been director of the Goethe-Institut Cairo for six years. | Photo: Bernhard Ludewig When I arrived in Cairo in 2010, we couldn’t foresee such groundbreaking change happening. Of course, I had read about young Khaled Said who was beaten to death on the street in Alexandria. “We are all Khaled Said” became one of the slogans of the revolt. But it was initially seen as an isolated case. The possibility of such an upheaval was not recognizable on the surface.

Did the developments surprise everyone?

It seemed that way to me, at least. The April 6 Movement, for instance, began several years before. What was unique about January 2011 was that all sorts of different movements and groups gathered on Tahrir Square. Very different people were dissatisfied and frustrated for very different reasons. It brought them all together on this square.

This was the time that the Tahrir Lounge, the Goethe project that has had the greatest resonance in Egyptian society, was launched. What did you achieve with it?

It’s truly phenomenal – sometimes I get the impression that the Tahrir Lounge is better known among young people than the Goethe-Institut itself. Located in the direct vicinity of Tahrir Square, Tahrir Lounge is a place where people can exchange views freely, where they can learn something, where civil society activities take place. In my view, it is unique how in such a short time the programmes offered by the Lounge achieved such a level of awareness and popularity. That is why we definitely want to continue this project. The people who come here see that there are lots of young people who have hope for the future and who want to make a difference in their country. At the Tahrir Lounge they can communicate with one another about it.

The Goethe-Institut’s Tahrir Lounge in Cairo The Goethe-Institut’s Tahrir Lounge in Cairo | Photo: Mohamed Elmaymony What others projects would you highlight?

Another important project that began during this period is the Cultural Innovators Network, which we kick-started with a great deal of energy and dedication. The unique thing about it is that is has a Euro-Mediterranean slant. So, not only does it involve young people from North Africa and the Middle East, but also many from the European Mediterranean region, especially southeastern Europe. I think that a network like this can make an enormous contribution to getting to know one another better and that it can be an anti-pole to Islamophobia, which is spreading right now due to the recent unspeakable attacks. When young Muslims and non-Muslins work together on projects here, it is the very best way to break down prejudices.

For three years, Egypt has been experiencing a phase of repression and control. What is presently changing for the work of mediator institutions like the Goethe-Institut?

We perceive the great lack of freedom that prevails in the country and that affects our partners. Egyptians are unsettled, practice self-censorship, and are more cautious in their actions. This impairs us, as well, in a certain way. On the other hand, we as an institution are more important than ever. Like the DAAD or the other German mediators and the European cultural institutes, we are a contact point and safe place for individuals and partner organizations with whom we work.

You also took up difficult topics, like the LGBT movement in Egypt. Why is it important that the institute take a prominent stance on this?

Participants in a gender identity workshop in Cairo Participants in a gender identity workshop in Cairo | Photo: Nadia Mounir We firmly believe that we cannot ignore such issues. There are people here, too, who want to live differently than the conventions of a country like Egypt allow, and we offer a platform to them. We published an article on the situation of LGBT people in Egypt on our website that was read by more than 8,000 people. There was a very fierce, critical discussion on social media about it, but only by a smaller proportion of people: More than 8,000 readers opened the article, about 140 made critical comments. That shows me that we have taken up an important issue.

As regional director, you were responsible for the entire North Africa/Middle East region. There are certainly easier regions in the framework of the Goethe-Institut – there was the Janadriyah Festival in Riyadh, the German Season will soon begin in Doha. What is rewarding about cultural work in this region?

Exactly what you just mentioned: Janadriyah, this festival in this country – a few years ago no one would have believed that we would manage to do it. That alone is amazing. Things are on the move that would have not developed without such a festival and without our contribution there. I hope and believe that the German Season in Qatar can make a difference and advance intercultural exchange. In a region with so many obstacles it is far more rewarding to do cultural work because it is so important when you get something on its feet, when a project works, despite all the complexities.

Gabriele Becker studied German, politics and history and has worked for the Goethe-Institut since 1981 in Khartoum, Berlin, New York, Prague and Munich. The director of the North Africa/Middle East region has lived in Cairo since 2010.

Christopher Resch conducted the interview. He is a freelance journalist based in Leipzig who writes chiefly about the (political) culture of the Arabic-Islamic world, about the media and about activism.