“Can art really contribute to social change?” Skeptic Sarah El Ashmawy, minority rights activist and part of the Drama, Diversity and Development team at Minority Rights Group conducted an extensive interview with Mohab Saber, part of the Street Carnival troupe, asking if street theater, as a methodology, could be a new way of addressing long-lasting issues of discrimination in the south Mediterranean region. Here is what she found out
It is fair to say that for the past three years in Egypt, there has been as distinctive and thought-through move towards arts to discuss social issues, as a way to address long-lasting social issues where other more traditional models have failed to produce significant impact. The latest and most obvious example in the Egyptian context is the Ramadan soap opera “Taht Al saytara”, which chose to talk about drugs and drug use in Egypt in an unprecedented sincere and honest fashion. Mohab Saber, Coordinator of the “Street Carnival” project, makes the perfect case for art as a tool for social change and the potential of street theater initiatives in Egypt. And despite the reservations that one could have about measuring the impact and change that arts and culture actually have on audiences, when it came to promoting diversity, it was hard to argue against Mohab’s logic of love.
When I asked Mohab to explain why he thought “street carnival” had had such a success in areas in Egypt, where most development workers feel there is no hope, his answer sounded evident: “It is clear that it is a smarter way when you invite the public to love the Nubian culture, instead of just talking to them about the Nubian issue. […] They will naturally accept it and integrate it once they learn its positive values”. In the Egyptian context, this logic has perhaps found the solution to the disengaged public, who has been fleeing the “tragedies of others” as they have to deal with their own on a day-to-day basis. Mohab continued his logic of love by saying “Obviously, the joy that the performance creates will break social tensions and prejudices.”
But the true message of Mohab, an unformulated one perhaps, is that things concerning “accepting the Other” change when diversity is presented as a solution. Rather than telling the public that “we have a problem because we discriminate” and stop there, street theater, through engaging stories lines and characters, and thanks to its flexible nature, allows civil society organizations to present an alternative reality where diversity is an active component of the solution.
On the potential of street theater in Egypt, Mohab said it is clear that it can be used to discuss most of the social issues which civil society organizations have not been able to successfully impact through other methods. But as more and more civil society redirects its efforts and funds towards arts and culture tools, we have to make sure that our artists have the capacity and the appropriate knowledge to engage with the public, and the tools to manage the projects. This is why “street carnival” also has among its objective to train and build the capacity of artists who discuss social issues through regional training and national networking. For Mohab, NGOs must have access to a network of trained artists to engage effectively through arts with the public. Indeed, artistic and cultural projects designed by development workers have proven to be limited.
In a way, I think Mohab was also saying that the development and human rights sector should also open their minds to a diversity of tools, and realize that development and human rights workers can only achieve real change when they meet the artists of the streets.
Sarah El Ashmawy