Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School: circus and music as alternative
Océane Besombes / Egypt
Océane Besombes / Egypt
Between Al-Azhar Park, veritable green lung of Cairo, and the maze of alleyways in the popular Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district, children walk on stilts, while others practically fly with straps or juggle with clubs, all with a musical backdrop with mixing notes of trombones and drum rhythms... No doubt, you have just passed through the doors of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School.
Circus arts, music or contemporary dance and theater, Since the beginning of its activities in 2012, this school offers unusual courses to children of the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district. Several specializations are proposed, for a two-year certification course open to children, boys and girls, of 8 to 18 years of age.
Circus arts and music to give an alternative to the children of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar
Al-Darb Al Ahmar is a historic district of the Egyptian capital consisting of small winding streets lined with multiple mosques and Islamic monuments. It is also a district of craftsmen that houses the last remaining covered market of the city, called the tents’ makers market, located in Khayyammiya street (“the tents’ street” in Arabic), one of the oldest streets of the Egyptian capital.
Originally founded by the cultural organization Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy, in cooperation with Aga Khan Music Initiative - Aga Khan Development Network, the school today operates thanks to the patronage of the El-Genina society for the arts and cultural services. It continues to be associated with Aga Khan, who is the main source of funding for the school. Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School is also supported by different cultural structures or institutes.
Thanks to these funding, the courses offered by this school to children are free of charge. The only requirement is to live in the same neighborhood as the school. This is a very practical criterion since circus arts or music sessions start every day right after school hours of children's classical school curriculum.
Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School demands a real commitment on the students’ part because they need to spend four hours a day five days a week there. A rewarded assiduity since children receive around one hundred Egyptian pounds per month and also a payment for each performance. Small sums which are not ignored in this district of Cairo where the poverty rate is high.
In its new location, into which the school moved at the beginning of the year, the school has a lot of quality equipment and musical instruments. Music rooms, a dance studio, storage rooms, small reading corner and even a large courtyard dedicated to circus classes, the infrastructures are really ideal. In addition, a doctor comes every week to listen to students, especially those who attend circus classes. Music students can learn to play percussion instruments, brass instruments such as saxophone, trumpet, trombone or accordion, and they attend music theory lessons. The students also benefit from many masterclasses given by Egyptian and international artists, in particular those programmed at the Al Genina Theater, which is located within walking distance of the school.
When the school actually started its activities, in 2012, there were only 20 students enrolled. Five years later they are more than a hundred and registrations continue to increase each year. Initially, a majority of boys populated this school, but today it is the girls who have taken over.
42 students have already graduated from the school, and although many of the girls later married and ended their artistic activities, most of the alumni now work in arts and culture. For example the young Nada, who was 12 years old when she enrolled in the Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School. She is now nineteen, and since completing her training she has worked as a circus class assistant.
Offering work to its graduates is part of the school’s goal, it strives above all to allow these children to build a different future from the one offered in their neighborhood. In fact, apart from craft trades, there are few alternatives available to young people in the neighborhood. The school also tries to help its graduates to continue their training in other structures such as conservatories. Sometimes the school can even provide financial support in the formalities and costs that can be incurred by continuing their artistic training. Likewise, once they complete their training, former students commit to come back to work for some time for the school.
Making society challenge preconceived notions
Despite growing success, the school continues to face challenges. The greatest is without a doubt dispelling societal misconceptions about the arts. The usefulness of the offered courses or the time spent by children in the school are points that raise questions or even misunderstanding on the part of the families. In fact, children in this neighborhood often start doing odd jobs at a young age to supplement their household income and to train as artisans. They often miss a part of their childhood. As a result, children often ask the school team members to persuade their parents to enroll them in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School, or to let them complete their artistic training. Teachers or school administrators act as mediators to show families the value of what children do within the school’s walls and the importance of artistic training to build their future. The school's social networks, regularly fed, are also a way for parents to keep themselves informed and to follow their children’s activities.
The school also always keeps its doors open so as to be perfectly integrated and accepted in the neighborhood. So any parent or resident can enter, attend sessions held in the school yard where circus classes are usually held. They can even freely enter the buildings to see what's going on.
The children, not only give performances in different theaters in Egypt but also sometimes abroad, as in July of 2016 in Tunisia and Morocco. “Zambalek”, “Balalaïka”, “Lost and Found” or more recently the “Flying Kids project”, over the course of recent years, the school has designed several shows combining circus arts, music and theater.
These performances enable them to practice their skills, but it is also for families a way to witness the skills acquired by their children and a proof of their fulfillment. News articles, performances in renowned theaters or festivals—all of which can also tip the balance in favor of the training received by the students of the school.
Ces représentations leur permettent de mettre en pratique leurs aptitudes, mais c’est aussi pour les familles une sorte de témoin des compétences acquises par leurs enfants et une preuve de leur épanouissement. Articles de journaux, représentations dans des théâtres ou des festivals de renoms, autant d’éléments qui pèsent également dans la balance en faveur de la formation reçue par les élèves de l’école.
Giving Egyptian circus a new breath
The circus has a long history in Egypt, it may have existed in pharaonic times. Also noteworthy, the first circus established in the Middle East was the "Circus of Cairo" born in 1869. This first track to the stars of the region was part of the many attractions organized by the Khedive Ismail Pasha on the sidelines of the inauguration of the canal of Suez. A little less than a century later, in 1966, Gamal Abdel Nasser, charmed by the quality of the shows seen during his travels in the USSR, launched the Egyptian national circus. Built in Agouza, near the banks of the Nile, the national circus of the country has very quickly enjoyed a success and reputation that have transcended the country's borders.
But from the beginning of the 1970s, between the death of Nasser, the decline of public subsidies, the cessation of cultural exchanges between the USSR and Egypt and the rise of conservatism in Egyptian society, the activities of the national circus have continually declined.
Khawla Abu-Saada, director of Al-Darb Al-Ahamar Arts School also explains that until the 19th century, street circus was popular in the country. A street circus tradition of mixing music, acrobatics, and interaction with the public. A tradition that the school wishes to revive.
A school of an ambitious and still unique project in Cairo that wants to develop its activities even more. In particular, the school intends to organize exchanges with foreign schools and with structures offering circus training because until now, except Al-Darb Al-Ahmar Arts School, nothing exists in Egypt. But, maybe in a few years the streets of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar district will no longer be the only ones in the country to welcome children who walk on stilts or twist in the air to the rhythm of their friends blowing in trombones or playing drums.
Editing Sidney Cavaricci WhiteTweet