Arts Back on the Agenda in Assiut
ASSIUT—It’s been a long time coming, but after nearly 30 years of clampdown from extremist Islamists in the city, the arts are creeping back onto Assiut University’s campus with a successful film festival, and plans for more creative events to come.
Back in 1989, when Mohammed Jum’a was a student at Assiut University’s Faculty of Agriculture, he took part in university theater for the first time. And while a nervous debut on stage is unforgettable for most people, Jum’a had even greater reason for remembering his first acting experience.
“Students from the Islamic group attacked the theater while we were in the middle of our performance,” said Jum’a. “They held us captive, claiming that all artistic activities were against religion.”
After clashes with the police force that lasted a number of hours, Jum’a and his friends were finally released from the theater via a fire ladder. Since then, Assiut University, which was considered a bastion of Muslim Brotherhood values, has not seen much artistic activity.
Recently, however, the situation has changed. Last month, the university launched its first student festival for short feature, documentary, and animation movies.
“The festival is an innovative and important step to encourage students to think creatively and take part in the arts,” said Jum’a, who is now head of the arts department at the university.
The films, created by university students using very limited technical resources, dealt with topics related to their daily life and their community; the role of social media, medical imposters and female genital mutilation, the marginalization of women, and the spread of corruption. They were warmly welcomed by both students and professors.
“The festival gave us the opportunity to show off our artistic talents. It also created a positive, celebratory atmosphere on campus that we haven’t seen for a long time,” said Mohammed Abdul-Latif, a third year student at the Faculty of Education.
Despite the conservative nature of the city of Assiut and its university, female students also took part in the festival.
“No female students were excluded,” said Yara Abdeen, a second-year student at the Faculty of Arts’ department of Arabic language and literature. “The university administrators even contacted the families of female students from other states to reassure them, and to encourage their daughters to participate.”
Issam El-Zinati, the vice president for education and students affairs at Assiut University, agrees that the festival was “a wonderful opportunity for students to express themselves and discover their talents.” It has even prompted him to create a YouTube Channel, in collaboration with the media department at the Faculty of Arts, to promote the talent that emerged in the festival shows.
The anti-Muslim-Brotherhood political atmosphere that has prevailed since July 2014, when Abdel Fattah-El Sisi ousted Mohammed Morsi, has encouraged the launch of such artistic activities in the city. Assiut had been considered a stronghold of extremist Islamists since the 1970s because of the weak presence of central government there.
“The authorities’ support of cultural and artistic activities is a great way to protect students from falling under the influence of hard-line Islamists, who have long been active in the university,” said Mustafa Zahran, a researcher in Islamist movements at Turkey’s Foundation for Political, Economic, and Social Research (SETA) which has an office in Cairo.
Still, students think they need more support. “Artistic and athletic activities really depend on the individual student’s efforts, and financial status too,” said Rami Lam’i Nashid, a fourth-year student at the Faculty of Social Work and a first-prize winner in the film festival.
Ahmed Mohammed Najeeb, a third-year student at the Faculty of Agriculture who won third prize, agrees with Lam’i, and added that the university administrators were not helpful enough. “There was no funding to produce the works of arts, and I only got permission to shoot for one day on campus,” he said.
Due to a lack of publicity, only university students attended the festival. “All our activities are open to the general public,” said Izz El-Din El-Mansouri, director of the Youth Care Department at the university. “But the limited budget meant we couldn’t afford to advertise. We must try to avoid this problem next time.”
Jum’a does not deny the lack of budget at the university to support artistic activities, but says this does not mean a lack of interest in continuing an arts program there.
“After a long break, artistic activities are back on campus,” he said. “We need time to provide enough funding for them. But the really important thing right now is maintaining the open climate that will encourage such activities both on campus and outside the university.”