November 25, 2021 3:24 PM
“Itmahrag!” (Let’s celebrate!), The French choreographer Olivier Dubois seems to shout at the audience of the grand finale of Romaeuropa, the festival of contemporary art, theater, dance and music that took place from 14 September to 21 November. With his dance show entitled precisely Itmahrag, Dubois invites you to participate in an amazing show that releases the explosive energy of Egyptian dancers and musicians of mahraganat, a distorted electronic music, which triggers energetic, violent dances, inspired by the dance of the knives, and which today is prohibited in Egypt.
The mahraganat was born in the most popular suburbs of Cairo and established itself during the revolution of 2011. It joins the shaabi, pop music played at street parties or weddings, with electronics and hip-hop, creating glowing beats through sound-distorting speakers. Denigrated by the Egyptian bourgeoisie for its vulgarity, the mahraganat he was attacked for his tone by President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, who had three singers arrested.
Truth and discouragement
Olivier Dubois is a dancer with a wrestling physique who unleashed an extraordinary energy in his interpretations for Angelin Preljocaj, the Cirque du Soleil or Sasha Waltz. Dance Europe magazine elected him among the best dancers in the world in 2011. Proud pupil of Jan Fabre, as a choreographer he accustomed the audience to great moments of truth on stage, without fear of sowing despair in the hall.
Before the performance in Rome, Olivier Dubois explains his symbiotic relationship with the “bad guys” of Cairo and tells how he decided to bring the mahraganat on stage: “As a child I traveled a lot with my parents. The first time I was in Egypt, however, I felt something different and from the age of 17 onwards I always went back. Today I have an apartment there and I live between Cairo and Paris. I have a loving relationship with this city, it is both very intimate and evident. It will be chaos, human warmth, a mysterious organization of social life, a radically different relationship with time “.
Dubois saw the movement mahraganat born and exploded after the 2011 revolution, thanks to a Pasolini youth without politics or destination. Last year it was decided to launch the project, and auditions began to form a group of two singers and five dancers.
The real challenge was to bring artists who normally work on the street or on YouTube to the stage, explains Dubois: “The hardest thing was to agree on the work to be distributed, the tour changed us all. The others have also become very demanding and now we are on the same line. We agree that working hard increases artistic freedom ”. And he adds with humor: “Of course it will hold up as long as I can be as late as they are and put them to bed!”.
They joke, rearrange the set, move chairs and projectors, speaking in Arabic, without translation. The experience will be real, a party without rules is about to begin
While the spectators in the hall are still sitting down, the seven artists are already on stage, the lights are bright. They joke, rearrange the set, move chairs and projectors, speaking in Arabic, without translation. The experience will be real, a party with no rules is about to begin. Then, again in Egyptian Arabic, the interpreters ask the already slightly tense audience that tries to grasp the meaning: “Is there anyone here who understands us?”. The question rings loud, not just rhetoric.
Even the people who speak Arabic in Egypt seem not to want to understand this youth betrayed after the revolution of 2011. It is a youth who live on the margins, but who represent the majority: the average age of Egyptians is 24 years. For a city of 22 million inhabitants, the “suburbs” to which the artists refer when presenting themselves in English are in fact huge cities, very young, where the mahraganat it is daily bread.
The mahraganat it was not born as a political genre, but the fear it instills in the regime has made it a central political phenomenon in Egypt. Its influence on Egyptian popular culture is immense: it was spread by the cinema, which made great use of it, to the point of conquering young people from all over the country and the Arab world.
On February 14, 2021, mahraganat artists Hassan Shakoosh and Omar Kamal sang at the Cairo stadium Bent El Giran (the neighbor’s daughter). The protagonist tells of his love for a girl who lives next to him, if he were to be rejected, his life would lose all meaning. Disappointed love, he sings, would make him “get drunk and smoke hashish.”
The next day, the head of the musicians union, singer Hany Shaker, denied the artistic license that allows all singers to perform in public in Egypt. mahraganat, announcing legal measures against anyone who violates this decision. The next day the education ministry still banned the mahraganat in Egyptian schools.
What worries the regime is also the financial autonomy of the artists, who do not depend on official cultural circuits like the others: for the stars of the mahraganat the earnings come from YouTube and their internet channels. Artists like Hamo Bika and Mohamed Ramadan would earn $ 1.9 million and $ 4.5 million a year respectively from YouTube.
The artistic intent of Ithmarag however it is not documentary. Dubois worked to transform the explosive energy of his performers, it also prompted them to reclaim cult songs such as Al Atlal by Umm Kulthum, inviting them to “sit on tradition, don’t respect it, don’t be afraid of it”. As the choreographer says: “I wanted to consider everyone as complete performers, I made the dancers sing, the singers dance. We went back to the ancient roots of this dance: an Alexandria knife dance. When they dance with real knives on the street, you feel a real risk, and this drives me crazy, I love to take risks, to live incandescent situations “.
After the introductions and jokes at the start of the show, the violence takes the stage. Smoke bombs, clashes between boys, bodies thrown against each other, times that are getting longer. The unleashed violence of the bodies of these young males leads Dubois to shuffle the cards and questions their relationship with masculinity: violent gestures of “bad boys” alternate with lewd dances inspired by the sensuality of oriental female dance. Their energy is unsettling: it is not well defined and Dubois does not put a damper on them. For him “the youth of the whole world can be recognized in these pure expressions”.
In fact, without proposing captions, without apparent intermediation between his performers and the public, the choreographer managed to unleash a very powerful energy on stage, a real party.