Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A Long Affair

Egyptians are celebrating the contribution of their Leavntine cousins to Egyptian art and culture by publishing Mas'oud Dahir's book 'Migration of the Levant', this is at the head of the Egyptian - Levantine Cultural Festival which is to take place in Cairo.

Since the 19th century thousands of families flocked from the fertile crescent to Egypt, in the search of opportunity. Artists, Writers, Architects and Engineers were drawn by the possibility of making a fortune in building downtown Cairo and the Suez Canal. In those heady years, Egypt was on the up, described as the Paris of the Middle East and it would seem that any young professional, wishing to prove themselves at the time, would head for the heady metropolis.

Among them were some of the biggest names - families like the Nahhas, the Sednaoui, the Mitres, the Khouris , the Zidans and many others. Because of this background, Egyptians retain  a perception of Shamis as being more Westernized and sophisticated.

By the mid-twentieth century, while Levantine Egyptians existed in all walks of life, they dominated the production of culture. In 1881, two Lebanese brothers, Salim and Bishara Taqla, founded Egypt’s most prestigious daily, Al-Ahram. Levantine families dominated the publishing industry, owning major printing houses like Dar al-Hilal (est. 1892), which gave them enormous influence on the country’s cultural life.

After Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized most businesses ¬ including newspapers ¬ in the mid-1960s, Egyptians turned to Lebanon for a free press, in some cases moving banned publications to Beirut. Even today, while the quality of publications coming out of the state-owned firms frustrates many Egyptians, they admire Lebanon’s publishers and the relative freedom they have. When in 2000 the publication in Cairo of Syrian writer Heidar Heidar’s Banquet for Seaweed spurred riots because religious figures said it denigrated Islam, Cairo’s intellectuals rushed for the Lebanese edition that was smuggled in.

Acting and singing were other professions in which Lebanese artists had a foothold. The great crooner of 1950s Egyptian cinema, Farid al-Atrash, was Lebanese. His sister Asmahan rivalled Egypt’s own star singer, Umm Kulthoum, to the extent that Egyptians commonly believe her death in a car accident was a plot by the older Egyptian songstress. The most famous of Egyptian film directors, Youssef Chahine, was of Syrian origin.

Even the material culture of Cairo has been suffused by the Levant. The most prolific architect in Central Cairo between the 1930s and 1960s was Antoine Selim Nahhas, who is seen as the first modernist architect in Egypt. Nahhas, who built among other important buildings the Beirut National Museum, established a wildly successful practice in Cairo, where he designed buildings for the rich and famous.

This cordial and fruitful relationship may have been what prompted Gamal Abdel Nasser to embark upon the disastrous unification of Egypt and Syria, which very quickly collapsed, showing that Egypt and the Levant, though never synonymous will forever be complimentary.

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