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Keeping the Music Alive

Posted by vmsalama on May 31, 2006

I normally wouldn’t post one of my feature profiles, but Mohammed Abdel Moneim Al Sawy is by far one of the loveliest people I have ever met so I wanted to include this. 

 By Vivian Salama
Daily Star Egypt
It’s 8:31pm and the curtains at the Abdel Moneim El Sawy Culturewheel open. Maintaining an uncharacteristically punctual schedule by Egyptian standards, there appears the founder – Mohammed El Sawy – soft-spoken, dressed elegantly in a suit and tie, his beard trimmed to perfection. He greets the audience of about 400, giving well-researched background on the night’s performance, commenting on the way that particular genre has influenced art and music worldwide. Then taking a modest bow, he vanishes.
What often goes unrecognized as those performers grace our lives with their talent is that for two generations, the El Sawy family has dedicated their lives toward cultivating the lives of Egyptians with art, culture, knowledge and more. An architect by career, Mohammed El Sawy says it was his dream to provide Egyptians with a forum for all those things. Operating just shy of two and a half years, El Sakia (the Wheel) has grown rapidly to become a cultural hub in Cairo.
Still, one might suggest that El Sawy strayed from his work as an architect. He is quick to dismiss the idea, saying he is fulfilling the exact job description of an architect. “I always say we behaved like foxes who discovered a nice cave to live in, so this is architecture. Architecture is concerned with everything that touches a human beings life. Architecture is life, its environment, it’s complete view of survival of enjoying life, of everything. That is what we’re doing here.”
An unpresuming building in Zamalek, El Sakia is sandwiched between the Zamalek Mosque and the 15 May Bridge. Enter its gates and you enter another world. The most striking of features – a massive plot of grass with park benches on three corners and giant signs promoting a rather unusual concept in Egypt – NO SMOKING. It’s a campaign El Sawy takes to heart. “I think this grass is giving peace and a very good feeling to people. It’s also a sign of respecting the environment. With that, I am now in the process of making a pin that every non-smoker can put and feel proud, ‘I’m a non-smoker.’ It will be a simple white circle that sends the message ‘this is a clean chest, it’s white, not dirty.'”
It’s a simple but bold move, and just part of what El Sawy feels is his duty to raise awareness in society about a number of topics. “I really wish people look at El Sakia as a motivator for thinking – to prioritizing culture and enjoying life in the positive sense,” he says.


Inside El Sakia, past the information booth, a long line of bleachers face the center’s main theatre -Wisdom Hall – which seats as many as 600 people for music and theater performances. A smaller Word Hall is used mainly for art exhibitions, lectures, training sessions and seminars.
El Sakia and the Townhouse Gallery in Downtown Cairo are currently the only two privately-owned cultural centers in the city. This gives them the freedom and flexibility to support some of Egypt’s most talented rising stars who would not otherwise be granted stage time at public venues. El Sawy still keeps close ties with the advertising world as well. His company – Alamia Publishing and Advertising – is El Sakia’s biggest sponsor, offering year-round financial support to the center. Other year-round sponsors include MobiNil and Arab-African International Bank. IBM and Johiyna frequently contribute for select events. El Sawy says it is his dream to one day have El Sakia stand financially independent.
“We have good plans now,” he explains. “We have made some sponsorship packages, some advertising packages, everything in the sense that protects the place of being too commercialized.”
Abdel Moneim El Sawy, Minister of Culture under President Anwar Sadat from 1977-1978, use to always repeat the saying: “The world doesn’t have poverty, it has lack of ideas.” Decades later and his son still repeats his words, remembering his father’s ideologies and carrying out his message. He modestly compares himself saying “I believe my father was a better man than me.”
El Sawy tells stories of how his father used to absorb beauty around him, setting out on a crusade to help Egyptians grasp the impact of even the simplest beauties. “I learned from him that when he went somewhere, he would say say, ‘oh, what a beautiful minaret. We should simply bring a big orchestra and have it play.’ He did that in Hussein.”
Perhaps it is too complicated to make the Egyptian people truly appreciate the beauty of a sunset, or the innocence of a child’s face. However, El Sawy says that by providing an array of art and culture under one roof, El Sakia is an affordable escape from the traffic, satellite television and mobile phone craze.
“From my father, I took the idea of change – that you should never take things for granted,” recalls El Sawy. People use to wear watches, but you might find a better way to tell the time. Like now people use mobile phones more than using watches. If people never think out of the box, they will never develop. So people should be in a thinking process endlessly from birth to death. You should enjoy everything beautiful in life.”
Now with two young girls of his own, and his wife – a public relations executive at the Cairo Opera – El Sawy finds himself living by his father’s example everyday. “I always discover him more and more after so many years,” reveals El Sawy. “He believed too much in being honest, serious, being committed.”
Beyond possessing an appreciation for art and culture, El Sawy teaches not only his own children, but all those who enter the doors of El Sakia to show the utmost respect for all artists. “I don’t believe it when someone takes the phone and goes out while you have a singer burning himself behind the microphone and stand up in the first row and simply walk out. I really can’t take – it’s something very strange for me.”
Outspoken he is, but even the thought of playing a serious role in politics makes El Sawy cringe. At heart, he carries on his father’s teachings and hopes for a multi-party, democratic nation whereby which citizens can vote from a number of candidates. With the recent constitutional amendments drawing international attention to Egypt, El Sawy says, he hopes to see Egypt moving in the right direction. As far as any official role for himself, El Sawy does not believe he must be dragged into the tainted world of politics when he is already doing good for society.
“I believe that we have here a very good chance to help people with what we think is useful for them. So why should I go and do work that interferes with any units?” he asks.
Politics aside, El Sakia has over its short history hosted a medley of genres – both in art and music. Apart from its regular schedule of seminars and films – independent and commercial – El Sakia is credited for helping to launch some of Cairo’s best known acts – such as Wust El Balad, El Hataya Band from Bahariya Oasis, Omar Khairat and more.
“Dealing with El Sawy logistically and administratively showed me that he cares greatlty about the little details and he has a huge appreciation for good work by artists,” explains Ahmed Harfoush, lead singer of the Riff Band, Cairo’s leading jazz act. “It’s great to finally have a cultural center that is initiating so many activities fusing Egyptian and Western cultures. It’s excellent exposure for my band and gives us the chance for playing live music in a theatre.
“[Mohammed El Sawy] helps a lot of musicians, especially those who are not that famous, he makes a lot of connections for them,” says Hany Adel, lead singer for Arabic pop band, Wust el Balad, which draws a standing room crowd to El Sakia every time they perform. “He is introducing art and culture to people in a completely new way. The people come from all walks of life to enjoy music at El Sakia and that is the beauty of it.”
On many instances, El Sawy thanks God and the Prophet Mohammed for granting him the luck and ability to carry on his father’s message. He notes a time where his life was very modest – recalling how his father would celebrate the rare occasion when he bought new shoes. Now, he admits, his standard of living is far greater than that in which he was raised. Still, he recalls with a smile, “we were happy and we loved each other very much.”
Mohammed El Sawy doesn’t think he has the ability to save the world – or the country – nor is he intending to. But he is spreading the message that it is in the cultivation of culture and knowledge that this nation can soar to great potentials. “We have people who say – do not think too much, you will kill yourself from thinking. This is not true. Think as much as you can.”

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