The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Baby Steps Toward Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia

Posted by vmsalama on May 11, 2013

MAY 11, 2013

By Vivian Salama

Daily Beast 

When King Abdullah succeeded his late half-brother to become ruler of Saudi Arabia eight years ago, many believed he brought with him an air of reform. Known for his relatively moderate views, Abdullah promised to achieve a great many changes for women, who were barred from driving and were required by law to seek the approval of a male “guardian” to work, travel abroad and, in some cases, to undergo surgery.

Saudi Women

Muslim women, the king said in a 2011 speech, have given “opinions and advice since the era of Prophet Muhammad” and “we refuse to marginalize women in society in all roles that comply with Sharia,” or Islamic law, the octogenarian ruler added.

This week, as Saudi Arabia marked the eighth anniversary since King Abdullah ascended the throne, according to the Islamic Hijri calendar, the government announced that it would lift a ban on sports at private girls’ schools across the kingdom. It comes weeks after the government made another concession—lifting a ban on females riding bicycles and buggies, albeit in the presence of a male guardian. The decisions were hailed by many reformers as positive “baby steps,” but several major issues continue to stall the women’s-rights movement in Saudi Arabia from celebrating true progress, including the right to drive, the right to operate without male approval or supervision, as well as the right to win custody of a child or legally defend herself in cases of domestic violence.

Women have been fighting for equality in Saudi Arabia long before the rumble of discontent erupted in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Since regional uprisings began in 2011, the Saudi government, apprehensive that its citizens would join in the call for change, has tried to placate the opposition with concessions in the form of housing allowances, government handouts, and new social liberties. But women say the time has come for real change.

“All these baby steps do count, but they are not enough,” says Aiyah Saihati, a Saudi businesswoman and writer. There is a need for “removing any constraints that make [women] unequal to men in terms of self-determination, be it the need for guardian permits for education, travel, hospitalization, as well as being treated with full citizenship, as men, in rights to housing or citizenship for her children.” (more…)


Posted in Arab, Arab Spring, Culture, discrimination, Domestic Abuse, Education, Elections, Employment, Freedom of Speech, Internet, Islam, Media, Middle East, Politics, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment, Social Media, Women | Leave a Comment »

In the Egypt Independent’s closure, an end of a beginning

Posted by vmsalama on April 30, 2013

by Vivian Salama

Columbia Journalism Review

April 30, 2013

Like many things in Egypt these days, the fight to save the Egypt Independent from termination went viral almost instantly. A cry for help by the newspaper’s editors earlier this year cited “the current economic crisis” as reason for the looming closure of the country’s most highly respected English-language newspaper, as well as the “political limitations manifested in rising restrictions on freedom of expression” since the election of President Mohamed Morsi.

Journalists protest outside the Journalists' Syndicate in Cairo

Journalists protest outside the Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo


“On April 25, after weeks of international campaigns and fundraisers, the executive management of the Independent abruptly pulled the plug on its operations, days earlier than scheduled. A statement from the editorial staff read:

“Four years after the birth of Egypt Independent, the management of Al-Masry Media Corporation has informed our editorial team that our print and onlinenews operation is being shut down.”

Because we owe it to our readers, we decided to put together a closing edition, which would have been available on 25 April, to explain the conditions under which a strong voice of independent and progressive journalism in Egypt is being terminated.

Opened four years ago as an English language division to privately owned Arabic daily El Masry El Youm, the newspaper was one of few that chronicled the real beginnings of the Egyptian revolution, from the economic deterioration to the death of Khaled Said, brutally beaten to death by police in Alexandria in 2010—coverage of which went viral on social media websites, planting the seed for the January 25, 2011 popular uprising.

“This kind of press played an important role in the wave of contentious politics that started in 2005 and onwards,” said Lina Attalah, editor in chief of the now defunctEgypt Independent. The paper’s closure has made headlines around the world, as it represents a blatant setback for a revolution hard fought and now, seemingly, coming apart at the seams.

Like a handful of news organizations in Egypt today, Egypt Independent lured a new generation of journalists that were not schooled in the art of self-censorship, once a necessity to operate safely as a reporter in Egypt. These newly untethered journalists put emphasis on the post-uprising day-to-day struggles, as well as on more mainstream coverage of street battles, sectarian strife, and rape. Most importantly, the paper provided a medium for bilingual Egyptians to speak to people beyond their borders with an intellectual, analytical, nuanced voice, often tackling issues that would otherwise not get attention in the international media. (more….)

Posted in Al Jazeera, Arab, Arab Media & Society, Arab Spring, Arabic, Bloggers, Cairo University, Censorship, Comedy, Constitution, corruption, Culture, Daily Star Egypt, dictatorship, discrimination, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Freedom of Speech, Journalism, Judiciary, Media, Middle East, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood, Politics, Protests | Leave a Comment »

Arab-Americans Set to Play Key Role in US Election

Posted by vmsalama on November 4, 2012

By Vivian Salama

Al-Monitor (click here for original link)

Arab-Americans are poised to play a critical role in the US presidential election.   Numbering about 4 million, they’re heavily concentrated in several battleground states — including Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia — where every vote will count in a race that many consider too close to call.

A mid-September survey of 400 voters conducted by the Arab American Institute revealed that President Barack Obama leads Republican candidate Mitt Romney among Arab-Americans, 52% to 28%, with 16 percent of Arab Americans still undecided. This compares to the 67% to 28% lead Obama held over John McCain among Arab Americans in 2008, signaling a potential loss of some 100,000 voters for Obama, according to AAI.

A substantial drop in Arab-American support for Obama, relative to 2008, accompanied by the large number of undecided voters, especially in key swing states, could be a signal to the present and future candidates.

The Arab-American political community had its challenges following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Patriot Act, arrests, detentions and deportations targeted members of the community. A New York Police Department surveillance program and opposition to building mosques and Islamic community centers, like the Park51 center near Ground Zero, preoccupied the community’s political leaders. Instead of campaigning for broader national and international issues, Arab-Americans found themselves fighting as much, or more than ever, for their civil liberties. (more…)


Posted in Abu Dhabi, Algeria, Arab, Arab Spring, Arabic, Bahrain, Christian, Culture, discrimination, Dubai, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Foreign Policy, Freedom of Speech, Gaza, Iran, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Lobby, Media, Middle East, New York, NYPD, Palestinians, Politics, Qatar, Religion, Saudi Arabia, Social Media, Sudan, Terrorism, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, United States, Yemen | Leave a Comment »

Egypt’s Ultraconservative First Lady Naglaa Ali

Posted by vmsalama on June 26, 2012

My latest article on Egypt’s elusive new First Lady.

Egypt’s Ultraconservative First Lady Naglaa Ali

The Daily Beast

By Vivian Salama

June 26, 2012

Naglaa Ali wears little makeup and dons a khimar, an Islamic veil that completely covers the hair and falls loosely to the waist. Ali wasn’t well known in Egypt. That is, until she joined her husband Mohamed Morsi for a tour of Cairo’s presidential palace.

Less than a week before Egypt’s first Islamist president officially assumes office, the nation’s attention has turned to his wife. Until recently, Egypt’s soon-to-be first lady was a mystery to those her husband would soon rule. She rarely accompanied Morsi on his nationwide campaign, and she had done virtually no interviews.

As informal exit polls hinted at Morsi’s win over Ahmed Shafiq, a stalwart of the former regime, Egyptians got a first look at Ali after a few photos went viral on social media and Egyptian news websites. The image sparked heated discussions over whether her ultraconservative appearance is suitable to represent Egypt in a diplomatic arena—a stark contrast from her predecessors, including the now-notorious Suzanne Mubarak, a Westernized elitist who reportedly used her husband’s power to amass a personal fortune of as much as $3.3 million.

Born in Cairo in 1962, Ali was 17 when she married Morsi—her first cousin, a common practice in the Arab world. The couple relocated to the United States shortly after they wed, where Morsi completed his doctorate in engineering at the University of Southern California and later worked as a professor at California State University, Northridge. Ali, who trained as a translator, gave birth to two of their five children while living in the U.S. It was there that she was first enthralled with the grassroots work of the Muslim Brotherhood and became an active member of the organization, engaging in charity work, primarily with a focus on education.

In one of the only interviews she has given to date, she reportedly said she prefers to be called “Oum Ahmed” (the Mother of Ahmed) by the Egyptian people—a traditional designation referring to her eldest son. She also said that she is opposed to living in the presidential palace formerly inhabited by the Mubaraks, and would instead prefer to buy a house in Cairo, suitable for entertaining large groups. (click here for more…)

Posted in Arab, Arab Spring, California, Culture, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Female Circumcision, Foreign Policy, Hosni Mubarak, Islam, Middle East, military, Mohamed Morsi, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood | Leave a Comment »

“The Protester”: A Photo Journal of the Egyptian Revolution

Posted by vmsalama on December 15, 2011

Thanks to TIME Magazine for recognizing the revolutionaries all over the world… I’ve been meaning to write this for quite some time but only finding the chance to do it now.

A year ago when Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunisia, burned himself out of frustration from a political system that neglected him, I was en route to Beirut ahead of the Christmas holiday and writing, mainly, about the credit crunch in the Arab Gulf states and mounting concerns that the banking system would not soon recover from the blow. Days after I returned from Beirut, my host, Rania Abouzeid, came to stay with me in Dubai in a desperate attempt to fly to Tunisia, where flights were almost entirely grounded amid an uprising across the country. It was hard to imagine then that the desperate act of this young man not only set in motion a revolution in his country, but around across the region.

Jan. 27, 2011: me and Rania Abouzeid heading to Cairo (at 3am -- ughhh!!!)

On January 14, 2011, following a month of violent protests against his rule, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – Tunisia’s president since 1987 — was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia along with his wife and their three children.  A week later, Rania and I were on a flight to Cairo where calls for a revolution had begun to circulate on social media websites. They were days I will never forget, and with TIME Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year issue being dedicated this year to The Protester, I want to share with you all a few memories and photos of the protesters I met in Cairo this year. (Click here to read some of my stories on the Arab Spring)

On January 27, two days after the protests officially begun, Internet and mobile phone service was completely cut off in Egypt and we were left guessing where crowds were gathering. After trying a few spots around town, Rania and I decided to go toward the Mohendiseen neighborhood near the Moustafa Mahmoud mosque. It was a good guess! About 500 protesters had gathered after Friday prayers where they came face to face with riot police chanting slogans like “The people want the end of the regime” and “Hosni Mubarak: illegitimate.”

We began to march, with the intention of going toward Tahrir Square. (Rania and I were quickly separated in the crowd and were each forced to continue reporting on our own). Weaving through side streets and alleys in the Cairo neighborhood, people watched us from balconies, throwing bottles of water, garlic and onions, and bottles of vinegar – all simply remedies for tear gas inhalation, because everyone knew what lie ahead.  The longer we marched, the more the crowd swelled, with protesters called on those people in their homes not to be afraid.
Photo by Vivian Salama

Cairo, January 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

photo by Vivian Salama

Cairo, January 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

Photo by Vivian Salama
Jan 27: Protesters Near Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque/Photo by Vivian SalamaS

Sure enough, we were quickly confronted by tanks and soldiers firing tear gas at the crowd. I’ve never seen so much camaraderie in my life. Soldiers at a nearby military hospital threw medical masks at the protesters and pharmacists handed them out to the crowds. At one point I felt quite ill from the tear gas. A man approached from behind me and pressed a vinegar-covered mask against my mouth and nose. A nearby vendor (who probably struggles to feed his own family with the pennies he earns) emptied his refrigerator, handing out water bottles and cans of soda to the fatigued protesters.

Every where I looked, people were helping each other, helping strangers tie their masks, sharing water bottles, aiding those who were most affected by the gas.

There was one point, marching with the crowd from Mohendiseen, when we approached a major intersection and I heard roaring cheers. I jumped up on a car to see what had happened and was personally overcome by emotion. From three different directions, massive groups of protesters were approaching the intersection – the other groups coming from as far as Giza and the Nasr City. They did this without Internet or mobile phones.

Photo by Vivian Salama

Cairo, January 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

Groups of young men pushed to the front of the crowd and began to battle riot police, taking over their vehicles and chasing them away. Our group, now numbered in the hundreds of thousands, pushed slowly across the historic Qasr El Nil bridge in an attempt to move into Tahrir. There were moments when I worried that an attack by the military would trigger a stampede – we were stuffed tightly onto the bridge. But every time protesters began to push back, the young men in the crowd would grab the women in the crowd and push them against the bridge railing so to protect them from being knocked down.

photo by Vivian Salama

Some were more prepared than others!! Cairo Jan. 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

It was a long night with protesters burning the ruling National Democratic Party headquarters and battling with soldiers in Tahrir. Riot police trucks were set on fire (and the Semiramis Hotel, where many journalists took refuge) was partially on fire for part of the evening. I was trapped in Tahrir for the night and forced to take a last minute room at the Semiramis. I woke up early the next morning to a different Cairo, where charred military tanks stood in the middle of Tahrir Square and smoke billowed from the NDP headquarters and, sadly, from the adjacent National Museum. It would take another two weeks (only!) to overthrow Hosni Mubarak but that first Friday was by far the most memorable. There is an Arabic expression that often refers to the Egyptian people as being “light blooded” (light hearted/good senses of humor). They definitely showed their spirit throughout the frustrating 19 days (and 30 years) it took to shake up their political system.

Photo by Vivian Salama

Tahrir Square, January 28, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

Photo by Vivian Salama

Tahrir Square, January 28, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

me in Tahrir (late January 2011)

I visited Bahrain in the weeks that followed and I spent a lot of time covering the uprisings in Yemen and, less so, the ongoing crisis in Syria. After years of battling misguided stereotypes of terrorism and violence, these protesters have showed the world that they desire freedom and a decent standard of living and they have the right to demand it just as those in Europe and the US demand of their governments.

The Tunisians, Egyptians and all the other citizens around the world fighting for democracy have a very long and bumpy road ahead.  The TIME Magazine Person of the Year issue questions whether there is a global tipping point for frustration. I believe what happened this year is, in large part, because of overpopulation and because of the global economic slowdown touched societies rich and poor – but toppled those that were already on the brink before markets crash. The world is smaller than ever thanks to the Internet and various technologies that allow us to share experiences with people on opposite corners of the world. As we continue to get closer, and the world, smaller, it will become impossible to distance ourselves from even the most seemingly remote events.

Photo by Vivian Salama

Cairo, January 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

Posted in American, Arab, Arab League, Arab Spring, Arabic, Bloggers, Cairo University, Censorship, Coptic, Culture, dictatorship, discrimination, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Environment, Foreign Policy, Hosni Mubarak, Internet, Journalism, Libya, Media, Middle East, military, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood, Negotiation, Obama, Politics, Qaddafi, Qatar, Recession, Refugees, Religion, State of Emergency, Succession, Syria, Terrorism, Tunisia, United Nations, United States, Yemen | Leave a Comment »

Egyptian Antiquities Safe After Museum’s Looting, Official Says

Posted by vmsalama on January 30, 2011

By Vivian Salama

Bloomberg (Click here for original story)

Cairo Museum, January 2011. Burning NDP Building in background

CAIRO — The Egyptian National Museum is safe, and cultural artifacts damaged by vandals who broke into the building during anti-government protests can be restored, the head of the country’s Supreme Council of Antiquities said.

Tourism police aided by protesters earlier apprehended nine men in connection with looting at the museum, Zahi Hawass, the council’s secretary general, said. Dozens of demonstrators had stood guard around the building, one of Cairo’s biggest tourist attractions, to protect it until troops arrived, he said.

“If you shut the lights in New York City for one hour, the people will rob everything in all the shops,” Hawass said in an interview at his office. “What’s happening is normal. Thankfully, all the damaged items can be restored.”

Tens of thousands of people gathered in the city’s Tahrir Square and across the country demanding that President Hosni Mubarak step down, and most of the city’s historic sites, including the pyramids, remained off limits to the public.

Protesters flashing ‘V for victory’ signs posed for photographs with Egyptian soldiers yesterday in front of the closed museum, which was surrounded by about a dozen military tanks. The museum appeared intact, though blackened in places by smoke from a fire that had gutted the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party in an adjacent building.

The walls surrounding the museum were daubed in black graffiti that said “No to Mubarak” and “Surrender Mubarak.”

‘Criminal Act’

“The marchers are calling for a change of government, but this vandalism is a criminal act,” Hawass said.

The intruders used ropes to descend from the museum’s roof and force their way inside from a fire escape, he said. They broke open 14 display cases in the museum’s Late Period and King Tutankhamun exhibits, in search of gold. Finding none, they shattered statures, including one of the ancient goddess Isis, and smashed some of the museum’s royal mummies, Hawass said.

Police recovered two mummified skulls and other artifacts when they captured the men, he said, adding that he believed the relics could be repaired close to their original condition.

Tourism accounts for 13 percent of jobs in the Arab country. The government aims to attract 16 million tourists in 2011, expecting them to bring in $14 billion in revenue, Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah said in an interview in October.

Hawass said he expects tourism to recover “after some time,” depending on how soon the political situation stabilizes.

Airport Campers

Flights continued to face delays at Cairo International Airport, and hundreds of tourists camped in the terminals, hoping to find seat on aircraft leaving the country.

“I’m so scared,” said Margaret Wilson of Seattle who arrived Jan. 28, at the height of the protests, with plans to stay for a week. “Nobody has been able to tell us what’s going on, and we can’t find an earlier flight.”

Some foreigners opted to wait out the upheaval and try to make the most of their time in Egypt.

“Our trip today to the pyramids was canceled, and we are waiting to hear if our cruise to Luxor is still on,” said Haarold Osvold, a civil engineer from Malaga, Spain, traveling with his wife.

“If it’s canceled,” he said, “then we’ll try our luck at going home.”

Posted in Antiquities, Arab, Arab Spring, Culture, dictatorship, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Foreign Policy, Gold, Hosni Mubarak, Human Rights, Inflation, Islam, Jewelry, Middle East, military, Mubarak, Politics, Zahi Hawass | Leave a Comment »

Abu Dhabi Feels Dubai Chill as Emirate Accepts Money Is Scarce

Posted by vmsalama on July 26, 2010

July 26, 2010

By Vivian Salama

July 26 (Bloomberg) — Times have changed for the Alimad Engineering and Contracting Company in Abu Dhabi.

Two years ago, the developer was building everything from 20-story glass towers to luxury villas. It’s now shelving projects, the latest a $12 million contract with a client who has $2 million and the banks won’t give him any more money, said Ziad Ali, whose father founded the company 20 years ago.

“When investors don’t get funding, we don’t get their business,” Ali, 24, said by telephone from his office.

If the palm-shaped islands and skyscrapers of Dubai came to symbolize the excesses of the economic boom in the Gulf, the less glitzy Abu Dhabi represented the sobriety. Yet after Abu Dhabi, home to more than 7 percent of the world’s oil supply, spent $20 billion bailing out its desert neighbor, it too is having to accept the financial crisis is catching up.

Abu Dhabi, the largest of the United Arab Emirates and home of the capital and central bank, forecast a second consecutive budget deficit this year, according to statistics included in a government-guaranteed bond prospectus released last week. Spending will exceed revenue by 84.9 billion dirhams ($23.1 billion) this year after 126.5 billion dirhams in 2009.

While the emirate, which is home to one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, is sticking to its plan to invest $500 billion in industry and tourism by 2030, its property market is suffering along with Dubai, while local banks are lending less and companies are reassessing business plans.

Not ‘Bottomless’

“Nobody should be naive and think any place, whether the U.S. or Abu Dhabi, has a bottomless pool of resources,” said Mohammed Ali Yasin, chief executive officer of Shuaa Securities, a brokerage in Abu Dhabi, until he leaves the post next month. “The impact this crisis would have here in Abu Dhabi was undermined initially. Now is a time for reassessment.”

When crisis struck in late 2008, cranes in Dubai halted and unemployed expatriates fled, some abandoning their cars at the airport. Others, particularly in construction, started commuting the hour and a half across the desert to Abu Dhabi, home to more than 90 percent of the U.A.E.’s oil reserves.

Unlike buildings such as the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest, Abu Dhabi took a more conservative approach, putting up such projects as branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre museums.


The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 targets 7 percent annual growth through 2015 and 6 percent thereafter. The emirate won’t reach that this year, Mohamed Omar Abdulla, undersecretary at the Abu Dhabi Department of Economic Development, said on Feb. 2. A senior government adviser said in June he doesn’t expect any major revision to those estimates in the longer term.

The International Monetary Fund said on May 25 Abu Dhabi will grow 3.7 percent in 2010, while Dubai’s economy will shrink about 0.5 percent this year.

“There are some lurking vulnerabilities that should restrain growth,” Rachel Ziemba, an analyst at Roubini Global Economics in London, said by telephone. “Still, they have a strong net asset position.”

Revenue and expenditures at the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, Abu Dhabi Investment Council, Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., Abu Dhabi Water & Electricity Authority, International Petroleum Investment Co. and Mubadala Development Co. aren’t included in the emirate’s budget. Royalties and taxes on crude oil and natural gas production from these entities are included, according to the prospectus.

The emirate’s other investments include minority stakes in Citigroup Inc. and Gatwick Airport in London, as well as a majority stake in New York’s Chrysler Building.

Earlier ‘Surpluses’

The budget shortfalls are the first following four years of “significant surpluses,” according to the bond sale document from Waha Aerospace BV, an investor in aircraft companies and part of Abu Dhabi holding company Waha Capital.

The emirate’s loans and equity investments in the country are forecast to decline by almost half this year to 36.9 billion dirhams, the preliminary prospectus said.

Other industries also are feeling some pain. Masdar, the government-backed renewable-energy company, said in June its revising its business plan in an effort to ensure the project is “economically viable.”

“We were living in good times, had big plans to build our infrastructure and some of our companies were caught off guard,” said Mohamed Berro, CEO of Al Hilal Bank, a lender owned by the state-controlled Abu Dhabi Investment Council. “It will be a challenging year here for everyone.”

Property Slump

The government in March bought assets on Yas Island, home to Abu Dhabi’s Formula One raceway, from Aldar Properties PJSC, Abu Dhabi’s biggest real-estate developer, for 9.14 billion dirhams. Aldar that month became the first company in the emirate to get a “junk” rating from Moody’s Investors Service.

“The bigger developers, they are managing to keep their projects going and access the funding they may need,” said Guy Parsons, CEO of Profile Group, an Abu Dhabi developer. “Small developers — the ones that are not government-back or family- backed — they are not getting the money owed. Developers need that cash but these days they can’t get it.”

Home prices in Abu Dhabi dropped more than 30 percent from the market’s peak in the second quarter of 2008, while values in Dubai declined by more than half, according to estimates by Swiss bank UBS AG.

Ziad Ali at Alimad Engineering and Contracting said there was once a time when his company was always guaranteed a piece of any business coming to Abu Dhabi.

For now, those days are gone. “We are all being affected,” he said.

–With assistance from Camilla Hall and Zahraa Alkhalisi in Abu Dhabi and Ayesha Daya in Dubai. Editors: Rodney Jefferson, Riad Hamade

Posted in Abu Dhabi, Arab, Business, Culture, Dubai, Economy, Middle East, United Arab Emirates | Leave a Comment »

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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