Ahram Weekly 15-21 sept 2006
Who is to blame for the Beni Sweif theatre tragedyNevine El-Aref noses around the ashes In what is likely to be one of the more unforgettable incidents in the history of modern performance art in Egypt, the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace gallery caught fire during a 15th Amateur Theatre Festival performance last week. The initial cause of the tragedy is thought to be candles used as part of the set of the play on show that evening, while the fire found in the materials of the set -- mostly coloured paper and wood -- an easy target. Spectators, actors, theatre critics and intellectuals stampeded towards the door as the flames lashed about; since the main door was locked, many were trapped inside. Some found their way through a small exit at the other end of the hall, but the inferno managed to kill 32 people and injure 38. The deadly blaze extinguished, nothing was left of the interior except the burnt out corpses of the victims and plenty of ash.
The cultural centre was on the fifth day of a nine-day event featuring performances from around the country. About 150- 200 people were watching a theater troupe from nearby Fayoum performing a play entitled "Grab Your Dreams" when the fire broke out about 11:45 pm, Monday. Perhaps to downplay the true dimensions of the tragedy, security officials had declared that around 1,000 people were in the audience, but the venue appeared too small to hold that many people. The play was set in a zoo, and the stage was made to look like a cave inside one of the animal cages. Ceiling, floor and walls were covered with paper bags painted to look like stone, and on centre stage there was, in addition, a paper mountain. There were candles all over the set, survivors testified. And determining who is responsible for the disaster has proved very hard.
The incident has given way to a fierce campaign directed at the Ministry of Culture, which is -- perhaps rightly -- accused of negligence, especially in the fire-hazard department. Writers, artists and intellectuals -- both individually and in groups -- have been speaking vehemently out against the ministry; and the nascent Writers and Artists for Change rally, a peaceful political force, even filed an official appeal for investigation with the general prosecutor, pointing out that, in the light of the very low budgets allocated to such performances by the ministry, the theatre people in question could only have afforded a readily combustible set - in which case the ministry could at least make the effort to install proper anti-fire equipment. Effective alarm and fire extinguishing equipment might have contained the fire and limited the scope of the disaster, they explained.
For his part, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni dismissed the accusations levelled at him as unfounded. "I have the most to lose," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The critics, students and actors who died formed part of the cultural wealth of the country, and they helped boost awareness of the arts, to boot. No one can imagine my grief. They were colleagues and friends, my children and the ministry's assets. They are martyrs of Egyptian culture. But such is fate and destiny," he went on. "If the fire fighters had arrived two minutes later, you realise, there would have been even more victims. And instead of blaming the ministry, those intellectuals who were there would have done better to warn the performance against using candles on stage, which practise is prohibited by international law. Where were the head of the cultural palace and the head of the festival? Where were the security personnel? How could they allow the use of candles? Those who are in charge, I promise you, will be severely questioned." He went on to describe the Writers and Artists for Change's appeal to the prosector as an instance of "political profiteering", undertaken in the wake of the presidential elections -- to breathe (subversive) life back into a defeated opposition.
"I have myself demanded a criminal as well as administrative investigation to find out who is responsible," Hosni went on. "No one is above the law. If the investigations end up indicting me, I will be more than ready for trial." He also set up a special committee to look not only into the incident but in safety procedures throughout Ministry of Culture venues, and to distribute a printout the international theatre law. Limited budgets are only to be expected in a realm generally referred to as "the poor theatre", he added, through which amateurs have always performed - on stairs as well as small stages, in administrative rooms and even in the open air: a kind of talent incubator that should not require more than the most basic financial support - LE1,500 a year, per troupe - in addition to Cultural Palace facilities. In addition to the customary compensation provided to the victims' families by the governement, the Cultural Development Fund will provide the families of the dead and the injured, respectively, with LE10,000 and LE5,000. Besides, the names of the "martyrs" will be honoured in a major Ministry of Culture event to mark their misfortune.
For his part Mustafa Elwi, head of the Culture Palace Authority, blamed the director of the play, who died in the blaze, for, first, performing in an art gallery not properly equipped as a theatre and, secondly, insisting on locking the main gate in order to use it as part of the set. His institution is properly equipped, he asserted, explaining that the 32 extinguishers used by fire fighters to put out the fire actually belong to the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace. "But what happened was beyond all expectations," he went on. "This is a space normally used for exhibiting art." Compensation aside, Elwi promised to provide the closest relatives of the deceased with employment - to help delimit the ultimate financial impact of the incident on the bereft families. While the law provides for safety measures throughout the country, he added, they are not strictly enforced.
In a telephone interview Yosri Hassaan, the general secretary of Egypt's Writers Conference, however, blamed the Beni Sweif security authority. For it is that institution's responsibility, he explained, to provide public venues with what is needed. "A witness told me," he recounted, "that on hearing of the incident Beni Sweif's civil defence forces sent out only two policemen with a fire extinguisher." Such events require proper security measures, he insisted, such as an ambulance and a fire engine, should be placed outside the venue, at the ready; such measures are especially necessary, he added, in the light of Beni Sweif being a hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism, which makes terrorist strikes quite likely: "In fact, the civil defense administration and the public security had been informed that a festival would be taking place in town but failed to secure the event." Actor Ashraf Zaki, the head of the Theatre Art House, attributed the incident rather to the lack of periodical maintenance, calling for regular security checkups at public and private venues throughout the country. He described the insouciance with which public venues are treated as a time bomb that could explode any minute, pointing out that, in the absence of proper storage facilities, backstage spaces in many theatres are used for storing old sets, which makes a fire all the more likely to spread.
In the aftermath of Beni Sweif
Hala Halim gauges the response of
Egyptian intellectuals to the Beni Sweif tragedy
Beni Sweif, 5 September, 2005. At any other time or place, a fire that claims over 30 lives and leaves many injured during a performance at a cultural centre -- state-owned or not -- would be counted an appalling tragedy, speaking volumes about criminal negligence, instantly calling for due justice to take its course. To register the coordinates of the intellectuals' response to the disaster vis- à-vis the state and its cultural policies in the Egypt of September 2005 is not to stride past the essential tragedy and the urgency of redressing it.
The Beni Sweif tragedy joins a long line of man-made disasters wrought by similar causes that affect the lives of all citizens, one example being the Upper Egypt train that caught fire in 2002 (this quite apart from the burning of state-owned cultural edifices in the past, such as the old Cairo Opera House, about three decades ago, and the Musafirkhana in 1998). It is, rather, that the concerted campaigns of artists, writers and activists demanding a full investigation into the incident and an overhaul of all the conditions and structures that led to it should be read in the context of the reinvigoration of the opposition in the build up to the presidential elections of 7 September.
Official responses were initially in keeping with the well-worn pattern of offering up an easy scapegoat. At first, the authorities tagged responsibility for the entire incident on a candle dropped on stage towards the end of the performance. Later, they went on to arrest eight minor officials from Beni Sweif, keeping them in custody on charges of negligence and/or second-degree murder, pending investigation. Meanwhile, the testimonies of members of the audience and of relatives of the deceased are making it into the media via the efforts of campaigners. There is, for example, the eye-witness account of Ibrahim El-Forn, a theatre director who was in the audience: about the theatre being packed beyond capacity; a fire that spread from the candle in question to paper used in the décor, turning into a full-fledged conflagration on contact with an air-conditioning cable dangling from the ceiling; the disappearance of all but one of the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace employees present; breaking into a far-off room to get hold of a few fire extinguishers; the hour or so it took the first fire engine to arrive; the wait of about two hours before an ambulance showed up, and so on.
El-Forn's account was published in Rose El-Youssef (10-16 September, 2005), having been submitted to the magazine by a fact- finding committee formed by the Association for the Studies and Training of Independent Theatre Troupes (ASTITT); this is one of several such committees the association has formed to deal with the Beni Sweif calamity, including ones for contacting the media, raising funds for the medical treatment of the injured and finding lodgings for their relatives from other towns, and coordinating efforts with other campaigners. Likewise, at a special meeting held by Writers and Artists for Change (WAC) in the offices of Miret publishing house on 10 September, Tayseer Samak, the sister of theatre critic Nezar Samak, who died in Beni Sweif, bore witness to the scene after the event. She spoke of the dead lying uncovered, the attempts to deliver the victims to their people in plastic bags, the relatives being attacked by riot police (the latter also echoing El-Forn's statement), subsequently making similar statements on the Orbit satellite channel on 12 September. WAC is one of several independent groups formed along lines not dissimilar to the Kifaya ("Enough") movement in the past year preceding the presidential elections.
But ASTITT and WAC are by no means alone: the multifarious campaign involves, among others, Youth for Change; the Egyptian Writers' Union; a group of Alexandrian intellectuals who issued a statement on 11 September demanding, among other things, a full investigation of the accident, pensions for the families of victims, that all state-owned cultural centres be inspected for safety following international standards; students from the Academy of Arts (an institution that lost a number of students and one professor in Beni Sweif) who met with the Minister of Culture to raise a number of their demands; a group of Cairene writers who, together with WAC, filed a complaint demanding an investigation into the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Health, and Beni Sweif Governorate, to the public prosecutor; an ad hoc committee of lawyers working in coordination with WAC to follow up on the legal procedures; not to mention commemorative events such as that held at the French Cultural Centre in Cairo on 13 September, and another to be held at the Hanager Arts Centre next week.
The Beni Sweif disaster has prompted a re- examination of the dynamics of the relationship between intellectuals and state cultural policies. The starting point is the Ministry of Culture-run "Cultural Palaces", a structure that had its heyday in the Nasser years, when its primary task was to spread artistic appreciation among the "masses" in the provinces. Nehad Abul-Enein, who has worked for years as actress in the cultural palace-system, laments the decline of an institution that produced a generation of first- rate actors and directors but more recently fell prey to Ministry of Culture policy changes. The ministry, she says, has starved the palaces of funding, so much so that theatre amateurs have had to put on performances on budgets as low as LE500, their disbursement often long-delayed. Yet the troupes and their mentors continued their labour of love, making a point of putting on performances in the public squares of Upper Egyptian towns, like Assiut and Beni Mazar, where fundamentalists had burned down the theatres. Those who run the cultural palaces nowadays, in Abul-Enein's view, are bureaucrats who have little to do with culture, with only a few showcase centres, functioning as venues for festivals, receiving any attention. Theatre critic Abla El-Roweini concurs, describing the policies of the past few years as espousing a "culture of shows and festivals", one that turned the Cultural Palaces into a forum for the political discourse of the ruling party. Like Abul-Enein, El-Roweini, one of the writers who met with the public prosecutor, demands a full review of existing state cultural policies and structures.
An abiding concern, this was brought to the fore before Beni Sweif, in the context of the presidential elections. Writing in Akhbar Al-Adab (issue of 4 September, 2005), novelist Mahmoud El-Wardani set the activism of WAC, of which he is a member, in the context of the vicissitudes of the state's relationship with intellectuals and their oppositional stance since the 1952 Revolution. Arriving at the past few years, he argues that what fuels the WAC, most immediately, is the government's withdrawal of whatever semblance of freedom of expression it had granted writers and artists as allies in the battle against fundamentalist terrorist activities, a battle it considers it has won. The evidence for this, he suggests, is the total absence of any cultural plans from the programmes of the ten candidates running for the presidential elections of 7 September.
While the margin of democracy may appear to be expanding, this is in large measure the result of an increasingly vocal activism. The fact that students of the Academy of Arts demanded and were granted a visit to their institution by the Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni on Monday, when he responded to their questions about the Beni Sweif tragedy (in what actually proved a sedate, non-confrontational meeting) is quite uncommon. The requests made by the students, which the minister announced his approval of at the meeting -- a full investigation into the causes of the tragedy; a collage of works by their deceased colleagues, to be performed at the forthcoming Experimental Theatre Festival (ETF); a week of theatrical performances to be held in a state-owned theatre in the name of the victims of Beni Sweif, with the profit going to bereaved families; that 5 September be named the annual day of Egyptian theatre -- mostly overlap (a possible exception being the ETF, the cancellation of which some are clamouring for) with those of other campaigners such as the WAC.
At the WAC meeting on Saturday it was also decided that a number of members should meet with the public prosecutor again on 14 September, that WAC should issue a statement about the disaster on the same day as well as participating in a press conference held jointly with ASTITT at the Press Syndicate. But what was quite indicative was the proposal discussed for creating an independent association of people working in the field of theatre, one that would afford privileges as close as possible to those offered by the syndicate, given that several theatre critics who died in Beni Sweif were working on the fringe, in one more instance of a possible alternative to official structures. Also interesting at the WAC meeting was the advice given by a member of the committee of lawyers working with the group, Abdel-Mohsen Shalash, on the best route to achieving the required aims. His explanations of where provisions in the law allow for the campaigners' demands and those instances in which their objectives can be achieved only through the exertion of pressure and the mobilisation of public opinion (the latter as in the case of designating the victims martyrs and hence obtaining pensions for their families) were instructive in the minutiae of rights campaigning.
There is a sense in which 5 September is becoming emblematic of a moment of change, but perhaps one should not hastily expect big practical strides to be taken in the name of that tragedy. There is something to be said for the note of caution that artist Adel El-Siwi, spokesman of WAC, sounds. For El-Siwi, "there is an aspect to the overwhelming emotions in response to the Beni Sweif accident, which was tragic by any standard, that may prove short-lived; but what will last will be the insights into the arbitrariness and insecurity of our reality. The near-simultaneity of the re-election of President Mubarak and this accident has brought people closer together: the shared sense that those in power are more concerned with defending their seats than with people's lives has brought everyone closer together."
No deus ex machina
By Nehad Selaiha
No words can possibly describe my horror, grief and anger at what happened in Beni Sweif on Monday 5th where I should have been but was delayed at the last minute. "We would've loved you to be with us, Nehad," said Mohsen Mesilhi on the phone on his way there. "Entrance exams, Mohsen. Can't wriggle out. Next time insha'allah," I said.
Many of those who died or got maimed in the fire in Beni Sweif were dear friends, colleagues and students, and all were a precious part of my life, and of that wonderful army of men and women of all ages who keep theatre alive in the provinces, working so hard, usually in atrocious conditions, putting up with so much official insolence, parochial intolerance and stupid bureaucracy, and giving up so much of their time, health and talent, and even their little money, in return for next to nothing in terms of recognition or financial support. The audience was all they cared about; and the audience was what they were invariably deprived of accessing.
Consigned to little pockets, small, stuffy concrete bunkers that barely housed the officials and guests from the capital or the governor's office and entourage, they always felt bitter that few of the people they really targeted had little chance of being there; and when allowed larger venues, it was invariably only for a few blessed nights. They were not naïve and knew full well that that system was using them either as a safety valve or to whitewash its face. They thought they could play along, since they had no other choice or outlet, and outwit the system. The game killed them at the end however.
How monstrously unfair that for such gifted, hardworking, dedicated and thoroughly lovable artists the reward should be such a horrible, senseless death. And let no one tell me it was their 'fate' or the 'will of Allah'. Leave God out of this and let us not lay all our shit at His door. When governments do not do their proper job, as recently happened in the southern states of the USA, people die, and it is usually the poor and marginalised who top the ranks.What killed Hazem Shehata, Mohsen Mesilhi, Saleh Saad, Ahmed Abdel-Hamid, Bahaa El-Mirghani, Hassan Abdou, Hosni Abu Guweilah, Medhat Abu Bakr, Shadi El-Weseemi, Mohamed Shawqi... and many, many other dearly loved artists and critics whom I shall mourn for life was not fate or a poor candle acting as its minister of light, as the governor of Beni Sweif flippantly put it (in very bad taste) in a television interview. It was sheer criminal negligence on the part of the gang running the show and using those artists as a kind of artistic smoke screen to cover up their deficiencies -- a negligence born out of a long tradition of human apathy and cowardly fear -- a brutal indifference to human life and creativity fostered by centuries of political dictatorship and human rights abuse and translated into lethal administrative lethargy masquerading as religious resignation and a pious trust in 'God's good sense' and that, somehow, he will step in at the last minute, like the old Greek deus ex machina, to make things right.
Right now, we are struggling to reign in our grief and direct our energies to caring for the maimed survivors of this disaster and the families of its victims and making sure they get proper compensations. We are also working to see that justice is done and the culprits are punished. But when I speak of punishment I do not mean desiring to inflict an equal pain on the culprits as suffered by the victims, or merely a kind of vengeance lust; no kind of punishment in the world can bring the kind of comfort we need: the touch of a vanished hand, as Tennyson said, or the sound of a voice that is still. I am, we are, only calling for proper punishment that other future disasters may not occur.
And when, and if, this is done, we shall then have the time to mourn. Afterwards, we need to sit together and rethink, not only our cultural structures and politics, and the ideologies that underlie them, but, more urgently, our culture itself -- its basic assumptions about human freedom and responsibility and the values of life and art -- and where exactly it historically situates itself and us: in the distant past, the middle ages, or the modern world.