Universes in Universe

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Goethe Institute Cairo / Alexandria

Interview with Johannes Ebert, director of the GI Cairo / Alexandria, regional representative for Middle East & North Africa.
By Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt | Mar 2005

Haupt & Binder: Could you briefly outline for us your specific conceptual approaches for the work done at the Goethe Institut (GI) in Egypt? What do you see as the special tasks and challenges in the region under your responsibility as regional commissioner of the GI?

Johannes Ebert: Over the last few years, the awareness of the importance of the region - the Middle East and North Africa - has clearly evolved in Germany and Europe. This also applies to the areas of culture and education, the fields in which the Goethe Institute is active. Here in particular we find many spaces for free expression in societies that are not always open. Here in particular we see room for creativity, criticism and reflection on social reality. These open spaces are preconditions for change and the Goethe Institutes in the region are trying to make use of them.

The special challenges? On the one hand, the mistrust on both sides, which has built itself up since September 11, 2001. On the other, the deficits obstructing the path to a modern and knowledgeable society in many Arab countries, like those described in the UNDP "Arab Human Development Report" that was drawn up by Arab specialists. There are numerous civil-society endevaours and reform attempts that qualify for support. The region’s Goethe Institutes try to convey an understanding of our country’s democratic principles, and in doing so they hope to raise mutual acceptance. With numerous projects, they contribute to an expansion of access to information. They support and strengthen innovative forms of expression, structures and networks in the arts, culture, and the education and information system. They share know how, knowledge, and experience in these areas. With numerous initiatives in the area of German language instruction, they also contribute to modernizing the education system. In addition, our programs are influenced by the fact that the populations of our host countries are becoming increasingly younger.
H&B: The GI in Cairo seems to enjoy close ties with the local cultural and art scene, and one expression of this is a series of mutual projects and events. Which concrete experiences did you acquire in the process? Did the much invoked cultural dialogue really come about?
Ebert: Integrating ourselves in the local cultural scene is extremely important to us. That’s a fundamental goal of all the Goethe Institutes and something that we manage successfully because we work on location. At the same time of course, this involves making an enormous effort. It demands openness as well as readiness to immerse oneself in the respective scenes.

The term "dialogue" has become a bit overused. Now and then I even have the impression that one expects too much from this dialogue, most of all with regard to how quickly it can show effects. We need time. We need a large number of encounters, most of all between the young people from both of our cultures; we have to support them from both sides and actively engage them in bringing the cultures together. Only then will processes be triggered that are able to cause a change in perception on both sides and that will ultimately work their way into society itself. Although this kind of dialogue is demanding and its effectiveness is not always easy to measure, we have no alternative, because we have to see the constructive rapprochement of our societies as the goal of the future.

Concrete experiences? I’m not a great believer in the dialogue conferences being held again and again these days, with experts coming together and exchanging opinions. However, they seem justified when it comes to approaching new themes or the strengthening of networks. But we should have already reached a phase where things can be more concrete and go beyond a limited circle of experts. According to our experience, dialogue events are most successful when people - whether artists, musicians, teachers, publishers, students, or writers - have to work at developing something together and also invest a certain amount of their own time. They experience and feel their partners in the process; they gain a deeper insight, which then enables them to pass on their experiences when they return to their own society. I’m thinking now of projects like the cooperation between the Cologne guitarist Ansgar Krause and the oud player Naseer Shamma, who spent three weeks developing a joint concert program and - coming from totally different music traditions - learned a great deal from one another. Or the project series Dar al-Hiwar, where young artists from Germany and Egypt have been already working together on joint projects for three years: here not only the results but also the documentation of the collaboration had top priority for us.

H&B: In view of the blatant tension and conflicts within Egypt’s cultural scene, we would imagine that collaborating with local partners can often be difficult. Does the GI make an effort to stay neutral - or does it deliberately support certain approaches, for example through cooperation practices?

Ebert: At the start, I tried to sketch out the principles that determine how we work. According to our principles, we are not neutral regarding the projects that we support or the partners we cooperate with. As already stated, these are as a rule civil-society projects, innovative tendencies outside and within the state structures, as well as progressive aesthetic approaches. In addition, we especially want to make contact with young people and consciously seek the involvement of women. The Goethe Institute in Egypt can look back on an almost 50-year-old history, with numerous evolving partnerships. Within this framework taking a stand is repeatedly demanded of us.

H&B: What criteria is used at the Goethe Institute in Egypt when planning and realizing projects? Would it be possible, for instance, for artists, curators, or others from Germany or Egypt, to approach the GI with their proposals?

Ebert: We welcome all good ideas that come our way. But they have to satisfy the aforementioned conditions. In addition, regarding their contents, it is essential that one can see in their concepts a reference to or a personal dialogue with Germany and Europe. A prerequisite for realizing German initiatives is the engagement of an Egyptian partner, since we want to avoid installing a project that overlooks the needs of the local scenes. When German artists or literary figures participate in a project, our department of specialists at the headquarters in Munich advise us on making the selection. In turn, these colleagues are supported by a committee of specialists, whose members come from Germany’s culture and education scene.

H&B: What important projects are you working on at the moment? What plans do you have for the near future?

Ebert: Of course we have countless plans, carried out by totally different departments of the institute. If we take only the Visual Arts Department, the second half of the year is focussed on design, offering workshops, panel discussions, and exhibitions. We have already spent a good deal of time working in this area; we organized, for example, workshops devoted to industrial design, and now we plan to give our efforts more focus. On top of that, we’re planning a light-art project in Cairo’s Old Quarter, which includes the participation of several state-controlled locations, and so we need to ask for permission. However, I believe that in the end, the project will be useful to everyone, and therefore I hope that we can realize it.


Pat Binder & Gerhard Haupt

Publishers of Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art and of Nafas Art Magazine. Based in Berlin, Germany.

(From the German: Karl Edward Johnson)

Goethe Institute Cairo

5, sh. El-Bustan
P.O.B. 7 Mohamed Farid
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