From “La Repubblica”, Italy

Egypt, the place that challenges the curfew. “Cairo must be alive at night as well” (La Repubblica, 13/09/2013)

It’s called Makan, it’s the only place open from 11 pm to 6 am: traditional and innovative music, food, film shows. The owner: “We are not breaking the law. This is a cultural workshop”.

by Giovanna Loccatelli

Streets are empty at night. Every place is closed. But who doesn’t want to respect legally the curfew has only one place to go: Makan. It’s the only place in Cairo open during the hours when you can’t move on the streets, from 11 pm to 6 am. Here artists from all over Africa, most of all from Egypt, perform popular music all night long: this idea is part of the project developed by the owner, called “the curfew music”. “We are challenging, without breaking the law, the strict rules imposed by the military; we cannot just keep the place closed at night, it’s the part of the day that the Egyptians love most. No coincidence that Cairo is the city that never sleeps”, explains, smiling, Ahmed El Maghraby.

The owner of Makan adds that there is both a political and artistic reason behind his choice: “I was in the square on June the 30th against Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. We managed to drive him away, thank God. This project is also a symbolic way to reaffirm strongly our ideas: the Brotherhood was bringing the country into the abyss, especially from a cultural point of view. Furthermore, this one that you see is a real musical workshop. Here we preserve the artistic heritage of the country and create new music”. Ahmed is obviously very excited and pleased with his work. While talking, he sips tea and smokes cigarettes, one after the other.

He explains, in detail, the philosophy behind the structure: “There are three phases of work: the first one is in the archive. We travel around the country and film the performances of african musicians we like most: on the streets, during private parties or traditional ceremonies. We do this in order to preserve music and pass it. The second phase is the presentation: we ask the artists we meet – the ones who intrigue us most – to come and perform here. Finally, the last phase (the most artistic one) is creation: we make, in aour laboratory, new music, a mix of genres. This is a way to exchange information, rhythms, cultures”. He makes some examples, he’s very keen to be precise in exposition: “We put together Egyptian gypsy music with gypsy-flamenco; the Dutch jazz with the ‘Zar’, which is a traditional Egyptian music used during the healing rituals of spiritual diseases; or, again, we combine the gypsy rhythm with the European violinists: a wonder!”.

Then, still excited by the description of his work, Ahmed talks again about the curfew and explains how the evenings are organized: “People start coming at about 10 pm. At the beginning, the audience and the musicians meet each other: they talk, discuss, laugh and joke. Immediately, a familiar and relaxed atmosphere is created. Then the show begins and lasts until 1:30 am, more or less; at that time we offer some food to the audience, we sit on the floor around small and low wooden tables, and we all eat together. This is a ritual I really care about. Finally, for those who do not fall asleep, we project the recordings of old performances or movies. So no one leaves until 6 in the morning”. When asked if there have ever been problems with the police or the military, he smiles and answer: “The only problem we’ve had is when we sent e-mails to our loyal customers, explaining this project to them. We received so many enthusiastic answers that we got worried: as you can see, the place is not big and there is no room for more than thirty people a night. But fortunately, so far, we never exceeded this number”.

The place is on two floors. At the entrance there is a large hall with high ceilings, where the artists perform; the audience usually sits on the floor or on red and black wooden chairs; big coloured carpets cover the entire floor. Wooden stairs, close to the wall, lead instead to the upper floor: here is the study of the owner; a comfortable sitting room with red sofas, and another small room: “That’s the administration, the guys working here (about ten) are very jealous of that small room” says Ahmed, pointing it with his hand. “There are the computers they use to record the evenings, make the CDs and listen to them again. It’s the modern part of the building” he concludes, a hint of a smile. Overall, it’s a very original, warm and friendly environment.

At about 23 the place is almost full. An artist who works in a nightclub in the way of the Pyramids in Giza, comes up and says that “this place is an outlet for Egyptians frustrated by the curfew. At night everything is closed: restaurants, bars. The streets are deserted after 11: it seems to live in another city.” There are also, however, those who appreciate the desolation of the streets of the city: “Two nights ago, at about three o’clock, I was walking across the bridge Qasr al-Nil, a stone’s throw from Tahrir here, I had never seen it empty, how exciting! I wanted to scream, I was happy. I felt like the king of the city”, exclaims a young, very exuberant musician.

Not far away, Salma, a twenty-year-old girl, explains: “Instead of staying at home doing nothing, I come here. My parents know it and don’t get worried. It’s just a way to do something and listen to some good music”. The girl, a frequent visitor of the place, has brought large trays of food that will be offered in the second part of the evening.

After three o’clock in the morning, the musicians have a rest and lie down on big pillows. Meanwhile, the owner, still very active, projects on the largest wall in the room a silent documentary, showing images of distant and exotic landscapes. For those who want, instead, it is possible to watch again the recording of the previous evenings in the small room upstairs. Finally, at 6 am, the first sleepy people begin to go out, plunging into the unmistakable roar of Cairo traffic. Many others, instead, will leave later, less sleepy but still dazed by the long night spent at Makan.