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Tripping on a caravan from east to west

During this tumultuous period in Egypt’s sectarian relations, some have offered a cultural venue to begin alleviating the tensions that have been running high between Christians and Muslims.

For a second year in a row, Reverend Paul-Gordon Chandler of St. John’s Episcopalian/Anglican Church in Maadi, Cairo hosted a spectacular event with themes of harmony, understanding, and respect. Caravan: Festival of the Arts has been extolled as a testimony to coexistence and harmony.

The event which was held from 28 January to 3 February was not only a bridge between faiths, but also one between the East and the West. “A lot of efforts to create this connection are held at higher levels with the same leaders. We are trying to do something on a local grassroots level, to build on commonalities, to act as a catalyst,” explains Chandler.

“Our goal is to form friendships,” he continues. “Forty-six artists hardly knew each other before this event. Hundreds of people who would never sit together attended the event and subsequently conversed, forming new relationships.”

Forty-six Arab and Western artists, each submitted one piece of work that reflected the title, “Harmony: East and West.”  Reputable names, such as Mohammed Abla and Reda Abdel Rahman from the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, were among the leading contemporary artists present.

Asmaa Takieddine, a Syrian/Egyptian artist explains her work titled, "Harmony".  “I painted this piece specifically for the event. The Egyptian girl portrayed in the foreground with the mosques and churches in the background reveal the multi-religious society in Egypt.”

“What I loved most about this experience was that the gallery did not impose any conditions for participation.  It allowed an opportunity to create something from deep within,” she explains.

Roland Prime, the event curator and organizer, is an English artist who participated this year with two magnificent pieces.  His sculpture, constructed from keys of a pipe organ, was meant to convey the rhythm of music and how the synergy is transformed to emphasize harmony.

Prime’s second work is a painting titled “At One” which depicts a crescent and a cross, engulfed in a circle symbolizing the world.  The painting is bounded by a square “where everyone lives together”.

Ten percent of the sales of the art will go to the Spirit of Giving, an organization that supports charities working with both Muslims and Christians.

On the other hand, the chosen film for the festival was the controversial “Hassan and Morqos”, a film starring Omar Sharif and Adel Imam.  The film caused a commotion at its debut in 2008 with Sharif vehemently defending its content and criticizing the religious extremists who were quick to label the film as blasphemous.The film shows the lives of a Muslim sheikh and a Christian theologian who are threatened by religious extremists on both sides. They are brought into a witness protection program that requires them to disguise themselves as the Christian Morqos and a Muslim Sheikh, Hassan el-Attar. When they move into the same building, a friendship begins, but they must endure the difficulties of prejudice and social persecution.

For the music segment, the world renowned Iraqi oud master, Naseer Shamma, performed at St. John’s Church with its domed architecture offering great acoustics. He played several well known numbers such as “Birds” and “Amriya”, the latter a song dedicated to an incident in the 1991 Gulf War where hundreds of women and children were killed.

Gordon explains how “the choice of these great personalities for the event was based on their passion for the theme we would like to present to the public.” No stranger to music, the reverend had spent many years of his life in Senegal around neighborhoods of other international great musicians such as Youssou N’Dour and Cheikh Lô.  “I’m passionate about the oud and cherish the chance to have people come to a venue like this,” he said.

The literary guest, Tahir Shah, is an Anglo-Afghani best-selling writer and the son of the famous late Sufi writer, Idries Shah.  The author came from Casablanca, where he currently resides, to discuss his books and the importance of becoming part of the bridge.  “One small way to bridge would be to correct some of the misconceptions that are all-pervading when it comes to the East.”

The event was held in the wake of a national upheaval surrounding sectarian clashes that took place on Coptic Christmas day this year in Naga Hammadi near Qena in Upper Egypt.

When asked about the extent of the event’s stated goals on the people in those remote areas of the country, Gordon explains that “the television broadcast of the Grand Mufti’s opening, side by side with the Bishop of London together endorsing the aims of the event, could have the impact that is needed.”

“If we don’t start doing practical things now, then the momentum will never build up, no change will occur,” he added.

The organizers have created a task force to ascertain the possibility of holding the event next year.  But from the overwhelmingly positive reactions of both the visitors and artists, we can all remain enthusiastic that next year will be even bigger and just as fascinating.

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