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Critical mass
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 09 - 2005

In the wake of the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace tragedy, it seems the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, long ridden with chaos, will finally put things in order. Or so Ahmed Megahed, the Cultural Sector's newly-appointed chairman, tells Rania Khallaf
On the post-Beni Sweif reforms proposed for the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces (GOCP), Ahmed Megahed, the recently-appointed Cultural Sector chairman, has much to say. An important division of GOCP, the sector is to organise the 20th Annual Conference for Writers from the Provinces later this year. But Ain Shams University Arabic Professor Megahed, the new bureaucrat on the block, has numerous plans besides. Safety comes at the top of his priority list, naturally enough. And for the time being, he reassures Al-Ahram Weekly, only spaces that have been inspected for safety will be used. "Before we proceed with anything," he elaborates, "a committee made up of GOCP and civil defense officials will be inspecting the auditoriums and exhibition halls of every cultural palace."
More important is the issue of whether or not and how provincial cultural activity might figure more prominently on the GOCP agenda. Megahed concedes a level of neglect resulting from lack of funds in previous years, but since a LE100 million increase in the GOCP budget had already been requested, he promises that this will no longer be the case. Officials from the central GOCP administration in Cairo will be visiting the provinces to meet with the local staff, he says, and events commemorating the Beni Sweif tragedy and its victims, theatre directors Bahaa El-Marghani and Hassan Abdou among them, will be held. "We will also publish a volume in tribute to victims of the fire, and print unpublished work by Hazem Shehata and Mohsen Misilhi, two writers who died in it," he says.
Megahed is no newcomer to the cultural establishment. In the 1980s he was secretary of publications for the General Egyptian Book Organisation's (GEBO) literary journal Fusul, and in 1998 started editing the "First Book" series, an initiative of the Supreme Council of Culture (SCC), as well as organising conferences there. He is therefore under few illusions about official cultural work: "In the field of publishing, for example, the lack of a dedicated print press, whether for SCC or GOCP, creates enormous problems." Yet, he maintains an ambitious optimism concerning GOCP publications: "The way a book looks is very important, and we have signed a contract with Ahmed El-Labbad [the cover designer for, among other publishers, Miret]. Every series will have its own look, to match the content..."
With "culture for the masses" as its principal proviso, however, what is Megahed's vision for the sector? "Compared to SCC, which would be the posh patisserie, we're the bakery that provides subsidised bread. My concern is to improve the quality of that bread. Debts had resulted in most of our 17 book series being discontinued. Now we're over that obstacle: the [now deposed] GOCP General Director Mustafa Elwi had adopted a new policy that focusses on publication, and we're introducing two new series of books, one on pioneer female writers and one of complete works, the latter starting with the late vernacular poet Fouad Haddad." Hardly a vision, really; but given a history rife with tension and administrative conflict -- in the last five months alone, the sector has had three directors, Mohamed El-Sayed Eid and Mustafa El-Saadani, then Megahed -- genuine devotion to quality is as much of a vision as one can expect.
"Supporting popular culture does not mean ignoring heritage and literary criticism," Megahed goes on, mentioning Al-Dhakha'ir, perhaps GOCP's most remarkable book series, providing otherwise expensive or out-of-print benchmarks of the Arabic canon at an affordable price. "Here, too, however, I'm dissatisfied with the quality of much that has been published, whether in terms of appearance or content. And I intend to improve both."
Concerning the two creative writing series -- one feels that two out of 17 is not enough -- Megahed is especially disconcerted: "The process of publishing was in a total mess. Authors did not sign contracts, for example, which generated all manner of legal problems. But what was most astonishing to me was that books were published without an assessment report, or the report was written by someone who was not authorised to write it." All this, he says, has changed. A new list of 150 names including poet Helmi Salem, writer Gamal El-Qassass and vernacular poet Bahaa Jahin has been drawn up with this end in view; it will form the basis of a permanent database to draw on (for the upcoming Ramadan seminars, for example): "And to avoid publishing worthless work, the name of the critic who sanctions any literary text will be printed on the third page of the book. No longer will a new issue of each series have to appear within a specified time period, either, meaning that only texts deemed worthy will be published."
Censorial crises instigated by Muslim fundamentalists through the 1990s -- the GOCP edition of Syrian novelist Haydar Haydar's A Banquet for Seaweed and the so-called three novels crisis, for example -- make book banning an issue to reckon with. And it is somewhat disturbing that Megahed's motto in this regard should be "I'm all for moderation." The "general reader", he says, will not be interested in strong language or the risqué: "Not that one would interfere with the choices made by the editors of the series, of course. In fact it's part of the function of GOCP to confront extremism throughout Egypt's governorates -- a vital function."
With the exception of Al-Dhakha'ir -- all 5,000 copies of which are sold out within a day of publication -- a good portion of the 3,000 copies printed of each GOCP title (that is 2,000 copies more than the market average) ends up in store rooms. But this is partly the result of inadequate distribution; there is many a village and remote district where, were they available, the books would be sold. "We've finalised an arrangement with Al-Akhbar," Megahed explains, "our main distributor. It should improve distribution policy, especially as regards increasing the downtown quota of each title, which is the same as any other denomination. And with two permanent exhibitions in Gamasa and Alexandria as well as Cultural Palace outlets throughout Egypt, we have reason to expect higher rates."
All of which is not to mention a new committee which, presided over by Megahed, brings together the relevant officials for "an ambitious programme" to make use of the contents of GOCP storehouses in a series of permanent exhibitions at educational institutions. Indeed concluding coordination agreements with the ministries of information, education and awqaf (religious endowments) is but part of a scheme to revive GOCP's original role of providing for a wide audience base, working in tandem with government bodies: "Elwy has just signed a protocol with Minya and Assiut universities to enhance cooperation in Upper Egypt. As of next month, a weekly programme on national TV's Channel 2 will cover GOCP activities, reflecting cooperation with the Radio and Television Union."
Nor will publishing be restricted to books and periodicals: Dar Al-Mawqif Al-Arabi audio books, for example, will be purchased and added to Cultural Palace library collections. For the first time in its history, GOCP will hold a literary competition in four categories -- poetry, drama, the short story and the novel -- the winners of which will receive a hefty financial reward as well as having their submission published.
Of all that he speaks of, however, how much will Megahed be allowed to achieve, in practise? GOCP's 13,000 employees are unlikely to share his enthusiasm, for one thing -- their salaries being what they are, a disabling and chronic problem unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. Until it is resolved, however, improvements will not be forthcoming. "Only a week ago, I started holding daily meetings with younger officials to discuss obstacles and ambitions -- a regular part of my work now. With the result that officials have become more enthusiastic about their work," he beams, "something I hope we can sustain."
The three-day Cultural Sector Conference, to take place in Port Said under the title "The Dominant Culture and Difference", will discuss marginal and alternative culture, the literature of the vernacular and the marginalised, the provincial specificity of creative writing and political opposition in culture. On the occasion of its 20th anniversary, the conference will provide for a round-table discussion evaluating and reevaluating two decades' worth of work in the provinces.

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