It is to another hot June day during my short stay in Cairo. I get ready to head to the workshop that I have been discussing in a series of lengthy email threads with the #defyhatenow team in Juba, Berlin and Cairo. This is the day all these talks are to become manifest in real life. All the ideas, the communication and miscommunication, came to be realised; our first activity in Cairo.
I head towards Ramsees Downtown, where the workshop is to take place. The venue is the conference room of an old church, commonly called the ‘Italian Church’ by the residents. My colleagues Marina and Hakim, who had arrived from Juba two days earlier, have already started arranging the room in readiness for the participants.The paradoxical quietness of the small garden of the church, located in one of Cairo’s busiest streets made the space feel safe and pleasant. I had a funny feeling in my stomach. Partly due to excitement, but also from the fear of exploring an uncharted territory. With the help of a local organization, we had been able to reach to some active members of the South Sudanese community in Cairo. Soon we were welcoming many law students/ graduates, elegant ladies in their forties, men who identified themselves as belonging to an older generation from the students, and girls who are studying in Cairo. All of them different tribal backgrounds and speak different languages and dialects.
In an effort to overcome the language barriers and diversity in the room, we start to slowly but persistently use a hybrid of Egyptian/ Sudani dialect, Arabic, Juba Arabic and English. Omnia, the founder of Andriya, a partner organization based in Khartoum, who happens to be visiting at the time, starts to translate some of the English and the Juba Arabic while Marina goes on to ask the audience ‘‘what is hate speech?’ Within a few minutes the conversation includes very specific, personal examples and experiences of rumors that have been spread over WhatsApp and Facebook. Examples of prejudice and hateful language openly used on facebook groups of tribes attacking each other. With so many law students in the room, discussing the legal aspect of hate speech was inevitable. When Marina asked the audience if they think change is needed, a resounding ‘YES’ came from the participants. A moment that made me think, Cairo’s spirit is not lost after all. An energy that brings a quest for change.
Amidst the circle based discussions and the safe space for sharing that was created over the course of the previous two days, a man expressed his wish to share a song he had written. It was his way of expressing his appreciation of the people. The group picked up the beat and started clapping in what was their response of the appreciation of the moment.
I, a girl who was born and raised in Egypt, felt privileged and honored to have been part of this community even for the short period of the workshops. I was thankful for the nuanced local knowledge as the participants explained the various norms and aspects of their culture that I had missed.
The two days workshop ended with the screening of DEFY! the film, in what was the first screening in Cairo. More people joined the screening, some of whom were South Sudanese artists, activists and a diplomat from the embassy of Egypt in Juba.
When the movie was over, Hakim (the director) stood ready for questions… he started by talking about the obstacles he had faced while shooting the movie in Juba. These included the unreasonably expensive authorisations for shooting or liaising with actors, who have different day jobs and thus limited time to shoot. The audience broke into applause and went on cheering and commenting on how he (and the people in Juba) should not give up, and encouraged everyone to keep working for peace.
With a lot of smiling faces and questions of whether #defyhatenow will be back in Cairo to do more, we ended by taking a group photo marking the end of our time in Cairo. This was the start of a passionate and engaged community work for the mitigation of hate speech and peace building.
I left feeling thankful again to this incredible place… Cairo. A city of endless layers that keeps unfolding its communities, cultures and subcultures, all of which co-exist cohesively in separately defined yet interconnected realms.