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Volume 48 Number 1
Edited by Susan Wolfe
The Unexpected Consequences of a Cultural Event
Written by Amy Carrillo, Omar Ezzeldin, Seham Kafafi, and Carine Abouseif
Formerly at the American University in Cairo
In the Summer 2014 issue, we discussed the positive aspects of living community psychology (CP) values through the planning and implementation of a cultural event, Nuba Day, with the Nuba Mountains International Association (NMIA) – a Sudanese organization based in Cairo, Egypt. This column will highlight the challenges that we faced as a team and the unintended consequences of our community engagement project. We have attempted to categorize and highlight specific examples from our experience that will bring to life the most salient issues.
Identifying the Purpose
Initially, we faced difficulty in identifying the purpose of the event as the NMIA committee raised three important objectives: (1) gathering as a community, (2) disseminating the story of the Nuba people, and (3) sharing cultural traditions with the younger generation. On the day of the event, it was clear that the community members reconnected and enjoyed the gathering. Additionally, the NMIA did a great job of organizing the tribes to present their traditional dances. Unfortunately, not all of the tribes had the opportunity to participate due to the event ending early. In addition to this challenge, we faced difficulty in coordinating with the media to cover the event. The NMIA committee was hoping to share their story of conflict in the Nuba Mountains and resilience as a people living in Cairo; however, few if any media representatives attended the event. As a result of these difficulties, at the end of the project, the research team was left wondering if the event accomplished its objectives, as the purpose was not entirely clear. In retrospect, choosing one objective would have been beneficial in measuring our success.
The Nuba people living in Cairo fled their homes in fear of their lives as the Sudanese government bombed (and continues to bomb) their villages. After relocating to Egypt, many found themselves unable to practice their cultural traditions and customs as a community due to their growing size. When the opportunity arose for the NMIA to send a team to perform prior to Nuba Day at AUC’s International Day, an event celebrating various countries through food, dancing, and crafts, they were thrilled. What we did not consider as a research team was how political their appearance would be. When the Nuba people were asked by a group of Sudanese students to march in the opening parade under the Sudanese flag they refused. While within the country of Sudan, the people of the Nuba Mountains hold the Sudanese government accountable for the atrocities occurring in their homeland. Their refusal to march under “their” flag (the Sudanese flag) was an act of resistance. Reportedly, an argument occurred between a student and a member of the NMIA. Consequently, a complaint was reportedly filed against the visiting dance group, although the research team was never contacted with the specifics. In retrospect, attempting to identify a Sudanese student organization before International Day may have helped us prepare for any tensions that would result from the NMIA’s presence.
Communication was a general challenge due to language barriers. The members of the NMIA committee are typically fluent in their tribal language as well as Sudanese Arabic, a few also speak English. Our research team consisted of two students who spoke both English and Arabic (only one who could understand Sudanese Arabic well) and two members who were fluent only in English. The language barrier made it especially difficult to communicate easily over the phone or through email. Therefore, face to face communication was necessary to move the project forward, requiring additional time and coordination.
In addition to the difficulties presented by the language barrier, miscommunications occurred, likely due to cultural reasons. For example, in planning the event, the reported number of potential attendees was not accurate. An event originally planned for no more than 400 had turned into 800 or more. It is common in Egypt to provide an estimate and then assume that if more than the initial estimate attends it will not be a problem, especially as AUC’s campus is large. The lack of clear communication between the NMIA and our team led to difficulties not only the day of the event but consequences for staff involved in overseeing student events as they were seen as acting irresponsibly and were questioned about the preparation following the event. In retrospect, providing the NMIA with tickets to be distributed among the community members to limit the number of attendees would likely have resulted in a smoother event overall.
Due to difficulty with a man who tried to enter the campus while intoxicated, the campus security decided to deny admittance to any new spectators due to safety concerns, given the large number of attendees and the limited number of security staff. However, some community members travelled a great distance (outside of Cairo) and insisted that they be admitted to the event. The NMIA leadership, AUC staff, and the first author were involved in attempting to disperse the crowd at the gate. The resulting “standoff” led to the decision to end the event early and everyone exited peacefully. Unfortunately, one unexpected event began a chain reaction that resulted in the premature termination of the event. In retrospect, it is unclear whether any one action could have prevented this chain of events; however, it is clear that discussion with the community concerning appropriate behaviors, adherence to the agreed upon number of attendees, and discussions with the security staff prior to the event could have helped alleviate some of the stress resulting from this unexpected incident.
Negative views toward the Sudanese population are common in Cairo. On the day of the event, two members of the research team spoke with security guards who expressed confusion about why we would bring so many Sudanese on campus. There were comments from the guards that Sudanese are dangerous, a stereotype of Black people in Egypt. The guards also reported that they were insulted by some of the attendees when they refused to allow admittance through the campus gates. While the large number of attendees exited the campus with no problems following the early termination of the event, the negative perception of the Sudanese was likely reinforced on the day of the event— an unintended consequence. In retrospect, it is unclear what the best course of action would be to handle negative perceptions of the Sudanese; however, a smooth event could have potentially challenged some negative stereotypes.
The importance of history is frequently mentioned as a factor to consider when engaging in CP practice. However, history is easily overlooked. For example, a historical event that was a part of the security staff’s collective unconscious was an event that took place years ago. In an event that represented various African countries, an altercation occurred between two men of different nationalities and serious injuries were reported. In addition to this historical event, the relationship between the Sudanese and Egyptians also has a history of tensions. Due to the low-income status of many Sudanese, stereotypes exist that they are criminals or at least are taking badly needed jobs from the Egyptian population. These histories, while known by the research team, were not anticipated to present themselves in overtly negative ways as they did on the day of the event through comments made by the security guards to the research team and tensions between the Sudanese attendees and security. In retrospect, recognizing that the guards were familiar with the previous event (although that was many years ago) would have led to a conversation about ways of discussing our planned event with the security staff before the event.
In spite of the difficulties faced in the planning and implementation of the cultural event, it was successful in bringing the community together and allowing a few of the tribes to showcase their culture. In moving forward, AUC staff is willing to hold another Nuba Day; however, it may be difficult to identify student clubs with the interest and resources to organize another event as the members of the research team are no longer at AUC. It is our hope that the relationship and trust that was developed between the team and the NMIA committee will be preserved through the connections made between the NMIA and AUC student clubs as well as faculty members interested in continuing the work begun with the community. Our last report from the NMIA was that they are planning a second event and are attempting to raise funds to rent a facility in the area. Those interested in learning more about the NMIA or supporting the event may contact Klovirt Jalo at email@example.com.