Boulevard: The Early History of a Cultural Movement

Ibrahim Abougendy
July 20, 2017

Port Said is a cornerstone—a small city located at the entrance of the Suez Canal that acts as a bridge between Asia and Africa.

While the city of Port Said was being built, the Suez Canal was under the control of foreign authorities. This influenced Port Said, which developed a versatile cultural identity as a result. Port Said used to have two main districts: the “Foreigners district” and the “Arab district.” The foreigners district was called Ifrang, and was marked by the presence of Italian schools and cultural houses, night clubs, and auditoriums. The Arab district was full of underprivileged Egyptians, many of them manual labourers responsible for digging the canal.

Like any other city outside of Cairo, Port Said had no independent cultural platforms or resources. Despite the fact that less than four decades ago, as a growing cosmopolitan city, many ethnic groups competed to inform the cultural life of Port Said, the city never managed to develop an independent cultural scene. Before 2011, I didn’t believe that Port Said’s population would be interested in cultural events, conferences, and concerts. It turned out to be not disinterest but rather a lack of cultural awareness that kept turnout low at these kinds of events.

In 2011, the year of the January 25th Revolution, five volunteer organizers started preparing a TEDx event (an independently organized event under the authorization of TED talks) in the city. The event featured presentations by experts in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design. We didn’t expect 1000+ people to apply to attend such an event. 500 audience members were selected based on their passion to hear and engage with different ideas.

After the January 25th revolution, Egyptians began to demand new forms of cultural engagement and freedom of expression. That event acted as a catalyst, inspiring the city’s artists and techies to unleash their potential. For me, it was a paradigm shift where I started understanding that people were not apathetic, but were deprived of access to art and culture. People were actually hungry for cultural experiences but they needed a platform to express and share their ideas while acquiring new forms of knowledge.

That conference was part of an early formation of an ecosystem of youthful NGOs, tech startups, and cultural initiatives. Within three years, as a community of civil society actors in different disciplines, the number and frequency of cultural activities continued to increase. It became clear that there was a need to establish an entity that could direct and connect initiatives focused on cultural development.

In 2014, riffing off the French term that identifies a core urban pathway within the city, the idea of Boulevard emerged. A French name seemed fitting given that numerous landmarks in the city are still called by their French names, pointing to a cultural revival of the city’s golden age, and catalyzed by an independent cultural hub. We chose to resurrect an abandoned basement in a historically landmarked building; we saw it as implanting a collective memory that would in the future hold strong against the demolition of Port Said’s architectural heritage.

We began engaging with activists from across the city and many of our first supporters donated needed items to build the space. Focus groups were formed to repurpose trash items into functional parts of the space. Dozens of youth, hearing about an art space being established using trash, started showing up and participating. An opportunity for creative engagement was born out of financial hardship.

Boulevard was officially launched on December 19th, 2014. We listened to simsimiyya music, an authentic musical tradition of the canal region, at the launch celebration. Boulevard introduced the simple concept of a space that belonged to its users. It had three open workspaces with a help-yourself bar, two meeting rooms for rent, and an open space for weekly mini-concerts intended to support the underground music scene that had begun to emerge in Port Said.

Boulevard’s mission was to raise the overall cultural dynamism in the city by empowering new creative projects and helping to accelerate their growth. The space introduced new ideas through workshops in art, music, design, and technology, and attracted artists from Cairo and other cities. Boulevard’s aim was to empower the city’s artists by providing a platform where they could share, learn, network, and exhibit their final products. We introduced the Port Said population to different cultures by organizing bi-weekly cultural nights.

In 2016, Boulevard’s administration became involved in designing the city’s cultural scene along with the governor and other civil society organizations. Yet, in November 2016, to our surprise, the space was raided and shut down with no prior notice. Authorities claimed that this was part of the governor’s decision to shut down private teaching centers across the city. “One of Port Said’s main independent cultural centers was raided and closed on Tuesday by members of the Sharq municipality, Sharq Police Station and the public facilities police department. The municipality’s official Facebook page claimed the center was an ‘unlicensed apartment ran as a center [for private lessons] without permits.’”[1] This was untrue, as Boulevard’s legal documents and listing of activities clearly show that it was functioning solely as a cultural hub and exhibition space.

According to Mai Shams El-Din’s article, “A source in Sharq municipality told Mada Masr that the information available proves that the center is not a cultural center but functions as a private tutoring center. ‘If they have a tax card and a commercial registration number, these documents should be officially sent to the district’s head to reopen the center,’ the source said.”[2] Even so, governmental bureaucracy stood firmly against reopening the cultural center.

Boulevard’s community launched a social media campaign responding to the news of the closure. Authorities asked to meet the team and the steering committee appointed by the governor to evaluate the space’s activities. Though we complied with all of the authorities’ requests, the decision to shut down Boulevard has never been repealed. It seems that authorities and the steering committee were just managing public disapproval until the social media outcry came to an end.

Due to accumulating overheads and lack of a clear response from the governor’s office, Boulevard’s administration had to make the decision to permanently close the space. While Boulevard as a physical place may have been closed, its impact is still felt with every live musical show happening in Port Said’s streets. Boulevard did its part connecting a young generation of doers who are occupying the streets and organizing exhibitions and musical marches across the city. Immediately after the closing of Boulevard, people searched for a new platform to organize together, until realizing it could be done in the streets. While I am writing this article, different cultural nodes are being implanted across the city because people have understood that it is their right to use public space.

Boulevard was a tipping point, a catalyst that brought the city’s artists, geeks, cultural enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs together. Boulevard managed to cause a paradigm shift in the city by showing Port Said’s youth that they could create spaces other than cafés: spaces where they could be free to express themselves and to learn, while feeling the comfort of home. Boulevard’s doors may be closed, but it’s impact will last for years to come.

[1] Mai Shams El-Din, “Port Said’s Boulevard cultural center raided, shut down by authorities.” مدى مصر (Mada Masr). Nov 17, 2016.

[2] Mai Shams El-Din, “Port Said’s Boulevard cultural center raided, shut down by authorities.” مدى مصر (Mada Masr). Nov 17, 2016.

Ibrahim Abougendy

Ibrahim Abougendy

Ibrahim is an architect that graduated from the American University in Cairo & UMASS, Amherst. He founded an upcycling design studio called “Mobikya” that innovates solutions for solid waste and transfers it to functional furniture. His enthusiasm about upcycling was born in “boulevard,” the cultural space he founded with minimal resources at his hometown.

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