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Discovering Creativity in Cairo

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Mohamed Allam at the Fagnoon Art Center

Are you a boomer who’s interested in traveling deeper? That’s exactly what my trip to Cairo with our sponsor, AuthentiCity, was all about. Yes, our group saw the must see sites like the Giza pyramids and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities; but we also met with revolutionaries at a downtown Cairo coffee shop, watched locals shopping in neighborhood markets and listened to a boomer chorus sing Egyptian oldies at the Culture Wheel. But it was our visit to a children’s art center that left the biggest impression on me.

Friday, the Muslim day of worship, is a good time to escape the post-revolutionary craziness of Cairo. This is the day of the week when, after noonday prayer services, demonstrations are likely to occur at Tahrir Square. That’s why our guides whisked us away from the city to explore the pyramid sites of Saqqara and Giza. Sandwiched in between ― a visit to an art center where Egyptian children are encouraged to let their creativity run wild.

The art school that creativity built

When the tour van turned from Saqqara Road into Fagnoon Art Center, a hodgepodge of open-sided wooden structures, with ramps leading this way and that, hinted at an out-of-the-box creativity. It was like an art funhouse on stilts.

Artist and founder, Mohamed Allam, wasted no time explaining his unorthodox art education philosophy upon greeting us. His idea― give children the tools then leave them alone to create.

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Children love to swing on the ropes at the indoor playground

The buildings at Fagnoon Art Center are a kaleidoscope of art. Mosaic tiles adorn the floors, curlicue iron furniture ― forged onsite ― and wooden support poles wrapped in colorful fabric scraps decorate large open spaces. A poster wearing children’s handprints hangs on the wall. According to Allam, when building the structures, he purposely did not use a concrete foundation so that one day the site could be returned to its original purpose as agricultural land.

Children come here to learn wood-print making, stained glass art, pottery, soldering skills and other forms of art. Young professionals give them brief instructions, then the kids are left alone to create.

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The coloring terrace

From one of the wooden decks, we could make out various pyramid sites in the hazy glare of a hot sun. An Imam’s call to prayer wailed through a loudspeaker as we climbed the ramp to the coloring terrace. Here, children are free to paint however they choose. Wrought iron dummies wearing splatters of paint are a testament to that freedom.

“To help the people to have a job”

Mohamed Allam sees Fagnoon Art Center as his way “to help the people to have a job.” He hires neighbors for building projects and to run the center. The art skills that the children learn can be transferred to employment in the arts and crafts field when they become working adults. Allam also funds other art projects, requesting no payment in return. But many do pay him back. “Any money I have in the bank, I must use to create something. When someone pays it back to me, I invest in a bigger project,” says Allam.

Wild creativity or a sign of hope?

At the conclusion of our visit, we accept Allam’s offer to sit in the shade of the sycamore trees in the school’s playground to enjoy a lunch of phyllo dough pancakes, fermented cheese, molasses honey and mint tea. The Imam’s Friday speech blasts over the loudspeaker, while a little boy clutches the reins of a donkey as a handler leads him around the grass field. In a corner of the playground, a group of teenagers slip and slide in a mud pit. The girl’s shriek each time they fall down. Did I mention that Fagnoon Art Center is a place to have fun, too?

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Playground at Fagnoon Art Center

By the time we depart, many Muslim families have walked over to the school after noonday services. It turns out that those brightly covered support poles also hold rope swings. Children squeal as moms and dads push them higher and higher.

In Arabic, Fonoon means art and Gonoon means wild. Fagnoon is a made-up word intended to represent the wildness of art. To me, it sounds like hope.

Have you traveled deeper on your boomer journeys? If you’ve been to Cairo, did you visit Fagnoon Art Center? Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.

AuthentiCity Travel provided this travel experience.

To see more of my photos from this adventure, visit the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Be sure to click the like button while you’re there.

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