RAWI resurrects a children’s exhibition, born in the war-torn Port Said of 1956.

On the evening of Wednesday, 31 October 1956, the citizens of Port Said suddenly found themselves under attack. An air raid had just begun what would become known as the Tripartite Aggression. Over the next nine days, British, French, and Israeli troops would strike not only military targets, but also hospitals, schools, houses of worship, and people’s homes.

Chaos descended on the city as people were either forced to flee their homes or die under the rubble. A local resistance rose in the middle of this massive assault, which gave enemy forces an excuse to attack all types of civilians under the pretext of pursuing resistance fighters. Soldiers stormed into people’s homes and even shelters to hunt and gun down members of the resistance in front of their families and friends. Bodies of the dead piled up on the streets, food supplies ran low, and the city was cut off from the rest of the world after radio transistors were rounded up from every home.

“I remember my mother telling me that the girls who couldn’t leave their houses watched the devastation from their windows and painted images from that perspective. The boys were too restless and could not be contained; most of their paintings were from images seen on the streets.” Tarek Labib

The nightmare finally came to an end on November 7. Under pressure from the international community, and massive anti-war protests back home, the troops were forced to withdraw, with the last foreign soldier departing Port Said on 23  December 1956. Those who were left found themselves surrounded by death, ruins, and unimaginably traumatic memories.

Sadika Hassanein and Mohamed Labib, probably attending an official event, perhaps at an embassy.

Back in Cairo, two young art educators managed to join the first Egyptian troops arriving to reclaim Port Said. In a very avant-garde example of art therapy Mohamed Labib and Sadika Hassanein gathered their own supplies and spent two weeks running an art workshop for local school children. The concept behind the workshop was simple: provide a forum for artistic expression and allow the energy born of the moment to speak for itself.

Children were invited to express themselves on large sheets of paper. They were given an opportunity to release the horrific images from their minds, confront them in their drawings, and share their pain with others. Labib and Sadika hoped that this exercise would help the children begin a much needed healing process.

The result of the workshop went far beyond a catharsis on canvas. The children produced stunningly vivid images of the attacks on the city: raids of the homes, the recovery of dead bodies from the streets, mothers crying, bombs blasting, each more heart wrenching than the last. These powerful images dripped with the authenticity of immediacy.

A series of paintings composed of twelve panels illustrated by the boys from the workshop depicting the bombardment of the city of Port Said. It is particularly interesting to note the identifying features of the city, such as the then-standing statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps and the wooden arcaded balconies – emblematic of Port Said’s architecture. The boys were: Adel El Alawi (16), Mahmoud Salama (18), Mohamed ElGhadban (17), Mohamed Radwan (16), Mustafa Al Sayed (17).

The response to the workshop was as powerful as one would expect, from both the children and the community. The children’s artwork was ultimately exhibited in Vienna, Budapest, Rome, Moscow, Cairo, and Alexandria, before finally being left where it resides today, at the Egyptian Academy of Fine Arts in Rome.

In 2001, Labib and Sadika’s son, Tarik, was rummaging through his parents’ old books and photographs when he came across images of the children’s paintings. He was taken aback by the striking yet painful scenes that appeared childish, but were far from naïve.

Fardous Youssef (12), Karima Ibrahim (13), Laila El Garrahi (14), Laila El Maghrabi (17), Mahasen Ali (12), Mahasen El Mahhalawi (13), Munira Khalil (14), Nabaweya Balbula (19), Nagua Radwan (11), Nahed El Gamil (19), Nawal El Husseini (12), Nur-El Huda Abu Bakr (12), Samiha Mohamed (12), Tafida Mohamed Ali (16), Wadia Soliman (13), Zainab Mazhar (16), Afkar Kassem (14), Fathia Abdel Salam (12), Fatma Barbur (19), Amira Zaki (14), Fatma El Shalakani (18), Angel Amin (18), Hoda Mansi (13), Ansaf Mahmoud (12), Hoda ElBani (13), Boushra Abdel Fattah (18)

This remarkable find led Sadika, who was eighty years old by then, on a trip down memory lane. As she recounted the story nostalgically, she told Tarik of the anguished state in which she and Mohamed found the city; she then began to remember the children, and how the girls had mostly painted scenes from inside their homes, while the boys, who could not sit still indoors, had hit the dangerous streets, painting the bombardments and attacks directly from the street level as they witnessed them.

Today, the city of Port Said – known as a city of brave resistance – is experiencing another period of hardship, which, while not as brutal as before, has been sadly brought on by internal strife.

Its people, again find themselves under attack and suffering from a lack of food and medical supplies, are as always bravely enduring their hardships and defying oppression. If the children of Port Said depicted their lives over the past two years on canvas again, what would they say?

In the next issue of Rawi, we attempted to answer this question by organizing an art competition for the children of Port Said (in 2013), inviting them to illustrate images from their life in the city. To see the results of the competition go to the follow up article at: https://rawi-magazine.com/articles/children_port_said_2/

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 5, 2013

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