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Cairenes, like most other other big city dwellers, tend not to be invested in what happens beyond the capital – except of course when it’s summertime and Sahel season is upon us. So, naturally, I was quite surprised when I heard there was an art festival held in Kafr El Sheikh. What was even more surprising was the fact that artists from around the world travel to Kafr el Sheikh to attend this festival! What would make these artists travel to Burg El Burullus, a modest town in Egypt's Nile Delta, rather than go to Dahab or Sharm, or any of the other popular tourist attraction Egypt has to offer?

The debate stirred by a painting is more important than the painting itself.

The International Burullus Symposium started five years ago when renowned artist Abdel Wahab Abdel Mohsen decided he wanted to use his foundation – Abdel Wahab Abdel Mohsen Foundation for Arts, Culture, and Development – for the betterment of his hometown, Kafr El Sheikh. “The festival started with the purpose of human development, meaning providing a cultural service to the people of the town and changing their behaviors and traditions through art,” Dr. Abdel Mohsen, Founder and President of The International Burullus Symposium tells me. “I’m from Kafr El Sheikh, so I’ll hold the festival there. Every artist should think about their home and people. If we're alive for the next 100 years, we’ll do it in Kafr El Sheikh every single time.”

Held in Burg El Burullus, a small town in Kafr el Sheikh overlooking the Mediterranean, the symposium draws artists to come and paint on walls of the town, turning the town into a beautifully colorful landscape. This year's symposium was my first time going to Burg EL Burullus, and I was surprised by the simplicity of everything; despite the modesty of the surroundings, people look content and joyous. Children run at you from everywhere demanding you photograph them in their youthful exuberance, senior citizens come out of their windows to pray for you and wish you luck on your way, and everyone seem united by the beauty entailed by the gathering of artists drawing their lively paintings on walls.

Yet, for all the beauty and joy the festival brings to the small town, its goals encompass much more than the artistic value. The festival tackles social and religious problems that are inherent in most cities outside of central Egypt. “We’re tackling three main issues this year: female genital mutilation, violence/discrimination against women, and child marriage. Burullus is one of the societies suffering from these issues,” Dr. Ramy Shehab, Assistant Coordinator of the Symposium, tells me. “We want people to ask about what’s drawn. If, for example, an artist draws something that influenced them – let’s say a girl who got married at a young age – people ask what that is. In time, the momentum and debate stirred by the painting becomes more important than the painting itself. It’s not just about making the place more beautiful; if the human element is nonexistent, people won’t care,” he adds.

A coastal town with limited means, Burullus finds itself in the heart of Egypt's illegal migration crisis. Young people from unfortunate backgrounds risk their lives and the little money they could scrape in search of the dream of a better life abroad; most end up deported (sometimes with significant physical injuries), or worse, dead. This was another issue the festival is concerned with, putting the town of Burullus in the spotlight and making it a more frequented place, creating more jobs and revenue, and forcing those who think about illegal immigration to stay. “Having people around and opening the town to tourists is the most effective way to combat illegal immigration. We’re closing the door in the face of illegal immigration,” Dr. Shehab concludes.

Yet, it’s not always easy to convince the inhabitants of a small town of the notions of art and its relevance. “At first, the people of the house I was painting on weren’t so keen on what I was doing, but when I was done, they wanted me to do the rest of the house! I promised them I would next time,” says Kholoud Al Jabry, an artist from UAE. “I’ve come to Egypt many times, and participated in several festivals, but this time was different. The place is inspiring and the artists with us are incredible,” she adds. 

Imagine if we could gather all the plastic in the world in one boat and free our lives of plastic.

Local artists as well joined the fold, with the hopes that they can actually do some good in this country. “Alone, by yourself, you can't help but feel there’s nothing you can do in this country and that it’s all going to hell. But it isn’t necessarily so; it’s possible for one person to create something important that gives hope,” says Evelyn Ashamallah, an Egyptian painter and artist from Kafr El Sheikh. Despite the festival being in her province, in a different town, she insists it doesn’t hold much weight on the importance of the festival for her. “I don’t care that it’s done in my province; the important thing is that it’s done in a place that needs it, a place that has little facilities and whose people aren’t doing quite so well. This festival annually puts them in the spotlight and, on top of that, it makes the town beautiful. The kids used to stand next to us very excited to draw; it was amazing,” she recalls.

What’s great about the festival is that there is no theme forced upon the artists – each chooses a theme for their art. Each artist comes for a different reason, and they all have their different takes on the experience. The artists travel from outside and within Egypt to this small town to share their art and vision with the locals. “This is my third time travelling to Egypt; I love the culture and I’m really happy whenever I’m here. I was invited to this festival while I was in Minya earlier this year,” says Julia, an artists and fashion designer from Italy. “My project is about a serious problem we’re facing in the world. Imagine if we could gather all the plastic in the world in one boat and free our life of plastic.”

The social responsibility of the festival extends beyond just conveying messages of importance and discussing societal problems through art; there are more tangible approaches to some of the societal issues a town like Burullus faces. The final day of the festival saw all the participants cleaning the shores of Burg El Burullus of its plastic waste, a joint initiative between UNFPA, The International Burullus Symposium, and Greenish – a startup concerned with environmental awareness and solutions. “Plastic takes 500 years to decompose, so the only way to get rid of it is by proper sorting and disposal," says Shady Abdalla, Co-founder of Greenish. "Burg El Burullus is facing a crisis, which is why we're running a campaign to clean as much as we can with the help of the townspeople, and we’ll also have an awareness campaign to explain to them the damage plastic waste could cause.”

In a world plagued by consumerism and self-indulgence, these artists and travelers are proving that there’s a social side of travel – a morally conscious one. They’re travelling not just to explore the world, but also to change it, be it through art, social and environmental awareness, or the simple act of cleaning a place of its garbage. This festival is the perfect manifestation of travelers of different backgrounds gathering for a bigger purpose: the betterment of communities beyond their own.

Just imagine a young child in a small town growing up with the phrase "people are born equal" painted on their walls and engraved in their heart.

The beauty and joyfulness that have overtaken Burullus didn’t go unnoticed; when other towns in different provinces in Egypt saw the magic that happens in Burullus, they wanted the same. According to Dr. Abdel Mohsen, the Ministry of Youth and Sports has joined forces with his foundation and started working on an initiative called Modon Molawana (Colored Towns) to replicate their efforts in Burullus across multiple provinces. “In collaboration with the ministry, we’ve painted in Rashid, Damietta, Nuba, Port Said, and others,” Dr. Abdel Mohsen beams.

The joy I saw on people's faces as I strolled through the colorful streets of Burg El Burullus was beautifully genuine, yet I believe that, beyond the beauty and colors, if any of the messages drawn on this town's walls could reach but one person, the world would be better for it. Just imagine a young child in a small town growing up with the phrase "people are born equal" painted on their walls and engraved in their heart.