Right in the heart of Darbellabana district stands the muse of this article. Yes, it’s Darbellabbana for Culture, Arts and Skills and Environmental Development Center. Once Lines Team entered the center, Dr. Afaf Badran, founder, and director of the center welcomed us with a smile that held a lot of unshaken faith. Those were the values that center translates into actions. And this is what you will read about throughout the article.
Tell us more about the birth of Darbellabbana for Culture, Arts and Skills and Environmental Development center
Dr. Badran: The first time I visited Darb El Labbana area was in June 2012. I had a strong calling. To clarify, I sensed the energy of the historic area and remembered Hassan Fathy, who lived there. In no time, we set foot in the area and embarked on establishing our cultural center. Our center was the first center to start diverse cultural activities in Darb El Labbana area. It focused on developing both the human and the built environment.
Would you elaborate on the goals of Darbellabbana Center?
Dr. Badran: As the name of the Center suggests, our mission was to spread all useful knowledge, cultural and intellectual, develop aesthetic appreciation through arts, and develop skills by teaching the know-how, excellence in workmanship and perseverance. In brief, our main objective was to build people’s capacity to make a better living and improve their living environments.
To do so, it was important for the people to first rediscover themselves and what they are capable of doing. As they develop confidence in themselves and in their potentials, they are willing to invest more time and effort to promote their talents and skills. We started with the aim of serving the underprivileged, but we were happy to find everyone benefitting, including the privileged.
How and when did Darbellabbana Group for Design and Architecture Emerge?
Dr. Badran: As architects, our Center had since early started hosting lectures, workshops and discussion forums about architecture and design, with professional guest speakers and participants. These events attracted large and diverse audiences, not only from the district but from many districts in Cairo and other cities in Egypt. Occasionally we had speakers and participants from Arab and foreign countries.
In 2014, Darbellabbana Group for Design and Architecture emerged and we continued to organize architecture and urban design lectures. Moreover, it brought together young and older architects who formed teams joining local and international competitions under my leadership.
In recent years I had also started putting designs for specific deteriorated areas in Darb El Labbana area on a voluntary basis. To get government permissions to execute is a completely different story.
Are there other active entities in the area at present?
Dr. Badran: When we first started implementing our program in 2012, the house where the famous Hassan Fathy used to live, right next to our center, was still being rehabilitated. Late in 2013 this house got the name as the House of Egyptian Architecture and started delivering architectural lectures. A year later, CILAS (Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts) moved to the area. Around 2015, other entities started to come up, e.g., Lala Studio, delivering architecture lectures and workshops and art courses. The center attracted other entities to start activities in the area and share the mission of spreading knowledge and development.
What does the cultural center offer to its neighborhood and its users?
Courses, lectures and workshops
Darbellabbana for Culture, Arts and Skills and Environmental Development Center gives people chances to learn new Darbellabbana for Culture, Arts and Skills and Environmental Development Center offers learning and training opportunities for the people: lectures, courses, workshops as well as exhibitions. Some traditional handicrafts as Kheyamia (traditional patchwork), Arabesque (turned wood-work) and Colored Glass Mosaics were launched. The center sets a charge for those who can pay, and exempts the under-privileged from paying. In addition, the center also provides fun and beneficial activities for the children of the area to stimulate their imagination and inspire their creativity. Some of the activities include drawing, painting, quilling, modeling, lantern making, etc.
Exhibitions and showrooms
In addition to delivering courses and workshops, the center also functions as an exhibition for the work of the users. We exhibit the work of professional craftsmen, artists and photographers, as well as trainees and beginners. This helps them get noticed and make money. The exhibitions attract people who may like to buy or learn, and inspire confidence in the trainees and hope in those who need to be encouraged to learn.
Bringing Neighborhood People Together
In addition to that, at periodical occasions, the Center holds open-air gatherings where the neighborhood people and volunteers sit and dine together and talk about issues of interest.
Above all, our Darbellabbana Group for Design and Architecture aligned with our Cultural Center to improve and develop the living environment of the people in the area, urged by their enthusiasm. There was a great understanding on our part that as the area has many historic features, any intervention would need special permissions. Darbellabbana architects were careful to be as sensitive as possible while attempting to make things better where possible and in the designs proposed to the government and its collaborating stakeholders. On volunteer basis, we were able to do some clean ups in the area, some constructive improvements in Al Komy area and prepared comprehensive design proposals for a number of places in the area, among them, the vacant land in front of our center.
Intervention in Al Komy Court
Certainly, Al Komy Court is one of the areas Darbellabbana Group for Design and Architecture wanted to develop as one of the environmental development initiatives of Darbellabbana Center. On one side of the court stands the Mausoleum of Al Komy who is known to have built the distinguished historic house where the famous Hassan Fathy lived centuries later. It is not far from this place, around 150 meters away. Unfortunately, the mausoleum is now in a very bad state and dirt rises around it up to 1.5 meters in parts. It is surrounded by informal and randomly built houses on both sides. To clean Al Komy Court, our Egyptian young architects invited their friends from Cottbus University, who had just ended their study semester at Cairo University in Egypt, to join them in the exercise. The neighborhood children joined the discussions on the site and were part of the survey.
Survey of Needs and Aspirations
Above all, men aspired the place would have shops or cafes. However, others thought it could serve as a place for condolence ceremonies or an outdoor praying area. Women wished it held simple equipment for children to play and lampstands that light at night. Others wished it had greenery and sitting areas for women. The children wanted a football area. The little ones wanted garden toys. One thing they all agreed upon in the survey was cleanliness. They enthusiastically gave helping hands when we initiated our simple and sensitive intervention with little resources. We did not continue our work, Dr. Afaf said, as the government finally announced it had radical plans for the area.
Proposal for Vacant Land in front of Darbellabbana Center
Dr Afaf Badran, also exclusively shared with Lineshub, her efforts in providing design proposals for the vacant land in front of the center. “The vacant lot with fallen buildings right in front of Darbellabbana Center has been a stimulus for my dreams ever since our small but ambitious “Darbellabbana for Culture, Arts and Skills and Environmental Development” embarked on its mission in 2012. The thought that all this rubble can be replaced by a Manarah, “an enlightening house” and a “Mazar” for crafts, a place which people come to visit as a ritual and learn and buy the vanishing crafts, has tapped my mind over and over” Dr. Afaf Badran said.
“I put full proposals for a large place that can spread knowledge and the know-how and build the capacity of the people. A place where artisans can enjoy doing their crafts, teach others, exhibit their work and sell it and visitors have a great time. I designed it to be in harmony with the style in the area. However, with the growing ambitious stakeholders, this proposal may or may not become concrete,” explained Dr. Afaf Badran.
Did you face any challenges concerning the operation of the center?
Dr. Badran: Since the center is a non-profit organization. So, one of the major challenges is that the people participating are always changing, i.e., people who come and volunteer in the activities and programs that the center offers are never constant. Moreover, I have to say that only my husband and I fund the Center and all its activities. That includes rent, guarding, cleaning and all running costs. It’s also important to clarify that any revenue from courses goes to cover the underprivileged.
Darbellabbana for Culture, Arts and Skills and Environmental Development Center has a lot to tell…
Finally, we can tell that there wasn’t an empty inch in the center. Every corner has a talent saw the light, a dream that came true, and an inspiring story to tell. The footsteps of the center never cease to change lives through it’s diverse programs and activities.
To read more about influential places in Egypt check: House of Egyptian Architecture: Hub of Englightenment.