ON THE SCENE: Destination: Alexandria, Egypt

Shown here are Dr. Manale Elewah; Naj Wikoff; Dr. Nagala, dean of the University of Alexandria; and Dr. Ahmed Kadry. Elewah and Kadry arranged Wikoff’s visit and were the lead organizers of the Arts & Health initiative in Alexandria, Egypt. (Provided photo)

On Wednesday, Feb. 14, I attended a seminar on the impact of artificial intelligence on the creation of art and in medical care, topics one might think were held in Silicon Valley or the Halls of Congress. Instead, the presentation was held at the University of Alexandria, Egypt.

I’m here because I left attending the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup in Lake Placid before the awards were given to catch a Cape Air to JFK and then British Air over here.

I found Egyptians to be very helpful, gracious, full of good cheer and deeply appreciative of my mangled efforts to speak basic phrases in Egyptian Arabic. Alexandria, a former capital under Cleopatra and Alexander the Great on his way East, has a lot of charm and is located on the Mediterranean coast. Egyptians are deservedly proud of the quality of their fruits and well-served reputation for their culinary arts.

My purpose for being there was as an ambassador for the Fulbright Specialist Program in Global Health and the National Organization of Arts in Health, of which I am a co-founder. Within that, my goal is to help the university develop a plan for becoming the center for arts in health in Egypt and the Middle East.

Ancient Egyptian priests and physicians used the arts to relax their patients and support their healing process; furthermore, they measured the benefits of their medical activities along with their arts innovations, laying the first foundation stones of what would become “evidence-based” care.

Thus, the university’s vision makes sense, especially as they may well have the most vigorous use of creative arts therapists in the Middle East, and the university has been training creative arts therapists for several years.

Part of my activities includes raising the profile of the value of the arts in health care, such as a presentation I made at the famed rebuilt Library of Alexandria that has become considered one of the world’s best in a few short years. My presentation, sponsored by the Italian Consulate and the Rotary Cub of Alexandria, was on the value of the arts addressing cancer, which included sharing the activities by Creative Healing Connections, which has been hosting retreats in the Adirondack region for women living with cancer and other chronic diseases for over two decades.

While my presentation, promoted by a televised interview, generated a lot of interest and requests for presentations on other aspects of the use of the arts in clinical care, medical education and public health by other agencies and medical leaders in the city, I learned about some impressive activities to share back in the United States.

Ahmed Nagi, founding director of the Division of Diversity and Inclusion for Egypt Museums, gave me a tour on Friday, Feb. 16. Nagi is legally blind, and as written, much of the Braille text used in many museums. He aims to make all museums in Egypt fully accessible to everyone, regardless of their situation. Further, Nagi has been demonstrating to those with sight not to disregard or write off the potential of people who are blind to create visual art. To demonstrate, he was given a small gilded statue of an elephant to hold and feel and then some soft metal so he could mold it to create a high-relief panel that he eventually painted. The outcome was stunning; not many able-eyed artists could do as well.

“Taking on the challenge of making a visual representation of the elephant was important not just for me but for all the visually impaired in Egypt,” said Nagi. “I wanted to create something tangible to demonstrate the potential of the impaired in all categories and demonstrate they have the right to enjoy culture and participate in artistic activities.”

Nagi, who is also assisting the Tunisian Institute of Heritage, is developing art education courses for teaching the visually handicapped how to make art. He is planning mini-documentaries on his artistic endeavors and efforts to make museums and other venues welcoming to the impaired.

Another inspirational individual is Nader Wanis Adelmalak, the head of the mission and social action activities for St. Mark’s Anglican Church of Alexandria. The church grounds, considered British territory, cover a small block in the heart of the Old City. Remarkable is the church’s choir and congregation, in person and online, including several Muslims some fully dressed in the Hijab.

“They come because we serve and support the poorest of the poor, and they are grateful,” said Adelmalak. “To them, Jesus Christ is an important prophet, whose words and deeds of supporting the poorest of the poor they hear and value.”

Adelmalak and his team provide job training and job placement. They make learning fun using online digital platforms to place students behind news desks, in nature, urban settings and as actors in science fiction movies. They have a speedy turnaround in their training as the young people are eager to learn; no matter their faith or circumstances, they feel welcomed. The church can provide them with job opportunities through its vast network of strategic partners.

Adelmalak does not try to convert anyone to Christianity; instead, he tries to create peace in a society known for sectarian differences.

“If all governments would devote their time and resources to serving the poorest people in their country and other countries, peace can be achieved,” said Adelmalak.

Dr. Hisham Shawky, a leading cardiac surgeon based in Cairo. Over 20,000 children are born each year with congenital heart disease.

Thanks to the International Rotary and Rotary Clubs of Alexandria and Cairo, he is able to save the lives of over 1,000 each year. He is helping to train other surgeons in Egypt and many other African nations. Shawky and I hope to work together in the near future using music to relax the patients (and their families) presurgery, support their recovery post and determine if these activities can increase positive outcomes.

“My best image of an arts in health program in Alexandria is one that’s open to everyone, in both medical and public health,” said art therapy professor and my co-host Dr. Ahmed Kadry. “I want us to test out new ideas and conduct research that will strengthen the field here and abroad. I want us the to develop strategic partnerships across the arts and medical community in Egypt and internationally; good research is key.”

This trip was just a first step, and as I write this, we have several planning meetings and two more presentations before I leave.

(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)

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