The Origami man: An Interview with OzOz

Author ········· Rawan Risheq
Published ······ Issue 08, 2013
Section ·······  Culture

Published in Kalimat, Issue 08 (buy this issue)

Whilst taking part in a training on “How to Teach Human Rights to Children through Storytelling, Theatre and Puppetry” in August 2012, I met a fascinating gentleman from Egypt. Osama Helmy (a.k.a. OzOz), needs no introduction, as his spirit shines through so brightly when he speaks of his passion, work and art, which are all one and the same: origami.

RR | When did you first discover origami and why did it have such a deep impact on you?

OH | When I was seven years old, I would make basic origami shapes like the frog and the boat. I really loved it without knowing why. One day in middle school, I had a substitute teacher who would spend time with me after school doing activities. He made an origami crow that opened its jaws when its wings were flapped! I asked him to teach me, so he did, and he then gave me the gift of an origami elephant, [with] all its intricate details. I was 14 and I was fascinated, thinking he must have done it with a huge paper. Once I got into secondary school, I still had this sort of obsession. When I would bring it up, people would laugh and say “stop playing like a child.” [Years later], in 2002, I walked into a library in Alexandria and I asked the librarian if he had a book of instructions on how to make paper figures, he said “you mean origami? ” I answered “ori what?” [laughs] it was the first time I had actually heard the word and I was 22 years old! It was a Christmas themed book and he said there was one copy left but that it was reserved. [but] I wasn’t leaving without the book! I bought it for 70 Egyptian pounds, which was quite expensive, [and] I started to make many shapes and I carried around a bag to store all my finished shapes. I would show them off with pride, but obviously people would laugh. I had no idea that this was going to change my life. I got introduced to a development institution that used art with fishermen communities, so I worked with them to teach origami to children. I taught them how to make fish and nets and shapes that were relevant to their daily lives. I then realised that they were lacking education to the point that they didn’t know what a square or a triangle was. So while teaching them these geometric shapes, I started to see origami as an educational tool. From education, I branched out into mental health. I met a doctor friend of mine in Alexandria who worked with heroine addicts and I used origami as an art therapy tool for healing. Another time, I was at a party with great music and lighting and I was feeling the vibe, so I closed my eyes and started making shapes using the brochures. Suddenly an idea came to me: why not do this with the blind? I found a man named Atef who worked with the deaf and mute, so I learned sign language and taught them to make origami too. It had such a great impact on me because I realised that there was a real need for this art, and I could spread it.

RR | Tell us about the crane at Tahrir Square.

OH | There is a Japanese legend that says when you have a dream and you want to make it come true, you make 1,000 cranes, or you make a wish for peace. In Alexandria, we were constantly hearing about the revolution in Cairo, so we decided to travel there to be part of the Tahrir Square experience. Of course I wanted to do something with my art. I wanted it to be very big and I wanted it to be a crane. I called my old university friend Mustafa from Cairo, and told him that he needed to bring the large paper and come meet us. This is because if I had tried to transport it through security from Alexandria to Cairo on a Friday, they might suspect me of some devious intentions. I took colours, but no scissors to avoid being suspected of smuggling weapons. We settled in front of the KFC in Tahrir and starting putting together the pieces into one big square. People helped with the building of the crane together, and then we carried it through the crowds. When we stopped, I told the [Japanese] legend to those gathered around. I asked people to come and write their wishes on the crane. One woman wrote “Get out, leave!” intended for Hosni Mubarak. This was on 10 February, 2011, the 17th day of the revolution. Once all the wishes were written, we didn’t want to leave with the crane, so we hung it up high on a pole with the Egyptian flag. Mubarak made a speech the next day. It didn’t seem he would back down, and so we got into our friends car and began driving back to Alexandria. On the road, we heard on the radio that he had stepped [down]! Many of my friends like to think it was because of that crane!

RR | What was your aim by creating the Arab Origami Centre?

OH | I noticed that there was nothing origami related in the Arab world. The only thing nearby was a centre in Israel. I wanted to create an “Egyptian Origami Centre” and it sprung out of my own need. I found a cultural management workshop taking place in Algeria in 2007 and I applied with the idea of the centre. I was accepted but unable to travel and so I attended its affiliate in Madaba, Jordan instead. I learned how to write proposals and concept notes. But I was still stuck. I didn’t know if I should create the centre as a non-profit or company, [but either way] I lacked funds. In 2009, I went to a book fair in Safaqis, Tunisia, with a grant from Safar. My role there was to do origami in open air, and a “training of trainers” for the social workers and educators on how to use origami as a tool. I did a survey while there to see how people felt about origami, and feedback was very positive. That’s when the idea transformed into the “Arab Origami Centre.” I had trained with organisations funded by Naseej and in association with them, I decided to do a trip and conduct a series of workshops throughout Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen in April 2010. My aims were to search for people who already practice origami and partner with them, to meet contacts I had made through the net, and to teach. When I returned, I established the centre in July 2011. This dream coming true was such a spiritual experience: the centre was to recognise origami as an art, and illustrate its use as an educational and healing tool. It would also be a connecting entity for all those who practice origami. Before the centre, I thought I was the only one in Egypt who did this, but once the centre was created and people heard about it they started flooding in saying, “I thought I was the only one! This makes me very happy!”

RR | On your travelling show through the Arab region, where did you perform, why those locations, and how did people react?

OH | The project was called “Fold With Us” and it went through Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Bahrain and Yemen. I met people online who practice origami in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. I wanted to meet the man in Bahrain, so I wrote a proposal for this tour to Naseej and they approved it. So from 1 April to 27, 2010, I was travelling with just my bag and my papers. We used our joint networks to plan the route. In Lebanon, I travelled with a Festival of Artists in a bus through Beirut, Sidon, Tyre, Baalbek, Hermel, and Tripoli; working in refugee communities in each location. In Jordan, I worked with theatres, development centres, women’s organisations and NGOs, and in Syria, I worked in the All Art Now Gallery with Abeer Bokhairi. That’s where they didn’t want to grant me entry in Syria. I folded a camel and a dinosaur for the border patrol guard. He loved it and let me in! Then I went to Bahrain and worked in Al Riwaq Art Space, then to Yemen to work with All the Girls Organisation and returned to Egypt to make the “Fold with Us” video based on footage from my journey.

RR | How did you implement your latest project “Inner Revolution” and do you believe it has been successful so far?

OH | The Egyptian revolution had inspired me very much, and there were art grants for projects that are related to the revolution so I began to think. An accumulation of the Tahrir Square crane experience, and the 1,000 cranes legend started to formulate into an idea. My partner Ali Al-Adawi was the one who came up with the idea. He suggested that instead of working on the revolution around us, why not focus on the inner revolution? The idea was that you can stand in the face of soldiers and oppressors, but still not face your own self, that you should be the change you want to see in the world, as Ghandi says. The quote “the story is the sign of the author’s recovery,” illustrates an important concept: when you write your own story, you heal. We developed a rough proposal, but it was rejected. Then Naseej offered another grant, so I felt I should rework the idea and re-submit. It transformed into a plan of meeting Egyptian youth in five states country wide, and work together to produce stories about their own inner revolutions. I stressed that making 1,000 cranes takes a lot of effort, and that same amount of effort is needed to go inward. People shared very dark truths during this workshop, [and] I discovered that we all share things in common. I want to make an installation of 10 huge cranes looking in different directions, all folded from one piece of paper, to show how we are all connected. The stories of past workshops will be shared anonymously, and viewers will read and then write their own secrets on the same cranes hanging in the exhibition.

RR | Your latest performance was in Japan, how did you feel about performing in the birthplace of origami?

OH | People always ask me, “Did you go to Japan?” “When are you going to Japan?” When I needed funding, people would say, “Why don’t you ask the Japanese?”  We created a play for the end of  our Arab Origami Festival and didn’t think much of it. One of the participants from the show submitted the play to a Japanese festival, and we got accepted. We were extremely excited and started preparing immediately. Our show was pretty unique considering it’s a combination of black theatre and origami. We never imagined this happening, especially because we were Egyptians doing it. Origami to them is so commonplace, like how the Pyramids are to me or Petra is to you. But the fact that we are specialists, not to mention obsessessive and creative, made them very proud of us. One of the other plays in the festival had dropped out, so we actually performed twice! I feel [like] I actually added something to origami, and that makes me totally satisfied with my craft.

RR | Other than merging Origami with Black Theatre, have you created any other art fusions with your craft?

OH | I found myself talking all the time. So I decided to make a travelling show where I narrate my past journeys and fold origami on stage at the same time. When I had taken the grant for the “Fold with Us” tour, I had to write a report to the organisation so that others can learn from my experience once I was done. When I finished writing it, Noura Amin became the producer of my narrating and folding show. The first performance was the 26 February, 2011 the day after the revolution’s victory in Egypt. We wrote our own show called “Stories, Travel, Revolution and Paper.” The stories were about my own experiences in Tunis, Syria, and the 18 days of Revolution in Egypt. I [shined] the spotlight on the political dimension of each country and what I did in light of it. When the audience first came into the show, they received pieces of paper and were taught how to fold cranes and tanks. The moral is that each person creates war or peace with their own hands. I made small and huge origami shapes while I travel in my narration from Syria to Tunis and Egypt, much like a diary. I made a huge tank, 4x6 metres while I sang a political song. In the finale, I carried all the white ropes on the ground which symbolised borders, and walked away, singing. I went off stage, and told the Tahrir Square crane story, and talked about the wishes that were written that day. When I finished the story, the lights went off, and 1,000 cranes came down from the roof of the theatre and onto the audience!

Rawan Risheq is a Palestinian, University of Toronto graduate and globetrotter. She held a position with Madrasati, a Queen Rania initiative, and is currently an executive board member at Hopes for Women In Education, providing scholarships for refugee women. Maintaining constant expression, she lives by the power of art, to heal and communicate across the world.