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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The center of Cairo is now synonymous with protests and sometimes violence. Late at night, the once bustling streets are largely empty. People worry about getting mugged or caught up in a mob. But there are efforts to revitalize downtown Cairo.

NPR's Leila Fadel sent this story about a recent contemporary arts festival.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The haunting voices of revolutionary female singers fill the air in this old and decrepit theatre. It is a space that tells of a glorious past. Candle-shaped lights adorn the walls and there are dusty red velvet curtains on the stage. Here, the legendary Umm Kulthum, the Arab world's most adored female singer, once sang about love and loss for packed audiences.

UMM KULTHUM: (Singing in foreign language)

FADEL: Today, after years of sitting unused, this theater once again echoes with music. It was chosen to host the final concert in the contemporary arts festival. The decision was deliberate, to breathe new life into Cairo's decrepit architecture. The audience is taken by the voice of Dina El Wedidi, an Egyptian folk singer who shot to fame after the revolution and Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer/songwriter who is known as the voice of Tunisia's revolution.

As Dina sings, she is masked by fog and bubbles. And later, Emel dances across the stage strumming a guitar and singing about freedom. Probably no one notices the missing tassels on the curtains or the smell of smoke and urine in the lobby. Ahmed El Attar is the director of the festival.

AHMED EL ATTAR: Cairo is a city that needs a lot of dusting. It's almost like an unloved city.

FADEL: Just before the show, he sits on the steps outside the theater as artists do their soundchecks inside. He chose the venue to highlight Cairo's trove of theaters and hotels that languish dusty and unused.

ATTAR: It's a city has of a lot of things hidden. And because of neglect and a general feeling of apathy over the last 50 years of military rule and dictatorship and oppression and a general feeling of not valuing your own self as individuals and also as a society, so the city is abandoned.

FADEL: Downtown Cairo is filled with beautiful architecture. It was built during the brief French occupation of Egypt under Napoleon. It's Parisian with an Egyptian twist. The window arcs are stunning, delicate balconies overlook wide streets and the area is filled with apartments with high, ornate ceilings. But now that beauty is masked by dust, the architecture lost in decay.

Since the revolution that swept through Egypt, Tunisia and beyond, the arts scene has exploded. Artists are more free to express themselves publicly, and there's a willing audience searching for something new.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Emel Mathlouthi plays us a song before the show called "On My Mind." It's a song she wrote as an homage to Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian man who set himself on fire, an act that sparked what was called the Arab Spring.

EMEL MATHLOUTHI: What I see in the audiences, they feel in a way my music gives them some power, some hope, some strength because there aren't so many people who sing about freedom, about human beings, about society, about problems.

FADEL: Just after her set, Dina El Wedidi sits in the room where Umm Kalthum once sat backstage.

DINA EL WEDIDI: I was very excited before I go because it's a different energy backstage, you know.

FADEL: She says the efforts to open the theater and other venues are important because right now there is an explosion of new musicians with nowhere to play.

WEDIDI: We have, like, 200 or 300 bands independent and we move in three theaters. It's terrible. All of us have to support this festival because they're trying to open new places and old theaters.

FADEL: Beyond the venues, director Ahmed El Attar hopes to make this festival internationally famous.

ATTAR: Egypt is the heart of the Arab world, culturally and intellectually and artistically. There is a revival now and it's important that we believe in that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: Inside the theater, the Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi wows the crowd. By the end of the night, the audience is weeping as she sings songs about continuing the struggle for freedom. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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