A city's character is often shaped by its culture. When the world thinks of Cairo, it thinks of majestic pyramids or, thanks to recent uprisings, a violent and disorganised mess. Day in, day out the news remains the same.... bad or super bad. And as uncertainty drags on, Egypt's character diminishes and the only ones who remain that can save it, are the vary same who once made it so special to begin with; Artists.

Giving these artists the much needed platform to change Cairo's image is the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, or better known to Cairenes as D-CAF. Despite being days away from the launching the 3rd edition of D-CAF, Ahmed Attar, the festival founder and creative director, took the time out of his hectic schedule to tell me all about D-CAF's development in turbulent times. Anyone who appreciates the arts in Egypt should know the name Ahmed El Attar. This independent Egyptian theatre director and playwright has won several awards and is internationally recognised as a big player in the world of Arab art. Always creating, Attar selflessly shifted the focus from his own work to actualise the dream of creating a massive platform for the arts to flourish in Egypt.

D-CAF was launched in March 2012, and has become a beacon of hope for artists both locally and internationally. What resulted from the efforts of a devoted team of five in an apartment, has now ballooned into a team of 30 in a sprawling office, dedicated to bringing three weeks of provocative theatre, dance, visual arts and music. Explaining the development Attar believes “that this year will be the coming of age of the festival. We have learned many lessons, and have developed and created a reputation that attracts artists from all over. Being able to programme high calibre acts has helped D-CAF find its identity.” This identity Attar refers to is being the be all end all of all things contemporary in Egypt, pushing boundaries and breaking new grounds in a country still developing its voice.

To my surprise D-CAF's inception wasn't a result of the revolutionary wave of art that swept the country, but was in fact planned for in 2011. “The first edition of D-CAF was originally set for April 2011, but for obvious reasons was postponed,” explains Attar. I had always believed that the revolution was more of an artistic one rather than a political one, but Attar informs me that “what people forget is that the arts were flourishing from before the revolution. The arts scene began as a response to the corruption in the late 80s; this reaction explains why, contrary to everything else happening in the country, the alternative scene is booming.”

What is baffling about D-CAF is the slow recognition from Egyptian ministries in realising its potential to help achieve the state's goal. Both the tourism and culture ministry are trying just about everything, including drinking tap water, to attract tourists back and rebuild country's economy. What better way to do this then to help an international festival blossom? Ensuring its growth and safety will do more than any Travel to Egypt ad could do. Thankfully, the ministries are slowly understanding D-CAF's importance as Attar explains that “The first year the Ministry of Culture gave us 4000 Euros, the second year we got nothing, and this year the Ministry of Tourism is giving us 8000$.” Obviously any support is welcomed, but what has been offered is simply a drop in a bucket.

Most of the funding of the festival comes from various embassies, cultural centres, and international grants. As for support from the private sector, Attar explains that “The private sector are completely oblivious and are living in the 70s , they don't seem to understand it is all about branding and image. They are still stuck making TV ads, forgetting the power of social media and connecting their brands with an image or identity.”

With every passing year the audience continues to grow, thanks to the effective guerrilla style programming of the likes of Urban Visions, a contemporary dance troupe that perform in public spaces, invading the streets and bridging the gap between audience and the general unaware public. By taking contemporary art to the streets, the masses are left to stand face to face with it, helping those new to the scene to come to a better understanding and ultimately a growing appreciation for the contemporary forms.

With his 20 years of experience in various roles in the arts, I felt like I was privy to a wealth of knowledge about development of arts in Egypt. Interestingly, Attar points out that “90% of the staff are women and working at D-CAF is empowering. From my experience, men in Egypt are spoiled brats who think they own the world and they feel that they don't need to put the effort to take things further. Women don't have it easy and take on the role to prove themselves by working efficiently.” It is a labour of love, but one shared by those who work tirelessly behind the scenes to make Egypt that much better. That is exactly what D-CAF is doing, and although all three weeks are packed with a plethora of amazing performances, I was finally able to pressure Attar to single out a few acts that he is most excited about. I initially expected that he would take the opportunity to push his own latest piece, The Last Supper that will be showcased at this year's festival, but instead Attar humbly admitted that the “two things that stand out this year are Hassan Khan, a young internationally recognised artist, who will put on our biggest exhibition to date with his eclectic multimedia art being shipped in from all over. The other thing I am super excited for is the Middle East Focus, which has invited festival curators from all of the world to see the best theatre productions available in the region in the same place over the span of three days.”

D-CAF officially starts today and will run until April 11th flooding Cairo with scores of opportunities to catch unique music, never before seen art and thought provoking theatre and dance. With the mix of various free shows, and the very affordable pricing for ticket events, there is really no reason not to take it all in. In a city that has become accustomed to dark days, D-CAF has proven there is light at the end of the tunnel and it's getting brighter, warmer, and more contemporary.

Check out all D-CAF events on our Calendar.