Egypt invests in some pyramid selling




Will the success of ‘Aida’ entice the tourists back?

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 31 October 1998

Madame Mervat was shivering in her cocktail chiffon as she shuffled through the sand to the VIP seats, her jewels sparkling in the floodlights. It was an evening to see and be seen, to sit only as the house lights dimmed, to ensure that everybody knew you were there.

The cold wind whistling in from the Sahara was not going to deter Egypt’s elite as they gathered for yet another outdoor staging of Aida, Guiseppe Verdi’s Nile-side melodrama, this time at the Giza pyramids on the edge of Cairo.

“Not again,” some Egyptians have been saying. “Can’t they think of another opera to stage?” Certainly not. Aida has been claimed by Egypt as part of its cultural tapestry, so Wagner or Mozart simply will not do.

Aida was really a colonial trick Verdi played on Egypt. The visual spectacle, the occasional “oriental” feel to the music and the typically silly operatic yarn leapt over the realities of modern Egypt and allowed the then imperial elite and its Egyptian satraps to dwell gloriously on the imagined pharaonic past.

“The reason everybody loves Aida is perhaps because it is just a fantasy. We don’t know if that was what life was really like under the pharaohs,” says Mustafa Nagui, chairman of the Cairo Opera House, and the driving force behind this and two previous open-air productions which were held in Luxor.

“The story of Aida doesn’t interest me at all. What matters is that it is a spectacular show that has a relationship with Egypt,” he says; the opera was commissioned by Khedive Ismail to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

But he does not claim that it reflects Egyptian sensibilities: “From a European perspective, the opera is about emotions. Love is victorious,” says Nagui. “From our point of view, the hero should not have loved Aida. He should have made his work and duty conquer his love.”

So what was Egypt’s purpose in staging a spectacular production of an opera which is culturally divorced from the realities of both ancient and modern Egypt, but which, for 130 years, the country’s elite has felt the need to cling to as one of its cultural icons?

Big gestures have long been a part of Egypt’s way of doing things. The vast pyramids, the spectacular Aswan High Dam, the current construction of a new canal to bring water to the south-western desert – these are immense projects. And Aida was just the same.

“The evidence of modern Egypt in this production lies in the simple fact that we were able to stage it,” Nagui says. “It’s a production that nobody else can do, because we have the civilisation. Aida belongs to us because we have the pyramids at which to stage it.”

Underlying it all, however, is a bullish attempt to remind Egypt’s extremists of just who runs the country. It is a highly significant gesture to host 3,000 people for each performance – among them lesser European royals, cabinet ministers, fading rock stars and the permatan glitterati – and have them spend an evening in the desert of a country where less than a year ago Islamic militants shot 58 foreign tourists in cold blood.

Amid the chiffon and pearls, the desert crawled with police and security officers, soldiers and surveillance squads. Every member of the audience, apart from the politicians, was frisked and scanned, handbags were searched and mobile telephones banned.

The real message to the lunatic fringe was to be seen on stage. Braving the cold desert night, scores of semi-nude men swooped and soared in a glaring display of immodesty. They seemed to be telling Islamic extremists that not only could Egypt stage a major open-air event but that they could do it with their clothes off. It was a barefaced rebuke to the regime’s enemies.

But was Aida written for this purpose? Moreover, is the Egyptian government’s lavish staging of it anything more than a publicity stunt?

The question is a serious one, if the low-level battle between the Egyptian government and the Islamists is seen in its proper historical context. Islamic militancy was born in the early part of this century, precisely in response to the cultural onslaught to which European colonialism had subjected countries such as Egypt, and of which Aida was an important part.

The leading ideologues of the modern Islamist movement were all either Egyptian or lived in Egypt, and to this day regard the pre-Islamic period, upon which Aida supposedly draws, as a heathen age. They are disdainful of the European “orientalist” representation of the Arab world, which stresses the romance but ignores the social reality.

“The message in the opera is that there’s no conflict between civilisations and religions,” says Mustafa Nagui. “When you see Aida, and you see people worshipping the sun and Ra, the message is that you can worship whoever you want. I am a very religious Moslem. But I understand how to be cultured. You must open your mind to everything before you choose what to believe.”

The cultural, political and occasionally military conflicts between Egypt’s successive regimes since independence in 1952, and the Islamist organisations, have been battles for the soul of the country as much as over political power.

So who won in this latest skirmish for the soul of one of the oldest civilisations on earth? Was it the regime, which staged the show for six nights without a hitch? Was it the Islamists, who succeeded in reminding everyone, through the indignity of the security checks, that all is not well. Or was culture the victor?

The spectacle cost $3m to stage, which the government hopes to recoup from film rights, etc, within a year, but at E£250 a ticket, or the equivalent of two weeks’ salary for the average Cairene, the production was out of reach for all but a few.

As the elite clapped, called for more and then headed for their waiting Mercedes, a further “real purpose” emerged. “I want to promote tourism,”  said Nagui. “To promote tourism you have to give a feeling of security.  If there was terrorism in Egypt, I would not have been able to stage such an event.”

The lights and music were being used to repeat Verdi’s trick – creating a fantasy of their own.


© Financial Times