INTERVIEW: A General at the Opera
Gihan Al-Gharabawi, Saturday 7 Dec 2019
From facing enemies on the battlefield to heading the Cairo Opera House, Samir Farag’s autobiography is unusually rich in remarkable stories, writes Gihan Al-Gharabawi


A Farewell to Arms, a film that retired Egyptian general Samir Farag watched as a young man, had a powerful effect on his life, to the extent that he chose the title as the title of his own autobiography. The book is no less enjoyable and engrossing than a film. It contains elements of passion, action, and music, and the reader can almost see the scenes of war, smell the gunpowder, and feel the tears.

Samir Farag began his career as an officer in the Egyptian Armed Forces, rising to the rank of major-general. He served during times of war and peace. The last military position he held was as head of the Army Moral Affairs Department, before going on to become director of the Cairo Opera House and then governor of Luxor, the home to many of the world’s most-distinguished ancient monuments. He now devotes himself to civilian work and writing.

His autobiography is written in the form of scenes that represent milestones in his life. He recalls that one week after he began his studies at the Royal Staff College in the UK, he was surprised to find his picture on the front page of the UK newspaper the Sunday Times and next to it the question, “why is Britain receiving an Egyptian officer as a student in Camberley, only for him to return to fight our allies the Israelis?”

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“I won’t deny that this made me rather nervous,” Farag said. “But the following day, the rector of the college called me into his office to reassure me. He said that this was not the view of the British government and that the UK was a democratic country that allowed freedom of speech and opinion. He told me not to pay any attention to the article.”

Two days later, the rector called him again into his office, where he found Edgar Allen, the editor of the BBC current affairs programme Panorama, which had high viewer ratings in the UK and Europe. Allen said he had read the Sunday Times story and wanted to have an episode of his programme on the October 1973 War. He said the segment would be two hours long. “I, a young Egyptian officer in his 20s, would be one of the guests. Another would be the Israeli general Ariel Sharon. We would engage in a debate, aired live,” Farag was told.

The second scene was when former Egyptian defence minister Mohamed Abdel-Ghani Al-Gamasy summoned Farag back to Egypt for a 10-day stint in which he would meet with a committee of military intelligence and operations experts to help him prepare answers to the questions in a way that would be clear and pitched to British viewers. As a student, Farag didn’t have the money to buy a formal suit to wear for the interview, so he borrowed one from a friend and classmate, Adnan, an officer from Kuwait.

He recalls that he went to the interview alone, and in front of the BBC he found a crowd waiting to see the two stars of the forthcoming show, Sharon and the young Egyptian officer. Just then, Sharon and his entourage appeared. Sharon’s supporters in the crowd shouted out encouragement, crying “crush him. Finish him off.”

“Then I stepped forward,” Farag said. “The crowd was surprised to see me on my own. Their shouts against me died instantly. As they say, to every cloud a silver lining.”

As the questions and answers proceeded on the programme itself, Farag explained how Egyptian forces had crossed the Suez Canal and broken through the Bar Lev Line, tangibly demonstrating Egyptian superiority over Israel on the ground in the field of combat. Sharon spoke of a “breech” in the line, and he was notably arrogant.

However, when he was asked what his greatest surprise in the war had been, he said that “we had anticipated everything that happened. The timing, the coordination, the closure of the Bab Al-Mandeb and the attack on Yom Kippur: none of that came as a surprise... The real surprise of the war was the Egyptian soldier: his high morale, his ferocity, his training, his educational level, his outstanding courage. He was a new type of soldier. We had never fought the likes of him before.”

Moving back to 1956 in his autobiography to the Suez Canal city of Port Said, Farag remembers the events of the Tripartite Aggression of the UK, France and Israel against Egypt. But he first describes with admiration his early years in the city’s European district, with its little foreign-owned cafés and restaurants.

“Port Said opened my eyes to beauty and joie de vivre. We had the latest styles in international fashion. The cinemas showed Italian films at the same time that they screened in Europe. The US consulate in Port Said offered a weekly movie night free-of-charge. In the intermission we’d have Greek sausage sandwiches and olives or pastrami and eggs. Port Said was famous for its well-stocked grocery stores. The Greek Club, the Italian Club, the Rowing Club, the Casino Palace — I recall these places as vividly today as if I had just seen them yesterday. My childhood in Port Said was pure Egyptian roots mixed with European culture,” he said.

But the scenes of the attack overshadow these memories. “I was just a child in 1956. From the balcony of our house in Port Said, I watched the British and French planes bomb us. I saw parachutes landing in the vicinity of the airport.” Suddenly bombs rained down on the beautiful city. Fires erupted everywhere. Buildings crumbled. The streets, which up to that moment had been pristine, filled with rivers of innocent blood.

Farag went out onto the streets with his father to make sure his grandmother was safe. “As we made our way through the streets, we heard patriotic songs. Buildings were ruined or burnt. Our dead soldiers lay in pools of blood in the street, their hands still gripping their guns. My father and I rushed back home to get as many blankets and sheets as we could. We didn’t have enough to cover them all.”

On 23 December 1956, the British and French forces withdrew from Port Said. “I will never forget that day. That was when I vowed to join the Egyptian Armed Forces and become a combat officer myself. I fulfilled that vow,” he said.

THE 1960S

Farag comments in his autobiography that he still “hates” the song Enta Omry (You are my Life) by the Egyptian singer Um Kolthoum, as it brings back bitter memories.

In the early 1960s during the Yemen War, he deployed his men on a mountain in Yemen in the dead of night. With the first rays of dawn, they came under attack by North Yemeni forces. They were surrounded with no food and only the water each soldier carried in his canteen. As the night fell, the wireless batteries began dying, and the winds were howling in the mountains. He turned on the small transistor radio he had bought in Sanaa, trying to locate any signal from Cairo. When he succeeded, he found a concert in which the famous diva was singing “You are my Life.”

“The song reminds me of those extremely cruel days. I was responsible for soldiers all of whom were older than me. I didn’t know what to do. I was 17 years and four months old. They had chosen me for command on the basis of my superior performance at the Military Academy. I’d seen tragic deaths during that period that I still find it too horrible to speak of.

“Our regiment started off with 130 soldiers. Only 25 survived. On our return to Egypt by boat, we were greeted by patriotic music at Port Suez. We were totally exhausted, but I recall what they were playing: the singer Abdel-Halim Hafez singing “Welcome back, dear ones/You’ve gone and come back safely/The journey of victory is a joy/ a mission all about glory”.

Another important scene in the autobiography is in Salloum on the border with Libya. Farag was on the balcony of his office, overlooking a splendid view of the hills above the Gulf of Salloum, when the then Egyptian defence minister called, asking him to do his best in handling Libyan leader colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s delegation which would be arriving the following day with a caravan of more than 70 vehicles. The defence minister reiterated then president Hosni Mubarak’s instructions not to let Gaddafi and his delegation get to Cairo because it would be too difficult to secure his movements there.

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“Due to the limited resources, we had to work from 9 in the evening to 9 in the morning the next day. Gaddafi crossed the Libyan border in a large tourist bus with another 70 vehicles sporting green flags. There was no order in the lines. It was chaotic, totally out of control. But we were ready for them,” Farag said. His deputy boarded Gaddafi’s bus and asked the colonel if he would do them the honour of riding in the parade vehicle that had been prepared for him so that he could salute the Egyptian soldiers who had come especially to welcome him.

Gaddafi got off the bus and into the open car. On either side, he found an escort of military police motorcades and before him stood a train of armoured vehicles of every sort.

“I’d managed to gather all those vehicles over night from every sector I could,” Farag said. “Gaddafi was bowled over by the sight. He passed along the road for six km, saluting the ranks on either side, until he reached my office. There I’d assembled more than 2,000 soldiers on either side carrying sheets of paper that we’d painted green the previous night. We would never have been able to get so many real Libyan flags at such short notice.”

“The plan to delay Gaddafi in Salloum was working perfectly. After he arrived at my office, I let him review, by himself, a guard of honour of some 300 soldiers. Then I invited him to breakfast, explaining how much Egyptians valued breaking bread together. We then proceeded to the exhibition rooms so he could review various projects. In order to make this last longer, I’d arranged to have plenty of maps to hand, and I dragged out the explanations for a full hour. I was certain he didn’t follow a word I said.”

When it was time for lunch. Farag asked the Libyan leader to give a speech on Arab nationalism.

“Afterwards the soldiers pelted him with questions about his memories of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and other questions that I’d prepared beforehand. At last, sunset came together with our rescuer, [the former foreign office official] Osama Al-Baz, who convinced the colonel that it was too dangerous to travel by night all the way to Cairo. The following day, he returned to Libya followed by the train of 70 vehicles of the delegation. The day after that, a trailer truck arrived to present me with a gift: a splendid Bedouin tent,” Farag said.

LUXOR TO THE OPERA

Luxor, the Upper Egyptian city where Farag spent seven years as governor, has a special place in his heart.

“It deserves a book on its own. In fact, I’ve already started it. It will be my third after Documents from my Life and Farewell to Arms. The title will be Seven Years in Thebes.

They were seven years of challenge and success, when Farag saw 84 projects to completion, the most important being the transfer of 3,200 families from on top of the 95 tombs of Old Gurna. This was the second largest transfer in Egypt after Nubia at the time of the construction of the Aswan High Dam under Nasser. “Naturally I encountered stiff resistance from the inhabitants of Old Gurna and other circles,” Farag said.

“Old Gurna had no facilities whatsoever: no electricity, no water, no wastewater removal, nothing. Some inhabitants used the pharaonic graves below their homes for wastewater disposal. Others used the tombs as a ‘tourist centre’ in order to reap some profits. The whole scene was a disgrace to Egypt and the Egyptian people.”

Farag was faced with a difficult task, and he brought on board prominent local elders such as Sheikh Mohamed Al-Tayeb from the west bank at Luxor and his brother Ahmed Al-Tayeb who was rector of Al-Azhar University in Cairo at the time. He also included local women leaders who worked to convince other women in the village of the advantages of housing with new facilities. He personally spoke to young people in Gurna about the advantages of a new village with a fully equipped hospital, modern schools, a police station, a consumer cooperative and proper football fields.

“We had everything already prepared, all the facilities on the ground, before we spoke to the people about moving. I received invaluable help from my colleagues in the ministries and other government agencies. Thanks to all of this, we completed the creation of New Gurna and the Al-Kabash Road, and Luxor became an open-air museum acclaimed by the European Union and the rest of the world,” Farag said.

Of his days as head of the Cairo Opera House. Farag remembers that his appointment was received with anger by some. “From day one, all I heard was what does a general know about the Opera. My appointment was greeted by outrage in the press, by artists and performers, and by the whole cultural milieu.”

But he refused to give in to rejection, and he spent his first four months studying everything to do with music, ballet, and the theatre. He set aside hours each day for this purpose, just as he had when he studied for a degree in media studies after he was appointed director of the Moral Department in the army.

“I’m a firm believer in the systematic acquisition of knowledge. In my student days in England I learned how to draw up a master plan for my studies. From my years of experience in the army and intelligence, I learned how leadership depends on a plan, on execution, and on follow-through. I knew that if I didn’t apply all this, I’d be an Opera House director who flies by the seat of his pants. And I don’t like to fly by the seat of my pants.”

Fortunately, this approach succeeded as Farag always came up with new ideas. “I fully appreciated that I was in a civilian post and that this worked by different rules than strict military life. But throughout my life, my strategy has been to take the initiative. When I believe in an idea, I push it and I work to make it succeed. My will power has never failed me. This was how I was raised. I will never forget my mother’s words: ‘be serious at work. Strive not to do well, but to excel.’ She was a tough school mistress and a loving mother.”

The Cairo Opera House brings Farag to one of his favourite Um Kolthoum songs, “Why did you Renew your Love” by Ahmed Rami. He heard the song long ago, and it makes memories pass before his eyes, including his graduation from Camberley, his meeting with former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the joyful images of his wedding with Samira Shaqwir, and scenes from the US where he worked long hours as a member of the Egyptian military delegation preparing files related to the Camp David Accords and the Peace Treaty with Israel.

He can still hear Um Kolthoum’s voice, as though it were the soundtrack for his own stream of memories. “Why did you renew your love/After the heart found ease/How dare you. How dare you,” it says.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition ofAl-Ahram Weekly.

http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/357091.aspx