INTERVIEW: Ines Abdel-Dayem returns to the Cairo Opera more dynamic than ever

Ati Metwaly, Wednesday 31 Jul 2013

In May, Ines Abdel-Dayem was fired from the Cairo Opera's chair; in July she was offered ministerial post which she turned down. Today, reinstated to the opera, she shares her thoughts about past months and reveals dynamic plans

Ines Abdel-Dayem (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

Ines Abdel-Dayem is one of the best-known figures in Egypt's cultural scene. She graduated from the flute department of the Cairo Conservatory and continued her studies in France, where she obtained a PhD from the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. She has held a number of leading positions in Egypt: in 2003, she was appointed director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra; in 2005, she became dean of the Cairo Conservatoire and soon after that the vice-president of the Academy of Arts.

In February 2012, Abdel-Dayem was appointed chairperson of the Cairo Opera House (the National Cultural Centre, part of the Ministry of Culture), replacing the late Abdel-Moneim Kamel.

During her tenure, she opened up the opera halls to many Egyptian artists, bringing in the independent scene, and invited the foreign embassies and cultural centres to hold their performances within the opera walls. Though one longed for international troupes and orchestras and missed the few lavish performances that took place regularly under Kamel, Abdel-Dayem's policies seemed to infuse the Opera halls with energy despite the budget limitations that followed the 2011 Revolution.

Abdel-Dayem's tenure at the Cairo Opera House was abruptly terminated on 28 May 2013 by former culture minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz.

According to Abdel-Dayem, Abdel-Aziz did not provide any clear explanation for her dismissal. However his decision was part of a series of sackings in the cultural establishment which led to strikes, protests and resignations by key figures.

Abdel-Aziz also dismissed Ahmed Megahed, the head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, and Salah El-Meligui, the head of the Fine Arts Sector, before firing Abdel-Dayem. Yet it was probably the attack on the Cairo Opera House, widely seen as the home and symbol of Egypt's national identity for a century and a half, that was the last straw. The cultural scene exploded in particularly strong protests.

"The Opera was obviously a major red line, an important element that fuelled the general discontent of artists and angered all Egyptians against the attack on Egypt’s identity," Abdel-Dayem says. "The strong opposition of so many Egyptians to the changes taking place during Abdel-Aziz's weeks in office was truly remarkable. As artists, we have all realised how people from many social strata are well informed and aware if what arts and culture mean to their lives and what role they play in the country."

The 30 June protests eventually led to the former president Mohammed Morsi being deposed, and the cabinet was shuffled yet again. On 14 July, the new Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi offered Abdel-Dayem the post of culture minister. Though preliminarily she accepted, on 16 July, the day when the new cabinet was to be sworn in, news of Abdel-Dayem withdrawing her acceptance of the ministerial post – and Mohamed Saber Arab returning to the ministry – spread like wildfire.

A day later, Abdel-Dayem returned to the chair of the Cairo Opera House. Official and social media speculated about the reason for this. One explanation (given by a member of the advertising department of the Cairo Opera House, speaking on condition of anonymity) was that Abdel-Dayem is emotionally tied to the Opera and would never leave it.

"Of course, the Cairo Opera House plays a very important role in my life," Abdel-Dayem says, smiling. "However we need to put everything in the right perspective. I was offered the ministerial chair under specific circumstances. Many artists and intellectuals insisted that I should accept it. I was convinced that it was the right decision. But of course, on the other hand, in the end I am very happy to return to the Opera."

There were observers who suggested that Abdel-Dayem was forced to withdraw her acceptance of the ministerial chair when the Administrative Control Authority (ACA), which manages charges of corruption in government bodies, expressed concerns regarding her nomination.

"Such arguments are only a continuation of a series of attacks that I and many other artists have been subjected to over the last two months," Abdel-Dayem responds. "And let's not forget that if ACA had any issues related to my nomination, I don’t think I would be able to return to the Cairo Opera or to any other managerial post. This is nonsense."

And news of Abdel-Dayem withdrawing her acceptance of the post began to circulate in the afternoon of 15 July, several hours before she officially confirmed it. "I saw such news published in the evening and I immediately took action against it. But I could sense that something was not right," Abdel Dayem recalls.

"It was the next morning, on 16 July, a few hours before being sworn in, that I received a phone call explaining that there was opposition to my appointment from one party and that resolving this problem would be a long and complicated issue. Under such circumstances, I immediately understood that it was better to just step back to let the whole cabinet take shape as fast as possible."

Abdel-Dayem reveals that it was later that she understood that the party in question was Al-Nour, the ultra-conservative, Salafist party. Abdel-Dayem says such pressures were exerted not only on her but also the whole political scene.

"I understand the basis of any possible opposition towards me in particular. Some figures in Egyptian politics, like representatives of Al-Nour Party, do not like the fact that I am a woman, an artist and above someone who promotes dance and music. And let's not forget that throughout my one year and a half of management of the Cairo Opera House, I never accepted any interference from any conservative religious ideologies into the choice of programming and its presentation and of course I am not planning to change my strategies in this regard."

Though for Abdel-Dayem the ministerial chair was definitely a fascinating opportunity, she doesn’t feel discouraged. "It is an extremely challenging moment. Not only does Saber Arab have to keep pushing the wheel through those difficult times, he also needs to fix all the decisions taken by Alaa Abdel-Aziz over his two month term at the ministry. I am completely at peace with the way that things turned out, including the fact that Arab was reappointed to the ministry."

Abdel-Aziz not only attempted to "Brotherhoodize" culture, as artists and intellectuals have been putting it, he also created a considerable imbalance in many cultural institutions. Under the brief tenure of Badr El-Zakaziky (who replaced Abdel-Dayem), the Cairo Opera House sketched a Ramadan programme – much smaller than usual – which was suspended on Abdel-Dayem's return.

"There is a sense of security vacuum in the country, with all the protests and lives lost on an almost daily basis. We must not forget the audience's priority may not be the Ramadan programme at the Opera, especially when that programme in question does not provide interesting, new or artistically pertinent evenings," Abdel-Dayem explains.

It is obvious that Abdel-Dayem has returned to the Cairo Opera full of optimism and energy.

"I learnt a lot in the past two months. In fact I consider this period one of the most important experiences of my life. The protests, the weeks-long sit-in at the ministry, performances staged outside the headquarters every evening... There was great contact with the people, not only those directly involved in the arts scene or art lovers. We found regular people on the street interested in music and art. This will definitely be one of the crucial lessons that I have to take into consideration when looking at the role of the Cairo Opera House in society. Today we have to start thinking about how to reach out to all social strata and all generations."

Abdel-Dayem reveals that this season the Cairo Opera House will welcome even more local talent. "Any artist doing something valuable will find the Cairo Opera doors open. We are here to support all talents that might have nowhere else in the country."

Abdel-Dayem stressed the fact that Egypt is going through major historical changes to which artists and intellectuals must respond as well as contribute. "We have to face the changes and it is our role to use all the tools we have to support Egypt on its path to social and political self-realisation."

Abdel-Dayem will not limit her work to the stages operating under the Cairo Opera House umbrella in Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour. She aims to go beyond that and develop strategies for introducing the arts to new locations all across the governorates. This should require no significant budget increase compared to the previous season, she says.

In the meanwhile, the companies operating under the Opera are now finalising their yearly programme which will soon be available. Abdel-Dayem insists that she does not interfere in the details of the programming. Her role is restricted to setting the general guidelines and making sure the vision of each company is aligned with the mission of the Opera in today's Egypt.

The upcoming season is in fact filled with opportunities for hitting several targets at once.

"While working on outreach, we cannot forget that we have to be involved artistically in the country's great history unfolding before our eyes. We are going through a series of great events. As artists, we translate all those events and notions for our audience and the world," Abdel-Dayem explains, commenting on plans for the new season.

On the other hand this year marks the silver jubilee of the New Cairo Opera House (inaugurated in 1988), an occasion Abdel-Dayem aims to celebrate with several events.

"We have been discussing the 25th anniversary since last March. Now we are returning to making arrangements and I have no doubt that, for the upcoming season, the Cairo Opera House will offer a very special programme."

While setting the outlines of the next season, Abdel-Dayem is optimistic as ever. The past two months gave her proof that Egyptian culture will always remain strong and no religious or political influence can undermine its resilience.

"No doubt, there were days that one was worried. But we could always 'recharge the batteries' by going to the ministry of culture where the sit-in was staged, by attending or participating in the artistic events held there to hundreds-strong audiences every single night. There was an amazing spirit and shared confidence with people from all walks of life, from children and the young to elderly people," Abdel-Dayem looks back at the weeks before to the removal of Mohammed Morsi from power and the role of the artists in the buildup to 30 June.

"On a personal level, I discovered that so many people were ready to dedicate themselves totally to defending the cause they believed in. We were not sure what the shape of the political scene after 30 June will be and I have a special respect for all those who chose to stand up for Egypt's culture even when it could have jeopardised their careers, had events taken a different turn. But as we can all see today – after 30 June – artists and intellectuals, as well as all Egyptians defending their country's identity, are victorious. Now we need to ensure that we should go on enriching our great culture."

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