“The visit of Field Marshal [Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi to Moscow and the reportedly good rapport he had with [Russian] President Vladimir Putin could help start a new momentum, but it would take much more for relations between Egypt and Russia to restore their strength, and the key issue is not just economic cooperation but also cultural rapport,” said Mona Khalil, director of a Moscow-based Egyptian-Russian cultural business.
Herself an Egyptian-Russian, Khalil is the daughter of Tatina Bougdanova, a founding member of the Russian Service at Radio Cairo, and Abdel-Malik Khalil, the late long-time director of Al-Ahram's Moscow bureau that was established towards the end of the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser that witnessed the heydays of Egyptian-Russian relations.
Khalil said she is one of many of the "halfs" who were born mostly to Egyptian men who pursued higher education in the 1950s and 1960s Soviet Union and came back married to Soviet colleagues they met during their academic years.
“Of course it all ended with the early 1970s, when [late President Anwar] Sadat interrupted the otherwise powerful ties and chose to turn West,” Khalil said.
Since this time, Khalil argues, Egypt saw the Soviet Union become Russia through the lens of Western media. With the fall of the Soviet Union, “Russians too opted for this Western lens,” she adds.
“Now it would take more than a visit or two, or many visits, for the two peoples to stop seeing one another through this Western lens,” Khalil suggests.
Return to past glory unlikely
The visit of El-Sisi to Moscow earlier in the month, Khalil said, could well start military cooperation and might eventually — with the expected exchange of visits — open the door to relatively intense economic cooperation, “although I don’t think we are at all talking about anything near what we saw during the 1960s, because the world has changed and the priorities of both Cairo and Moscow have altered a great deal.”
What really counts, in the assessment of Khalil, who grew up moving between the two capitals since her birth in 1973, is cultural cooperation. This is, she said, what brings nations closer.
Herself active in this cultural cooperation, through a small business, Khalil is only too aware of the challenges facing close cultural rapport. “The fact of the matter is that despite the expected good influence of the large volume of Russian tourism to Egypt, we have for the most part seen exactly the opposite, with unfortunate accounts from Russian tourists in Egypt,” she stated.
Although tourism keeps coming from Russia to the sunny Red Sea beaches of Egypt, Khalil argues, apprehension on the Russian side should be addressed through firmer regulations on “all those who deal with tourists, to avoid the unfortunate incidents that get predictably picked up by the media and cause serious image damage.”
“When we published our first translations of Egyptian literature and tried to promote them we were not met with a positive reaction. It took us a while, but once the first copies got sold, and the Russians got to read the quality of literature, demand was considerable,” Khalil said.
The new Russians
Since it was founded in the early 2000s, Khalil’s Centre for Humanitarian Cooperation has translated Naguib Mahfouz, Alaa Al-Alswani, Milad Hannah and Gurigui Zidan into Russian.
“It has been a limited selection, but I can safely say that every time the reaction was at least comforting, and at times really overwhlelming,” said Khalil. She added: “When we translated The Yaccoubian Building of Alaa Al-Aswani, people consumed it with passion and I got a call from Zkhar Prilepin, a prominent Russian modern novelist, who told me that when he read the Russian translation of Yaccoubian “in one night” he felt that we are exactly the same people living in exactly the same country.”
Khalil said that her centre is “the first in close to 30 years to put Egyptian literature” to the reading hands of Russians, “who are, by the way, and despite the perception otherwise in Egypt, not the old Soviet readers, because the Soviet Union is no longer there. We in Egypt need to stop thinking of Russia in terms of the Soviet Union. That would certainly help efforts designed to strengthen relations.”
“We have to make sure that we are not just translating the best selling titles in Egypt, or even elsewhere in the world; we need to be sensitive to the particular taste of the Russian reader, who currently has a very capitalist-Western perception of things but who, also, has been brought up to read the great works of legendary Soviet literary names,” Khalil said. She added that another challenge is to find the right translator, because “across the long history of Soviet-Egyptian relations, there has been quite a reservoir of translators. But of those there are only very few who could actually produce good literary translation.”
Khalil is hoping that some of the “many” students who are studying Arabic in the big universities of Russia and those “considerable number” of Egyptian students who are showing interest to learn Russian in Egyptian universities “would have the interest and take the time to work on perfecting literary translation skills."
“It is the best bridge between any two nations — the translation of literature and other forms of cultural cooperation,” Khalil argued.
Khalil is not expecting any great comeback of the high of cultural cooperation between Cairo and Moscow as was during the years of the Soviet Union, when Soviet music and ballet performances were sent “at the expense of the government to promote the country and its culture,” or when the Soviet government subsidised the translation of its literary gems to be sold in countries like Egypt at an inexpensive price.
“Neither Russia nor Egypt is in a situation, or at all interested, to subdise cultural activities — neither translation nor otherwise. It would have to be essentially the private sector now, and as such it would go at a relatively slow pace,” Khalil said.
Currently, Khalil’s centre is working on the translation of Being Abbas El-Abd that came out three years ago, and on publishing long extracts of the writing of a Russian blogger who lived and worked in Cairo some five years ago.
“We are also working on translating, into Arabic this time, extracts of the memoires of an Arabist who lived and worked in Egypt for the KGB during the 1950s and 1960s and who shares lots of accounts on cooperation between the Egyptian and Soviet intelligence. I think this would be quite popular,” Khalil said.
Preparations are also underway for a cultural festival to be held in Cairo and Alexandria, where Russian films would be screened, pictures of Russian photographers of Egypt would be displayed, and Russian poetry would be recited by Egyptian students of the Russian language. The event would also see the screening of two Russian-produced films directed by two Egyptian film directors.
This would be the fourth cultural event that Khalil’s centre has organized, and the second in Egypt. “We are targeting the last week of April,” Khalil said. She added: “We are working on it in cooperation with the Egyptian Independent Arts Foundation and with Shababik Cultural Centre. We hope it would be as successful as the previous three events were."
Khalil is convinced that there is a considerable space for Egyptian-Russian cooperation, especially in terms of translated books.
“We still see the classics of Russian literature being sold in its Arabic, English and French translations in Egypt, and we keep getting demand to translate modern Russian literary production, and we are also growing a bigger market for Russian translation of Egyptian literature. There are considerable avenues there,” Khalil stated.