Verdi's Aida and its Role in the Egyptian Revolution

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Cairo's Tahrir Square, Egypt, Nov 22, 2011. People were dead and injured because of tear gas, rubber bullets of riot police.

It might distress Giuseppe Verdi, the great Italian patriot and nationalist, that Egypt's history of European occupation is in partly the fault of his wonderful opera, Aida.

Verdi understood the frustration of nationalist aspirations being thwarted having lived a good portion of his life under the heavy yoke of the Austrian Hapsburgs: Several of his operas were thinly veiled pleas for liberty. With tongue firmly embedded in cheek, I will attempt to make a case for Verdi's unwitting culpability in Egypt’s sorry history of occupation, colonialism and thwarted nationalism that has led to the inexorable people’s revolution that seemed so promising in 2011 but which lumbers on ignominiously in 2013.

It is not the content of Verdi's opera that is at fault. Aida certainly glorifies Egypt in a very stirring second act. But the opera smacks of European imperialism. There is nothing remotely Egyptian in the creation of the opera. It was commissioned in 1868 by a Turkish Albanian potentate, conceived of by a Frenchman, composed by an Italian, and produced by a Greek. But I have to admit that none of these facts diminishes a proud American Egyptian’s zeal every time another Aida is trotted out, whether in Rome’s baths of Caracalla, or at the Metropolitan Opera.

It is the circumstances surrounding Verdi's composition of Aida that I accuse of bringing the European conquerors into Egypt after we'd already been under the thumb of variously the Hyxos, Ethiopians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mamlouks and the Ottoman Turks over thousands of years. To see just how it all happened we need to look at the opera in the context of modern Egyptian history.

Napoleon Sets the Stage

It begins with Napoleon's arrival in Egypt in 1798 at the age of 29 with 300 ships, 40,000 soldiers and 100 savants, or learned men, expert in the scientific and cultural disciplines of the day. Napoleon modeled himself on his hero, Alexander the Great and was determined to conquer the same ancient lands that had captured the Macedonian’s imagination. He also hoped to compete with Britain’s hold on India by digging a canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean that would open up the east to the rest of the world.

But Napoleon’s cartographer, Jacques Marie LePere miscalculated the heights of the Red Sea and the Mediterranean by 33 feet and Napoleon had to abandon his dream of building “the ditch." Eventually, having little to show for his Egyptian adventure, Napoleon hastened to Paris to shore up his political aspirations and check the philandering of his wife, Josephine.

But Napoleon had irrevocably opened Egypt to the west.

The ruler who followed Napoleon was Mohammad Ali (right), the first in a dynasty the ended with King Farouk in 1952. Ali was an illiterate Albanian tobacco merchant who ruled Egypt for 44 years and oversaw the rediscovery of his kingdom by the rest of the world. Samuel Briggs, a merchant and banker, took Ali's long staple cotton to the mills of Lancashire in 1821 and Egypt became rich overnight.

The town of Alexandria became a Gold Rush city invaded by Greeks, Maltese, Syrians and Europeans out to make a fast piastre. By the time Ali’s unprepossessing son, Said Pasha came to power, foreigners had permanently entrenched themselves in Egypt. Said had known one Ferdinand De Lesseps the French vice-consul in Cairo. De Lesseps was convinced a canal could be dug and was able to prove it with new calculations. Said Pasha gave his consent to the building of a canal and provided compulsory unpaid Egyptian labor under the whip, or "corvee" which took a hideous toll in Egyptian lives. Work was begun in 1858 and was finished 11 years later. Said Pasha did not live to see the completion of the Canal.

To his credit, one of the first things that Said's successor, the young Khedive (viceroy) Ismail, did when he came to power in 1863 was to buy out the contract for the corvee labor at great coast, thereby beginning his enormous debt to the European bankers.

Ismail desperately wanted the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 to be a show of royal splendor, attended preferably by all the crowned heads of Europe. He dreamt of "Paris on the Nile." He spared no expenses and he could afford not to. The federal blockade of the southern ports in the United States during the Civil war had forced the mills of England to abandon Dixie in favor of Egypt. Ismail’s lavish plans included the commissioning of an opera on an Egyptian theme preferably by Giuseppe Verdi. If Verdi refused, then Gounod or Wagner would do. Verdi was offered a tantalizing libretto probably penned by the journalist turned Egyptologist, August Mariette. Negotiations with Verdi went on while Ismail made ready to play host to the world.

The irony is, that the opening of the Suez Canal went on without a new opera, because Europe was mired in the Franco Prussian war and no sets or costumes could be transported across the Mediterranean. Ismail had to settle for a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto at the brand new opera house he had built for the occasion. It was the Arabian Nights atmosphere that he had hoped for, culminating in a parade of 67 ships sailing up the Suez canal. Overwhelmed by the sight, the visiting French Empress Eugenie (wife of Napoleon III) wrote: "The spectacle was so supremely magnificent, and proclaimed so proudly the greatness of the French Regime!!!" The French regime of her husband would fall the very next year and she would be remembered as France's last empress.

Also, a year later, the Khedive got to stage the premiere of his Egypt themed opera, Aida. Ismail (below, right) desperately sought to entice Verdi to attend the opening in Cairo, but the maestro refused stating that he feared being mummified.

A Costly Aida and European Incursion

The Khedive had spent an enormous fortune in the course of his reign, most especially on the opening of the canal and on the opera and soon, was bankrupt. In order to attempt to settle his debts to the European bankers, Ismail was in effect, forced to sell the Suez Canal to the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli who bought it with money borrowed from the House of Rothschild. History and economic politics conspired to bring the European takeover of Egypt and Aida played her part by adding to the debt that Ismail could never hope to repay. I should state, however, that once the invaluable canal was built, Europe's takeover of Egypt was inevitable. Egypt's debt to Europe was merely an excuse.

Egypt captured the European imagination and became a favorite travel destination and a great source of exotic inspiration. Gustave Flaubert wrote an erotic memoir of his trip to Egypt in the company of Maxime du Camp to photograph the country. Victor Hugo wrote Les Orientales, and Theophile Gauthier and Gerard de Nerval wrote splendidly exotic orientalist pieces. Artists like Eugene de la Croix painted their idea of sensual eastern women.

Tubercular Brits escaped terrible English weather and took up residence in Egypt. Things Egyptian became the rage. Sphinxes held up half the furniture in Europe. After Ismail's spendthrift rule, Egypt was put under Anglo-French control and a Caisse de la dette ran the country's finances. The Khedive Ismail was banished to Constantinople. A succession of English consuls ruled Egypt until 1936. The most notorious of these was Sir Evelyn Bearing, known as "Over Bearing." He effectively ruled Egypt for 25 years using the old British maxim: "Divide and rule.” His established stability and discouraged education and social reforms.  

Nationalist movements led by the likes of Gamal el din el Afghani in 1881 and Orabi pasha were quashed. Between 1882 and 1907, the British made 122 pledges to evacuate Egypt even while they continued to entrench themselves in every facet of the country’s existence. A pamphlet to new recruits stated that "British occupation of Egypt may be properly characterized as a friendly occupation by mutual consent." By the outbreak of World War I, Egypt was declared a protectorate.

Enter Saad Zaghloul, a lawyer who distinguished himself as a judge, minister of education, and justice who is the hero of Egypt’s nationalist movement. After the war, his party, the Wafd, or delegation, presented itself at the Versailles peace conference where Clemenceau and Woodrow Wilson and others were carving up the world, to try to end the protectorate. Though nothing was gained, nationalist fervor infected an Egypt that had cleaved to Wilson’s notion of self determination. The rebellion of 1919 saw Egyptians of every stamp fighting the British.

Between the wars, Egypt saw a rise of various anti-imperialist factions. Among them, the Communists and the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by Hassan el Banna, a Muslim scholar and teacher. The Brotherhood advocated a society based on the teachings in the Koran, the Muslim holy book. It was a Pan-Islamic movement that was political and social as well. It became the political opposition force in Egypt even though it was only legalized in 2011 during the Revolution.

Political Waves

In 1952 the so-called Free Officers under Mohammad Naguib, Gamal Abd el Nasser and Anwar el Sadat, among others, mounted a coup which ended the Mohammad Ali Dynasty's nominal rule in Egypt, and England's virtual rule, forever. Now the stakes were higher—this was not just a revolution of the elite, it was joined by the laborers or fellahin, the workers, the trade unions and students.

The Egypt the Free Officers inherited was an Egypt that was suffering from a vast array of ills. The majority of Egyptians lived in poverty. Illiteracy was close to 100 percent. Overpopulation had begun to become the problem that it is today with better health facilities reducing the mortality rate.  The infrastructure established by the British had long ago been outstripped by the ever increasing population. Corruption was high. Tragically, these conditions persist to this day in varying degrees.  

An inexperienced army replaced an elite group that had run Egypt’s industries and agrarian system. The army controlled everything right through the Sadat and the Mubarak regimes and it’s not about to give anything up now. After the Sadat years, a new, increasingly more stringent iron hand emerged – that of Hosni Mubarak.

France’s revolution was fomented by Rousseau, Voltaire, Danton, Marat and others. Egypt’s revolution was fomented by Facebook. The drama continues to unfold as we read each day.

I forgive Verdi and his opera. They may have added to the Khedive Ismail's enormous bill owed to the Europeans which led to Europe’s domination of Egypt. But I have to admit that we are all the richer for that glorious music. And so I too will happily celebrate Verdi’s 200th birthday and salute the great maestro, Giuseppe Verdi.

Photo, above right: Liudmyla Monastyrska as the title character and Olga Borodina as Amneris in 'Aida' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)