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The Phantom of the opera
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 10 - 2013

I started working in the photography department of Al-Ahram over 30 years ago. A year after I started one of my colleagues advised me to choose a field in which to specialise. Abdel-Aziz Al-Nimr, for example, specialised in photographing police stations, while Tony Faris focussed on football matches, etc. It was not sincere advice. What my colleague failed to mention was that Faris ended up with football matches because others were off on Fridays, when they took place, and that Al-Nimr had connections with the police and facilitated all the other photographers' car licence renewals and ticket clearances. I was inclined towards photographing monuments, and that was what my adviser too wanted to do.
I decided to specialise in ballet — and monuments. I went to the Ballet Institute with the reporter Samir Shehata, who introduced me to the dean Magda Salah, who was very encouraging and told me frankly that there was no one in Egypt able to photograph ballet in the right way. She was keen on me succeeding. I asked her for two dancers and a stage; she gave me the lead female and male dancers Manal Zakaria and Hani Azmi as well as a theatre and, having not prepared, I was at a loss. I had a treasure before me but I didn't know what to do with it. I asked the two dancers to pose in formation, they stood thus for an hour, then I thanked them and left.
I couldn't have anticipated that, 30 years later, I would be hosted by lead dancer Sahar Helmi, the presenter of the show The Art of Ballet, and introduced as the only photographer of the opera arts for many years. She would also mention that she and her colleagues used to listen hard for the click of the camera while performing on stage. I couldn't have anticipated that Walid Aouni, the founder of the Opera's Modern Dance Company, who arrived in Egypt as assistant to Maurice Béjart, the Sufi mystic and dance legend, would write in the brochure of the first collective exhibition of Opera photography, “Sherif Sonbol is the godfather of ballet photography in Egypt.” I could never have imagined that the influential art critic Anna Kissel Goff would devote a whole page of The New York Times to my work under the title “Photographer's Brilliant Solos, Inspired by the Dance”.
Before too long, after that first experience, I had fallen in love with ballet. I went to photograph a performance by the Cairo Ballet Company (to be renamed the Cairo Opera Ballet Company) at Al-Gomhouriya Theatre, where I was shouted at by the director, “Mike”, whose real name I would learn was Abdel-Moneim Kamel, later to head the Opera House. He nonetheless asked to see the pictures I had taken, and I got lucky when he allowed me to be present at the theatre without any restrictions. His wife the prima ballerina Ermenia Kamel and Eglal Galal took turns training me and informing me of the secrets of the dance.
In a strange development in 1983, the then culture minister Abdel-Hamid Radwan persuaded the Japanese government to make Egypt the gift of a cultural centre the government later called the Cairo Opera House. It opened in 1988. The first director of the Opera was Magda Saleh, who managed the difficult period prior to the opening. She forced us all to take our shoes off before we went in, to keep the Opera spick-and-span for the opening. No one knows for sure why she was dismissed suddenly a week before the opening, though I heard two different stories about it. One came from the then culture minister Farouk Hosni, another from Kamel. More recently I heard her own sad story of what happened. It seems Hosni's influence drove the media to ignore her and Radwan's role for so many years they were very nearly forgotten (though I am sure Hosni himself was no behind this). The pretext for subsequent Opera administrations never mentioning her had been that she was never named Opera director: a position that did not then exist. Perhaps the present director Ines Abdel-Dayem will intervene to rectify the situation.
The new Opera House was a treasure trove suddenly opened to me. It was the then director Ratiba Al-Hefni who proposed that there should be an official Opera House photographer; I was examined and employed. I had access to shows and rehearsals and free seats, and I was compensated for the cost of film and prints — something overseen by the artist Mohamed Abla, the head of the Arts Hall and current member of the constitutional committee — but I was not paid for my work.
In my first confrontation with Egypt's notorious red tape, I asked the director of the Opera about my salary, and was promptly referred to Mr R, the personnel director, who reclined in his air-conditioned office with his hands on his enormous belly. “I will think about your problem and respond to you in a week's time.” I came back after a week to hear the well-known statement, “Come back tomorrow”. There were to be many variations on that and a considerable amount of time before the moment of truth when Mr R finally said, “I am unable to contract you.” Why, Sir? “How can I appoint a photographer when we don't have cameras? The Central Accounts Department will object and think it an imaginary job.” In that case, Sir, why doesn't the Opera buy cameras? “How dare you suggest that I buy cameras when I don't have a photographer in my employ?” I was speechless while his hands returned to his belly, and the scene seemed to epitomise such a huge part of Egyptians' lives. It seemed to me there was a question I had never hitherto understood: the chicken or the egg.
It was left to Al-Hefni to resolve the dilemma in a matter of three words to him on the phone; I was appointed within three minutes. It was an occasion for her to tell me about all kinds of battles with the bureaucratic windmills. On one occasion, for example, contracting the great Egyptian pianist Ramzi Yassa to perform a Tchaikovski concerto was objected to on the grounds that there should be a bid to see who could do it for the lowest price — and this for the opening of the Opera, to be attended by the president of the republic and the emperor of Japan, in which there was a kabuki performance and a fanfare by the young composer Sherif Mohieddin.
Right before the opening of the Opera, it was strange to hear a senior official at the Ministry of Culture suggesting that the world troupes now clambering to attend performances should be made to pay for the privilege of putting their Cairo performances on their CVs — the same logic whereby the government rejected the offer if a French company to clean Cairo in return for the right to recycle the refuse, when economists thought they should be made to pay for the privilege. The influx of world performances promised by the opening did not happen, and the matter would have reached a cul-de-sac if not for the intervention of Al-Ahram journalist and playwright Mohamed Salmawy, now the constitutional committee spokesman.
Thus we saw shows from Spain, Portugal, Germany and Austria as well as Russia, England and France. One moment I will never forget was when a dancer in one of the great royal companies was supposed to be stirring some great mixture in a huge cauldron: the director had the brilliant idea of adding actual liquid to increase the magical effect, and the dancer slipped and fell on stage — applause, which is very frequent in the Main Hall, saved her the embarrassment. Nor will I forget the look on the set designer Abdel-Moneim Karara as he examined the cauldron right after the mishap.
Like many others, opera was not an art I particularly appreciated — until I went to Luxor to photograph Opera Aida, where I lost the wallet with all my money and ID card on the first day. I would've been taken into custody, too, if not for Captain Adel Al-Kersh, the brother of journalist Assem Al-Kersh who would later become my editor-in-chief at Al-Ahram Weekly. Being so completely broke and having to stay for a week, it was all I could do to attend the show every evening for a week, and eventually discovered the beauty of those tunes, especially in the third and fourth acts. I grew to like operatic singing on the whole, and the two great singers Reda Al-Wakil and Raouf Zeidan helped me along the way. They were patient enough to tell me all the exciting stories of the operas being shown: how Al-Wakil was going to sell the coat he loved for La Boheme; how the best position for taking the picture of this scene was the left wing; how the candle flame caught Maria Callas's hair during Tosca and how her murderer in the opera saved her life in reality by putting it out with his bare hand before she could notice anything.
Finally it was time for the greatly anticipated show, Swan Lake. It had never been performed in Cairo, at least not in anyone's memory, even though for many it was the only ballet. Though the Bolshoi troupe did not come, under Gorbachev's Perestroika it was now possible for the lead dancer Nadezhda Pavolva to perform with the Moscow City Ballet in Cairo, many of whose dancers were then contracted to work in the Cairo Opera Ballet troupe, which did not exist as yet. Nadezha Pavolva was the Bolshoi's prima ballerina, and I have never in my life seen anything like this — enough said. The Russian shows brought me into a new world, with each troupe performing several different shows for a number of days unlike the Western troupe. There was great variety.
I was taken by those shows and one of my obsessions was where to stand to take the best possible picture. The front row was often eschewed by the audience because it made it hard to see the performance, but for me it was an ideal position. Another was backstage, where I would be almost on stage as the show went on. But the most interesting was the Bridge: the suspended beam on which the lighting fixtures are placed. It was a fascinating angle, and an exciting adventure. I obtained the necessary permits and installed myself there. I watched, and I took unique pictures. My decisive moment was when I dropped the lens cover right on the head of the Prince in Swan Lake, only for the Clown to pick it up in time and throw it backstage.
At around the same time I went to photograph an Arabic music concert at the Small Hall. It seemed an unimportant concert whose conductor I hadn't heard of named Selim Sahhab (in other words, Arabic music's most celebrated maestro in Egypt). Not interested in attending, I arrived during the last song, Sayed Mekkawi's Al-Ard Btetkallem Arabi (The Land is Speaking Arabic), a very well-known song that would've been unremarkable if not for how it sounded. Even 23 years I remember how astonished I was by how different it sounded under his baton. It was soon after that that Sahhab formed a children's Arabic music troupe, as well as the National Ensemble for Arabic Music. Few things were more fun than capturing Sahhab as he drew the lyrics out of the singers' mouths.
Tarek Hassan took over directing the Cairo Opera House and, due to a dispute with his predecessor, banned her from entering the premises. He also brought along a media director whose principal job was to threaten me with being fired and replacing me with my friend Hossam Diab once a week — something I frequently laughed at with Hossam. He prevented me from photographing in the Main Hall and surprised a Russian photographer by asking him to write a report on my work, only to embarrass himself. He then filed a complaint against me with the CEO of Al-Ahram, and I eventually filed a complaint against him with Hassan, who would've given me a raise and freed me of his supervision if they hadn't both been dismissed before he signed the papers.
The next morning, Nasser Al-Ansari entered the director's office; he turned out to be an extremely respectful person who rejected all the sycophants' attempts to carry his suitcase. I was in the secretary-general's office discussing my raise — and I had brought along my two-year-old daughter, whom I took care of during the day since most of my work was in the evening — when I noticed the bureaucrat in question looking at me disdainfully (in the way many Egyptians look at photographers). “Have you brought along your daughter so your begging would be more effective?” The next thing I knew I was being dragged by Al-Ansari in person to his office, I was screaming my head off and he was attempting to calm me down, and that day we became fast friends. Following the Opera and Future Horizons Conference, called by Al-Ansari, the Music Library and the Arabic Music Festival were established as per the conference recommendations — and still I did not have my raise, which the committee in charge summarily refused to give me, offering no reason.
Hassan had taken the area designated for the library for himself and relocated the library to a training room, and my friend the librarian Abbas Salama found himself surrounded by heaps of books on the floor. I would take him the films I used and we would sit cross-legged on the floor there for a chat. One day I arrived to find him carrying the books to the more than adequate space newly designated by Al-Ansari, and I asked whether he was going to carry all the books himself. He responded with his catchphrase, “Why, you know, Ustaz Sherif. You have to do everything yourself.”
The committee continued refusing to give me a raise until the conductor Mustafa Nagui, already a good friend of mine, was appointed director. I asked him for help and he said an artist should never have to ask for more money. The next month I found my salary had doubled so I went to thank him — only to realise he had done nothing. It was the committee that, knowing the new director was a personal friend of mine, finally saw the fairness of my request. He was pleased with news and said that from now on the bureaucrats must understand that artists are the Opera's priority; they can give themselves raises as administrators, now they must do likewise for the artists. It seems this policy antagonised some administrators (exactly as the minister of interior Ahmed Rushdi's policies antagonised corrupt officials in the ministry enough for them to incite the Central Security troops to rebel in 1986, causing him to resign). To cut a long story short, Nagui was dismissed from his post.
I remember that one of the corruption charges brought against him (of which he was acquitted) was buying chocolate. The Opera used to host children with Down's syndrome, under the supervision of Magda Moussa, and to express how much he welcomed those children to the Opera Nagui had ordered that chocolate should be bought and distributed to them — before he went through all the red tape required for the opera to buy anything.
Nagui was no conventional person; he was a true artist, the only person on earth the great composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab allowed to arrange his music. He brought the Symphony Orchestra (which he conducted) together with the Arabic Ensemble conducted by Sahhab; and he managed to conduct both orchestras together with the choir, to perfection. He even let me stand among the choir members to take a picture of both conductors together on condition that I wear a black blazer.
I was happy to work with General Samir Farag when he took over, sensing he was sincere and dedicated.
It was at this point that Magda Saleh, the first director of the Opera, invited me to hold an exhibition of ballet pictures in the Lincoln Center Gallery in New York. It was a great success, but on my return I was summoned by an official who told me that I didn't know how to take pictures and that my photographs were not good enough for publication. “There are buttons in the cameras that work miracles,” he said. A dispute ensued that ended with my leaving my job at the Opera. Later Farag received a letter from the Egyptian Ambassador to America thanking him for my exhibition and explaining the extent of its success. He was considerate enough to send me a copy of the letter, and another to the official who said I could not take pictures.
Farag proved so successful that the then minister Farouk Hosni nominated him for the position of Luxor governor, and my old friend Abdel-Moneim Kamel took his place. After my colleague Samira Moussa obtained a special permit from the minister, I was to be given back my post — which had remained vacant for four years — when, arriving at the Opera, I discovered that Kamel had appointed another photographer in my place: a mystery I will never understand. He asked me instead to produce a book of monument photographs as part of the celebrations of the Opera's 20th anniversary. We had some disagreements about the context, but in the end the book emerged as I wanted it, and the minister was so impressed with it he said to Kamel, “I hope everyone who works in my ministry sees this book.”
That was five years ago.
Kamel reached retirement age, and Ines Abdel-Dayem was appointed director of the Opera, then — the terrible destiny of Egypt — the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. The CEO of Al-Ahram appointed by the Brotherhood-controlled Shura Council prevented me from working at the Opera. The inadequate minister of culture appointed suddenly by the Brotherhood dismissed Abdel-Dayem, and the artists of the Opera House announced the suspension of shows and protest, staging weeks-long strike and calling in satellite cameras to communicate their message to the world at large.
It was time for the Ramzi Yassa concert. I called him in the morning and he said he didn't want the strike to stop for his sake. He would support the artists of the Opera whatever it was, he said. The audience arrived, and the minister in question — I don't remember his name — gave orders to prevent the media from entering the Opera grounds, so that they would be unable to film the strike. I photographed conductor Nayir Nagui's address and Abdel-Dayem's tears. It would be the start of the Ministry of Culture protest that preceded the 30 June Revolution, which eventually toppled the Brotherhood. Abdel-Dayem is back in her post and I am photographing the Opera.

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