Cairo Conductor Tells of Looter Attacks, Solidarity: Interview

Cairo Opera House
The exterior of the Cairo Opera House, part of Egypt's National Cultural Center. Performances have been temporarily suspended because of rioting in the city and the imposition of curfews. Photographer: Caroline Penn/CORBIS

Nader Abbassi expected to be conducting a gala concert at the Cairo Opera tonight, everything from Mozart to Wagner and Verdi.

Instead, he’s in Qatar, calling his mother for updates between meetings of the local orchestra. The 46-year-old Abbassi, a man with many hats and homes -- Geneva, Qatar and Cairo -- is also music director of the Qatar Philharmonic.

We spoke on the phone.

Hoelterhoff: How did you get out last night? The airports are a mess.

Abbassi: Flights were full, but not impossible to Qatar.

Hoelterhoff: Why did you leave?

Abbassi: We had to cancel because of the curfew -- nobody could attend -- and security worries. Neither could we rehearse the last few days. So I went to Qatar for meetings.

Hoelterhoff: Was “Aida” on the program? I think of Egypt and I think of the Triumphal March with camels.

Abbassi: No! We do it a lot. And I conducted a huge spectacle at the pyramids years ago. In fact, I was the first Arab conductor to conduct “Aida.”

Hoelterhoff: Verdi wrote the piece in 1871 for Cairo’s opera house, which burned down 100 years later. In a riot?

Abbassi: In an accident. The new opera is a gift from the Japanese. It’s more than an opera house, but a culture center with a modern art museum and a library.

Island Location

Hoelterhoff: Is it close to Liberation Square we have seen so often now on television screens?

Abbassi: Yes. It’s set in an island in the middle of Cairo which also is a nice area for living as well.

Hoelterhoff: So it could be a target for looters. Those reports of thieves entering the antiquities museum looking for King Tut were alarming.

Abbassi: We were worried at first because of the proximity. But the army is there now.

Hoelterhoff: Opening prisons, setting fire to businesses. Who is doing this?

Abbassi: There are clearly organized groups determined to destroy the country and wreck the economy. I hope we will find out who is behind this.

Hoelterhoff: Egypt’s young seem fully engaged and often quite articulate.

Abbassi: I have full confidence in the young people who went into the streets to protect their property when the police disappeared.

Stealing Motorbikes

I was at my parents' house. They live in a nice area where suddenly these traitors came in and started trying to break into the better shops and to steal motorbikes. The young people put up barricades. They stopped one thief as he was trying to leave with the bike and gave it to the army.

There’s this idea outside that Egyptian people are lazy and that they can’t do for themselves. I feel we are all coming together as one.

There is solidarity.

Hoelterhoff: How long before Mubarak is gone?

Abbassi: He probably thinks he can stay until the election in April and leave with dignity. I don’t think so.

Hoelterhoff: When do you expect to return to Cairo?

Abbassi: On Friday, to stay with my parents and make sure they are OK. I spoke to my mother this morning and she said that last night was noisy but that their street was protected by the people.

Hoelterhoff: Just now there are reports of food shortages, which might provoke more looting.

Abbassi: The Swiss embassy called me and said buy food for a week.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg News’s leisure and arts section. All opinions are her own.)

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