Hidden Lessons



Mon, 16 Feb 2015 - 02:46 GMT


Mon, 16 Feb 2015 - 02:46 GMT

Nazih Girgis mixes classical music, ballet and children’s books to build a better citizen

By Yasmine Nazmy

Passionate about children, education and development, Nazih Girgis is, above all, a storyteller. He first became involved in musical education and literature in the late 1980s, when he translated Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf into Arabic.

“Music has played a great role in my life as a child and as an adult, so I’ve always believed that music is education. It’s a medium that lifts the minds and hearts of people — it brings about understanding and culture ties,” says Girgis.

It can also teach children healthy, responsible lifestyles and good citizenship. His four books, which he packages as the Children’s Integrated Awareness Program, address the environment, water conservation, road safety and proper nutrition. His books about the environment and water conservation have been set to classical music and dramatized in ballets presented around Egypt.

“I always say: get me a terrorist who loves music or who has any appreciation for any kind of art. Or get me a person who loves music and that can turn into a violent person,” says Girgis, 67. “Beethoven said: ‘I despise a man who does not believe that music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy,’ and I believe that.”

It was Beethoven who initiated Girgis into classical music as a child, when he accidentally came across the 18th-century German composer’s Ninth Symphony on the radio. “I was six years old and we had this big radio that worked with a car battery. I heard this music that really got me, and then I heard this singing that took me to heaven. At the end, the announcer said it was Beethoven’s Symphony Number 9,” he recalls. “Back then, we had a library called The Library of the Arts on Hoda Shaarawi Street, and you could go there and listen to music. You would write your request on a piece of paper and wait for your turn. I was 11 at the time, and every time I would write Symphony Number 9. One day, the man there asked me why I always asked for Symphony Number 9, and I told him it was the only one I knew. He helped me learn about Beethoven and listen to other pieces.”

Over the years, Girgis’ passion and knowledge of classical music grew, and he later immigrated to the United States in 1981. There, he befriended conductors and musicians from around the world and got to know Prokofiev’s son, Oleg, whom he later collaborated with on readings of Peter and the Wolf. Girgis has held countless readings, ballets and interactive performances in both Egypt and the United States.

Music and Cultural Mediation

In 1988, with the support of famed cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, Girgis founded the US-Middle East Music and Fine Arts Council in Washington, DC with the purpose of bringing the National Symphony Orchestra from the US capital to Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. In 1990, the council organized a concert for an audience of Arab ambassadors, senators and high-ranking US Army officers at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The program included Peter and the Wolf narrated in Arabic by Girgis and conducted by Maestro Cal Stewart Kellogg.

Among Girgis’ mementos is a copy of the program from the Kennedy Center performance, written in both English and Arabic — a battle that he fought hard to win. “I threatened to file a lawsuit against them if they didn’t allow me to include Arabic in the program,” he recalls. “The purpose was to build bridges between America and the Arab world. The maestro was a very good friend of mine, Maestro Rostropovich, and he was eager to do this because he was a man of peace.”

After lobbying with sponsors and the orchestra, Girgis seemed confident that the Middle East trip would happen. But plans were cut short when Girgis told a journalist from the Washington Post about his proposal; an article published the next day raised questions with congressmen and the Israeli ambassador to the US about a tour to the Middle East that did not include Israel, prompting the executive director of the National Symphony Orchestra to put the tour on hold indefinitely.

“What I want to arrive at is that music and culture bring people together and create harmony and understanding — music fixes what politics ruins. I don’t want to get into politics, but this incident is a perfect example of what I want to say about music and its impact on people,” Girgis explains. “There are a few Arab-American political organizations in Washington, DC, but Israel doesn’t pay attention to them. But when they hear about cultural exchange events between America and the Arab world, it bothers them. And then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, so everything stopped for a while,” he adds, laughing.

A Change of Course

During the mid-1990s, Girgis was taking his Arabic translation of Peter and the Wolf to book fairs across the US. In 1995, he met Mark Linz, at that time the enthusiastic director of publishing at AUC Press in Cairo. “He bought 1,000 copies on the spot. He told me that he wanted to distribute them in Egypt and invited me to come to a book-signing event in Cairo,” says Girgis. “I came in January 1996 and I was supposed to stay for two weeks. I ended up staying for 12 years.”

After a performance of Peter and the Wolf at AUC’s Ewart Hall with Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s Maestro Mostafa Nagy, Girgis began to ask about musical education at schools in Egypt, and, much to his surprise, he found that there was none.

“People made fun of me — they said these children are deprived of everything, do you think they will have music? So I decided to pack up and leave.”

One day before his scheduled flight, Girgis met Hala El Kholy, then head of the human development agency Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), who persuaded him not to return to the US. “She said, ‘Please stay, you are very badly needed here.’ I wanted to give Egyptian children what I was deprived of as a child, and that visit was a turning point in my life.”

El Kholy sent Girgis to a school in Beni Sueif to do a reading of Peter and the Wolf, an experience that marked the beginning of a new course for him. “The children were extremely poor, they were barefoot — they had nothing. We listened to Peter and the Wolf on cassette and then we re-enacted it,” he says. “The children absorbed the story, even though it was foreign to them; they kept trying to find solutions for the duck that gets stuck in the wolf’s stomach.”

After a series of workshops in Beni Sueif, Girgis collaborated with ballet instructor Fatma Marzouk to choreograph the piece. “We performed the ballet at the cultural center in Beni Sueif. I was the very first one to take ballet to Upper Egypt, and I was asked to do more in other areas,” he adds proudly.

Over the next 10 years, Girgis conducted 1,200 workshops in governorates across Egypt. “And then Hala said to me, ‘Peter and the Wolf is great, but is there anything else that we can do?’ I had heard Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals, and the music inspired me to write a story.”

The resulting story, also titled Carnival of the Animals, is about animals at a zoo who become fed up with the mess left behind by visitors and decide to clean it up and set an example to visitors. Published in 2001, it was Girgis’ first original story, and it won two awards from the Suzanne Mubarak competition for writing and illustrations. Its environmental lesson also caught the attention of then-Minister of Environment Dr. Nadia Makram Ebeid, as well as many development agencies. The Danish International Development Agency distributed 35,000 copies of the book at schools. The story was also adapted into a ballet performed at the Cairo International Conference Center (CICC).

It was after the CICC performance that Girgis was called for a meeting with the Minister of Irrigation Dr. Mohamed Abu Zeid. “He asked me to do something about water for an international conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. I said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know anything about water, except that I drink it,’ but I admired him,” says Girgis. “So I was lying in bed at 2am when I heard Handel’s Water Music in my head. I got up and wrote a poem in which I portrayed the drop of water as a queen who has four daughters — Rain, Rivers, Oceans and Wells — which are the water resources.”

Once again, Girgis worked with choreographer Marzouk, who adapted the piece as a ballet performed at the Sharm El-Sheikh conference. Afterwards, Abu Zeid invited Girgis to perform Queen Waters at the World Summit for International Development in Johannesburg in 2002, where Girgis met the late Nelson Mandela.

His autograph book includes photos from the ballet performance of Queen Waters at the summit. Girgis stays in touch with the ballerinas who traveled with him to Johannesburg and he still sees them when he’s in Cairo or Dubai. “They’re all grown up now,” he says with a laugh. “They’re all married and have children.”

In 2004, Girgis published Stop and Learn From Dr. Wise, the Elephant, which deals with road safety and won the Suzanne Mubarak award for best book that year. The story was inspired partially by his own son, who, as a child, reprimanded him for speeding while driving. It was on the streets of Cairo, however, that Girgis realized that Egypt was in dire need of lessons on road safety. “It’s very humiliating — you have to fight to cross the street. And I believe that children learn from adults, like I learned from my son Alexi when he was six.”

Most recently, he wrote The Dolphin Park to address the issue of healthy eating and exercise habits, partially inspired by first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” program to counter obesity in America. “Obesity is becoming a big problem in the world, not just in America,” Girgis notes. “I published The Dolphin Park in English and I did readings in libraries and schools. In 2012, Mrs. Obama sent me a letter of appreciation co-signed by the president.”

Encouraged by changes in Egypt, Girgis returned to his homeland once more in 2014. “I thought that, with the new revolution, maybe I could do something with children, so I put the four books together, and I called it The Children’s Integrated Awareness Program.”

The author is a regular at the Frankfurt Book Fair and other exhibitions in the Emirates, where he makes deals with large companies to purchase and distribute his books to schools, gas stations, environmental conventions and other places.

Girgis believes that there is hope in Egypt — at least as far as children are concerned — and he plans to send his collected works to President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, whom he believes is interested in both the environment and education. “I am a child advocate, Girgis says. “Children are entitled to good health and to education.” 



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