The cultural dialogue between Egypt and Russia arguably dates back to before the 20th century. Nineteenth century writers Leo Tolstoy and Alexander Pushkin borrowed from the Arab literary canon, and specifically “The One Thousand and One Nights,” in their work. Many of the major contributors to Egyptian cinema and theatre studied in Russia or were deeply influenced by Russian mentors. In ballet and painting, a similar connection is also clear.
Russian Connections in Arabic Literature
“It’s not enough to look at a generation of writers who grew up before and right after the Abdel Nasser period; the roots of Arab intellectuals’ fascination with Soviet culture reaches back to the 19th century,” Boston University professor Margaret Litvin argued in a 2015 lecture at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Titled “Frosty Utopia: Russian Connections in Arabic Literature from Mikhail Nu’aymah to Sonallah Ibrahim,” Litvin’s lecture refuted the limiting conversation among academics of Arabic literature existing either separately of other traditions, or in conversation with the Western tradition—which she called “insufficient.”
In the 19th and 20th century, Russia was the country where budding artists, politicians and thinkers from the Arab World sought to study ahead of creating their tour de force.
The first of these was most likely Al-Azhar scholar Sheikh Mohammed Ayyad Al Tantawi, whom Ottoman commander and 19th century Khedive of Egypt Mohammed Ali dispatched to Russia to investigate the culture, traditions and modernity of what to them seemed as a distant land.
The product of this was Sheikh Tantawi’s “Trip to the Land of the Russians 1840-1850,” a book which offers invaluable insights on the state of Arab-Russian relations in the 19th century. During his time in St. Petersburg, Tantawi taught Arabic to Russian diplomats and orientalists. Litvin also noted correspondences between Muhammed Abdu and Tolstoy in her lecture, which is accessible through the AUC YouTube page.
Upon its creation, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) inherited the fascination with Russia in the imagination of the Arabs. “Even before Nasser [at a point in the 1940s, for instance], there’s already a fascination about Russia and this desire to emulate its literary heroes…through readers’ curiosity to try the foods, the drinks, the vodka that their favorite characters were known to consume [in the works of Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky]. After 1955, this becomes policy; there’s a great wave of translations from Russian literature,” said Litvin.
More recently, she added, the likes of Egyptian writers Ahdaf Soueif and Sonallah Ibrahim have commented on how Russian film and literature have been among the numerous works both have noted as part of the canon they were exposed to.
Litvin further mentioned that the adaptation of Hamlet a generation of Egyptian audiences were commonly exposed to was actually a 1964 Soviet production featuring Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Prince Hamlet, which was a “huge hit in Cairo” at the time. The “magnetic pull on Arab intellectual life” of “the idea of Russia” is clear over the course of over 100 years, she explained.
Founded in 1956, the Russian Cultural Center in Cairo offers courses in languages, computer skills, and the arts. It also runs film screenings once a week, on Tuesday evenings, of both classic and contemporary films subtitled in English and Arabic. Evening classes run popular programs teaching sound and film editing, graphic design, and accredited software trainings for engineers, web designers and web developers under the center’s Computer Department arm. The department has been in existence for 15 years continues to attract large numbers of students seeking to upgrade their skillset to prepare for the job market.
Sherif Gad, a multilingual himself and the manager of cultural activities at the enter, explains that its premises in Dokki also hosts a large library holding 12,000 volumes covering the arts and sciences disciplines. “Russian literature has, by far, been the closest and most affecting [foreign] force on the Egyptian canon and local readers due to the wide mid-century translation wave from Russian texts into the Arabic,” he tells Egypt Today.
Gad further attributes the popularity of those translations to a “sentimental proximity” between both cultures; Russian translations, moreover, captivated Egyptian readers given the subject matter and themes discussed. “You can’t be a ‘cultured’ person if you haven’t read Pushkin or Tolstoy...Russian literature in translation is widely admired among Egyptian audiences,” he says, echoing a sentiment similar to Litvin’s description of 1940s Egyptian readers that seems to remain very alive to this day.
Bridging cultures on stage, and through small and big screens
In the theatre, Egyptians have been performing Chekhov for over 60 years. Writer and playwright Rashad Rushdi, who served as the dean of Cairo University’s English and Comparative Literature department during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, produced a unique translation of Chekhov’s one-act farce The Proposal in Egyptian colloquial Arabic. The play captures how Chekov’s best Russian jokes are quite similar to the Egyptian sense of humor at heart. Rushdi became a founding father of sorts for theatre performed in colloquial Arabic when he translated Gogol’s The Inspector General into the dialect of everyday Egyptians at the time.
Among the most treasured works of Egyptian cinema are the local film adaptations of Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment. Gogol’s The Government Inspector was also adapted to a widely celebrated television series directed by the 20th century film director Houssam El-Din Mustafa. Incidentally, the soundtracks of many films Egyptian audiences wholly enjoyed were strongly affected by Russian music.
“Most professors at the Higher Institute of Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s had arrived from Russia after receiving scholarships there,” film director Ahmed Ghanem, who is also a professor of cinema studies at the French University in Egypt and the son of renowned writer Fathy Ghanem, says. “An entire generation of cinematographers and directors was educated in Russia, including [those who are active until today], such as actor and director of photography Tarek El Tilmisany as well as Shawky Ali, a former dean of the institute.” Prior to the demise of the USSR, scholars were sent to the Patrice Lumumba Peoples’ Friendship University (now renamed to the Russian Peoples’ Friendship University) under inter-cultural exchange programs. Separate batches were sent to art academies in Moscow.
The late award-winning, internationally acclaimed film director Youssef Chahine directed Once Upon a Time on the Nile, a Russian-Egyptian film about the high dam that Time magazine referred to as “epic” in a 2008 profile on Chahine published following his death. The film was re-edited by the Egyptian and Russian authorities prior to its release in 1972, and is the first joint Egyptian-Soviet coproduction.
Rania Yehia, a music professor at Cairo Academy of Arts, which holds the Cairo Conservatoire and the Higher Institute of Ballet, makes note of a similar marker for Egyptian music to that which Ghanem notes exists in filmmaking, saying that the academy follows the “Russian school” in terms of instruction. “This dates back to the 1960s, a time when the national tone was that of Egypt becoming a place of innovation and development.” The Academy of the Arts was founded during that era, “with the aim of training a new generation of students to understand global art and cinema.” A heavy reliance on Russian instructors and professors was clear, with an existing community of Russian professors and instructors operating within the institution until today.
“Scholarships to Russia were all-too-common for the promising musicians who became well-known icons,” says Yehia, explaining that this was also the case at the Higher Institute of Ballet. In fact, the man who revived the opera house’s ballet troupe to become what we now know as the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, Abdel Moneim Kamel, was studying in Moscow for his PhD in the art of dance before he came back home to revive and develop the troupe. Today, lauded ballet performances play to compositions by the likes of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
Cairo Opera House Soloist Hassan Sharara and acclaimed soundtrack composer Gamal Salameh, whose body of work boasts myriad 1970s and 1980s hit films (including collaborations with Chahine), are also among the names Yehia mentions. A mentor of Salameh’s at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, Soviet Armenia composer Aram Khachaturian, allegedly called him a “genius.” Like many of the Russia aficionados in literature and film, Salameh bred his skill under the influence of Russian, Egyptian, and global art, taken from both his education and his upbringing in “an everyday Egyptian family…yet one of many artists and musicians; he is Egyptian to his core,” Yehia recounts. Another composer she mentions of a similar background and educational experience is Mustafa Nagi, who has written soundtracks for late 20th century films starring the likes of Said Abdel Ghani.
While the allure of studying in Russia may no longer be as applicable to the younger generation as it once was, Gad says he still sees an increasingly large number of students taking up Russian language courses at the Russian Cultural Center, which also offers affordable language courses in German, Italian and French. “The youth are keen to meet the job market’s needs. This includes tourism—so prospective tour guides and hotel staff—and trade, particularly given the recently signed agreement for the East Port Said Industrial Zone, which makes Russian increasingly crucial in many workplaces,” he tells Egypt Today, noting the bilateral agreement for the creation of a Russian industrial zone in the proximity of the Suez Canal.
Other students take up Russian courses in the case of inter-cultural relationships, where if one of the partners is Russian, the Egyptian partner learns the language in an effort to understand their partner’s family. A smaller number of students, Gad sees, begin learning Russian due to a love of Russian literature and culture. “But these are the minority—we also have students coming in to take classes ahead of travelling to Russia to attend the 2018 FIFA World Cup, or signing up to take intensive courses before travelling to Russia recreationally for other purposes,” he recounts.
While the influence of Russian literature and culture on its Egyptian counterparts was far more apparent in the past, it is difficult to ignore a lasting force that long had its sway on Egyptian artists and intellectuals.