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According to operatic lore, the inauguration of the Suez Canal and the opening of the Cairo Opera were supposed to have occurred conjointly with the world premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida.” But the staging of the latter, because of embargoes imposed by the Franco-Prussian War, was delayed by nearly two years, having its debut in this most ancient of cities on Christmas Eve, 1871. In lieu of “Aida,” my favorite opera for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Leontyne Price’s “Aida” is among the most celebrated in the history of the role, alongside Maria Callas’s and Renata Tebaldi’s, well-off Cairenes of the day were treated to Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” performed on 6 November 1869, when the Canal was dedicated and officially opened for business and the curtain at the Cairo Opera went up for the first time, to the alleged delight of the Egyptian Khedive (from 1863), Ismail Pasha (Weaver, n.d.).
It is hard to get excited about the Suez Canal when thinking about “Aida,” this cross-cultural love story concerning two communities of peoples of color, one of them, as Herodotus tells it, even older than the Greeks, and that is to say, the Ethiopians. And here two of them were, one of each: Aida, a body servant to the daughter (in love with Radames) of the King of Egypt (but in truth, Aida is an Ethiopian Princess and the daughter of the King of Ethiopia) and Radames, an Egyptian Captain of the Guard and his country’s finest soldier, and they are in love with each other, damn the barriers and despite the exacting gaze of nationalism, the peremptory urgencies of militarism, the threats to cultural belonging and natal community that forbidden love provokes, and the impossible choice that Aida will be compelled to make between Father/Homeland and her love. Well. . .you know the rest of the story.
But there actually is another connection between the Suez Canal and the performance of the operas as there is between both and the unfolding of the modern industrial world. We would do well to acknowledge, too, that the Canal was also a spur to Empire and the attachment of Egypt to the French and European repertoire of art and antiquities. In fact, the story of “Aida,” as well as its original sets, costumes, props, and jewelry, was the work of a French Egyptologist, Auguste Mariette (Bey). Mariette apparently assembled the opera’s wondrous infrastructure in Paris. Without the Suez Canal that links the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, goods and services travelling from the Middle East to Europe and Europe to the Middle East were obliged to traverse the Horn of Africa and circumnavigate the Cape of Good Hope in order to reach their target. This arduous peregrination would tack on approximately two additional weeks to any such journey and inestimable increases in the budget as a result (Krauss, 2011 February 3). Nearly five percent of the world’s oil supply flows through the Suez, but 14 percent of the liquefied natural gas trade of the globe goes through it, which connects Europe, parts of Asia, the Middle East, and the United States in an energy nexus to which military leadership is, of necessity, sensitive. On two occasions within the last six decades now, Canal business has been disrupted—the 1956 Suez Crisis and the 1967 War between Arabic forces and Israel.
Not unexpectedly, then, revolutionary events in Egypt the last two weeks (see also Rich Blint’s “Re-Writing Political Scripts” and “A Time for Action” at this site) have not only exacerbated fears in some quarters that popular protest will roll, like dominoes, across the entire Arabo-Islamic world, but that the world markets themselves will tremble; as of this writing, 24 hours ago, jubilant for millions of Egyptians and democratic cadres across the globe, demarcated the departure of President Hosni Mubarak and signs and seals a veritable people’s movement, as crude oil prices have already reached $100 per barrel. But such worry to my mind is rather mandarin—shall we say that it is well above my pay grade?—while Friday, February 11, 2011 hits the mark like payday. In fact, it exceeds the opera and the Canal for human drama and its ramifications.
Several thoughts run through my mind, the light and playful, among them: Gil Scott Herron was wrong—the “revolution” was televised indeed! Then again thoughts that do not induce chuckling at all: what happened with U.S. foreign policy the past few weeks that American leadership, for all its attempts to appear graceful in dancing with the velocity of radical change, has nevertheless looked like a deer caught in the headlights? The awkwardness was not concealed; we observed it and were blatantly embarrassed in doing so. I am not referring to the silly expectations of clairvoyance demanded of U.S. intelligence; certain media personalities, to wit, have wondered out loud and inappropriately why intelligence did not know that a revolution was in the making, when, I’d conjecture, not even the Egyptians themselves knew it! But, rather, I am puzzled, disappointed, more precisely, that U.S. foreign policy tends to take its cue from what it perceives to be the country’s vaunted “self-interest” than from a sustained effort to expand democratic possibilities wherever in the world they might emerge.
Inconsistencies and outright contradictions between the American state’s devotion, at least in theory, to a democratic model and its attendance on the imperatives of national “self-interest” characterize our foreign policy so energetically and consistently that it is apt to say that the latter comes to resemble practices and policies that are indeed foreign to our democratic allegiance. Such a dilemma was brilliantly staged the past two weeks as the Obama White House, apparently wed to equivocation in foreign and domestic matters, seemed to send duplicitous messages, depending on the day of the week that the message was uttered. But bet hedging did not begin with this administration, in all fairness, but actually defines American conduct among global players. The personally likeable Mr. Mubarak was, after all, a staunch American ally and friend long before Team Obama took the playing field: “Since 1978,” David Kirkpatrick points out, “the United States has given Egypt $35 billion in military aid, making it the largest recipient of conventional American military and economic aid after Israel.” This grand total amounts to $1.5 billion U.S. annually (2011 January 30). More recently, Kirkpatrick reports, Egypt has purchased F-16 fighter jets from the United States, as well as a Patriot surface-to-air-missile battery.
In this pattern of triangulation, the United States, in any Egyptian-Israeli conflict, would have to land dead center in the balance of its economic and military interests—skin in the game both ways. It seems, therefore, that ambiguity, not clarity, is the chief U.S. coin of the realm in its dealings with its global partners. Michael Tomasky argues that “Egypt is probably exhibit A in the broad U.S. foreign policy imperative of geopolitical stability trumping internal democracy and human rights” (2011 February 4). If, as Tomasky contends, this pursuit of stability over all other claims traces all the way back to FDR in the 1930s and his support of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, then we cannot agree with him that President Obama today was in no position before February 11th “to offer moral thunder” in the behalf of the protesters in Tahiri Square because the United States can no longer dictate outcomes. If the United States, with its superior military might, can sell the means of war to others, then why would its moral force be prohibited?
In my view, what posture the United States strikes abroad is precisely reflected at home and vice-versa; if we are ambivalent about democratic values in a world that yearns for them, then who can say that we will emphatically pursue them in Tennessee or Vermont or Georgia and California? Who can assure that the democratic moral force will not be blunted at home, where we live, if it is not executed abroad? I’m afraid that that is exactly the question that our slippage and sliding toward corporate rule has engendered in the current synthesis, and to it, neither I nor my neighbors can remain indifferent. It must be true that as we wish the Egyptian people well along the path to a democratic framework, if that is indeed where things are headed there, then we must also cast an occasional eye toward our own tremendous strivings in this Republic: where are we now?