Normal travel (3): A trip to Maspero

Even as widely respected Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi (bless him) was resigning in protest, I was in a taxi heading to the State Radio and TV Building, the famous Maspero. Violence was continuing in Tahrir, but other than some people massed under the bridge, some shouts and whistles, I didn’t see or hear anything.

I had been invited to Maspero by Moatazz al-Agami, host of the weekly radio show Theatre Panorama, to record an interview about Shakespeare in Egypt.  It was pretty surreal: rolls of barbed wire outside the building (has probably been there for quite a while), a line of green-uniformed soldiers with helmets and rifles in the building lobby, more soldiers between the metal detectors and the stairs as we walked up, then every sign of business as usual upstairs. I was introduced to the sound technician and offered tea, then we listened to bits of a vintage radio play of Mohamed Hamdi’s (1912) translation of Julius Caesar and recorded a very polite highbrow conversation about the appropriation of Shakespeare (I explained why I preferred not to talk about Shakespeare’s “influence”) on the Egyptian stage.

Hamdi, living his own liberationist moment in the long run-up to the 1919 revolution, had described Shakespeare (as my friend Sameh Fekry Hanna points out) as “the democratic English poet.”  Other Egyptian interpreters have read Julius Caesar differently.  Gamal Abdel Nasser acted the role of Caesar in 1935 (yes!) as “the hero of the masses and victor over Great Britain.” And generations of conservatives and co-opted liberals have read the play as exposing the chaos that ensues when rebels, however well-meaning, overthrow an autocrat, however overweening.

The part of the Maspero building I saw was beyond shabby.  “Our facilities are from the Middle Ages,” my host apologized. They don’t yet have Internet, though shiny new jacks have been installed in preparation, right behind a tangle of dusty wires.  Some of the recording equipment looked antique. The women’s toilet was clogged. Pieces of the wall by the stairs were missing.  But my host was graciousness itself, and the recording session seemed to go fine.  It is supposed to air this Thursday at 10:30 on 91.5 FM.


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