Now, Said’s complaint that the opera and composer are indifferent to the realities of contemporary Egypt and alien to the Arabs of Cairo can hardly be taken as a serious criticism of this work. In striving to make a case out of the details of the opera’s original performance, Said disregards the fact that Aida is an opera about ancient Egypt—the Egypt of the Pharaohs. His critique conflates ancient and modern Egypt into one entity. The Egyptians portrayed in the opera are not Arabs, a people who arrived in the country in the seventh century A.D. and who were then a predatory imperial power. The Egyptians of Aida are those who inhabited the country three thousand years before the tribesmen from Mecca and Medina conquered it. The Egypt of the Arabs is no more the Egypt of the Pharaohs than is the Egypt once ruled by the ancient Greeks or the Egypt that was part of the Roman Empire in the Christian era.
Moreover, to charge any opera with being unrealistic is a complaint that ought to disqualify its author from the ranks of critics forever. Realism is just about the last attribute opera has ever sought. This is an art form in which characters sing instead of speak to one another, in which large women in their fifties pass as seductive teenage girls. It is an art form that allows magical events, ghosts, sea serpents, monsters (some of whom sing in Italian), ocean storms, lightning strikes, and anthropomorphic gods of various religions to make regular appearances on stage. To try to score a political point out of an opera’s lack of realism is to display how unfit one is to talk about the subject.
It is equally imperceptive to complain that, because its staging and costumes derive from the discoveries of Egyptology, Aida is politically tainted by this. It is true that “Egyptology is not Egypt,” but it is still the only field whose archaeological and philological studies provided what was known in 1871, and most of what is known today, about ancient Egypt. Rather than being a European conceit, Egyptology has long provided the principal means through which people of any culture, Egyptian Arabs included, can know the ancient history of that country. If, as Said says, Egyptology is misleading about the “real Egypt,” where else does he imagine our knowledge of the place in 3000 B.C. could possibly come from?
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