Tarek Ali Hassan: That rare whiff of true renaissance
Interview by Ati Metwaly
Born in 1937, Tarek Ali Hassan is a medical doctor, musician, philosopher, writer, poet and painter. He works in many fields, he is active in and heads number of organisations, including NGOs, cultural and scientific bodies. His long CV enumerates an astounding number of awards in medicine, music, literature and the arts, including Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, grade Commandeur. He was also nominated for many national and international prizes, and his contributions to medicine are surprisingly weighty for someone so deeply involved in the arts. In fact Hassan's achievement is so broad and profound it is next to impossible to present him adequately; any attempt to describe him will capture only a fraction of his world. Such a broad perspective combined with depth of knowledge is a rare thing indeed, and makes up a gem on Egypt's cultural scene. But it is through his role in the music scene that I came to know Hassan, the founding Chairman of the New Cairo Opera House (National Cultural Centre of Egypt) as well as a founding member of the Friends of the Opera Society. He has promoted music through education as well as a number of compositions which were performed by, among many other formations, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.
With all this baggage, Tarek Ali Hassan describes himself simply as "somebody who loves human beings and believes in them." As a physician it is his profound research into the cause that has led him onto new paths, parallel to medicine. "I try to understand the cause on multiple levels. I am committed to the human being, to admiration of that miracle of life. Through my studies of the human being, I branch out into philosophy, anthropology, sociology etc." Hassan's involvement in music began at the age of three when he heard his father, a professor of medicine, taking violin lessons. "It was as if you connected somebody to an electric curcuit. I fell in love with music instantly. It was Mozart especially that always fascinated me. As was the case wity many children, I started with the Suzuki method." But it was an atmosphere of science that prevailed in Hassan's family home. His mother, Zeinab Kamel Hassan, broke every social barrier to obtain a higher degree in chemistry in England; she was the first Egyptian woman in modern times to teach at the Egyptian University's Faculty of Science. A non-profit organisation named after her still operates in the field of holistic human development. Ali Hassan, Tarek's father, was particularly interested in biochemistry and nutrition, and at one stage held the post of dean of the faculty of medicine in Alexandria University; he was also General Director of University Hospitals. Hassan recalls growing up in a lovely household attached to the hospital. Naturally he mixed with medical doctors at a very impressionable, early age and medicine became his first professional path. Both parents however recognised the importance of the arts and especially a musical education; as Hassan states clearly, they would never have objected had he chosen to pursue an education in the arts instead.
It was in Alexandria that Hassan discovered his love of music, thanks to a "brilliant" Italian music teacher: "It was a real love affair, and there is nothing like falling in love with a teacher who also falls in love with you. It was a very constructive love. It was a great time which also spoiled me for academic work in the field. Studying music was filled with joy and was not a silly duty. I learned all the arts of music from him in a most enjoyable way. At this stage, I was not really terribly motivated to go to the music academy." He travelled to London to pursue postgraduate studies in medicine and decided to study music in an academic manner at the same time. He sent some of his compositions to the Royal Academy of Music and was accepted as non-regular student. "I was always afraid that my love for music and the arts would be destroyed by academia. That doesn't mean I didn't study hard all those years. In London, every day, I would spend time between medical study sessions in the National Music Library," staying until he was literally kicked out every night.
At the same time Hassan deepened his knowledge in a range of sciences and humanities. His determination and multidisciplinary approach is an example of his great passion for life and knowledge. He sees this as a natural quality in every human being, a need for "homo sapiens" to develop. He recognises however that this quality is suppressed or even denied in today's world by fast food and fast info. "The desire to learn, curiosity, the joy of learning, the ecstasy of discovering and opening up new roads is at the core of human nature;" and he classifies creativity and experimenting as equally natural elements of life. As Hassan states, music is his own greatest passion. He believes that music is a fundamental part of the process of growing up and of education. "Music creates a thinking pattern. It creates knowledge of subjects and counter-subjects, it encourages interaction and interactivity: harmony, dissonance, consonance, movement. It worries me that in Egypt all those truths are denied. Bringing up generations without music and without the arts closes off the mind to the possibility of process, intellectual movement and interaction."
During his decades of active academic and artistic work in Egypt, Hassan instigated many projects aiming to bring music and the arts to the young. He initiated music appreciation activities at the Faculty of Medicine, where he lectured. He involved students in concerts, investing in and helping to develop their talent. The movement was very successful, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, and drew in thousands of young people as contributors or listeners. Hassan also recalls when in the 1950s Dr Hussein Fawzy initiated a music-appreciation movement, inviting young students to nearly free classical concerts. Later on, however, artistic activities began to slow down; and Hassan found more and more difficulties pursuing his musical enlightenment projects while art education was gradually being retracted from the educational system. Hassan wrote dozens of letters and petitions to the relevant ministers about the importance of teaching art and especially music in kindergartens, primary and secondary schools as well as universities. Nobody listened. "Every university should have an orchestra. Every development stage should be accompanied by musical and art education. Especially in last decades, what the regime wanted was obedient, mechanical supporters, and purposely nothing was done to improve this status quo. Our rulers 'allowed' music to be present because they had their arm twisted, and because they wanted to look civilized. In fact, serious music does not exist in their minds at all." When in 1991, Maurice Bejart visited Egypt, Hassan managed to convince him to allow students to watch the rehearsals - a practice hardly accepted by Bejart. The disappointment however came when the academic institutions themselves proved not interested in promoting this "golden opportunity" or in any way encouraging their students to attend the rehearsals. Still, Hassan's active involvement in music scene naturally resulted in his appointment as the first head of the new Cairo Opera House, in 1989 -" an experience that lasted for three years which Hassan himself describes as having been "wonderful": "It was so wonderful that it had to be spoiledâ."
Hassan explains that due to the nature of the opera's administration, there is enormous opportunity for corruption. The whole field operates as a mafia where people in power exclude everybody not belonging to the "clan," fighting talent and creative ability. Hassan recalls several young Egyptian musicians and artists whose careers, over many years, were destroyed " simply because they were not in that inner circle." According to him, many musical institutions in Egypt do not operate on a capability matrix, but are like a party with a loyalty matrix. "One of the things that angered many people and the authorities during my directorship was that I managed to produce a lovely production of opera Aida which cost only LE80,000, or The Marra11ge of Figaro for LE30-40,000. We don't have to have all those lavish productions. Millions of pounds to produce Aida in Luxor is an unnecessary waste of time, energy and funds." Hassan hopes to bring music and drama to everybody, believing that any place can turn into a theatre. "The richness of the production is not how much you spent on it but how much life you give it. You can make an extremely valuable and worth-while production on a very limited budget. In country like ours, we need to bring music and drama closer to the people."
Hassan also points to many concerts and performances as once-only events that fail to make any impact on the spectator or cultural life. "I tried to create a system by which a performance is a part of a bigger circuit involving preparation and follow up. There must be a pulse, a movement, a continuous momentum." Hassan's directorship of the Opera House aimed to elevate the role of art and music in society. He believes any opera house must offer a stable artistic environment and establish audience loyalty; this involves providing musical facilities and support for contemporary Egyptian composers and conductors: "I always advocated recording. We should have a publishing house attached to the opera to publish and distribute music. We need to encourage chamber groups, attach them to the opera. We should encourage schools and universities to get involved in the musical movement. We should reach out to the mass media to make those things public, explain them, make them available to the public, and eventually to follow up with a critical movement in the Egyptian press."
Hassan recognises dozens of obstacles and instances of mismanagement which explain the current lack of interest in the opera and musical activities as a whole. "Egyptian composers struggle for many years to have their works noticed and performed, they are never published, and if performed, then it happens without a sufficient preparation." Hassan also sees serious work to be done in terms of attendance to avoid the frequent 50- or 100-attendee concert; "every empty seat at the opera house is a crime." He also feels it is urgent to improve FM 98.8, which broadcasts gems of classical music but on a very weak frequency. During his directorship, Hassan initiated a project to move a small music library to an adjacent building on the Cairo Opera grounds, encouraging its development and expansion. Today he looks sadly at the empty rooms of the library, stating that "the whole environment became anti- cultural, anti-thought, anti-creativity, in fact anti- everything." Yet Hassan looks optimistically into the future finding the solution in the 25 January Revolution. "It is not only about faces that were removed, but hopefully the whole system will change. We need to get rid of corruption, abuse, retrograde thought and frozen ideas. There is a chance to purify the system and sow afresh on virgin land, with new people and new minds. But I'm frightened also that it will all be repopulated with people of the same mentality." Hassan hopes to see more young people in key positions, he refers to the Facebook youth who were present during the first days at Tahrir Square, prior to Salafis' and Islamists' attempts to hijack the revolution.
"We need a really modern constitution, which protects the rights of intellectual inquiry and freedom of thought. So far we have not had any of that." Hassan recalls the case of professor Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, who for his way of understanding Islam, was forced into exile and ordered to divorce his wife. "This is not just about Abou Zayd. Such an event kills thousands of potential creative professors at every Egyptian university. When you abuse someone like Abu Zayd, you also kill creativity and the urge to enquiry in thousands of students, professors, lecturers, researchers, all of society." And it is creativity which, to Hassan, represents one of the central values of human beings. He wrote a number of papers and books explaining his theory on life, humans, development and creativity, and the need for pluralistic, non-violent dialogue. Based on his research and experience of biology, sociology and anthropology, Hassan believes that creativity is central to birth: " the very raison d'etre of the human being. While preservation of life in all other animals is a mechanical process by which they survive through a programme keyed into them from birth, homo sapiens is the only living species not pre-programmed. As such human beings are capable of experiential creativity and interactive learning. "We are formed by a minimum of pre- programming that gives us our necessary reflexes, plus an enormous new load of interactive learning which we spoil because we try to deny this advantage and re- programme our offspring according to the way powerful parties want them to be. "Hassan's philosophy considers indiscriminate killing completely unnecessary even in a fight for survival. "We don't have to follow blindly a certain programme to survive; we can survive by experiential interactive learning which opens to us creative avenues for life preservation."
Hassan sees humans as prisoners of either- or phenomena, trapped in a linear black- and-white philosophy governed by extreme and mutually exclusive poles. "This had started from the beginning and it became especially apparent after the advent of the so- called Abrahamic religions. They have in a way strongly introduced this sort of polarised, black-and-white picture, which in my view is against life and development and against interactive potential." Hassan considers Osiris, Mozart and Gandhi to be the most important proponents of non violence as they have proved how it can be the key to power. Hassan points at a statement of Jesus's in the New Testament "My strength is made perfect in weakness." Gandhi, along with Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, were trying to break the circuit of violence and go against the linear philosophy of an eye for an eye. Mozart, who made an extremely strong impact on Hassan's creative and philosophical development, is considered by him to be one of the most important visionaries in the social evolution of humans, partly due to his ability to break this black and white circuit. "Mozart created an opera where there are no goodies and baddies. By the interaction of all components, baddies are part of the drama, and all characters are equal, all justified." In the attempt to promote non violence, Hassan also brings up the example of Osiris, from ancient Egyptian mythology; and it takes him back to the time when ancient civilisations gave knowledge to the world: "Western heritage has benefited so much from our heritage and now the West has become egocentric, arrogant and unaware of the enormous debt it owes the civilisations of Somalia, Iraq, India and Egypt. Then the flame of enlightenment was passed to Greece where it was destroyed by the uniform application of centralised Christianity and the eventual rise of the papacy..."
Contemplating the current state of Egyptian culture, Hassan looks at Islamic civilization, which at the time of its flourishing was far more open, far more appreciative and supportive of thinking and learning. He still believes that the great ages of intellectual advancement can come back to these parts, but it is not so easy: "It needs weighty people who mix knowledge with courage. It also needs a healthy social atmosphere. The Islamic world is surrounded and suffocated by what I call mine fields. There were many victims of those mines, specifically in 20th-century Egypt where interesting intellectuals could have brought enlightenment back to life: such as Taha Hussein, or Gamal El-Banna [an Egyptian Islamic scholar, best known for his criticism of traditional Islamic discourse] who unfortunately defeats his own object by going into trivia and side battles; or indeed Abu Zayd. Hassan emphasises the need to think, to differ, to interact, to engage in dialogue and to re-exercise the initial urge to enlightenment of Islamic revelation, which we have lost completely. He sees the rising tide of political Islam as a natural consequence of dictatorship. "This is the legitimate and expected son of tyrannical political stances. If it could, tyranny would have banned religion as well. It's the only area it can't ban as it did with art, creativity, music. Even if they did not really ban them, all the expressive arts are being marginalised while propaganda becomes the substitute art. We need to open up. If we are completely tied to a vision of the world as per Islamic scholars who lived 1,000 years ago, before transportation and the communication revolution, before the control revolution, we are completely lost. We must break out."
Over the years Tarek Ali Hassan's dynamism has not diminished. He is constantly working and creating and as such he serves as a role model. He still works at the faculty of medicine, continues to write on social and political issues, paints (considering it to be one of the natural forms of expression); he composes and he has recently directed his energies to chamber works. Many of his early compositions, including symphonic works, were lost in the flames of the Old Opera House where an office 'theoretically' working to encourage young creators held their only copy. Mansoura was among the fortunate compositions retrieved from the opera prior to the fire. Currently, Hassan is in the process of creating a New Egyptian Quartet, a formation which aims to take music to universities as well as audiences everywhere. The ensemble will perform Western composers (Shostakovich, Bartok, Mozart etc) but will be an outlet for Egyptian composers as well, and will feature works composed by Hassan such as his new piece for string quartet in four movements, which did not premiere yet.