I had not imagined that the great Egyptian theatre critic Nehad Seleiha and the former Portuguese president Mario Soares, who passed away within 24 hours of each other, would have more in common than the decades-long friendship that linked me to both. Yet one of the workings of fate is that it reminds us that death connects all human beings across the globe, however different their backgrounds and wherever life may lead them.
Nehad Seleiha had been a close and dear friend of mine ever since 1962 when we became classmates at the Faculty of English Language and Literature at Cairo University. We both shared a passion for the theatre, which we made the focus of our careers. After graduating, I became a playwright and she became the most eminent theatre critic of our generation. The curtains are gradually closing on this generation and as it does we are sometimes taken by surprise when one of our cast suddenly vanishes from the stage before hearing the thunder of applause they merit for their outstanding performance.
Rashad Rushdi, the chairman of the English department at the time, was the first to discern our love for the theatre. He encouraged us and became both our friend and mentor. A great and inspiring dramaturge, Rushdi was a landmark in the history of the modern Egyptian theatre as both playwright and critic.
Our paths parted for some years. I went off to Oxford to complete my higher education. After my return I left my university post and became a journalist.
Nihad also travelled to Britain — to Exeter where she would obtain her doctorate. Rashad Rushdi departed from this world.
Although our career paths separated us, the theatre would eventually bring us together again. Every performance of one of my plays was an opportunity to meet my dear friend again. Nihad would watch a play from the rehearsal period to opening night, and then become the first to subject the work to critical analysis. Nehad Seleiha’s approach to theatrical criticism was not limited to my works alone, of course. She applied that unique method of experiencing the growth of a play throughout its various stages of development from the text to the stage to all works she criticised. Are there any more theatre critics of that calibre left today?
When I joined my colleague Hosny Guindy in order to launch Al-Ahram Weekly, I asked Nehad to join the staff as the theatre critic for our English language newspaper. Her articles appeared regularly each week from the first edition of the Weekly in 1991 until last week when she passed away. I will take this opportunity to underscore the importance of her Weekly articles, which she wrote in English. I strongly recommend that they be translated into Arabic and published in book form because of how they document through a keenly observant eye and an acute analytical mind the past quarter of a century of the history of the modern Egyptian theatre.
Nehad Seleiha, like me, was born in 1945. She died at the age of 72 on 6 January. The following day, Mario Soares, president of Portugal from 1986 to 1996, died at the age of 92. At the time when Soares served as prime minister, I travelled to Lisbon to interview him. That interview would lead into a long and close friendship that was strengthened by the love we shared for the theatre and visual arts.
He was married to Portugal’s leading actress, Maria Barroso, who paid an official visit to Egypt in 1988 in her capacity as the Portuguese First Lady. I was deputy minister of culture at the time and responsible for making arrangements for her visit. A formidable personality, Barraso fought by her husband’s side in the struggle against the Salazar dictatorship and she continued the struggle after her husband’s exile. While in Egypt, she paid me the honour of visiting my home where she saw some paintings by my wife, the artist Nazli Madkour.
Subsequently, the Portuguese president invited me and my wife to Lisbon where he held a banquet in my honour at the mid-18th century presidential palace at Belem. A number of important figures had also been invited, including the Egyptian ambassador to Portugal at the time, Samir Seif Al-Yazal, and his wife. The Palacio de Belem overlooks the Tagus River, which originates in Spain. At the banquet that day Mario Soares spoke at length about the Arab influence on Western civilisation. For centuries, that river that weaves its way from Toledo to Portugal carried with it the influences and artefacts of the Arab civilisation that had flourished in Andalusia, he said. He also pointed out that Arabic was the second source of Portuguese after Latin and that some 600 Portuguese words come from Arabic. Conversation over dinner led from politics to culture and the arts. An enthusiastic collector, he told me that he had thousands of works of art that he housed in a special apartment that was equipped with special air-conditioning to maintain a steady temperature and level of humidity in order to preserve the art works. Also during dinner, I spoke to him of Al-Ahram Hebdo, the French language weekly that I was in the process of launching at the time. As I knew that Soares was fluent in that language, I invited him to visit the Hebdo offices during his next official visit to Egypt. He accepted and instructed his aides to include a visit to the newspaper in the agenda for his forthcoming visit.
True to his promise, the Portuguese president called in on the recently inaugurated Hebdo during his official visit to Egypt in 1994. We had arranged a seminar for the occasion since, after all, Soares was one of the most eminent 20th century European political figures and one of Portugal’s most important presidents. He was the founder of the Portuguese Socialist Party which came to power in the 1970s following the fall of the Salazar dictatorship. At the time of his visit to the Hebdo, Soares was honorary president of the Socialist International, having succeeded Bruno Kreisky. The Socialist International is an umbrella organisation for all socialist parties and organisations in the world.
It is amazing that the death of that great man last week went almost unnoticed in Egypt. Some newspapers did not even publish the news. Yet, Mario Soares was an ardent defender of Arab rights and causes. He was one of the first statesmen to urge the creation of an independent Arab state in Palestine in international forums. He was clear and unequivocal in his positions on this issue both as president of his country and as honorary president of the Socialist International. When I held my first interview with him, at which time Portugal chaired the EU, he accused Israel of intransigence and stated plainly that then Prime Minister Shimon Peres was “the real obstacle” to a diplomatic settlement. He appealed to the international community to undertake its responsibility toward that conflict, the perpetuation of which is detrimental to world peace.