Sunday,17 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)
Sunday,17 February, 2019
Issue 1377, ( 18 - 24 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

‘We think we know each other’

Dina Ezzat delves into the multi-layered world of Egyptian-Russian relations as efforts continue to bring the two countries closer together 


Key advocate of Egyptian-Russian relations Mona Khalil says that both countries need to “learn how to deal with one another and to trust each other” if the relationship is to succeed.

The daughter of an Egyptian-Russian couple, Khalil belongs to both cultures. Born in the 1960s, she grew up between Cairo and what was then Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and saw close relations between Egypt and the former USSR. She also saw the changes that took place with the new political leadership in Egypt in the 1970s and then the deeper changes that came with the fall of the USSR. 

In the early years of the new millennium Khalil saw Egypt and Russia trying to rebuild relations, this time on the economy rather than politics. They are again trying to do so today, with perhaps more invested on the side of Cairo.

“I am convinced that we have endless opportunities to do business together in the interest of both sides. But I am not sure that we are up to these opportunities,” Khalil said.

Founding co-chair of the Russian Egyptian Business Council (REBC), Khalil is on a mission to promote cooperation by both sides. However, she is also a witness to the blocks on the road to this cooperation. “The first problem is that we think we know one another when we just think that we do,” she argued.

 “Many in Egypt, including the business community, don’t realise the major differences between what was the USSR and what has become the Russian Federation. The difference is not just about territory, but also about mentality and indeed the political and economic realities of the world at large.”

“We interact and we think we understand one another, but we really don’t,” she stated. “This is something that I have noticed many times in business meetings, and the funny thing is that at times both sides think that they have been well understood but later realise that this was not the case,” she added.

There is also the problem of establishing the right contacts between the two sides “because there has been a drop in business communication so people do not really know enough possible business partners. There are obvious names well known on both sides, but this is not enough to establish wide and diverse business cooperation between our two countries.”

The same lack of information applies to business options and regulations, and these are issues that the REBC is working to address. “Priority number one is to work on cultural communication — the need for both sides to better understand the mentality and concerns of one another,” she said. “This is precisely the objective of the cross-cultural competence course that I initiated and that I now intend to expand,” she added.


Offered first in Russia and due to be offered in Cairo later this year, the course works on “explaining Egypt and Russia in terms of value orientation, reaction and motivation”, she said. “Cultural sensitivity and awareness is crucial to helping people do business together,” she stressed.

Khalil is working to open channels between entrepreneurs on both sides. “You could call it a long-term plan for business match-making whereby we divide the members of business communities on both sides into categories, according to the type of business, and then we arrange for meetings whereby introductions are made and business contacts exchanged. Then we start creating a database for possible business partners,” Khalil said.

As part of such plans, the REBC is investing efforts in lobbying entrepreneurs on both sides. When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Cairo on 11 December last year, the REBC was able to announce that it had put together 120 possible business people on both sides, mostly in small and medium-sized businesses.

“I think governments are working more on large business partnerships, those that might only need a bit of help on communications skills. We work on smaller business entities and previously unexplored opportunities,” Khalil said. She added that this has been the purpose of REBC business missions since 2015.

On a parallel track — Khalil calls a side note — the REBC is working to facilitate the awareness of government bodies of the concerns and expectations of the business communities on both sides. “This is designed not only to facilitate, but also to carry out essential work as promoting business cooperation is done in business circles,” she said.

She thinks that governments, and the exchange of high-profile visits, could help to promote “cooperation by interested members of business communities. But a true awareness of the potential of business environments for both sides is what really counts. This is why the REBC is dedicated to promoting Egypt and Russia as possible business destinations and works on providing legal advice and help through relevant firms,” Khalil said.

She said that the recent opening of a branch of Banque Misr in Moscow had been a very helpful step in encouraging business between the private sectors of both countries. “If we could see a Russian bank opening in Egypt too, that would be an added step forward, especially with the current work being done to facilitate chances for currency swaps,” she added.


The REBC is also working on establishing a green trade corridor between Russia and Egypt “to help adjust the relevant taxation policies”. It is working on including Russia on Egypt’s reference list for pharmaceuticals and veterinary products, and it is launching phytosanitary centres in Alexandria and Novorossiysk to improve the chances of the exchange of agricultural exports on both sides “and to make sure that shipments do not go from one side to the other and then come back for lack of the required approvals”.

Khalil is convinced that the basic requirements for the promotion of business between the two sides are being established and that they have to be established more thoroughly before the two countries can talk seriously about larger cooperation schemes like a Russian Industrial Zone in Egypt.

“I think we are on the right track. It will take time for the two sides to better understand one another and to overcome preconceived ideas or images of the past. Once this is done, things should work out very well,” she concluded.

Vala and Mohamed

RECONNECTING CULTURES: Sherif Gad, director of the cultural programme at the Russian Cultural and Science Centre (RCSC) in Cairo, also wants to see a new beginning in cultural exchanges between Egypt and Russia.

When the Cairo International Book Fair opens later this month, visitors to the RCSC section will be introduced to the Arabic translations of contemporary Russian novelists, he says. “The work is currently being finished, and we are hoping to introduce more than one new novelist to Arabic readers,” Gad said.

He said that Mohamed Nasr Al-Gebali, head of the Russian Department at the Al-Alsun School in Cairo, a specialised higher language school, is currently looking into translations that will be issued this year. Al-Gebali presented the Arabic translation of an important Russian contemporary novel, The Time of Women by Elena Chizhova, at last year’s fair. The book was widely praised inside and outside Russia when it was published in 2009 and is the author’s analysis of the tough times that Russia lived through during World War II. 

“Egyptian readers are very well aware of leading classical writers such as Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the outcome of the translations into Arabic that were done during the time of the USSR,” Gad said. He added that with the “declining budgets for translation” in Russia after the fall of the USSR there was a drop in the introduction of new Russian titles to Egyptian readers “who now do not really know very much about contemporary literary production in Russia”.

 The fact that the drop was not just in the budget for translation but also for subsidising translated copies was not helpful either because the subsequent increase in the prices of books was disabling. “This is why we worked very hard with the bodies concerned in Egypt and Russia to secure an agreement in 2016 to start an ambitious scheme to translate 100 titles from Russian into Arabic,” Gad said. He added that this would not be a fast process “given the limited capacity for literary translation”.

However, the new translations would join the rich literary collection available at the RCSC. The plan to introduce translations of new Russian literary titles would be done in parallel with a plan to regenerate interest in the classics of Russian literature, he said. Egyptian readers under middle age had not been able to enjoy inexpensive copies of translated Russian literature, and younger people in particular would be targeted in the plan to revisit the classics of Russian literature.

This year, the RCSC will host a seminar on the sidelines of the Cairo Book Fair to discuss Mikhail Bulgakov, a Russian author who lived in the first half of the 20th century. Bulgakov was known for his political and social satires that were at times banned and at times liked by former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

“Over the past few years and with the launch of a new phase in high-level political relations between Egypt and Russia, we have seen a growing interest among younger people in learning about Russian culture. Our seminars at the fair have always been well attended,” Gad said.

He added that this year, “with the push given to bilateral relations at the presidential level and the qualification of the Egyptian team to join the World Cup in Russia later in the year, we expect to see a lot more attention. We are also seeing growing interest in screenings of contemporary and classic Russian cinema, and there has been more interest in learning the Russian language,” he stated.

Since its establishment in 1956, the RCSC has attracted a great deal of attention for its many activities. “There was a 10-year drop starting in the 1970s when political relations between Cairo and Moscow were bad, and it took time for interest in our activities to be fully reignited, especially since the centre is now working with more budget limitations. But when all is said and done, we get a great deal of interest, and this is growing,” he argued.

The diversity of activities offered by the RCSC is helping to enlarge this attention. There is a keen interest in the ballet and music classes that the centre offers at reasonable fees. There is also an interest in learning Russian, though “it was much higher with the Russian tourism to Egypt, and then it declined a little,” Gad said.

Then there is an interest in benefiting from the centre’s diverse IT and foreign-language classes. “The latter offer English, French, Italian, German and Chinese and were designed to serve the interest of parents who used to bring their children for the music and ballet classes,” he said.

“I think we have quite a decent interest in our activities, but I know that we want to expand these and to enlarge the interest of the Egyptian public because this is our mission: to reconnect our peoples through cultural channels,” Gad concluded.

Vala’s family in USSR

EGYPT THROUGH A RUSSIAN LENS: Russian photographer Xenia Nikolskaya has a passion for taking photographs of Egypt.

It was some 20 years ago that Nikolskaya took her first shots in Egypt as part of a Russian archeological mission working in Memphis. “It was working on Pharaonic archaeological excavations. It was very interesting of course, but my work was just about photographing the items excavated,” Nikolskaya remembers.

For a full month in the summer of 2003 Nikolskaya had so much work that she did not have sufficient free time to pick up her camera and to wander around. In 2006 she came back, this time on her own, and she had ample time to go around and to start what has developed into a lifetime project of photographing “what I could call some of the very beautiful unseen parts of Egypt”.

 “I was lucky because I was supposed to be part of a larger visiting Russian press tour that I had to miss. But given that my ticket and reservation were still valid, I decided that I wanted to come anyway,” Nikolskaya remembers. With no particular agenda of work, she had a new adventure every day. Then one day in Garden City, a Cairo neighbourhood she later developed a strong affinity with, becoming her residence of choice, Nikolskaya found herself in front of the former villa of Wafd Party politician Fouad Serageddin Pasha.

“All the windows were closed, and there was so much dust, but when the guard, who had agreed to let me in, turned the lights on I could not believe what I saw: beautiful architecture, beautiful interiors, and beautiful furniture. It was the kind of grandeur that I remember from my hometown of St Petersburg,” she recalled.

Nikolskaya spent two hours taking pictures of the interior of the villa, its owner having died some years earlier. The pictures appeared along with others from Cairo in a small exhibition in St Petersburg, where “they got incredible attention, with many people saying things like they would not have expected that there were such houses in Cairo,” she said.

But Nikolskaya knew that the capital of Egypt had a lot more to offer. “When people think of Egypt, they think of the history, the monuments, and the exotic beauty of the women, and so on. I thought other parts of Egypt were not well-known, at least in Russia, and maybe elsewhere in the world, and I decided to come back for more images,” she said.

With a large enough selection, Nikolskaya managed to assemble a book, entitled Dust that came out in 2012 from Dewi Lewis Publishing. The book contains only a segment of shoots “of places where time has stopped and the forgotten architecture” of Khedival Cairo whose 150th anniversary was celebrated last year and that has long intrigued this Russian photographer.

Her collection includes a great deal more than the remains of some of the outstanding architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries. She has travelled throughout the country and has been endlessly taking pictures. “They are the kind of pictures that you would not find in the international press, which I think tends to stereotype Egypt a bit, and they are not postcard material either. They are pictures from Egypt — the real Egypt,” she said.

It is also only a matter of time before these pictures also come together either in a series of exhibitions or books. “I have done 15 years of photography in Egypt, and this will certainly have to come out somehow,” Nikolskaya said.

Photo by Nikolskaya from her book Dust

WITH LOVE FROM USSR: Valentina Gregorevna Konovalova has a moving love story to tell of how she came from the former USSR to Egypt.

It was one late afternoon in the spring of 1965 when Valentiana Gregorevna Konovalova, or Vala, was walking back home from the social club of the factory she worked for in the city of Zaporizhia in Ukraine when she ran into a group of Egyptian men who were trying to find their way to their residence.

“They were lost. They stopped to ask about directions, and I helped them. I learned that they were a group of engineers who had come from Egypt for training in the city,” Vala said. It was not the first time for this young Russian woman, still in her early 20s, to have come across Egyptians, especially engineers who were often in the city for training. Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Vala recalls, had also visited the city during the planning for the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

“The city has similar dams to the one that was later built in Aswan,” Vala recalled. However, on this occasion, one of the engineers, Mohamed Hammad, wanted to find out more about this pleasant and helpful girl. A few days later he went with his friends to the social club of the factory that Vala worked for, and they met again. A few months later, Hammad went to the family house with his supervisor and a translator to propose to Vala. Her father’s answer was a firm no.

“We knew very little about Islam and Muslims, and my father was very worried about me. He thought that if I were to marry a Muslim, I would end up with a man who would lock me up in the house and never let me go outside. I told him he was wrong, but he would not listen,” Vala recalls with a sigh.

A few months later, Hammad was moving to Moscow for the remainder of his visit to the USSR which was coming to an end. “This was not a time of easy communications. It was the 1960s and the USSR. I was not sure what to do because Mohamed had left for Moscow, and I wanted to see him and tell him that I would never marry anyone else,” Vala recalled in tears.

Russian translated book by Al-Gebali

She got herself on a bus that took her to Moscow in an uncertain search for the man she loved. “You see, sometimes things are just meant to be. I was just arriving in Red Square in Moscow, a big city even at that time, and the car of Mohamed’s supervisor just stopped in front of me and he stepped out of the car,” Vala recalled.

Having asked the chief engineer about the residence of his group, Vala asked him to notify Hammad so that he could meet her at the entrance of the hotel he was staying in later in the day. At the entrance of the compound Vala arrived to find that nobody was waiting for her, however. But “because things are meant to be somehow,” she ran into one of Hammad’s friends who took her to him.

“The supervisor had not told him, and he had not told me either that everybody was leaving on the following day,” Vala recalled. Vala and Hammad promised to exchange letters. “But we all know what it was like with letters at the time,” she recalled. Communication was not easy. Every time Vala learned there was an Egyptian delegation coming to her city, she would go to meet it in the hope of meeting someone who knew Hammad. 

On one occasion she met with a visiting MP who heard her story. When the MP returned to Egypt, she went to see the Hammad family. With the help of the MP, Hammad sent Vala a notification that he was coming to Zaporizhia to propose one more time. Having become curious about the lives of Muslims, Vala had already decided to leave for a trip around the Muslim states of the former USSR so that she would be able to see people’s lives for herself and convince her worried father.

Concerned that she would miss Hammad while on her excursion, Vala had agreed with her sister that the latter would send her a telegram as soon as Hammad arrived to the post office of one of the cities she was planning to tour. “Every day, wherever I was, I would go the post office in the evening to check for a telegram. And one day the telegram was there. It was when I was in Uzbekistan, and there was no direct transportation to take me home,” Vala said. 

She had to take multiple forms of transport in order to arrive home, only to find that her father had put out her suitcases because she was marrying Hammad and leaving with him. Following the marriage, Vala joined Mohamed in Kuwait where he was working at the time. They visited Egypt often, where she integrated very easily “thanks to the great love of Mohamed, the great affection of his family, and to the fact that I worked very hard to learn Arabic right after I got married,” she recalled.

Later, Vala changed her name to Vala Hammad. A few years down the road, “with no mention of the idea from Mohamed,” Vala chose to convert to Islam. “I was happy to do so because I loved the Islam I saw living with Mohamed — a passionate and exceptionally self-denying husband who always put his family, wife and four children first, and who looked after his sisters so well. He was a great man,” Vala said.

Throughout her years in Kuwait and later in Egypt where she lived on her own with the children first as her husband was then working in Abu Dhabi, Vala never lost touch with her home back in the USSR, first in Ukraine and later in Russia after the fall of the USSR.

It was three years ago that Vala lost Hammad. She still cries almost every time she mentions his name and praises his endless good traits, not least his writing her long letters when they were apart. “We were truly in love, and we both subscribed to the same idea of building a life together and of sacrificing for one another. This was what made us able to overcome any cultural differences. However, we both came from socialist societies. It was a different time, a different era altogether,” she said.

Vala is not planning to join her two sons Khaled and Ahmed when they go to Russia later this year to support the Egyptian team in the World Cup. She said she would rather stay in Egypt with her sister, who has decided to join her in Egypt after having married off all her own children.

They will watch the games on TV. Vala is determined that she will support the Egyptian team every time it plays. She is a big fan of player Mohamed Salah. But she would be very happy if the cup goes to either Egypt or Russia, even if it cannot go to both, she says. 

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