My friend Mahmoud Abdallah, the former head of Misr Insurance Holding Company, took me from his home in Princeton, New Jersey to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York to watch the final rehearsal of "Turandot".
And because my friend takes opera seriously, he explained the story of Turandot to me on the way to the opera house and had me listen to beautiful arias that distinguish it from other operas we had watched before.
What Abdallah did not know was that I had become an opera fan myself, since he first introduced me to this art 10 years ago. Fascinated with the music and the singing, I always focus on the time and place of the opera, and the highly complex story behind the seemingly simple – if not childish – events.
This was the first time I watched an opera by Giacomo Puccini (1859-1924) and the first time I witnessed a story taking place in China, as opposed to Europe, which was the setting for other operas I had watched before, or Egypt, which was the setting for Verdi’s Aida, which I saw three times.
Turandot was a Chinese Queen that vowed only to marry the man who could solve three riddles. If he was unable to do so, he would be decapitated. The Emperor promised to fulfill her wish, regardless of how many heads lined the walls of the city.
Finally, a prince arrived who was able to easily solve the riddles and the Queen fell in love with him, bringing the opera to a happy ending. As for me, I was left wishing there was still more to see.
The first observation I made about the opera was that we, even the intellectuals among us, may know a lot about Europe in the Middle Ages, but we know very little about other places in the world, particularly China and its relationship with the Islamic world at that time. As it stood, all the princes who came asking for Turandot’s hand in marriage were from Islamic emirates.
The second observation, which is the core of the opera, was that the puzzles were not only related to the personal life of Turandot, who wanted to avenge her grandmother (whom a prince had kidnapped, tortured and killed), but were about China as a whole. It was a homeland that could not be salvaged, unless the answers to the riddles were found: “hope” which opens the way for the future, “blood” which links the nation and the “heart” of Turandot, which is the heart the people of China.
I wonder what Egypt’s riddles would be? It is not important to cut off the heads of those who would try to solve them with religion or sorcery. More important is to accept the challenge with a project that restores hope to the people.
Egypt’s problem is that the aspirations of its politicians and leaders are limited, whereas real success is attained only when a national project is realized and when hope becomes an ongoing integrated national action.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a televised speech that he would not give the Egyptian people a moment of sleep if he became president. Did this happen? Did the Egyptian people stay vigil? Did they give blood, sweat and tears for Egypt to earn a place among other nations? There are some who did so, in defense of the homeland and in the face of religious fascism, but what did the remainder of the tens of millions of Egyptians do, other than talk a lot and do little? And what about those who obstruct all possible effort for growth and reform?
Did Turandot lay the foundation for the Chinese renaissance that we see today? The China of that time was not the China of today. It emerged from the shell of the Middle Ages to become a superpower in less than a century.
When will Egypt become a regional superpower again, like it used to be in ancient and early modern history? This will not happen with talk or patriotic songs and slogans. It will only happen when we challenge our riddles.
The answers to Turandot’s riddles were “hope,” “blood” and “heart.” I say the answers to Egypt’s riddles would be “future” and “confrontation.”
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm