Aida in Qatar*
Ann Kerr reports from Qatar on opening of a unique Arab opera celebrating the life of 11th century scholar and mathematician Avicenna (Ibn Sina).
Published: Tuesday, November 18, 2003
In celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal and the Cairo Opera House in 1869, Guiseppi Verdi was commissioned to write an opera that took place in Egypt. The result was one of the world's most beloved operas, Aida, about the love affair between an Ethiopian slave girl and a royal prince. In 2003, at the opening of a unique educational project in Qatar on the Persian Gulf, another opera has been commissioned and presented, Avicenna. Written by a Qatari poet, Dr. Ahmad Al-Dosari, its theme symbolizes the Muslim contribution to human knowledge The hero of this opera is Avicenna, the European name for the Muslim scientist and philosopher-poet Ibn Sina born near Bukhara in 980 A.D. The opera is an ambitious telling of his stunning accomplishments in medicine, music, mathematics, astronomy, and engineering, enlivened by the drama of health problems and romance in the royal family of Bukhara and the help of Avicenna in resolving both.
The theme of the opera could not be more appropriate for the opening of Qatar's Education City , a project that is almost as ambitious in scope for Arab and regional education as the Suez Canal was for transportation. Avicenna, who was a conduit of the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato to Arab and Persian thought, and thereby a repository of it for the European Enlightenment a few centuries later, symbolizes the opportunity that Education City offers as a channel of education for the Arab world both west and east. Three major universities and a research institute were invited to open campuses that will bring to the Gulf Region many of Avicenna's interests. Texas A&M offers chemical, electrical, mechanical, and petroleum engineering; the Simon Weil Cornell Medical Center will bring modern medical training; Virginia Commonwealth University will specialize in technical skills for women; and the RAND Corporation is assisting in the development of improved K-12 education to build a well-qualified applicant pool for Qatar's new universities. The new RAND-Qatar Policy Institute will engage in research and planning projects throughout the region.
As a member of the Advisory Board for the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, I was one of dozens of participants from the new campuses and institutions invited to take part in the launching of Education City. On the first night of the two-day festivities, we were picked up from the Ritz Carlton Hotel and delivered by bus to the Shaqab Fort, a historic monument in the center of Doha where the opera was to be presented, the first ever to be written and produced by Arabs. While Dutch and Icelandic singers had come to perform, the producer was an Egyptian, the set designer a Syrian, and the costume designer a Lebanese.
We trudged up precarious grandstands in the dark and waited an hour and a half after we reached our seats for the opera to begin. The performance started with camels and flaming horses prancing across the outdoor stage, and continued with melodious arias for the next three hours. This was not an event for the faint-of-heart, but it was a chance to be part of a first in the Arab world and to admire the way in which they tried to create an artistic production that was western in style but with their own cultural setting and flavor.
* This article was first posted under the title "Aida on the Arabian Gulf." The intention was not to affirm an Arab claim on this body of water but simply to express polite appreciation to my hosts in Arab Qatar. The Gulf is, of course, claimed by both Persian and Arab peoples, and is, we concede, more widely known as the Persian Gulf, and I have corrected the one mention of it in the text of the article to so indicate.
As for Avicenna himself, I have received many emails claiming that I have misrepresented him as an Arab while in fact he was Persian. A careful reading of the article would indicate that this is not an accurate interpretation of what I wrote. I never asserted that Avicenna was an Arab but only that he made a major contribution to Arab culture, which is true. I described him only as a Muslim, which no one would dispute. Avicenna was born in lands controlled by the Persian empire, though they were not part of traditional Persia then or now. He wrote primarily in Arabic. He was thus a major influence in both ethnicities. The artistic work that I was reporting, however, originated in the Arab world and that is all that I sought to convey to my readers. I have added to my article a mention of Avicenna's contribution to Persian as well as Arab thought. -- Ann Kerr