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Japanese-Built Opera House to Open in Cairo

June 23, 1987 GMT

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Cairo’s cultural community is getting a spectacular new home 16 years after a mysterious fire destroyed the city’s famed century-old opera house.

Japanese builders of the domed, seven-story complex insist it will be ready on time next year, despite language problems that made engineers and laborers communicate by sign language, and other snags in the construction process.

Work on the cultural center began in May 1985 on Zamalek Island, a prestigious residential district in the heart of Cairo. The project is financed by a Japanese government grant of $47 million.

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In addition to a 1,100-seat opera house, the complex includes two smaller theaters, a museum, a library, an art gallery and a conference hall.

Its showpiece, though is the opera house itself, which replaces the ornate edifice that the Khedive Ismael, a Turkish viceroy, commissioned in the 1860s and opened as part of his extravagant Suez Canal dedication gala in 1869 that threw Egypt into financial ruin.

A still-unexplained fire destroyed the building in 1971. It was a blow to the country’s elite classes and many other Egyptians to whom it was a source of great national pride. However, opera lovers form only a tiny minority in Egypt, and the old house frequently was used to stage plays and concerts.

President Hosni Mubarak specifically asked for the cultural center when he visited Japan in 1983. Some were surprised by the request, considering the magnitude of economic problems facing Egypt.

Japan is among Egypt’s leading suppliers of economic aid for the development of agriculture, industry, transportation and electric power. It provided about $2.75 billion in loans and grants from 1973-85, according to Nao Endo, second secretary at the Japanese Embassy.

The work site at the cultural center is a beehive, with hundreds of Egyptian and Japanese workers swarming over the mammoth structure. No expense is being spared: floors and walls of Italian marble; Swedish-made synthetics for the main stage; electronic systems from Japan.

Hiromi Tazawa, 30, administrator of the Egyptian office of Kajima Corp., the Japanese construction company building the complex, said the main structure is completed.

″We are starting to finish the inside work like ventilation, insulation, pipes and electric equipment,″ he said.

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Tazawa said about 30 Japanese engineers and administrators work on the project with about 500 Egyptians, all laborers except for six engineers.

The local hire engineers help the Japanese communicate with the workers. But sometimes the system breaks down, Tazawa said. When it does, he said, ″We use hand signals and body language. It works.″

Signs are posted in Arabic, English and Japanese, with illustrations to make sure that messages reach the workers.

Some of the Egyptian workers agreed that language is not an insurmountable problem.

″Most of us know some English, because we’ve worked with French and British contractors before,″ said Aly Sobhy, a plumber.

″The Japanese are very nice. They have a sense of humor and are not as nervous as the French. A lot of them pick up several words of Arabic after a few months.″

Tazawa said the work schedule was deterred slightly by the recent holy month of Ramadan, when Islamic teachings require Moslems to abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. Most of the workers are Moslems.

Other setbacks have been caused by design changes or other alterations ordered by the Egyptian Culture Ministry, such as removing a staircase after it was put in or tearing down walls.

Despite delays, Tazawa said the complex will be finished by next March, which is the scheduled completion date, and possibly earlier.

Mubarak plans the official opening for Oct. 6, 1988, to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the 1973 Middle East War, which Egypt celebrates as the Arab world’s only victory over Israel in four wars.