Egypt hit by ‘cultural drain’ as artists can’t make both ends meet
Cairo - Having tried for years to move ahead with low pay, Egyptian ballet dancer Hazem Zakareya decided to leave Egypt.
“I was paid far less than I deserved. This has been extremely frustrating,” Zakareya said.
With rampant inflation in Egypt, it had become increasingly difficult for the 29-year-old performer to make a decent living. When the Royal Norwegian Ballet Company offered him a spot in its training, he packed up and left.
Hundreds of Egyptian artists, like Zakareya, are leaving the country due to worsening economic conditions. Singers, musicians, film-makers, art directors and painters are moving away in the hope of finding better opportunities abroad. They have become another casualty of the country’s deteriorating economy.
The cultural drain is certainly evident at the Cairo Opera House, Egypt’s most prestigious art hub. Hundreds of artists are on the payroll of the house, which organises artistic events and festivals every year. As of late, however, the Cairo Opera House has been unable to pay its artists, said Inas Abdel Dayem, who is chairwoman of the facility.
Abdel Dayem said half the artists who used to work for the Opera House have quit due to the tough financial conditions.
“Low salaries are causing all these people to leave for other countries,” Abdel Dayem told local media. “They emigrate in their pursuit of greener pastures abroad.”
Many, she said, are resettling in Dubai, Oman, Kuwait or Bahrain, where there are better opportunities for more money. For Egypt, long viewed as the cultural powerhouse of the Arab world, the flight of its artists amounts to a national scandal. Musicians, singers, actors, poets, novelists, playwrights and ballet dancers like Zakareya are leaving in large numbers, draining the national cultural scene of artistic value.
Former Culture Minister Gaber Asfour expressed fear that the migration of artists was a sign of cultural decadence.
“It is such a shame that we are giving up on the people we have raised,” Asfour said. “This country had spent hundreds of millions of pounds on these artists but now it is losing them because of the lack of money.”
The government is allocating minimal funds to arts and culture as more essential needs remain unfulfilled. The budget allocation for cultural activities in 2016 was $9 million, Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam said. However, only a fraction of that money reached the Opera House, dimming the future of some artists and placing limitations on others.
Abdel Dayem called on authorities to increase funding for the Opera House and the arts in general, describing the migration of artists as a “national disaster.”
“The Opera House will continue to function and its doors will remain open to the public so long as there are artists working in it,” Abdel Dayem said. “Therefore, their salaries should be raised to stop them from quitting.”
Describing artists as Egypt’s “real treasure,” Asfour urged the business community to help save artists and national art.
“If the business community can offer help, artists will stay,” he said. “It is a real shame that good artists are leaving, while the bad and the mediocre are staying.”
Zakareya said he did not want to leave but he had to. In Egypt, he was not only paid poorly but also far less than his foreign counterparts.
“This forced me to go somewhere else where I would be appreciated for what I am worth,” he said.
After receiving training in Norway, Zakareya moved to Hungary, Croatia and other European countries. He successfully performed across Europe.
Zakareya later moved to Spain, where he and his wife established a dance academy. Things are good for him now but he said he thinks of the hard times he spent in Egypt before taking his chances abroad.
“It was so bad back there because of corruption. If you want to do any work you have to flatter top decision-makers,” Zakareya said. “Without praising these people, you will never get a chance.”