CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO Magda Saleh, in the house she shares with her husband, Jack Josephson, on Cartwright Road overlooking Coecles Harbor.
Magda Saleh’s life, like Egyptian history, can be divided into distinct periods. In her case, there are four of them, half with attendant major “culture shock.” But looking back on her Egyptian girlhood, her career as a prima ballerina, her American schooling and her experience as director of the New Cairo Opera House, she seems almost serene.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am now if I hadn’t gone through all that, if I had just stayed in Egypt, been a regular little Egyptian girl, you know, growing up and getting married — what most Middle Eastern women do.”
It’s been a question, she said, of reinventing herself, “which I’ve had to do several times as I went along, from ballerina to academic to opera house director to wife.” Magda is also known as Mrs. Jack Josephson. She and her husband share a home overlooking Coecles Harbor. Although they maintain an apartment in the city, they’re faithful weekenders.
Magda was born and grew up in Cairo, with three brothers, one older and two younger, the daughter of an Egyptian father and a Scottish mother. Her father had been the first graduate of the School of Agriculture at Cairo University and received a scholarship to study in Glascow, where he met Magda’s mother. He brought her back to Egypt and married her in 1937.
Although Magda has a number of cousins in Great Britain and “a good part of me resides there, I do consider myself Egyptian. I was raised there. It was a good life in those days. Egypt was a wonderful country, with wonderful people and a wonderful climate. It’s much changed now, and appallingly overcrowded. The population problems have caused severe repercussions on the environment and affected the whole fabric of the society.”
She began to study ballet as a child. By the time she was in her teens, she was seriously involved in it, enrolled in a private music school with a division for ballet studies that was staffed by teachers from the Royal Academy of Dance in Britain. Then the Moiseyev Dance Company came on tour. “The director was invited to see the little local ballet kids and called me over,” she recalled. He “told me I was talented and there would be a teacher coming from the Bolshoi to start a school in Cairo. He said that when that happened I should apply.”
By the time she was 14, she was studying with Russian faculty in an institute subsidized by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. “It was like a university of the arts, housing seven institutions and ballet was one of them. Every year, more and more Soviet professionals came, added classes, until there was a full complement of a nine-year academic training program. My class was among the first of the girls.”
After five years, she and four others were sent to Moscow on scholarship and “the five of us graduated after two years from the Bolshoi Academy there. Moscow was certainly a toughening up experience for us. We were these spoiled little girls when we arrived there. We knew how to take care of ourselves when we got back.”
They were 21 years old and they “were ready to take on the world.”
The five young women, back in Egypt, became the nucleus of a professional company and wanted nothing more than to perform. A year later, in 1966, they were in their first full-length ballet and the Egyptian public was stunned. Because of the level of their performance, “They couldn’t imagine we were Egyptian,” Magda said. “All this had been developing very quietly and all of a sudden here we were. Egyptian audiences loved it.”
Magda was the prima ballerina for the next five years. She danced the lead parts in “Giselle” as well as the “The Nutcracker” and toured as a guest artist with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad, dancing the title role in “Giselle” and that of Kitri in “Don Quixote.”
Then tragedy struck. The Cairo Opera House, “a beautiful little gem, just a little past its 100th birthday, old and wooden,” burned to the ground in 1971. Magda was at home when “a fellow dancer came by on his motorcycle, and said the Opera House was burning, so I jumped on behind him and we headed back downtown and came upon Opera Square. It was filled with hundreds, maybe thousands of people, all standing silently, and there was the Opera House burning. There was a major fire station close by but they had no water pressure and only two hoses and it was a pathetic effort. It burned to the ground and we all stood there and wept. I remember saying our tears could have put it out, it was so awful. It was the end of an era and a death blow to all theatrical cultural activities in Cairo.”
“My mother was a woman with great foresight,” Magda remembered. “She said I had to face the fact that without the Opera House, everything was going downhill. ‘If you want to continue in dance,’ she told me, ‘find yourself another track.’” And Magda did. With the help of her family’s contacts — her father was by then vice president of the American University in Cairo — she applied for and was granted scholarships to study the arts and traditional dance, first at UCLA, where she earned a master’s degree, and then at New York University, where she was awarded her doctorate.
She went on to make a documentary film about the traditional dances of the Nile Valley, touring and recording throughout Egypt. That film has become something of a classic and it is archived and available for viewing in the Lincoln Center Library in New York.
In 1983, she returned to Cairo and her alma mater, the Higher Institute of Ballet, as a professor. She became dean there. She was appointed the founding director of the New Cairo Opera House, a task eventually involving a group of more than 500 people — faculty, students and administration. Raising money to plan and build it was a labor of love and eventually a great success. It opened in 1988.
In 1992, she returned to America on sabbatical to New York University. She ran into Jack Josephson, whom she had met while he was traveling in Cairo years before. After his early retirement as a chemical engineer, the Egyptian studies buff became a research associate at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. A widower with three grown children, he was ready for the next phase of his life. They married a year later. She worked with him initially, helping with some editing and currently is thinking about writing a book of her own. Jack introduced Magda to Shelter Island, where he’d had a home for years.
Asked about the “the Arab Spring” and Tahir Square, she seemed to think long and hard. “Some feel that everything’s falling apart, she said, “and some are very hopeful. For me,” she said, “I’m very proud of what they’ve done, very proud to be an Egyptian. I have nothing but admiration for the courage of the people who stood in that square and repeatedly have gone back there. They’re up against some pretty powerful forces. It’s hard to know where it’s all going to end. Or who will come out on top.”
In the meantime she waits, watches and hopes for the best for Egypt, and for two of her brothers and their families who are still there. And she enjoys the life she and her husband have made for themselves both in the city and here in their second home.