Haynes Mahoney to Spearhead Arts, Culture Community Initiative at AUC

Haynes Mahoney stands in the Malak Gabr Arts Theater.
Haynes Mahoney stands in the Malak Gabr Arts Theater.

With just a cursory look at his résumé, Haynes Mahoney seems an unconventional choice to head AUC’s new neighborhood arts and culture initiative.

President Francis Ricciardone’s recent hire, who will be responsible for connecting AUC with the surrounding community through arts, has an undoubtedly prestigious background in public diplomacy. Born in Germany, raised in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere, Mahoney attended AUC’s Center for Arabic Study Abroad in 1991, served most recently as the public affairs officer for the Yemeni Affairs Unit in Saudi Arabia, and before that, as a senior Syria advisor in the Conflict Stabilization Office of the U.S. Consulate. Mahoney’s prior duties have included creating a network of media contacts on the growth of extremism, coordinating U.S.-Syria strategy and, as charge and deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria, taking over for an ambassador who withdrew for personal safety reasons.

All of which is to say that “arts and culture” doesn’t seem to immediately jump out on his résumé. But then there’s his six-year stint as a cultural affairs counselor in Cairo. In this position, Mahoney brought top artists, musicians and performers to Cairo through partnerships with cultural institutions throughout the country.

There’s also his obvious, enduring love for the arts. Just a few weeks after settling back into Cairo -- he arrived the day of the Amr Diab concert at AUC, fittingly -- he speaks fondly of the University, the talent of its students and its potential for becoming a cultural hub.  

News@AUC: Let’s start by talking about New Cairo. AUC is walled off, making it seem separate from the community, but it also has a lot of potential for hosting events. What do you think are the positives and drawbacks of its location?

Mahoney: New Cairo obviously is an expanding area, and Cairo itself -- Old Cairo -- is bursting at the seams. It always has been. And it’s constrained geographically: [Old Cairo] is in this valley. When I say Old Cairo, I mean let’s say Cairo from the 20th century and before –– so that’s why they moved out here. They’ve created this huge area of new housing that is now starting to fill up. But what you have had here are malls and cinema complexes and really not much else.

So my job is really to figure out how to make AUC attractive to the burgeoning population that’s moving out here, utilizing all of the resources and, first and foremost, the people who are here at AUC. The students are already very active and doing programs, as I saw -- the night I arrived was Amr Diab, so it doesn’t get much bigger than that. There were 4,500 people coming in. If you have this extraordinary facility and you’ve got 4,500 people coming on Friday, what if you had other things going on here that would bring them back?

News@AUC: So what kind of “things” are possible?

Mahoney: You could have exhibits of arts, performances -- and I saw the performance that the students did, Lysistrata, so you’ve got amazing talent right here. The challenge is to bring people in from the community.

Of course, I've been meeting with the deans, the faculty and the staff, and they are all very supportive of engaging the community through the arts.  They would be the permanent structure of the effort since students graduate and move on.

Haynes Mahoney in his office at AUC.News@AUC: You’ve talked a lot about what AUC could do for the community, but what will all this arts programming do for the students here? How would a non-arts major, or people who don’t consider themselves a performers or artists, benefit from AUC becoming a community cultural hub?

Mahoney: Well, that’s a key question because the primary mission of AUC is to educate the students who are here. When you’re a student, you’re dealing a lot with theory. You’re seeing the world through the eyes of academics. Most students have not yet had professional responsibilities, and they’ve been involved with kind of a limited range of people. With this initiative, when you’re a performer, for example, and you’re reaching out to an audience that is not just your parents or your fellow students, but is outside the community, then that really exposes you to marketing, to getting feedback, to dealing with the outside -- the media -- a lot of these sort of practical aspects of putting on a program. You have to do a lot of thinking about ‘Who’s our target audience?’ So I think it’s a lot of hands-on experience.

Because as I understand it, the students who put on the performances, they’re not all drama majors, but they come from all different disciplines at the University. Later on in your career, that experience helps you a great deal –– doing things that involve teamwork, planning, focusing your energy, managing your time. I think all of that is really key to a liberal arts education.

News@AUC: Right. So you’ve been in Cairo before. You know the area and the language and you were probably connected with a lot of great cultural programs and artists then. How much of your past experience will you draw from now?

Mahoney: I was here in two capacities. One of them was cultural affairs officer, and that’s the closest thing to what I’m doing now. And in that area, I got to know, of course, the people who ran the Cairo Opera, a lot of the film community, a number of university arts departments and drama departments, Helwan University, for example, their music and art schools. So I think I’ll meet people who I haven’t seen for a while. Of course, new people come along, but I think that will be a big asset as we draw on local resources.

News@AUC: So this position, though it’s similar to your last stint in Cairo, seems very different from your last two jobs. There you were dealing with handling extremism and working with tough situations in Yemen and Syria. How will you make the transition?

Mahoney: Well, I dust off the - you know. But I’ve never stopped being interested in language, in culture, in literature -- Arabic literature specifically. That’s something that I’ve never dropped.

News@AUC: Who is your favorite Arabic author?

Mahoney:  I would have to say Alaa Al Aswany. I’ve read all three of his books. I recommend them because he has, I think, a really good bird's eye view of contemporary Egyptian society. You’ll find him in English.. The Yacoubian Building is one of his best.

News@AUC: So what about you? Are you an artist yourself?

Mahoney: I do a little writing, but none of it has been published. I work on stories related to my experiences. I haven’t really finished. I think my problem is I get started and I can’t really figure out how it ends [laughing]. In my career, I’ve run into and had a lot of different situations, met a lot of people and seen a lot of things happen.

News@AUC: Maybe this is the year you get published. You’ve worked with President Francis Ricciardone before. What is it like to be back with him?

Mahoney: I was President Ricciardone’s public affairs counselor [in the U.S. Embassy] for three years. He has millions of ideas, and he has huge energy and enthusiasm –– just undying enthusiasm. I really enjoy that. I think that’s the reason I took the job: because of that inspired look on different possibilities.

News@AUC: Can students expect to see any of these millions of ideas come to fruition before the year’s end?

Mahoney: Well, it’s a little early. But I think he’s really committed to this beautiful campus and using the beautiful campus to get the community involved. And he’s very very keen and impressed by the students and what they’ve done. Amr Diab just as an example, but only one example of what they’re capable of.

News@AUC: Are you planning on meeting with the students?

Mahoney: Oh, yes, absolutely. They’re key players. I definitely want to meet with the heads of the clubs. I think they really have the passion and the ideas, and we really need to do them justice.

I just think the important thing for me is to listen to everybody first. To try to bring people together. To have coordination and visibility so people know what other people are doing, internally first. And then to try to get that information out to the community. But I think that’s the challenge because there’s so much going on already. And there are only so many resources as we know.

If there’s a performance going on, then we want to give everybody who might possibly be interested in attending it a chance to attend it.

News@AUC: So is there an affordability consideration? Not everyone can afford a EGP 500 Amr Diab ticket.

Mahoney: Definitely.

I don’t think you can get Amr Diab for much less than that, but you should also do things for 20 pounds and you should do things for free. You should be aiming at things from a very wide spectrum. OK, it’s New Cairo. It’s more affluent than what we might call “Old Cairo,” but nevertheless, there are people here, I’m sure, who are on limited budgets. We shouldn’t exclude them. Many of those people are probably intellectuals, artists, people who are culturally creative. We want to include them as well.

News@AUC: Ok, last question, and it’s a philosophical one. With all that’s going on in the world, and you’ve seen a lot of it, why is art still important?

I think it’s not just important, but it’s really at the core. It gives people meaning. Because if people don’t have meaning - that’s the problem we’re facing now: that everybody is on their cell phones or devices, responding to the concerns of the immediate moment, but not having a longer perspective. So, art is a universal way of letting people look at the meaning of their lives and how they relate to history as it’s going on.

Art endures. People come and go; empires rise and fall; governments disintegrate, but the art remains because it has an eternal message to it.

News@AUC: Wow, did you practice that?

Mahoney: No.