During my last visit to Calcutta, I visited the Tagore Palace. It was the closest I could get to the Bengali mystic and poet beyond communing with his poems and paintings. The palace is one of the places he lived and where he created music and wrote plays. Wanting to elevate and liberate his nation as well as others in the same dilemma, Tagore promoted Asian unity and connected with intellectuals who had the same goal he did: to bring culture to the masses. I couldn’t find any proof at the palace that Tagore knew the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawki, but I felt that he may have. The simplest thing was to check the Internet; all I could find, however, was an obituary sent by Tagore on the occasion of Shawki’s death in 1932.
Upon my return to Cairo, I learned that Shawki’s villa had been purchased by the Ministry of Culture and made into a museum. The street where it sits is called Ahmed Shawki Street. At one time, the gardens of the villa extended up to the Nile; later they were cut away to make a big street. Shawki’s was a European-style villa, but as soon as I climbed the marble staircase into the reception area, the Orient welcomed me with intricate arabesque decorations on the walls and ceiling. An Arab wall lamp with a multicolored glass shade subtly gave color to the space. One of the workers there greeted me as if I were an old friend.
I asked the guide if she knew of Tagore, and if the Bengali had ever visited Ahmed Shawki. She told me there was a box once sent to Shawki by Tagore, but it was unavailable, as it was being restored. She had no more information.
The poet’s bedroom was down a corridor behind the reception area and was of Western decor. Once I passed the mirrored doors, there was a brass bed and two armchairs, a cupboard, and a lot of other furniture that forms a clutter in my memory. These days the windows offer little by way of a view; in the past, the view was of fields and the pyramids, so it must have inspired the feeling of being in one of the great spaces of rural Egypt.
As I walked around, I learned some things about the poet known as the prince of Arabic poetry. Unlike Tagore, Shawki was not awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Like Tagore, he felt that poetry and music would touch the masses. He wrote many songs for Umm Kulthum, including one entitled “The Nile.” The composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab was his protégé and lived with him for many years. I don’t know where they met, but on his deathbed Ahmed Shawqi said to his valet to send his greetings to his son Mohammed, from where I assumed Abdel Waheb was the son of his loyal valet. The room Abdel Wahab occupied is quite spacious, with a sofa and an armchair. A wall light shades the room in lines, creating the appearance of musical scales. Black shades cover the green sofas. The fabric isn’t actually purely green, but in my mind it’s green, like the color of Egypt.
I walked around the small reception space where Ahmed Shawki would have received his most important guests. (His close friends were received in his bedroom, where he also worked.) His office overlooked the Nile, with a big balcony like a terrace that must have been a pleasant place to sit. A golden clock stands on his table, along with some other objects that I don’t recall, probably more decorative than essential. There are two libraries for his books. In his wife’s bedroom, there’s a poem written by him on the back of the bed.
As I walked down the stairs, I saw that the fer forgé railing is very French, as well as musical in line. Shawki had lived in Paris and Spain; he was a man who was aware not only of his own culture but also of European culture, like most of the bourgeoisie of Egypt of that time.
On my second visit, I walked around again, and I noticed a small yellowish card in the reception room, faded from time, with information typed in English about a particular event attended by the nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul, then the head of the Egyptian Parliament, who postponed a parliamentary session for a few hours in order to be there. On that occasion Abdel Wahab sang and played the oud. (Also at the museum is a photograph in which Shawki sits with young Abdel Wahab and Zaghloul.) The song was written by Shawki: “I Am Anthony, I Am the Killer.” The lyrics revolved around the battle of Actium and compared it to the defeat of British colonization. The great Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy, who also was a friend of Shawki, had written a poem on the subject, entitled “God Abandons Anthony,” in 1913. The poem addressed the fall of Alexandria, so it seems to have been a subject that was much discussed and related to at that time. Unfortunately, after the party, the poem was destroyed, and no one has heard of it since.
With all the music, lights, and history evoked, the room around me moved to life. The red velvet chairs and the arabesque decorations became like qasida from a poem. The Ahmed Shawki Museum offers a glimpse of the life of a man who interacted with the world and gave a great deal to his culture. The library contains photocopied poems by him, though unfortunately there are no translations into any other language, so they can only be read in Arabic. The museum is theoretically open every day from 10 am to 5 pm, but it’s best to check before visiting. You can take three photos of the museum. It is possible to draw the space, but better still to do it fast because the guide is always with you.
6 Ahmed Shawki Street, off the Nile Corniche, Giza