“You are a fountain whose water sprinkles a picture-perfect paradise in which pomegranates are planted, bunches of grapes dangle, and flowers and sweet herbs dance with myrrh, aloes, spikenard, and every tree used for incense.”*
I was browsing the shelves of the bookstore at the American University in Cairo (AUC) last week – a risky activity for a bookworm like me – looking for, among other things, the poetry of Ahmed Shawqi in English.
But the works of the “Prince of Poets” (1868-1932), once celebrated throughout the Arab world and set to music for the legendary Umm Kalthoum to sing, were nowhere to be seen. Naguib Mahfouz, European classics, self-help manuals, even cookery books were there in plenty. Poetry, the store assistant told me, is outdated in Egypt. Nobody reads it. Everybody is into politics. Period.
So there’s no connection between poetry and politics? This, I thought, would have been news to Wordsworth, Sassoon et al in World War I, Akhmatova, Neruda, Mahmoud Darwish… But I kept my thoughts to myself and retreated, perplexed.
Bear in mind that one of Cairo’s prettiest public gardens – Al-Andalus Park – is dedicated to Ahmed Shawqi. With its precisely laid out terraces, neatly clipped trees, colourful tiles and statuary, it resonates with the atmosphere of medieval Spain, Andalusia to the Arabs. So there was, once, in Egypt a very deep appreciation of the poet’s work – sufficient for him to be commemorated with a lovely garden right beside the Nile at the western end of Kasr El-Nil bridge.
Presiding over the southern section of the garden, and set within an Alhambran-style loggia, is a statue of Shawqi himself:
Lawyer, translator, poet and playwright Shawqi was exiled by the British to southern Spain in 1914; hence the Andalusian theme of the garden. His works ranged from plays based on traditional fables and history (“Majnoon Layla”, “The Death of Cleopatra”), to epic poems on the history of Islam, to novels; but it was the publication of his “diwan” of poetry “Al-Shawqiyyat” in 1898 that established him as the leading poet of his generation in the Arabic language.
Set on the banks of the Nile, the garden is a wonderful way to remember Shawqi; but, popular as it is with locals young and old, particularly the less formal area lined with palm trees, I wonder how many of them are aware of his role in the development of Egypt’s thriving artistic and cultural life in the C20?
A few steps away, in the simpler gardens of the Cairo Opera, there’s another statue: this time, of Shawqi’s protege, the musician and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab (c.1907- 1991), who set many of Shawqi’s poems to music, including for Umm Kalthoum. It’s a fine setting as the Opera is the venue for concerts of both western classical and Arab art music. But arguably the somewhat rigid statue and plain gardens don’t quite capture the breadth and romance of Abdel Wahab’s range, acting having been another of his talents.
As befits gardens that play host not only to the Opera but also to the Museum of Modern Art, satellite galleries showing works by contemporary artists, and art institutes, the grounds also feature an amusing modern take on a traditional theme:
These days, by an extraordinary twist of fate some of Egypt’s greatest C20 writers are reappearing in unexpected places: they are being referenced by the young reformists and revolutionaries who came to prominence after January 2011. Far from the mainstream – and even farther from commemorative gardens – they have been co-opted by Cairo’s street artists for cartoons and graffiti that pull no punches.
This is something new in Egypt, in my experience: layer upon layer of political and social comment is being built up, blocked out, re-created. And the arts are part of the living, ever-changing fabric of urban life in a time of flux.
For example, recently we came across a portrait of the C20 lawyer, playwright, essayist and social/political commentator Tawfiq Al-Hakim (1898-1987) in Mohammed Mahmoud Street. Part of a series of images covering a rough fence in this much fought-over street near Tahrir Square, the image was entitled “Return of the Spirit”, a reference to his work focussing on another period of great change and uncertainty in Egypt, the revolution of 1919.
The fact that Al-Hakim was chosen for this particular art work is telling: among Egypt’s sharpest writers and commentators, he examined many of the issues and conundrums of social and political life in plays such as “The Fate of a Cockroach” and “The Sultan’s Dilemma.”
[First part in a three-part series on: “The garden as remembrance”.]
* Excerpt from “The Wisdom of Solomon” by Tawfiq Al-Hakim, translated by W.M. Hutchins, published by Three Continents Press, Washington, D.C.