6 - 12 January 2000
Issue No. 463
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (319)
Participation in public life and contributions to education and the arts were little-known aspects of the lives of some members of Egypt's royal dynasty, which was overthrown in 1952. Departing from the widely known pattern of cold detachment and arrogance characterising royalty, some princes and princesses behaved differently. Prince Omar Tousoun, for example, played a role in the anti-British 1919 Revolution and was an ardent advocate of unity between Egypt and Sudan. Prince Yusef Kamal was a dedicated sponsor and generous financial supporter of the arts. One princess contributed handsomely to the coffers of Cairo University. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk * tells the story from reports and articles published by Al-Ahram
illustration: Makram Henein
The image of the scions of the Mohamed Ali dynasty created by newspapers, novels turned into films and television series could use some revision. Egyptians have commonly come to believe that most of the members of the ruling aristocracy were cold-hearted and arrogant, that to them Egyptians were no more than peasants who merited no more than the cruelty that the aristocrats meted out to them. This image was epitomised in Yusef El-Sibi's Rudda Qalbi. However, it is only accurate to a point.
Another facet of the portrait, reflected particularly in the literature of the 1952 revolution and embodied in Tawfiq El-Hakim's Al-Aydi Al-Na'ima (Soft Hands), was that of the carefree, "hereditary idle" class. Again, the picture is only partially accurate.
Nearly half a century has passed since the Mohamed Ali dynasty was relegated to the annals of history. In the interests of historical integrity it is time to round out the portrait, to flesh out those other contours that do not always mesh with the generally held perception.
Contrary to the popular belief, contemporary historical studies confirm that some members of the ruling family actively contributed to the nationalist struggle. Prince Omar Tousoun, for example, was a leading figure in the 1919 revolution and a staunch advocate of the unity of the Nile Valley, one of the primary tenets of the Egyptian delegations that negotiated with the British over national independence. Prince Hussein Kamel, before becoming Sultan, founded the Royal Agrarian Society, which is broadly acknowledged to have been instrumental in improving the lot of Egyptian farmers. Many other members of the royal family figured prominently in the establishment and financial sponsorship of a variety of philanthropic societies and schools.
In fact, in 1873, Gasham Afet Hanem, the third wife of the Khedive Ismail, founded the first school for girls. Having purchased an old palace in the Souyufia district, she personally spearheaded a campaign to convince women to send their daughters to her school in order to receive a tuition-free basic education with board. The school opened with an enrolment of more than 100 students, a figure which doubled the following year. Eventually the Saniya School, as it was renamed in 1889, became a landmark in the history of female education, especially when it began to specialise in the training of female teachers. Up to that point, the only institute that had offered any form of education to women was the midwifery department in the Qasr Al-Aini Medical School in the reign of Mohamed Ali. And even then its students were mostly Ethiopian women who were destined for employ as midwives for the ruling family and the Turkish aristocracy in Egypt. Afet Hanem's groundbreaking institution also encouraged other women, notably upper class Copts and Syrians, to open schools for "the education and refinement of girls and young women," as advertisements for such new institutions were frequently worded in Al-Ahram.
The name of another matron of the royal household is associated with the development of the Egyptian educational system until today. In 1914, Princess Fatma Ismail "extended the hand of charity and benevolence" to rescue the six-year-old national university, eventually to become Cairo University, from certain closure due to financial straits. As Al-Ahram reported on the occasion, she "put the proceeds of 661 feddans of some of the best land in Daqahliya in trust to the university, bestowed six feddans in Boulaq Al-Dakrour for the construction of a new university building and donated LE18,000 worth of precious jewels."
In order to raise liquidity, the university put the princess' collection of jewels up for sale. The advertisement the university posted in Al-Ahram, among other places, is in itself a valuable historical document. The items to be sold included: "An emerald necklace consisting of 18 stones in diamond encrusted settings, originally presented as a gift from Sultan Abdel-Aziz to the Khedive Ismail Pasha (Fatma's father). Four pieces bequeathed by Said Pasha including: (1) a diamond bracelet containing as a centre-piece a 20-carat diamond surrounded by 10 large oval-shaped diamonds and attached to which is a chain consisting of 18 large and 56 small square stones. (2) A diamond broach in the shape of a heart pierced with an arrow. (3) A gold necklace from which hangs a pendant consisting of three diamonds, the largest of which weighs 20 carats. (4) A diamond ring, pyramidal in shape and giving off a bluish tint." The notice continues: "The university has decided to display these precious jewels in its main hall every Monday beginning on 19 January 1914 from 9.30 to 11.30am for those interested in purchasing them." The princess' collection was at no loss for buyers, as a consequence of which the nascent university was at no loss for essential funding.
No less a contributor to the Egyptian educational system was Prince Yusef Kamal. The son of Ahmed Kamal and the grandson of Ibrahim Pasha who succeeded his father Mohamed Ali was, as one contemporary biographer wrote, "an Egyptian geographic explorer and enthusiast of the hunt for wild animals, towards which end he travelled extensively in Africa and India." But the ardent sportsman was also an erudite scholar who "translated numerous historical, geographical and commercial accounts from French into Arabic and published them at his own expense." In 1908, the young prince entered the ranks of his dynasty's civic-minded builders, founding the School of Fine Arts, originally based in one of his palaces in Darb Al-Gamamiz district. Not only did he bring over some of the best known artists in Europe to staff the school, but he also covered the students' tuition expenses. According to Al-Ahram, the School of Fine Arts admitted 120 students per year and after graduation successful candidates would be sent to Europe on a scholarship with an annual LE200 stipend, also funded by the prince. It is to this patron of the arts that we devote the remainder of this episode of the Chronicle, because of the breadth of his philanthropic concern.
Noted for his considerable wealth and munificence, particularly after founding the School of Fine Arts, Prince Yusef became the target of numerous requests for assistance to educational and cultural projects. Between 1915 and 1918, he served as the director of the Islamic Benevolent Society, the largest and most active charitable society of its day in the educational field. Because the society suffered chronic financial shortages, the prince sought to help put its books in order with some funds of his own, but with little success. During roughly the same period Prince Yusef acted as president of the National University. However, he was not the first member of the royal house to occupy that position, having been preceded upon the university's opening by Prince Ahmed Fouad, who held the position from 1908 to 1913. Prince Yusef had taken over from Prime Minister Hussein Rushdi who had served as National University president in the intervening years before having to turn his attentions to the affairs of state. However, the prince only served in this capacity for a year (1916-17), after which he decided to devote his time to his travels and to his pet project, the new School of Fine Arts.
Prince Yusef's imprint on the development of the arts went beyond the inception of the new school he founded to enhancing the appreciation of the arts in society at large. A survey of Al-Ahram during the first years of the 1920s reveals the extent of his contribution. In April 1920, the newspaper allocates considerable space to the coverage of an exhibition of Egyptian artists that opened that month. On 5 April, Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad covered the exhibition for Al-Ahram in his visit to "The World of Art", as he entitled his article. The noted writer and critic hailed the first exhibit of "Egyptian paintings" as a manifestation of the social revival the Egyptian people had set in motion with their popular revolution the previous year. As he put it, "It is not a coincidence that the reawakening we are experiencing should express itself simultaneously in our music, theatre, art and poetry. The Egyptian people today have now come to understand what it means to sing; their words are no longer merely a vehicle to transport to the ear frivolous tunes and flimsy melodies."
El-Aqqad went on to praise the exhibit's sponsor, Prince Yusef Kamal, for helping to bring together this collection of works painted entirely by Egyptian artists, "who applied excellent craftsmanship and fine aesthetic taste in the production of works charged with a special blend of artistic sensibilities and national spirit." El-Aqqad takes pause to offer prospective viewers his understanding of painting. Applying his standards to the works on display, he writes, "Many of these pictures are well crafted, not a few display a flair for individual expression and give hope for higher levels of originality and creativity."
In the same Al-Ahram edition, the famous poet Abdel-Rahman Sidqi, later to become the director of the Opera House, offers his impression of the first exhibition of Egyptian artists. He writes, "This exhibition is an initial yield that holds great promise for Egypt if the people of the nation show commitment if their leaders nurture the venture. It is shameful that we should have a museum dedicated to our time-honoured ancient relics and not one dedicated to our present-day creativity and innovation, as though there were no connection between Egyptians of today and their Pharaonic ancestors."
Nor did Sidqi omit praise for the precedent Prince Yusef set for reestablishing the link with the artistic spirit of the past. "He founded the School of Fine Arts with his personal funds, thereby laying the cornerstone of the edifice of our modern artistic revival. He, alone, paid all expenses, every successive gesture of generosity made out of genuine good-heartedness and natural magnanimity. Today, his love for art inspired him to sponsor an exhibition of Egyptian artworks to lift the spirits of the artists and encourage the organisers of this activity."
Clockwise from bottom left: Tawfiq El-Hakim; sitting (l-r): Mohamed Wassim, Omar Tousoun, Mustafa El-Nahhas and Makram Ebeid; Mohamed Ali; Princess Fatma Ismail
The news and commentaries surrounding the exhibit inform us that the seedling that Prince Yusef had planted 12 years earlier had begun to produce offshoots. At the time of the exhibit itself, the Society of Egyptian Fine Arts was in the process of formation. In the School of Fine Arts on Darb Al-Gamamiz Street, the society's members met to draft its charter in response to the initiative of Mohamed Abdel-Halim, a graduate of the new institute Prince Yusef had founded and, at the time, an employee in the Ministry of Public Works. In addition to Abdel-Halim, other luminaries who had graduated from Prince Yusef's school were present at the meeting: Yusef Kamel the father of Egyptian impressionism, Ragheb Ayyad the founder of the Egyptian expressionist movement and, above all, Mahmoud Mukhtar, the most famous Egyptian sculptor of the century. Of the latter, Al-Ahram of 4 May 1920 relates: "The soaring fame of Mahmoud Mukhtar, graduate of the School of Fine Arts, brings to mind the fame of his alma mater which was founded by Prince Yusef Kamal. Mahmoud Mukhtar was a member of that study mission that travelled to Europe shortly before the outbreak of the war, enabling him to spend the war years perfecting his craft at the hands of masters. When his fame began to spread, the students of the school sent a telegram to the prince to express their gratitude "for the blessings which you have bestowed on Mahmoud Mukhtar throughout his artistic career. The consummate skill with which he wrought the statue named Egypt's Awakening is but one of the fruits of that generosity with which you have encouraged and patronised the fine arts in Egypt".
The fine arts were among the major areas in which Egyptian women were beginning to make their way. In fact, Sharifa, the wife of the former prime minister Riad Pasha, directed the celebrated exhibition in which Princess Samiha, the wife of Sultan Hussein Kamel, received the gold medal, the wife of Ahmed Bek Hegazi the silver medal and the wife of Mahmoud Shukry Pasha the bronze medal. Numerous other female artists received certificates of honour.
An amusing footnote regarding women's participation in this exhibit appears in Al-Ahram of 3 April 1920. In a letter to the newspaper, a person signing his name "an exhibitor" expresses his surprise that "Afifa Iskandar, the wife of Iskandar Effendi Ibrahim, will not be taking part in this exhibition and has not submitted a single piece of her outstanding works that have won the appreciation of all and sundry." He regretted to say that her abstention from participating did not "emanate from any reluctance to perform her duty, but rather from a desire to put at ease the minds of the exhibition committee members who, out of resentfulness of Afifa's superior talents, scorned her good work. In response to this, we can only advise the honorable committee members to avoid such errors in the future."
Evidently, the exhibit's chairwoman had sought to appease the artist, but to no avail. To make it up to her, the chairwoman put on display two of the artist's pictures from her personal collection and sent a letter to Afifa apologising for not having submitted the works in time to be appraised by the judges panel. She goes on to inform her that "one of these pictures is that of our national hero Saad Zaghlul and the other is that which portrays Mustafa Kamel and Mohamed Farid against the background of the Egyptian flag." She concludes, "I had wished our exhibit could have had the additional splendour of your precious works and that future exhibitions shall not be so deprived."
Perhaps the most important indication of Prince Yusef's early achievements in promoting the appreciation of the arts was the crowds the exhibition drew. As Al-Ahram reports, "Hundreds of visitors, including both Egyptians and foreigners, flocked to the exhibit in the morning and even greater numbers appeared in the afternoon. The exhibition was scheduled to close yesterday evening, but such is the demand among the public to see the splendid paintings, etchings, carvings and statues that the committee decided to keep it open another two days in order to give those who have not yet seen this excellent display the opportunity to feast their eyes."
On 15 April the judges panel, consisting of the French dean of the School of Fine Arts and five other foreigners, announced their results. In addition to the medals that were awarded to the women mentioned above, the judges awarded gold medals to Mahmoud Said and Shukri Tyab, silver medals to Yusef Kamel, Ragheb Ayyad and Adolf Girgis Qaldas, and bronze medals to Amin Lutfi and Labib Tadros. Commenting on the results, Al-Ahram congratulated the winners and expressed its hopes that they will lead Egyptian art to new and greater heights.
Such was the landmark success of the first exhibition of Egyptian artists sponsored by Prince Yusef and directed by Sharifa Riad in 1920 that Egyptian leaders and members of the public adopted their cause and pressed for further exhibitions. Their appeal would come to fruition the following year, in April 1921, with the "Spring Arts Exhibition" sponsored by the Egyptian Society of Fine Arts. The exhibit attracted none other than nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul who was accompanied by Wisa Wassef and Hafez Afifi. "Saad Zaghlul was received with great courtesy by the director of the exhibit and was conducted on a tour of the exhibition hall by the celebrated Mahmoud Mukhtar Effendi. Mukhtar was keen to direct Zaghlul to the works of Egyptian women artists .. which delighted his excellency greatly."
As the presence of Saad Zaghlul suggests, this exhibition, like its predecessor, was heavily permeated with nationalist fervour. Writing for Al-Ahram, Mansour Fahmi expresses his joy that the exhibition was, above all, about patriotism. "The more beauty we bring to our country out of our love for it the more we fire our passion for it, for what greater happiness can there be than to live surrounded by beauty." Moreover, the Egyptian philosopher argued that the artist had a duty to his nation. "A skilful painter has no right to hold on to a masterful work, nor does a wealthy man have the right to buy it in order to keep it to himself. The government, which is the public's first representative, must accumulate and safeguard, for the public welfare, those precious treasures that enrich the soul and inspire good deeds."
The third annual spring exhibition, held in 1922, was a disaster. The quantity and quality of the entries were lower than previous years and public attendance was poor. In an article for Al-Ahram, Abbas El-Aqqad sought to explain the reasons. Firstly, he wrote, the organisers had not received the same degree of assistance and participation as in previous years. "Last year, nationalist fervour was at its peak and the general exuberance overflowed into the exhibition rendering it vibrant and alive." However, he observed, part of the fault lay with the artists themselves.
"As last year's turnout enabled them to sell off their works at the prices they asked for, they decided to take a rest this year and give the exhibition a miss." To encourage public attendance, El-Aqqad described some of the pictures that impressed him during his visit. He was particularly moved by a portrait of a village sentinel and a destitute youth by Ahmed Sabri and by Mahmoud Said's "eloquent" portrait of the provincial director of Daqahliya. Unlike the previous exhibitions, the 1922 exhibit featured works of foreign artists residing in Egypt.
* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.