|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 February 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The last pasha's den
Fayza Hassan watches as a witness to the major events of Egypt's 20th-century political history bids its final occupant farewell
A ROYAL RESIDENCE: As I picked my way between the hundreds of cars parked along Garden City's narrow streets, heading in a roundabout way towards Fouad Serageddin's villa, I remembered that a few years ago there had been talk of making the entire quarter a pedestrian area. The number of vehicles stationed on the footpaths has not diminished since then; obviously this particular project, although sponsored by Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata, has been shelved indefinitely. Gamaleddin Abul-Mahasen Street has acquired new streetlights, however, near-perfect reproductions of the original ones, an indication that at least some desire to rehabilitate this once ultra-chic residential neighbourhood does exist.
The few villas to have resisted the chaos of thoughtless development have a forlorn air, like dowagers dressed up in their faded finery who have found themselves in a garish shopping mall by mistake.
At the turn of the century, well-to-do Egyptians and British civil servants elected to dwell a stone's throw from the British Residence in Qasr Al-Dubara, and built themselves sumptuous residences in the new quarter of Garden City, imitating those that dotted the landscape of the great European capitals. They had hired foreign architects and imported their interior décor from Paris, Brussels, or Venice. They had planted shaded gardens where luscious fruit and beautiful flowers ripened, a reminder that their secluded spot had been carved out of a couple of khedival palaces and their extended parks. Fouad Serageddin's abode was not very different from the others, even if it was conceived on a much grander scale.
Built in 1902 by the Italian architect Berlei, it was originally commissioned to serve as residence to Kaiser Wilhelm II, then German emperor and cousin of the king of England. With the advent of World War I, the Kaiser's visit to Egypt had been postponed indefinitely, leaving his completed palace standing in the midst of its prestigious surroundings, an empty frame awaiting a regal picture. The small palazzo was used for a time as temporary quarters for a German school, until Chahine Pasha, Fouad Serageddin's father, moving from his estate in the Delta to the capital, purchased it in 1930 to make it his Cairo residence. At his death, Fouad, his oldest son, and the last of the Egyptian pashas, became head of the family, ruling over the house and its large family circle.
THE SECRET ROOM: A few weeks ago, I came to see the villa, alerted by rumours of its imminent sale following the death of Fouad Serageddin Pasha. I found the main gate, with its heavy wrought-iron frontispiece bearing the famous interlaced initials (SC: Serageddin Chahine), padlocked. It was a cold day and the wind whispered shrilly in the eucalyptus trees, but no other form of life was manifest in or around the building, which, in the early sunless afternoon, looked somewhat foreboding. I hung around for a while, overwhelmed by the nostalgia of a quarter suspended between two eras, wrenched out of its colonial past, but unable to launch itself properly into the future.
Far top: hall and mezzanine; from top: painted ceiling and columns on top floor; rose marble columns and staircase; Samia sitting on the "marriage sofa"
(photo: Ramy Serageldin)
A caretaker across the street finally noticed me and, thinking I might be a prospective buyer, took it upon himself to inform me that the bawwab had gone to see Nelly Hanem * (one of the Pasha's daughters) in Zamalek and would not be back before evening prayers. He, on the other hand, was ready to answer any questions I might have. "Only a few items have been sold," he proceeded unprompted, even volunteering the buyers' identity; "a large carpet, the small dining room with its eight chairs and a superb chandelier, which should take its rightful place in a palace," were gone. There were still many treasures inside, however; according to him, this was a unique chance to buy priceless objects. The government should turn the house into a museum, my informant added. "It was the headquarters of the [Wafd] Party, you don't know how many great events took place in this house!" Shaking his head in wonderment, he pointed at a shuttered second-floor window. "This is the secret room where the Pasha met with members of the Wafd," he whispered confidentially. "This is history, it has been written in books."
FOUAD SERAGEDDIN: The most illustrious and certainly the most controversial member of the Serageddin clan, Fouad was born in 1910 in Kafr Garayda, in the governorate of Gharbiya. The son and grandson of umdas (village headmen) and rich landowners on both sides (his mother came from the Badrawi Ashour landowning family, into which Fouad was to marry later), he studied law and graduated from Cairo University in 1931 and worked for a short while in the public prosecutor's office. He joined the Wafd Party and, in 1936, ran successfully in the parliamentary elections as Makram Ebeid's protégé. Later he became close to Mustafa El-Nahhas, Wafd leader and successor to Saad Zaghlul, who -- when the party returned to power in 1942 -- appointed him minister of agriculture. In 1943 (having remained loyal to El-Nahhas when his erstwhile sponsor, Makram Ebeid, broke with the Wafd), Fouad was given the interior ministry.
A lull in his political career in 1944 brought him back to managing the family's estate and serving on several corporate boards, including that of the Coca Cola Company. He won a seat in the Senate in 1946 and became secretary-general of his party in 1948.
Past master at party politics, Serageddin soon manoeuvred the more liberal Wafdists out of influential posts. In 1949 he became communications minister in the Sirri government then, in 1950, upon the Wafd's return to power, he accumulated several posts, serving as minister of the interior, finance and education. During his rise to power, he made a respectable number of enemies who accused him of corruption, to the point of creating a rift between him and Prime Minister El-Nahhas. He was further discredited by rumours that he was manipulating the Alexandria cotton market and by his staunch resistance to any attempts aimed at limiting land ownership. In 1952, as minister of the interior, he was accused of having contributed to the debacle of the poorly equipped police forces resisting the British in Ismailia.
Following the 1952 Revolution, his collaboration with the Free Officers was short-lived as he opposed once more any land reform programme. He resigned from the Wafd and was arrested twice, but released each time. The main accusations leveled at him were rigging the cotton market, granting favours to the king, inadequately planning the abrogation of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and failing to act decisively during the 1952 burning of Cairo. He received a 15-year sentence but was released later and placed under house arrest.
THE BORN-AGAIN WAFD: In 1975, the Serageddin family regained some of its confiscated land. In 1977 Fouad revived the Wafd Party, but Anwar El-Sadat promptly banned it. The party resumed its activities under President Mubarak, however, allying itself briefly with the Muslim Brotherhood. It was never able to revive the popular appeal that had propelled it to the fore of the political scene after the 1919 Revolution, due in part to the change in the political climate, the ageing of its leaders and the internecine power struggles that marred its latter course. Members of the "New Wafd," however, are convinced of its importance as one of the leading opposition parties: "The association of the Wafd Party with Egypt's nationalist movement ensured its backing by a body of faithful supporters throughout the post-1952 period. Its revival in 1977 is proof of the appeal of its platform of moderate nationalism," commented Ibrahim Dessouqi Abaza, the present assistant secretary-general of the New Wafd and member of its Supreme Committee, as we sat in his office in Doqqi where he is at present supervising the restoration of Sayed Badrawi's villa, recently purchased as the party's new headquarters.
from top: armchair displaying initials SC; bronze adorning a table in the main hall; one of a pair of compositions adorning vestibule; one of the four griffons guarding the stairs
photos: Randa Shaath & Sherif Sonbol
"In 1977, Serageddin pronounced the resumption of the Wafd's activities, which he had brought to a standstill in 1978 to protest the Camp David Accords and following the new law on defamation decreed by Sadat that same year," he continued. "Incidentally, both announcements were made in the hall of the Garden City villa."
In her book The Cairo House (Syracuse University Press, 2000), Samia Serageldin, the Pasha's niece, described the scene: "That Sunday the local and foreign press corps was there in force in the vast hall of the Cairo house. Gigi peered down from the gallery at the cameras and lights set up below, the cables winding around the bases of the thick, rose marble columns. Having decided against the sweeping staircase at his age, her uncle took the rickety elevator down to the ground floor, catching the assembled journalists by surprise. He took his seat on a gilded bergère that had been set for him in the middle of the hall... There was a hush as the Pasha announced that he had a statement to make after which he would take more questions. He made his short announcement and Gigi translated into English, then French. There was a moment of silence as the words sank in. He had announced the dissolution of the party, in effect calling Sadat's bluff. Rather than relinquish control over his party and allow it, under more malleable leadership to join the ranks of Sadat's rubber-stamping 'loyal opposition,' he had dissolved it. Somehow, he had mustered the votes to do so within 48 hours."
In the aftermath of these events, Fouad was jailed but freed a while later. In 1983 the party resumed its activities, making Beit El-Ghamrawi in Munira its headquarters, but Garden City remained a centre where the Pasha kept open house for all the members and a number of illustrious visitors.
According to Abaza, the Serageddin villa's walls have witnessed many of the events that shaped Egypt's recent history: the arms for the Suez uprising against the British were stored in its basement, and Anwar El-Sadat took refuge in the salamlik when he went into hiding in 1945. Arafat became a regular visitor, showing up whenever he was in Cairo until the Pasha's death.
THE SALAMLIK AND THE MANGO TREES: On my following visit to the Garden City villa, the gate was ajar but the bawwab was still nowhere in sight. My appointment with Mustafa Serageddin, the pasha's nephew, was at noon; I was a few minutes early. I had just finished reading The Cairo House and was thrilled with the opportunity to compare the book's descriptions with the reality on the ground. I walked through the courtyard and around to the back unopposed, past the large garage that had once housed the family's numerous vehicles with their single-digit licence plates. The salamlik appeared at the corner, a separate, squat, two-storey building, "the bachelor annex" as Samia had called it, where the children of the family moved as soon as they were no longer infants. Upon their marriage, family tradition demanded that the men of the family take their quarters with their brides in the main house.
"All the Pasha's married brothers started by living in the house until the wives could stand it no longer, and wanted their privacy, so they each in turn moved out," explained Mustafa, who had come to meet me.
After the departure of the brothers, the house was left to the head of the clan, Fouad, who by then had made his mark in Egypt's political life and the party. The small palace befitted a public figure of the pasha's stature.
"The salamlik was the domain of the children; and all the cousins grew up together in it. We were like brothers and sisters. Imagine how pleasantly surprised the family was when Samia announced that she was marrying one of the cousins," Mustafa recounted. I was momentarily taken aback: "In the book she says that she first married a stranger, then a Frenchman," I protested. "She wrote a novel, not an autobiography," he admonished me. "Not everything is supposed to be true. I can assure you that she is happily married to her first cousin (who is also mine) and that they have two handsome boys. Besides, she is coming to Cairo in March, you will be able to ask her yourself." Slightly disappointed that reality was more mundane than I had imagined, I was still grateful for the insight the book provides into the life of one of Egypt's most famous ancien regime families. "The descriptions are so vivid that I imagined it was a true story," I blurted, then confessed awkwardly that I had already visited the palace a few years back, when the pasha was still living. I had connived with the bawwab to gain access to the ground floor. Photographer Randa Shaath had taken several pictures of the vast hall and one of the salons and we had gazed in awe at the exquisite stained-glass windows and skylights, before being scared away by the sound of footsteps coming from the mezzanine. The following day, I had had to placate one of the pasha's daughters, who was quite indignant -- rightly so -- at our unwarranted invasion of the family's privacy.
As we walked towards the main entrance, I commented on the sturdiness and number of the mango trees Yassin Serageddin, the pasha's younger brother, had recently told me he had planted himself when he was a boy. Mustafa smiled: "If he told you that he planted them, then he must have, but the trees were already fully grown when our generation took over the garden."
The garden was also a favourite venue for Serageddin wedding receptions and, as we passed the fountain with its reclining Poseidon, I rapidly glanced around, trying to recreate the spectacle in my mind: "The bride and groom were enthroned on matching gilded armchairs set on a raised dais in a bower of white flowers: chrysanthemums, calla lilies, gladioli... It was about two o'clock in the morning, but none of the guests sitting at the round tables in the garden of the Cairo House seemed ready to leave. The night was balmy and the coloured light bulbs strung between the trees swayed gently... The wedding was given by the groom as Egyptian custom dictated but it was held in the Cairo House rather than at a hotel, partly because the Pasha was still under house arrest," writes Samia.
FADING FINERY: The front door of the villa, accessed by a few marble steps, displayed the same intricate initials which, as I was about to see, recurred on the dark blue and gold upholstery of the dining room chairs and the settees. Once inside, it was difficult to stop exclaiming in admiration, although I was overcome by infinite sadness at the sight of so many now neglected treasures. Obviously, maintaining a house of such palatial dimensions had been a daunting task, and in his old age the pasha must have lost his grip on the unending claims made by the crumbling fixtures and fittings.
The gigantic chandelier in the salon, with its crystal drops as large as a dinosaur's tears, will have to go with the house. "It is impossible to bring it down in one piece," commented Mustafa. To the left, at the far end of the room, was an elaborately carved sofa covered in faded blue velvet. "This is where every single member of the family sat to have their marriage contract drawn up," he said. "The sheikh sat in the middle surrounded by the men. Samia's contract was also drawn up here, of course, but in those days the sofa was in the Gothic room, with the lectern." The Gothic room is at the other end of the salon, its walls lined from floor to ceiling in dark engraved wood. "The German touch," commented the host; "don't forget, the house was built for the Kaiser." The main hall with its rose marble columns and the matching double staircase flanked by two pairs of small griffons, are more in the style of a Venetian palazzo, betraying the penchants of the Italian architect.
I stopped to examine the richly carved bronze handle of a door. "Aren't you sorry to have to sell the house?" I asked. But Mustafa Serageddin's vision goes beyond the house's aesthetic or historical value. He is haunted by memories of arrests -- those of his father and his uncles, Fouad in particular -- and the destitution of his entire family when their wealth was sequestrated. "Material possessions no longer mean much when you have spent the best years of your youth visiting your closest relatives in prison," he said sadly. "I only wish that our successors will realise that this house is part of the country's history, and will treat it with the respect it deserves."
* Nelly Serageddin, Fouad Pasha's daughter, passed away on Monday. Al-Ahram Weekly wishes to extend its sincere condolences to the family.
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