A talisman for luck and love
Osama Kamal finds there is strife in the house, even in a house of poets
It was once just a comfortable, contemporary house. But that was more than 300 years ago. Now it aspires to more; to a literary state of the mind, to some lines of wisdom, and yes -- to a little peace.
The House of Sitt Wasila, behind Al-Azhar Mosque, has become a House of Poetry, a place where poets can gather, hold readings and musical soirées, and do what they often do best -- disagree with one another.
Renovation of the house began 10 years ago. Just as the conservators began digging into the foundations, experts began digging into its origins. They looked for registration papers in the storehouses of the Cairo Citadel, and even travelled to Paris to search through the general archives of France. I am told that some of the best information about the house's past was found in these French archives.
The medieval house has been renovated as part of an ambitious project to renovate nearly 300 historic houses in Islamic Cairo. So far, 220 houses have been completely or partially restored. When the remaining 70 join them, the houses will become part of the Open Air Museum of Islamic Cairo, an endeavour that seeks to salvage the deteriorating architectural heritage of one of the world's greatest and once wealthiest cities.
Sitt Wasila, the last recorded owner of the house, was a freed slave. She was owned by Ibrahim Bey El-Kebir, who along with Mourad Bey controlled Egypt until the end of the 18th century. Ibrahim offered Wasila as a gift for his daughter Adila, who freed her. Wasila bought this house and made it her home till her death in 1835.
The house had been built more than 200 years earlier, in 1664. Two brothers, Abdel-Haq and Lutfi, sons of Hajj Mohamed El-Kanani, built it in what must have been the hub of commercial and intellectual Cairo at the time, within walking distance of Al-Azhar, the Souq Al-Silah, the Khan Al-Khalili, and some of the best merchant hostel complexes, or wekala, of their day. It is a typical Arab- Ottoman house of the period, with an open air courtyard, its own well, a labyrinthine staircase and even a full-size hammam or steam bathroom, a rarity outside upper-class homes. Some of the walls are covered with mural paintings of a religious and historical nature depicting Mecca, Jerusalem, and Istanbul.
It was clearly a house for the commercial and ruling élite, former slaves or not. Now it is a house for a different élite, the Cairo community of poets, in this case led by the veteran poet Ahmed Abdel-Moati Hegazi.
I visited the House of Poetry two weeks ago. An evening was being held in celebration of Iraqi poets, but I noticed that only seasoned poets, some of them members of the board of the House of Poetry, who call themselves guardians, were present, among them Mohamed Ibrahim Abu Sinna, Farouk Shousha and Mahmoud Qorani.
But where were the younger generations of poets? Where was the generation of the 1970s such as Abdel-Moneim Ramadan and Mohamed Suleiman? Where were the poets of the 1990s who revolutionised the unrhymed poem?
Hegazi, the chief guardian of the House of Poetry, tells me that the group is interested in reviving poetry and bringing it to the attention of the mainstream public. It is not important whether the poetry is in classical or colloquial Arabic: what matters is to awaken the appreciation of poetry among the Egyptian people.
Hegazi's words are reassuring. The House of Poetry is there for all poets from Cairo or the provinces. The group will defend only the art of poetry, in all its individuality and beauty, and, he argues, it is a task that calls for everyone to work together and put the common good above individual and narrow interests.
To make his point, Hegazi tells me that the group is set to begin preparations for a night for poets from Lower and Upper Egypt. This will be an event in which the Higher Council of Culture and the General Organisation of Culture Palaces will take part.
When I ask if poetry can be presented in a different atmosphere, perhaps with the help of other artistic media, Hegazi immediately agrees that this is possible. He reassures me that the group is using music and film as accompaniments to the poetry nights. They plan to screen a film about the late Mohamed Afifi Matar for a memorial night in August, and they arranged for The Southerner (Al-Ganoubi), a film by Atiyat El-Abanudi, to be screened during the memorial for Amal Dunqul, held not so long ago in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
The group is also organising an annual competition for all poets under the age of 35. This year's winner of the LE25,000 prize was Mohamed Salem Abadah, who was handed the prize at the opening day of the House of Poetry in late May 2010. More poetry competitions are on the board's agenda.
Not all contemporary poets are in agreement with Hegazi's aims, and some even go so far as to scoff at his reassurances. Emad Fouad, a promising proponent of the unrhymed poem, has denounced the House of Poetry as being "a house for the government's poets". Fouad claims that the idea for the House of Poetry was first suggested by the generation of the 1990s, but later it was hijacked by the government. He makes an entire case against the House of Poetry, saying that its guardians are too old even to keep pace with what is new on the horizon of Egyptian poetry. One of the guardians is his friend, the poet Mahmoud Qorani, but that does not prevent Fouad from pushing forward his allegations. He insists that his friend should not have taken up the post, and he calls the rest of the guardians "mere critics and academics" who have "nothing to do" with the art of poetry. They are just "employees of the Ministry of Culture," Fouad says.
According to Fouad, the idea of the House of Poetry was first proposed by Fares Khedr and his fellow poets at the last Prose Poem Conference, held in Cairo in 2009. "They [the government] stole the idea and stamped it with the eagle [government] stamp," he says.
Fouad does not mince his words, "What we really need are houses of poetry that represent our words, our ideas, and our dreams. First read poetry, and then make a house for it," he says.
However fellow poet Jihan Omar does not share Fouad's militancy. "I loved the place a lot and enjoyed the night of reading by Wadie Saadah. The place is built from the embers of Egypt's old soul. We needed a house for poetry, just as there are houses for other arts in this area." Omar praised the "incredible charm" of the venue.
Omar, who was recently awarded a six-month fellowship in South Korea, says that Korean people do not have such a venue for poetry, but they do give artists full residence fellowships to finish their work in all genres of writing, including poetry, and these last anywhere from a month to a year. She would like to see the House of Poetry using other forms of artistic media to accompany poetry. When Omar read her poetry at the Lanterns Festival in Amman in 2008, she was accompanied by the Lebanese saxophonist Elias Al-Ghul. She also took part in an unusual experiment with artist Sameh Ismail, who was drawing sketches live at the theatre while she recited her poetry.
Omar says that her hope is that poets might agree at least upon one thing, and "that is to banish ugliness from our lives." She remarked they did not seem to agree on much more.
Hegazi agrees with her. The veteran poet says that he recited his poetry in the French house of poetry and at the Comedies Françoise. The significance of the experience left him dazzled. "The House of Poetry is a house for all poets, and dialogue, with all the human insight and enriching knowledge it brings, will be the language of communication among all poets," he promises.
When the restoration experts were working in the house they found a talisman hidden in one of the rooms, folded and tied with a green woollen thread. The talisman contains two scraps of paper, one with writing on both sides and one with writing on one side only. Most of the writing is religious, interspersed with magic symbols, and the lines that are legible contained a call for amity and harmony. The talisman is believed to have been ordered by a lady of the house in the 17th century, a woman who wanted her husband to love her forever. I do not know what happened to that woman of three centuries ago, but I hope that the talisman still has some magic left in it. Perhaps it will bring peace to Egypt's contentious poetry scene.