Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 Feb. - 5 March 2003
Issue No. 627
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House of the Nation

A hundred years after its construction, Beit Al-Umma (The House of the Nation) is a symbol of Egypt's political identity. Nevine El-Aref describes Saad Zaghloul's home, which is now open to the public


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Zaghloul met by well-wishers as he leaves the studio of photographer Hanslemann; Saad Zaghloul; Safiya Zaghloul wearing the Egyptian flag; three views of the dining room; Safiya Zaghloul, centre of second row, with women Wafd members in Alexandria; the house under restoration
Saad Zaghloul, a judge and founder of the Wafd, one of Egypt's most popular political parties, was prime minister of the first cabinet formed under the 1923 Constitution. In his day he opened his house as a meeting place for the intellectuals and political activists of the time. This makes all the more poignant the recent decision to open Zaghloul's house to the public as part of the Ministry of Culture's project to establish a series of museums to honour national figures -- those who played an important role in the national, artistic, cultural and political fields. They include such personalities as the poet Ahmed Shawqi, singers Umm Kalthoum and Abdel-Wahab, leading man of letters Taha Hussein, politician Mustafa Kamil, and patron of the arts Mahmoud Khalil.

Saad Zaghloul's property, built in 1902, is in the Al-Munira district in central Cairo, not far from the Parliament buildings. The building was designed in the style of palaces of the Franco-élite, with grand architectural features more akin to Europe than Egypt, and with furniture imported from France, Austria and Germany.

The house was originally surrounded by a garden with high fences, and access was gained from a large iron gateway. The property afforded privacy, especially for the women of the household, and the basement was designed to accommodate male servants.

Zaghloul took up residence there with his wife Safiya and his niece Ratiba, the mother of the famous journalist Mustafa Amin. According to Amin's diary, which he entitled "From One to Ten", he described Zaghloul's household staff as comprising a cook, a gardener, an errand boy for the harem, a groom for the stables, and a lady-in- waiting for his wife.

The house became known as The House of Nation within Zaghloul's lifetime as a result of the important political negotiations that took place there; Zaghloul had formed a Wafd delegation to represent Egypt at the Peace Conference in 1918, and the brief was prepared in his house. Two members of the National Party apparently contested the wording of the brief, and in the heated debate that ensued Zaghloul was incensed to be addressed in strong words; he reputedly cooled down when the men pointed out to him that this was "Beit Al-Umma", a name by which his house has since then been known.

An elegant gateway leads through the front garden of the property to the doorway that gives onto a grand hall decorated with velvet-lined chairs with a massive marble stairway leading up to the first floor. A bust of Saad Zaghloul here situated, and his study leads off to the right. It features his large, green velvet-covered desk with his portfolio, quill pen, fly-whisk, lamp, and two pairs of spectacles on display.

Elegant silk drapes, Persian carpets, quality woodwork and glass-fronted cabinets and a table to seat 10 adorn the dining room. The wallpaper, green with a flower pattern, offset the richness of the room. After his death, Zaghloul's widow Safiya sentimentally left her husband's chair in its place, together with his plate, napkin, fork, spoon and cup and thenceforth she allowed no guest to occupy this place.

Safiya Zaghloul herself played an important role in Egypt's political movement. Of Turkish origin and the daughter of Mustafa Pasha Fahmi (who formed the cabinet five times), she mobilised Egyptian ladies to stage a demonstration during the 1919 revolution. This was the first time that Arab women participated in such a politically- oriented movement, and for that she was called Umm Al-Masryeen, the Mother of Egyptians. She also supported the nationalist movement after the death of her husband in 1927 and kept the house open until 1937. By that time cracks had developed in the ranks of the Wafd Party.

Upstairs are beautifully adorned chambers. One is a room with arabesque furniture, including a screen, sofa, chairs and a table, its walls decorated with family portraits in black and white, some oil paintings, and small mashrabiya (wooden lattice) shelves. There is a photograph of the contents of Zaghloul's pocket found on his death, and also a wallet bearing his initials along with a small copy of the Holy Qur'an inlaid in an elegant metal box with amber beads. On the table is a carved box that once contained sweets. Personal items such as these bring the era of Saad Zaghloul back to life, and give an idea of his lifestyle.

The bedroom, which has cream-coloured walls and rose pink drapes, contains twin four-poster beds. The chaise longue at the foot of Zaghloul's bed is where he would relax each day to read the morning paper. On one chest of drawers is a small water decanter and a glass in the position in which they were always placed. On the other side of the room is another chest of drawers on which are medication and perfume bottles. Leading off the bedroom is a dressing room. Notable is the special drawer in which the national leader kept his tarboosh (fez).

Among the important political gatherings of the Wafd Party associated with this beautiful house were the student demonstration in 1919, when they chanted slogans paying allegiance to Saad Zaghloul and where Safiya received them. The first women's demonstration in Egypt's modern history took off from the house a week later, when the women marched down the streets chanting: "Long live the supporters of freedom and justice." And in this house (or in a tent raised in its garden) many festivities were celebrated: to mark the National Resistance Day on 13 November 1926 and the return of Saad Zaghloul from exile. From its balconies, eloquent speakers addressed sometimes angry audiences below -- revolutionary speakers like Makram Ebeid, Abdel-Maguid Badr, Bishop Sergius and Mahgoub Thabet.

In Beit Al-Umma is the ceremonial costume Zaghloul was wearing when attempt was made on his life at the Railway Station on 12 July 1924. The linen shirt has a bloodstain on the right side, while the two-piece gray woolen-striped suit has two bloodstains.

To commemorate the national leader after his death, the cabinet decided, a day after his demise on 23 August 1927, to declare his residence a state-owned property, although his widow was entitled to live there in her lifetime. The Egyptian government also decided to purchase Zaghloul's birthplace home in Ibiana village in Gharbiya governorate.

Restoration of the house started five years ago with a budget of four and half million Egyptian pounds. Culture minister Farouk Hosni, described the state of the building before work started. "Cracks had appeared all along the walls of the building. A large segment of the parquet floor was damaged, and the drapes were worn and torn," Hosni said. "Due to the level of the subterranean water, which reached 16cms, the basement had been abandoned." In order to control the water level and prevent further leakage, a specially designed network of stone pipes with pebble filters was installed to direct the water into the main sewage system.

All the furniture was restored and the chambers refurbished. Gold and silver ornaments, wooden cabinets and filigree ironwork all received due attention. Steps were taken, too, to restore the beauty of the garden. Both the front and back gardens were planted anew with exotic plants and existing palms and other trees received fair attention.

Ahmed Nawwar, head of the Fine Arts Sector of the Ministry of Culture said that a high-tech security system including closed circuit TV has been installed, and basement has been converted into a cultural centre for use during cultural and political seminars. In order to encourage Egyptians to visualise life as it was in these politically important and turbulent years of Egypt's modern history, when their national leader was twice exiled by the British commissioner and returned each time to enhanced glory, Hosni has decided to open its doors to the public free of charge for the first three months. The lift installed in the house when Saad Zaghloul became incapacitated in his later years now provides a useful service for disabled and elderly visitors.

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