Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Books Supplement
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In search of Amy

Fayza Hassan provides contextual background for the life of Amy Nimr, early 20th century Egyptian painter

Click to view caption
from top: Nativity and Mother by Amy Nimr, 1930s

The recent translation into Arabic of Aimé Azar's La Peinture moderne en Egypt e (Modern Painting in Egypt), first published in 1961 by Les Editions nouvelles in Cairo, has revived interest in the first generation of modern Egyptian painters -- or Les A"nés, the senior generation, as Azar called them. During the ten years it took Azar, then professor of French at Cairo University, to put together his study of the works of both well-known and not so well-known Egyptian artists he was able to indicate trends that were not yet clear, debunk reputations that in his opinion were not deserved and bring to light real talents then still in the shadows.

One such talent was that of painter Amy Nimr, whose painting Azar describes in his book as a "vital experience," comparing it to the prose of the Syrian writer May Ziadé. Both women, he writes, "impart a stern and harsh accent to the expression of their inner selves, whose recall awakens in us something nocturnal and divinely rebellious." Azar continues by saying that Amy Nimr is "the only modern oriental painter whose work is so potently infused with the anxiety-ridden sensuality and fierce and threatening pessimism that lies at the bottom of the Syrian temperament."

For those even slightly acquainted with the history of the Nimr family, Azar's evaluation of Amy Nimr's artistic temperament will not come as a surprise, although one might have expected it to contain a stronger British component. Amy was the daughter of the famous Arab newspaper mogul Faris Nimr, who was a Syrian nationalist, but Nimr was a nationalist who later in life gave his support to the British forces then occupying Egypt. His Cairo newspaper, Al-Muqattam, was considered the mouthpiece of the British residency, and Amy's mother Ellen was the daughter of a British consul.

Faris Nimr's biography is of considerable interest in its own right. In his youth, recounts the society historian Samir Raafat, Nimr had been active in and dedicated to the nationalist movement calling for a Greater Syria independent from Ottoman rule. When the Ottoman Sultan ordered the execution of such activists, Nimr "swam out to a ship anchored off Beirut, and he arrived in Alexandria several days later" where he began his new career.

At the time of Nimr's arrival in Egypt in the late nineteenth century, Syrian immigration to the country had resumed after a lull caused by the U'rabi revolution (1880-1882), and the consequent British occupation of Egypt. The number of Syrians in colonial service was increasing by the day, and the press was mainly in Syrian hands. Encouraged by the then British resident in Cairo, Lord Cromer, journalism was thriving: though Cromer did not necessarily believe in freedom of expression for the "subject races", he did feel that writers were harmless and should be allowed to continue their work without interference. The reading public was also much larger in Egypt than it was in Syria, and this situation attracted many Syrian intellectuals to the country, these rallying round different newspapers whose attitudes towards Egyptian politics were strongly coloured by the allegiances of their owners.

Faris Nimr started a successful career in publishing, launching several newspapers with fellow Syrian Ya'qoub Sarruf. However, it was not until the famous Al-Muqattam appeared that he established himself.

The Egyptian nationalist movement at the time did not feel that its point of view was represented in the main daily, Al-Ahram, itself owned by a Syrian family, the Taklas, who openly displayed pro-French leanings. The paper proselytized on the behalf of France, aiming to establish French intellectual supremacy in the country and seduce the hearts and minds of the Egyptian public. Whether Al-Ahram was in fact sympathetic to the Egyptian nationalist cause is debatable, but its journalists managed to annoy the British with their criticisms of British policies. The British in turn cared little about the motives of the Al-Ahram journalists: whether it was Egyptian nationalist, or simply pro-French, all they knew was that the paper was anti-British. As a result, in 1888 the British decided to support an evening daily, Al-Muqqatam, whose purpose was to defend the British point of view.

The owners and editors of this new publication were Faris Nimr and Ya'qoub Sarruf, both Syrian like the Taklas but working mainly with Greek Orthodox or Protestant converts who had attended British or American missionary schools, unlike the Greek Catholics educated in French that the Taklas worked with. Faris Nimr himself had converted to Protestantism as a young man. Both Al-Ahram and Al-Muqqatam propounded a secular society for Egypt of the European type, the religious and educational backgrounds of their owners influencing the choice of either a French or British model.

Though the papers were thus similar in some of their aims, the appearance of Al-Muqqatam seemed to send a signal that the Syrians were collaborators of the British and hostile to the nationalist cause. In January 1893, a student demonstration attacked the buildings of the new daily, the students being led by the 19-year-old nationalist leader Mustafa Kamil and complaining that the Syrians were neither Egyptian nor Muslim, but rather were dukhala', or intruders. Although Kamil had not intended the demonstration to be specifically anti- Syrian, aiming instead at all the foreigners who had settled in Egypt and were now prospering and opposing the Egyptian nationalist cause, the Syrians reacted angrily.

Kamil justified his use of the word dukhala ' by saying that it denoted "a group which has disavowed its homeland and come to Egypt to seek a livelihood. The Egyptians honoured these people and were good to them, but they returned charity with insult and kindness with evil and proclaimed their enmity to the fatherland and its people. They have opposed every Egyptian who demanded the rights of the country and upheld the honour of his people and fatherland."

Faris Nimr seems to have been Mustafa Kamil's main target, and with good reason. Nimr identified with the British and made no secret of his contempt for the Egyptians: to a friend he confided that "the lowliest British sergeant is higher than the most exalted Egyptian." Having invested in the purchase of land with Sarruf, he now felt bitter about his decision to settle in Egypt: "how I regret that I have tied myself to Egypt. I have invested every penny I have in it, and my children know nothing outside it. I was carried away by the wonderful work done in Egypt by Lord Cromer and his men. I believed that that state of things would continue, and that England would never allow what we see happening these days. It was a great mistake on my part. I now feel very anxious for the future of my children, as the Egypt of today is the last place I would choose for them to live."

Despite his disappointments, Nimr, who approved of British colonialism in Egypt while fighting against French colonialism in Syria, never attempted to return to his country, unlike many of his compatriots. Instead, he settled in the anglicised Cairo suburb of Maadi, where he became the doyen of the small English- speaking Levantine community there that shunned Heliopolis because of the predominance of the French educated Syrian-Orthodox community in the latter suburb.

The Nimrs kept open house, and Samir Raafat gives a list of the celebrities often seen in their salons, including Prince Mohamed Tewfik, known for his British allegiances, the American statesman Charles Crane, Sitt Qout El-Qulub El-Demerdashiya, Viscount Allenby, and successive Egyptian prime ministers. Even after Nimr's retirement, the pro-British intelligentsia flocked to the Villa Nimr to enjoy the hospitality of the couple and the beauty of their garden, pride and joy of Mrs Nimr. According to Soraya George Antonius, Nimr's granddaughter, the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann once visited in the late 1920s and tried to convince her grandfather of the Zionist cause, which Nimr rejected.

The painter Amy Nimr grew up in this anglicised atmosphere, and she traveled to England, studied fine arts at the Slade in London and visited Paris and Rome. Her first exhibition dates from 1925, her painting already showing a deep "oriental influence," according to Azar, who also comments on her painting Barques (Boats), seeing in it the achievement of the artist's maturity. " Barques, " he wrote, "[infused] with the solidity of a grey light softly tinted with pale intimations, holds us in a tranquility born from submission to fate. Alas, we owe this resigned philosophy to a cruel loss that befell this artist, and which has kept her silent for a several years."

In 1932, Amy Nimr married Englishman Walter Smart, who was then Oriental Secretary at the British Residency and a well-known figure in Cairo's salons. Although a top official of the British colonial service, Smart was perhaps one of the few Britons in Egypt to sympathise with his brother-in-law's views on pan-Arabism and the Arab awakening, that brother-in-law being none other than George Antonius, author of The Arab Awakening, who had married Kate, Faris Nimr's other daughter.

The couple set up house together in the Cairo district of Zamalek in one of the villas reserved for high- ranking British officials. It adjoined the villa of Russell Pasha, the chief of police. Amy became a prominent member of the city's British community, well-known for her generosity towards struggling painters, writers and poets. When World War II broke out such people began to flock to Cairo, some in the armed forces, others evacuated from Greece, and still others as teachers at the British Council or ambulance men. When in Cairo, these new arrivals gathered at the Union Club on Fuad El-Awal Street, now 26 July Street, in Zamalek, of which Amy was the acknowledged patron. However, this tribute did not come without its setbacks: her generosity towards the British writer Lawrence Durrell and his wife, Eve Cohen, for example, was the cause of many jealous comments. But other writers, whether poets who had escaped from Greece or penniless British writers stranded in Cairo, were also the object of her legendary hospitality.

Yet, as Azar intimates, this happiness was not to last, for on 17 January 1943 Walter Smart, by then Sir Walter, took his family for a picnic in Wadi Digla. The party included the couple's eight year-old son Micky, Amy's niece Soraya Antonius, and the children's nanny. After lunch Walter took a nap, while Amy got out her easel and started to paint. Then there was a muffled explosion, when Micky, the Smarts' only son, picked up a bomb and it went off in his hands. Sir Walter and his wife were out of their minds with grief at the death of their son, and news of the tragedy soon spread.

Amy Nimr was too old to have any more children, and she filled the house with photographs of Micky. It was years before she could bring herself to paint again. This catastrophe, mentioned by Azar, is compassionately recounted in another account of Cairo during this period, Artemis Cooper's Cairo in the War, 1939-1945. And another habituée of the Union Club at the time used the tragedy with novelistic license to show the couple in an unflattering light: in The Danger Tree, the first novel of her Levant Trilogy, Olivia Manning relates the story of the death of Sir Desmond and Lady Hooper's son, which was based on the death of Amy Smart's son, though Manning was in Palestine when the event took place. Manning must have learned of it, and she used it in her novel to the indignation of British writer Penelope Lively, who grew up in Cairo, Lively accusing her of a lack of sensitivity.

Though Walter and Amy Smart remained devoted to each other after their son's death, in Manning's novel the mother leaves her husband and begins to act in a less than decorous way. Although both Amy and Walter were dead by the time the novel appeared, friends of the couple were outraged at the use made of the incident. Cooper surmises that the novel was Manning's revenge for not having been adopted by the Smarts when she and her husband Reggie Smith were in Egypt during World War II.

Whatever the case may be, this web of connections and interconnections fascinatingly illuminates the career of Egyptian painter Amy Smart, née Nimr, one of early twentieth-century Egypt's most talented painters, and she is discussed as such in Aimé Azar's book.

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