Scotsabroad's Weblog

May 23, 2010

Open House

Filed under: Cairo,politics — scotsabroad @ 4:43 am

It was third time lucky for us last weekend when we visited The House of the Nation. It has been closed for restoration and we have tried twice before to look round the house – hearing the all too familiar response, open in two weeks. Getting off the metro at Saad Zagloul station you climb up to the street to find his imposing mausoleum. This enormous granite tomb is difficult to miss. We visited it in February, so hence the different clothing on the boys in the pictures.

Across the street is Bayt al-Umma. Saad Zagloul’s name was known to us already having visited Cafe Riche last year. The owner very kindly let the boys see the discreet bar, below the main restaurant, where Zagloul and his fellow nationalists met to spread opposition across the country, using the secret printing press. We still talk about the secret door behind the bar leading on to the street, to be used if the bar was raided by British soldiers.

He was one of a few Egyptian delegates shunned by the British after the Treaty of Versailles, despite assurances that for their support during the war, Egypt would get independence. Instead the British exiled him to Malta (poor bloke) and then the Seychelles, for instigating anti-colonial feeling and being popular. He did get to be prime minister in 1924 but did not live to see his country truly free. His wife Safiya was also a strong character, fighting for the emancipation of women and speaking out. However, Saad Zagloul was prone to spitting the dummy out according to the Travelers History of Egypt, he did not tolerate differences of opinion within his party (Wafd) and imposed absolute control over his party, a trait that has marked political leaders ever since. Zagloul’s brief stint in power was hardly exemplary either, resorting to old censorship and security laws to stifle opposition and choosing to jail others.  Before and since some might say?

The house is magnificent. It now almost goes without saying, that we were the only visitors. However, on arriving the caretaker told me he had no foreigners (5LE) tickets left. He would have to issue me with ten 1LE tickets. Thankfully, the boys were half-price. Our movements around the house, we soon found out, were to be controlled. We were escorted (rather than guided) upstairs and then down, our escorts changing over between floors. Two moth-eaten, stuffed parrots amused us at the top of the beautiful staircase, as our escort began to usher us through the rooms tapping a few display signs while anxiously watching the boys movements. I began to get the impression that when they took the contents out of the house to begin renovations, they forgot to do a thorough inventory for each room. A lot of the signs were in the wrong rooms and a lot of the furniture and pictures looked out of place. We found a blood-stained suit worn by Saad Zagloul, a result of a failed assassination attempt. I still haven’t found any information on this failed assassination. Cairo counted the chairs in the house and came up with an incredible number. There was an incredible number of portraits of Saad Zagloul, his wife and their parents all over the house. Surely they would not have had so many hanging when they lived in the house? I just wanted to throw open the shutters and let some daylight into the gloomy rooms. The promise of a secret escape route from  Saad Zagloul’s study momentarily restored our imagination. Was it a trap door under the rug? Was it concealed in the wall? Lucas thought it might extend all the way to the secret door at Cafe Riche! Turned out to be the window, leading to one of the perimeter wall doors on to the street. Walked around the garden for a while and got up close to a few statues of the man. Didn’t feel his presence in the house or the garden. Can this be lost through restorations?  

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