My attention was caught by an article by Ashraf Abdel-Shafi that appeared in Al-Ahram’s Friday supplement commemorating the great Arab playwright Tawfik Al-Hakim and urging the establishment of a museum to pay tribute to him.
Abdel-Shafi’s article, which comes more than 30 years after Al-Hakim’s death, compels us to take our hat off to the “alley” in which we live and which, as the great novelist Naguib Mahfouz said, is plagued with forgetfulness.
Tawfik Al-Hakim died in July 1987 and with him died all thoughts about him. Since then, very few have paused to reflect on that life and career that spanned several major chapters in our national history and which shaped some important events in our 20th century cultural history.
I recall the famous petition that Al-Hakim wrote at the outset of 1973, criticising the state of no-war, no-peace that prevailed at the time.
Sadat had vowed that 1971 would be the “year of resolve” in which Egypt would fight to liberate the occupied Sinai. 1971 passed without action and the same applied to 1972.
I saw the original copy of that petition, in Al-Hakim’s handwriting, when he asked me to sign it. More than a hundred leading writers and intellectuals also signed it, including Ahmed Bahaaeddin, Naguib Mahfouz, Lutfi Al-Khouli, Ahmed Hamroush, Tharwat Abaza and Makram Mohamed Ahmed.
The reason why that statement had such a powerful impact was because of Al-Hakim’s adroitness in capturing so succinctly the prevalent feeling shared by all segments of society.
It is equally difficult to forget the uproar he triggered among cultural and political circles in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab region with the publication of The Return of Consciousness, a critique of the Nasser regime.
I also recall how brilliantly he encapsulated the Egyptian Armed Forces crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973: “We crossed the defeat [of 1967].” His remark was picked up by the international press, most notably the BBC, in its coverage of the October War.
But above all else, there is his prolific literary output which generated a qualitative leap in the art of Arab playwriting, in particular.
He also left his unique mark on the novel and was credited by Mahfouz, himself, for creating a breakthrough in the art of Arab fiction writing as well.
It is impossible to forget Al-Hakim’s seminal The Return of the Soul which would become one of the sources of inspiration that motivated Gamal Abdel- Nasser to launch the July 1952 Revolution.
The abovementioned article by Abdel-Shafi marked the centennial of Tawfik Al-Hakim’s birth, an occasion that did not receive nearly the amount of attention it merited in the media and cultural establishment.
Abdel-Shafi reminded us of former Minister of Culture Ahmed Heikal’s pledge to turn Tawfik Al-Hakim’s home in Garden City into a museum that would house his library of literary works, manuscripts, drafts, as well as other personal belongings.
But, as occurred with Umm Kalthoum, and is occurring now with Naguib Mahfouz, that ministerial vow, which was cited in all newspapers at the time of Al-Hakim’s death, vanished into oblivion. So, here we are 31 years and some 10 culture ministers later without a single step having been taken to establish the promised museum.
After becoming the president of the Egyptian Writers Union in 2005, I seized on the opportunity of the recent renovation of the Writers Union’s historic premises in the Salaheddin Citadel to establish the first writers’ museum in Egypt.
Its acquisitions are distributed across several rooms, one of which contains an exhibit dedicated to Tawfik Al-Hakim. The room, decorated in ancient arabesque motifs, houses a display containing, among other things, a complete draft of The Prison of Life in the author’s minuscule handwriting, his trademark beret, the dressing gown he wore at the Arab Contractors Hospital in his final days and, alongside it, a photograph of Al-Hakim in that garment.
Soon after he died, his grandson gave me a bust of Beethoven whose music Al-Hakim adored. An original copy of the one in Vienna, the Beethoven bust had been a permanent feature of Al-Hakim’s office. It now sits in the Writers’ Union building in Zamalek, in the same room in which Al-Hakim sat. He was the first to head the union when it was founded in 1975.
As for the other acquisitions in the old premises in the citadel, they include papers and other historic belongings of Yahya Hakki (such as his diplomatic passport and his glasses), Taha Hussein (including the famous statue of him by Abdel-Qader Rizk), Youssef Al-Sibai (his personal diary, for example), Ali Ahmed Bakathir (handwritten drafts of his works and some certificates), Naguib Mahfouz (including the handwritten text of the speech he delivered at the Nobel Prize award ceremonies and the first receipt for payment he received for writing a scenario), Saadeddin Wahba (his personal agenda and his eyeglasses), Ahmed Shawki (a handwritten letter from him to the translator of “Majnun Laila”) and Naguib Surur (a draft of one of his poetry anthologies).
In addition, after Al-Hakim’s death, I helped arrange a contractual agreement between the Al-Hakim family and Al-Shorouk Publishing House in order to republish all of Al-Hakim’s works, some of which had gone out of print. I wrote the introduction to the first edition.
If the Writers’ Union could create a Writers’ Museum in its old premises at the citadel with no support from the government, this was because the union had something more important: the confidence of the late writers’ families who did not hesitate to respond to the union’s sincere and serious initiative to commemorate their relatives who became some of Egypt’s most eminent creative writers.
However, it is important to stress that keeping the memory of our famous writers alive is not just about naming museums after them.
The reason we need these museums is to preserve the cultural heritage of which we are rightfully proud and to acquaint new generations with the literary greats who are often celebrated elsewhere in the world before they are celebrated at home.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tawfik Al-Hakim Museum