Book review: Near the Prince of Poetry

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 17 Sep 2012

Abul-Ezz, Ahmed Shawaqi's secretary, recalls the details of the life of the great Egyptian poet who influenced the path of Arabic poetry until today

Ahmed Shawky
Ahmed Shawky (Photo: Ahram Digital)

Ethnaashar aaman fi sohbat amir al shoara (Twelve Years in the Company of the Prince of Poets) by Ahmed Abdel-Wahab Abul-Ezz, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation – Family Library, 2012. 130pp.

The Family Library series brought to life a rare and close look into the life of the Prince of Poets, Ahmed Shawqi  (1901-1977), as described by his secretary and author, Ahmed Abdel-Wahab Abul-Ezz. As Shawqi's secretary, Abul-Ezz accessed and became a part of the poet's personal and family life during the 1930s, a few years before Shawqi passed away.

Abul-Ezz assisted the poet not only in matters of culture, but also in matters of his assets and finance. This gives his testimony an even greater importance about the life of the poet who impacted the entire Arabic poetry movement.

The first impression the reader gets on Shawqi is that he was a rich and a spendthrift, moving day and night between restaurants, clubs and pubs, floating freely at the time when he also spent various hours reading daily and produced a vast number of his most well-known poems and prose.

On poetry in particular, Abul-Ezz confirms that Shawqi wrote anywhere he pleased and wherever he was, sitting, walking, travelling or at home; whether alone or with others.

Among his stories is one where he and Shawqi went to the cinema and it happened that the movie was very bad, but Shawqi didn't express that he wanted to leave. When Abul-Ezz told Shawqi he was disappointed with the movie and discovered that Shawqi also didn't like the move, he wondered why he insisted on staying till the end. It turns out Shawqi was engrossed in a poem he was formulating in his mind.

When Shawqi became sick and stayed at home, he wrote a few pieces: Kambeez, Ali Bek, The Miser and Hoda; dictating one piece after the other to his secretary. If someone came to visit, he would pause to play host his guest and when the guest would leave, he would resume dictating where he had stopped.

"During the rehearsals of Majnun Layla (The Mad About Layla)or Cleopatra, he would tell me 'Add this phrase' and dictate four or five stanzas … if he happened to recall a request for a certain poem that he forgot about and has to deliver in a few hours, he would smile, request three raw egg yolks, drink them, then start writing. An hour later the person would have the poem they had asked for" – A quote from Abul-Ezz's book.

Abul-Ezz also recalled Shawqi's affinity for the great musician, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab - to whom Shawqi even dedicated a room in his house to!

Shawqi was a lover of life, especially with his affluent and comfortable life where he could spend as much as he wished. He was also fond of his family, both his mother, father and only sister as well as his own wife and children.

Abul-Ezz not only recorded floating among the fanciest of restaurants and shops, but also the moments of great danger. One example was July 1930, when the Lebanese president invited Shawqi to visit. They hired a car in Damascus to go to Lebanon and although they had warned the driver not to rush, the car flipped over a few times. Strangely enough, Shawqi didn't even have a scratch, while the driver and secretary were severely injured.

What gives this book additional authenticity and importance is that it was written not while Shawqi was alive, but rather after he had passed away. Therefore, the author wasn't trying to gain the poet's favour. His style also makes the reader comfortable and trusting.

Abul-Ezz gives the reader a peek into Shawqi's daily habits related to everything from food and drink, favourite books (most of them classics), haircuts, shaving and medicines.

Abul-Ezz reveals a typical day: Shawqi would leave his house at 11 in the morning and drive his large car to Groppi, a famous cafe that still stands today in the heart of downtown Cairo in one of the most famous squares, Talaat Harb. His breakfast would consist of a croissant and coffee with milk. Shawqi would then pass by the office where he handles his estates. He would then ride the metro to Fouad Street to his pharmacy. From there he would go to the Continental and then return to Groppi. If he had time, he would take the car to Al-Ahram, the state newspaper to sit for a while with journalistic stars and other writers. For dinner, he would go to a steakhouse, then to one of various cinemas he frequented during the week. He would end the evening with friends at Salt until two in the morning.

Shawqi's departure from life was very quiet, as Abul-Ezz recalls, when on 13 October 1932 he went to the office, as usual, and told his secretary that he was feeling better. He had Abul-Ezz read for him until midday, took a break and resumed after 5:00pm. They then walked through a Cairo high-end suburb, Heliopolis, then returned to the office for more reading until 9:30pm when they had dinner. They then went to Al-Jihad newspaper headquarters around 10:30pm and then ordered the chauffeur to take Abul-Ezz home from there.

After this long, active day, Shawqi died very peacefully at home, according to his Nubian servant.

Shawqi returned around 11:00pm and went to bed. At 2:00am, the servant's bell rang and Shawqi requested hot water with camphor leaves to loosen up the tightness in his chest. When the servant brought the infusion, Shawqi simply said: "It's no use … hope is lost … send my regards to Mr. Abdel-Wahab and Abul-Ezz … wake up madam and the boys."

By the time the servant went to wake up the family and they came into the room the Prince of Poets was gone.

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