Sunday, October 9, 2016

Short Story: Nasser Museum Opens

The long-awaited Gamal Abdel-Nasser Museum was finally opened to the public last week, reports Nevine El-Aref.

In the Cairo district of Manshiet Al-Bakri stands the two-storey residence of the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, now welcoming visitors in its new guise as the Gamal Abdel-Nasser Museum after its inauguration by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Minister of Culture Helmi Al-Namnam last week.

Millions of Egyptians thronged the nearby boulevard on 1 October 1970 to mourn the passing of Nasser, and the crowds were again out in force to see the opening of the new museum last week. After five years of restoration and development, the building now houses displays telling the story of one of Egypt’s most important political leaders and his military and revolutionary struggle to make the Pan-Arab dream a reality. The museum records the details of a very important part of Egypt’s modern history and one full of major events in every Egyptian’s life.

The decision to convert the house into the museum had been delayed since Nasser’s death as his wife Taheya Halim lived in it until her death in 1990. The house was then turned into offices for employees of the presidency until 2008, when a presidential decree was issued to convert the house into the Gamal Abdel-Nasser Museum.

However, the memory of Nasser did not fall into oblivion during this period, and he has remained an iconic figure in Egypt and the Arab world. He has never lost his popularity nor the love felt towards him in the hearts of Egyptians and Arabs.

He played an important political and revolutionary role that took off when he became Egypt’s president at a crucial time following the 1952 Revolution when massive changes were occurring on the political and social levels. The walls of the house in Manshiet Al-Bakri witnessed Nasser’s family life, his relations with friends, and official visits by foreign presidents and political leaders.

He lived in the house with his wife and children in a life that resembled that of any other Egyptian family, but every corner of the house can relate the story of a special event concerning the fate of the Arab nation. Visiting the house, it is possible to sense Nasser’s joyful feelings when declaring Egypt’s union with Syria in 1958 and his anxiety mixed with pride during the Tripartite Aggression launched by France, Britain and Israel after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company in 1956.

The Ministry of Culture has now been able to make the walls of the house talk by converting it into the new museum. Khaled Sorour, head of the Fine Arts Section at the ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the house was a state property that had been passed to Nasser’s family after his death in 1970 and then taken back under state control after the death of his wife in 1990. Despite the issuing of a presidential decree to convert the house into a museum in 2008, work was slow, Sorour said, and Nasser’s personal belongings were put on display in a small room in the Egyptian National Library and Archives. These have now been transferred to the new museum.

Work was speeded up in 2011, but few concrete steps were taken until 2014. Today, the house has been opened to the public. Karim Al-Shabouri, a project consultant, said the new museum consisted of a 1,300 square metre two-storey building with a large garden and three distinct visitor itineraries. The first consists of the house itself and its different rooms and contents, including Nasser’s office, living room and bedroom suite on the upper floor.

The second is a historical itinerary that reviews the most important events connected to Nasser starting with the 1952 Revolution and leading through the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company, the Tripartite Aggression, the union with Syria, the 1967 War, the War of Attrition and other historical events until his death in 1970.

The third displays Nasser’s personal belongings and souvenirs given by heads of state, private individuals and institutions. Mohamed Al-Tawil, head of the Technical Office of the Fine Arts Section at the ministry, said that among the gifts was a piece of the covering of the Kaaba in Mecca and a dagger decorated with precious stones given to Nasser by the late Saudi king Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz.    

Nasser’s personal camera that he used on family occasions is among the displayed objects, as are some of his clothes, glasses and silver cigarette boxes. A large collection of his private books and papers in his own handwritings is also on show. These papers, Al-Tawil said, include notes for some of Nasser’s legendary speeches written between 1952 and 1970. There is a draft of a speech Nasser wrote when he was just 17 years old when he was involved in demonstrations and was expelled from school in Cairo for his political activities.

Among the papers are decisions of the Revolutionary Command Council that took power after the 1952 Revolution and ordered the confiscation of the wealth of the former ruling Mohamed Ali family. They include Nasser’s diary and recommendations from Arab and African summits held during his time in office and the minutes of ministerial meetings. A statue of Nasser by the prominent Egyptian artist Gamal Al-Sageni is also on show, as are rare multimedia records of Nasser’s speeches and audio-visual materials documenting the life of Nasser and the history of the period.

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