Google Doodle Celebrates ‘Prince of Poets’ Ahmed Shawky

Relatively little English-language scholarship exists about Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawky, who was not only a significant poet and playwright (and song-writer), but also a social leader and anti-colonialist who was exiled from Egypt by the British for five years.

I believe it was in exile, in Spain, that Shawky wrote the piece quoted in yesterday’s Google doodle, which celebrated of the anniversary of Shawky’s birth. The activist/blogger Zeinobia translates it, roughly, as: “My homeland is always in my mind even if I were in paradise.”

Elsewhere in the world yesterday, a Google doodle celebrated Oscar Wilde.

Tour Egypt has a long piece about Shawky’s life and the Ahmed Shawky Museum; the museum was constructed on the grounds of Shawky’s own spacious home, which he’d named for the poet Abu Nuwwas.

Generally, I prefer literary details about a writer’s life, but my eye was attracted by this description of Shawky’s home:

The house also contained a spacious service building (selamlik). Part of the area was assigned as a garage for two horse-driven carriages; a victoria (hantour) and a phaeton. There was also a horse stable, where two horses were kept. Although Shawki had a liking for automobiles, and was one of the first who acquired cars in Egypt, yet, out of fear of speed, he did not like using them.

In the house garden, there was a large number of domestic animals such as deer, turtles, peacocks and parrots. There was also a basin, where a crocodile was kept. The reptile was brought, at the request of Shawki’s son, by an officer friend of the poet working in Sudan.

This was an era when a poet was a man of considerable standing; Shawky was also a friend of the Khedive. Rasheed al-Enany spoke with Al Masry Al Youm last year about the “not quite renaissance” of Arabic literature, noting that—in Egypt in particular—(classical) poetry has been the mass appeal it had in Shawky’s time:

Well, poetry is shrinking, for example. We don’t have poets of the stature of the generations that flourished in the 60s. Poetry is becoming an increasing isolated genre and it’s a sad affair because 70 to 80 years ago, poetry was the genre of everyone. A new poem by Ahmed Shawky would be published on the front page of a newspaper, for example, because it was something of such popular appeal. This is no longer the case today.

This probably has something to do with the deterioration in education and the knowledge of the Arabic language–but also in the change of the rhythm of life. Poetry requires more attention, more concentration, more sensitivity to the use of language and imagery, and people no longer have the tools to deal with these things. It’s similar elsewhere, but a bit worse in Arabic than in English, I think. Luckily, though, what poetry has lost, the novel has gained.

A good deal of Shawky’s poetry is available online in Arabic, and some of it is still taught in schools. His verse can also still be heard as sung by the great Umm Kulthoum. But—while Dr. Jeannette W. S. Attiya translated Shawky’s Majnun Leila into English verse (a translation published by the Egyptian General Book Organization in 1990), only one short passage, and a description, are available online. Goodness knows where one can find the whole book.

O’ God !

I wander all day and pine through time,
And seek some comfort in my rhyme.
The noblest of rhymes overflow with love,
The sweetest line – the musical and pure –
Are written down for the heart as a cure.
Men turn as they pray to the holy place;
To Laila’s home I turn my face.
Twice people say their prayers at dawn;
When I think 0f her’
I know not the times I repeat my own,
Laila hid behind a crowd;
Her lip betrayed a smile,
Like the break of morn,
Or the sun as it shone.
Her sweet breath filled the air,
Made perfumed roses seem less fair.
A shiver ran through my form
From head to toe
As though my eye had met her own.
Let’s love:
All men are mortal but love never dies:
Laila and I loved with young eyes:
Our love story which is now alive,
To our successors will continue to survive.
Generations of men will die and go past,
But our true love will forever last.

And finally, one funny tweet about the Prince of Poets. Apparently, it is not only English-language readers and scholars who neglect him:

niledoctor: “I told everybody today is Ahmed Shawky birthday they though he was playing in Ahly !!!”