Who Should Save Egypt’s…Literary Legacy?

When news surfaced about a Qatari offer to buy the home of prominent Egyptian poet, translator, and scholar Abbas al-Aqqad (1889-1964), there was reason to be skeptical:

30117273486241273After all, it followed popular chatter about Qatar wanting to rent the pyramids and buy the Suez Canal, both called out as rumors by the Qatari foreign minister. But this second story has been confirmed by al-Aqqad’s nephew, who gave interviews about his uncle’s legacy to Al Masry Al Youm and Gulf News, among other outlets.

Even if Qatar’s Sheikha Mozah really intended to buy al-Aqqad’s home and turn it into a museum, it seems the moment has passed. But the author’s nephew told Al Masry Al Youm that someone should take better care of al-Aqqad’s legacy. “Aqqad’s belongings delivered to the [Egyptian] Culture Ministry [after his death] have reached a deplorable state.”

The issue recalls Hussein Omar’s essay from a year ago: “Who Should Save Egypt’s Archives?”  There, Omar noted that the state’s poor stewardship of — and desire to control — literary and historical archives had hobbled intellectuals. Now, Omar said, “More than ever, a deep engagement with Egypt’s heritage will allow…[independent intellectuals] to engage in the important and political role of questioning the totalising narratives that the Egyptian state has long attempted to impose.”

Omar added that he felt it was “imperative to encourage the efforts of ‘ordinary Egyptians,’ those who have all along looked to build strong independent institutions outside the clutches of the ministries of culture and education.”

It certainly would seem to take a nation-state to fund an Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad Museum: giving scholars access to his books and papers, giving visitors a relationship to a significant early 20th century thinker, and focusing on a neglected portion of Egypt’s intellectual and cultural history.

According to Gulf News, a year after al-Aqqad’s death, the government of Kuwait offered to buy his library and writings (and presumably relocate them to Kuwait). Gamal Abdel Nasser understandably rejected the offer, and al-Aqqad’s heirs handed over his books to the state, along with other objects. Al-Aqqad’s nephew accuses the state of allowing much of this to fall into decay.

Former Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi apparently told the Gulf News that he, for one, refused to go “begging in the name of great authors.”

But perhaps, as Omar points toward, there are other museum solutions, perhaps — like the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information’s public, but non-governmental, libraries — they too could be managed by “ordinary” Egyptians.

More about al-Aqqad (in English):

Al-Aqqad’s The Arab’s Impact on European Civilization

Two towering poets of Arabic literature: Al Mutanabbi and Al Akkad,” by Said Hajji, including:

One hour in the company of Al Mutanabbi
Interview with Abbas Mahmoud Al Akkad
The Heart and Soul of Works by Al Akkad

Arab World Books’ page on Abbas el-Aqqad, which includes a partial bibliography

A translation of al-Aqqad’s The Genius of Christ