Legend of Gamal Abdel Nasser lives on in Cairo’s new museum
CAIRO // Tucked in the corner of a room showcasing Gamal Abdel Nasser’s medals and international honours is a small exhibition displaying the former Egyptian president’s cameras.
“It was a passion of his. The collection actually has many more cameras,” says Karim Shaboury, the architect who designed the new Gamal Abdel Nasser museum, gesturing to a photo of Nasser.
In it Nasser, dressed in shorts, is videotaping his family on a beach.
If the walls of the museum could speak, they would have much to tell.
The two-storey cream and white building, with a manicured lawn stretched out in front and a high wall encircling it, not only once housed the office of Egypt’s most famous president, but was also his family home.
Nasser may have been the leader of Egypt when the country was a major player in world events, but he remains an enigma.
Compared to other presidents such as the exuberant Anwar Sadat, history has recorded little of Nasser’s private life and personality.
“It has been very protected,” said Joel Gordon, a professor of history at Arkansas University and the author of a recently republished book on Nasser’s rise to power.
“The one thing that struck me, when I was able to interview his close associates, who were all charisatmatic, was the fact that he had so much dominance,” Mr Gordon said.
“That really struck me. He had a strong sense of presence, that is often described as silent.”
That silence confounded American policymakers whenever they met Nasser. It made the Egyptian leader seem unpredictable
Nasser was president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970.
After overthrowing the Egyptian monarchy, he sought to restructure the country from a colonial to a modern, socialist, non-aligned state with the military at its head.
Major land reforms and industrialisation made him popular with farmers and the working class. But those same policies appalled the wealthy and minority groups, who left the country as Nasser ordered the nationalisation of industry. He also oversaw the arrest of thousands of political activists, from leftists to Islamists.
And while he fought unsuccessful wars against Israel, he was hailed as a national hero.
When Nasser died, his funeral was one of the largest Egypt had ever witnessed and his legacy looms large over the country to this day.
Manshiyet Al Bakri, as the property was known, was originally a single-storey house purchased by Nasser before the Free Officer’s coup, which led to the abdication of King Farouk in 1952.
The building was expanded as the president’s star rose.
His wife, Tahia Kazem, wrote that when the couple returned to the house after the renovations, the president was upset at the removal of the dining room table, where he had planned much of the Free Officer’s coup.
Among the personal effects displayed in the Nasser residence are family photos and two records — one by the famous Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum, and the other of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto in E. There is also a gold cigarette case and a cigar cabinet with the inscription “from Fidel Castro”.
Objects in the rooms — such as ornate vases and baroque lighting — evoke memories of Cairo’s antique markets, many of which were filled with what the wealthy left behind or sold after Nasser’s nationalisation.
Many remember Nasser as a secular president, but there are religious icons on display as well.
There is a small piece of cloth, said to belong to the great medieval Sufi Sayyed Al Badawy, and a miniature Quran. They are presented without comment about Nasser’s approach towards religion.
Renovating Manshiyet Bakri was a challenge, said architect Mr Shaboury, as the house was built in stages and each part had to be assessed individually.
“The structural condition of the house was very bad, though it didn’t appear so in the beginning,” he said. “When we investigated, it needed complete consolidation, rather than restoration.”
Nasser’s wife lived in it for 20 years until her death in 1990. It was then used as offices until 2008 for the Egyptian presidency, then under Hosni Mubarak.
In 2009, the ministry of culture invited architects to submit proposals for the museum in a competition.
After years of bureaucratic and political delays, including the uprisings leading to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, construction finally began in 2014.
President Abdel Fattah El Sisi opened the museum in October 2016.
When visitors first enter the museum, they are greeted by 16 screens, each relaying a speech or press appearance by Nasser. His voice resonates throughout the exhibition halls.
At the exit, adorned by larger-than-life images of the former president, a recording from Nasser’s funeral march plays on.
“Abdel Nasser lives,” it says. And indeed, the legend of Gamal Abdel Nasser lives on.
Updated: March 8, 2017 04:00 AM