CAIRO — The stone villa off the Nile, with its musty curtains and unswept balconies, has the feel of a neglected summer retreat of a pasha or a prince. A ticket is taken and a visitor leaves Cairo behind to slip into Europe from another time: creaky wooden floors, reclining nudes, teacups from Japan.
Amid distant footfalls and strange whispers, one expects to see a ghost in a tuxedo, a dilettante with a monocle holding a cigar and a glass of champagne. To the right is a portrait of Mohammed Mahmoud Khalil with his gray mustache and shirt collar shaped as if a white butterfly had landed on his throat.
This was his house once. The Egyptian son of a feudal family, he was educated in Paris in the early 1900s. He married a French musician and moved back to Cairo, where he became a politician and patron of the arts, collecting works of European masters at a time when his country was seething under British occupation. He died in 1953 and nine years later this mansion was turned into a museum.
Renoir. Monet. Pissarro. Delacroix. They are all here, hanging in sparse, shabby elegance beneath scatterings of burned-out lightbulbs and pale blue walls. It makes you think of Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations," a jilted spinster plotting revenge in an estate of cobwebs and uneaten wedding cake. Or perhaps of the British and French colonialism that constricted North Africa until the revolutions came.
Napoleon understood that in Egypt, time defeats whatever stands before it: "From the heights of these pyramids, 40 centuries look down on us," he told his soldiers in 1798.
The Khalil museum, though, is a silent music box of an era when foreign powers left their imprints on culture and state. They are on other places too, the decaying French- and Italian-style facades and balustrades of buildings slumping on wide boulevards; streetlights of wrought iron and globed glass; long wooden bars in the drinking haunts of the British. Gone, but still here, faintly, amid dhows blowing across the Nile and girls in hijabs and prostrate men on sidewalks facing east toward Mecca.
Such thoughts spiral on a cloudy spring day along an ancient river that has carried Moses, Cleopatra and a long list of invaders and interlopers. Egypt has gone from European domination, peace with Israel, assassinations and bread riots to a widening devotion to Islam, not by screeds and fanatics, although there are many, but by conservative and moderate Muslims wondering how to raise families and keep religion prevalent in lives so modern.
President Obama -- another Western leader with a sprawling entourage -- arrives in Cairo next month to address the Muslim world. It's just what Egypt needs. The nation has been sliding, its political stature has lost its edge, and the influence of a rising Iran, from Gaza to Lebanon, has given it fits. But the announcement of Obama's trip has validated Egypt's worth in the way the fortunes of a socialite in occupied Cairo were lifted by a folded invitation on a silver tray.
What will the president's new message be? The West of the past, the one of desert explorations and European colonialism, hangs in brocaded frames in the Khalil museum: Impressionist water lilies; Hercules wrestling Antaeus; ladies in fine hats and ruffles, fingers on piano keys; rustic landscapes; a game of cricket; the head of a wild boar -- all prettily out of place in a city of sculptured pharaohs and hieroglyphics of owls, scorpions and crocodiles.
In one room, Gauguin's "Life and Death" hangs by itself. Two nudes, one with pale skin and russet hair, the other with dark hair, her skin the blue-gray tinge of fading dusk, her eyes closed, her mouth slightly agape. In another room, curtains are streaked with soot, as if whatever happened here happened long ago.