Nile barges in Cairo risk being destroyed as part of government renovation

Barges along the shore of Giza days before their planned move to Cairo, Egypt, on June 27, 2022.
Barges along the shore of Giza days before their scheduled withdrawal in Cairo, Egypt, on June 27, 2022. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images)
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CAIRO — When Ekhlas Helmy got married and moved into her husband’s spacious new apartment in Cairo’s tony island neighborhood of Zamalek in 1961, she felt like she had moved into a prison. Born and raised in one of the ornate houseboats that adorn the banks of the Nile, she said nothing could compare to the river breezes and lush garden she left behind.

Her husband agreed, and together they designed and built their own houseboat where she lived for the rest of her life, complete with an army of cats, a dog, and several ducks.

Until the government decided last week that Cairo’s few remaining houseboats were an eyesore and needed to be removed.

“After living very happily, now I hate my life,” the 87-year-old said as she watched volunteers help her carry her belongings from the once lavishly furnished double-decker boat with its sky-blue walls, carved balconies and its white. trim.

The largest city on the African continent has always been in flux with more historic buildings than in most countries, but now more than ever its managers are looking to change and modernize it – often to the detriment of its older treasures . Trees are felled, public spaces reworked and old neighborhoods bulldozed in a process inspired more by the glittering cities of the Arabian Gulf than by Cairo’s own heritage.

Save the sounds of an ancient city

Houseboats, once present on the banks of the city’s Nile, are an integral part of the country’s history, hosting belly dancers, artists, intellectuals, even American diplomats and German spies, in search of an oasis of peace in the middle of the intense hustle and bustle of Cairo.

With a steady breeze coming down the river from the Mediterranean, the houseboats were cool even in the scorching summer heat and dampened the deafening noise of the street by the greenery beside the river.

The boats’ precarious position between water and land was also their undoing, as residents had to appease a range of government institutions: the Ministry of Irrigation for their place on the Nile, the Ministry of Agriculture for their mooring point on land. and a host of other bodies, including possibly the Almighty Army.

The mounting pressure on the boats has come to a head in recent weeks with news that they will either be towed or scrapped from July 27. Half of the 32 ships have been withdrawn, with the rest to be gone by July 4.

Ayman Anwar, head of the Nile Protection Authority, has become the face of government efforts to clean up the river and said bluntly that despite repeated warnings not all boat owners had renewed their licenses and were late on fees.

“In 2016, we sent many notices through the Ministry of Irrigation and gave owners the opportunity to sort things out by 2020,” he said on June 26 on ONTV. “Their status was in violation of the law. The state gave them many opportunities, but no one responded.

“A decision was made by the state, not the Irrigation Department, that the Nile should not have houseboats,” he said, adding that it might be acceptable to have them. transform into commercial establishments.

His account is hotly contested by boat residents, who describe a growing campaign against them from 2016, with increased permit fees and taxes by several government agencies, culminating in a refusal to accept money for renew permits.

Even as the boats are broken up and towed away, residents are told not only that they will not be compensated, but also that they owe hundreds of thousands in unpaid fees.

Award-winning Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, 72, dreamed of retiring on the Nile and bought and refurbished a boat in 2013. She described an escalating process as more government bodies began to charge the barge for being allowed to exist, with fees jumping a year. from $100 to $3,200.

“We got caught up in this legal maze,” said Soueif, whose activist nephew, Alaa Abdel Fattah, has been in prison for the better part of the past decade. “Each of us has hired four lawyers.” At one point, she was told she owed $48,000 in late fees, but “that even if you pay it, you’ll be moved.”

“They are going to cut it up and sell it for scrap,” she said in tears, recalling how her two children got married on the boat and her garden by the Nile. During the pandemic, her son and his family moved in with her.

“These houseboats are an integral part of cultural identity,” she said. “Everyone, and I mean all Arabs, knows at least one iconic movie scene that took place in a houseboat.”

There have been reports of houseboats since the 19th century, but they seem to have reached their zenith in the popular imagination during World War II. The patriarch of the famous Cairo trilogy by Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz kept his dancing mistress on a houseboat.

The American envoy to Egypt during World War II, Alexander Kirkhad a barge decorated with bowls of white ostrich feathers where he threw busy parties for the diplomatic corps and wore lavender silk tuxedos.

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Most famously, two German spies were discovered living on a houseboat where they conspired with future Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (and a belly dancer) to pass information on British troop movements to General Erwin Rommel.

Ahmed Zaazaa, urban designer and researcher, said the removal or transformation of houseboats into commercial properties is part of the city’s wholesale overhaul, which has accelerated since 2017 and includes the construction of a massive new capital in the desert.

Entire neighborhoods, including public housing projects, have been bulldozed to widen roads and build new ones. There has been extensive reworking of certain areas along the Nile to host high-end cafes and restaurants.

“They are commercializing all public spaces and reintroducing them as public spaces, and of course these are not public spaces, they are food courts,” Zaazaa said, noting that many designers have drawn inspiration from the very young skyscraper. ravaged city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. “There is a very clear approach from the government that sees no kind of value in heritage, no kind of value in the memory of the city.

Along with their role in Egyptian novels, films and plays, he said, houseboats are a big part of the city’s heritage that is entirely swept away in a vision that has little time for l ‘historical.

For Helmy, on his blue boat, it’s all about history. While her husband died before the boat was completed, Helmy lived a happy life along the Nile she could never have imagined in the smoldering concrete and cement that surrounds so much of Cairo.

“Someone who lives in a houseboat feels all the beautiful things around them, the fresh air, the animals and for a widow like me, you don’t feel alone, you feel like you have the world whole with you,” she said.

The volunteers have agreed to take care of the dog, cats and ducks, but Helmy, who has no other home, doesn’t know what she will do.

“They should tow it while I’m inside. Either we drown together or we live together,” she said.

Schemm reported from London.

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