|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
18 - 24 January 2001
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A voice in the city
For this most unusual architect, buildings without people are bodies without souls
Profile by Fayza Hassan
The first time I saw Mona Zakaria was in the gardens of the Cairo International Conference Centre. Film director Youssri Nasrallah was shooting several scenes for his film Mercedes around the artificial lake, and she featured prominently in that particular day's shots. Her quiet beauty and her extraordinarily rich voice struck me, as she delivered the monologue demanded by the scene at hand.
In the following days, I found out that she was a widow with two children and that she had already featured in Nasrallah's first film, Sariqat Sayfiya (Summer Thefts). The more I saw of her, the more attractive I found her, although I was slightly surprised by her silent compliance with Nasrallah's exacting demands. Why wasn't she acting like a prima donna? I wondered. Don't all actresses? Her manner was modest, her tone subdued, her eyes questioning; she seemed afraid to disturb, while all around her even the extras were making extravagant demands and vociferously voicing any complaint they could dream up. I eventually concluded that something must have been making her deeply unhappy. Although we discovered that we had lived on the same street for years, I had never seen her before, and had naturally assumed that she was a professional actress. I was thus rather surprised when she mentioned that she was expected at her office in Zamalek. What office? Someone explained then that Zakaria was an architect by profession, but offered no more details.
When the shooting was over, we all promised to keep in touch, but apart from a few brief chance encounters at the local supermarket, her path and mine never crossed.
Then, a year or two later, while examining books I had just acquired at the Book Fair, I noticed her name on Palais et Maisons du Caire, one of the masterpieces published by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). She was indeed an architect and a researcher as well, I realised.
The years went by and I never heard of Zakaria until Christmas this year, when, touring Old Cairo in search of signs of water damage caused by the exceptional downpour of the previous days, I was told by engineer Sherif Hanna about Mugamma' Al-Adyan, a restoration project targeting the area of Fustat. It was headed by none other than architect and restoration expert Mona Zakaria.
'I promised myself that I would one day live in one of these haras... But people were into building new high-rises and our architectural history was being swept under the carpet'
photos: Randa Shaath
It took me a couple of days to locate her. "I am in Ras Sidr," she said, when I finally managed to reach her on her cell phone. I was curious to know what she could possibly be doing at that less-than-fashionable resort, instead of joining the throngs of New Year's revellers in Al-Gouna or Sharm Al-Sheikh.
We met the following evening at her family's house in Maadi, in her top-floor flat. She was wearing training pants and a cotton T-shirt, although in all honesty, even inside, the temperature called for much more bundling up. "I have soaked up so much sun that I don't feel the cold anymore," she offered by way of explanation, as I firmly refused to remove my coat.
The living room where we sat was vast and airy, unencumbered with the various knickknacks one expects to see. The sun must drench it in the morning, I thought enviously. The few pieces of furniture and the paintings on the walls informed the visitor that Zakaria was unmistakably proud of her Arab heritage. Sturdy mashrabiya and glass divided the lounge from the kitchen, also very large, I assumed, judging by the echoes of her children's voices that reached us from afar as they put the last touches to the dinner she had been cooking before I arrived. "I do all sorts of things in my life," said Zakaria, "but I only feel real when I am involved in household chores." She delivered the sentence very simply, as if doing the dishes was a perfectly normal activity for an architect who (as I was soon to find out), specialises in the Fatimid period and is also a sometime actress. "Why do you go to Ras Sidr?" I asked instead of commenting.
Zakaria has a piece of land on a desert stretch one kilometre from the sea. There she has built a small room herself, mixing mud bricks and straw. There is no electricity and no running water. With the help of a peasant from Upper Egypt, she has planted olive trees and is experimenting with various vegetables. "I am learning about agriculture and bonding with the local people. They have taught me a great deal," she says, beginning an enthusiastic account of her neighbours' simple lives. She also revels in the peaceful solitude that awaits her whenever she can get away and the frugality of one's needs outside the social circuit. She has to recharge her batteries after the stress of work in Old Cairo, she says, and therefore heads for her retreat whenever she has a few hours free. She has finally managed to buy a solar cell to heat the water of the cistern and light a couple of lamps for a short time at night. She mostly goes to Ras Sidr alone. Her children are not particularly keen on the Spartan lifestyle and only Kahramana, her fat basset hound, shares her love of the place.
Is Zakaria a loner? Not at all. She thrives in the company of people -- "real people," she stresses. She grew up in Digla, the more deserted part of Maadi, where the house her father built was flanked by the desert on one side and the railway tracks on the other. She went to the local French Lycée, where she had a good time, she says; but she always felt something was sorely missing in that protected environment.
Life began for her on the days off school, when she would go to visit one of her grandmothers. The paternal one lived in Abdin and, from the balcony, Mona would watch the street below teeming with people apparently engaged in the most exciting occupations. Children played joyfully on the footpaths and she yearned to be one of them, sharing in the intimacy of the populous quarter. She dreamed that her grandmother would send her on an errand down the street, to buy bread perhaps, and she would linger with her purchase under her arm, like the other youngsters that she observed crowding around the man who brought Sandouq Al-Dunya (the magic box) to the quarter. Like the others, she would hand him a few coins, a fuul sandwich or a grilled cob of corn and would be allowed in exchange to take a peek through the hole in the box. She would then be able to think of herself as a girl of the hitta (quarter) and her happiness would have no end. She soon learned, however, that it was pointless to keep nagging her grandmother and resigned herself to the role of onlooker.
Her maternal grandmother lived in a fabulous house on Lazoghli Square, which featured many secret rooms as well as a bathroom in which the toilet, perched atop a flight of steps, was crowned by a shokhshekha (lantern skylight). She spent hours sitting there, her eyes raised to the funny window in the ceiling. She absolutely adored this house, even more than the Abdin abode, and when her family finally sold it she felt betrayed. It was like erasing the most exhilarating part of her childhood.
As far back as she can remember, Zakaria has been fascinated by the buildings and streets of Cairo, and especially the people who live in it. "It is such an exciting city," she says: "So diverse, and so alive."
For a long time, she was never allowed to become a part of the street's dynamic life that she sensed throbbed so strongly, in the distance when she was in Digla but just a few metres below when she visited one of her grandmothers. One day, however, she was old enough for her mother to allow her to take the train alone from Maadi to Abdin. She was on top of the world and before reaching her grandmother's house, went on an exploratory tour of the alleys she had so often contemplated from up high. "They were every bit as exciting as I had imagined," she says with delight. "I promised myself that I would one day live in one of these haras."
Is that when she decided to become an architect? She is not sure. Things were more complicated than that, she explains tentatively. They tend to be, with someone so sensitive to nuances and whose life has taken so many unexpected turns.
While at school, she was enrolled at the Conservatoire, where she studied voice with a Russian teacher. Zakaria was both an alto and a soprano and, while the Russian woman accepted this phenomenon readily, others refused to take on the young girl when her teacher left. She therefore quit the Conservatoire, but, she says, the singing lessons came in handy when she was asked to provide a voice-over as Umm Kulthoum in a documentary about the great singer's life made three years ago. At first she had enormous misgivings, but says: "Before I had time to reject the offer, feeling unworthy of such an honour, I kept seeing Umm Kulthoum everywhere I went. She appeared to me on posters; I heard her voice in the cafés at sunset. Friends invited me for a drink and without telling me they took me to a houseboat dedicated to her. Whenever I turned the car radio on, there she was. Finally I imagined that the great artist herself was telling me that she wanted me to accept the part." It went like a dream, but on the day of the premiere, when she heard the audience praising the verbal performance, she was careful not to let on that she knew who had spoken Umm Kulthoum's words.
Meandering through her eventful life, Zakaria finally acknowledges that she chose to study at the Faculty of Fine Arts mainly because her parents had never been sensitive to beauty. "They just looked at the practical aspect of things, never at their aesthetic value. I felt deprived in that domain. For me, old buildings were the epitome of splendour and that is what I wanted to learn more about. Needless to say, in those days [the late '60s] my choice was not among the most popular. People were into building new high-rises and our architectural history was being swept under the carpet." Even before she graduated, she had decided that she needed to know more about the history of the country if she was going to study its monuments seriously. Once through with the Faculty of Fine Arts, therefore, she enrolled at the university of Aix-en-Provence, commuting regularly to Cairo, where she spent hours in the archives, poring over the old documents until she could read them easily. During that time, she began working at the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale (IFAO) as an assistant to Bernard Maury, drawing up the plans of a large number of monuments on Al-Mu'izz Street and the neighbouring area. "At the IFAO," she explains, "everyone was into Ancient Egypt and the Pharaohs. All the rest had second-class status." At first, she saw little point to her work. Why measure and survey buildings that were there for all to see? Anyone could do exactly what she was doing. Then Bab Al-Razzaz collapsed and she suddenly realised that she had been the last one to record its existence in minute detail. Her work, she decided, must be important, because a similar accident might happen to any other monument at any time. From that day on she went to Al-Mu'izz Street with a renewed sense of purpose.
Zakaria spent some time teaching at the Ecole d'Architecture de Versailles in France and also taught for a few years at the Cinema Institute where, to her immense joy, she found receptive young men and women eager to learn about the architecture and history of their country. In the end she had to leave because, she says cryptically, the students liked her course too much. She refuses to elaborate.
At this juncture of her career, Zakaria had surveyed several dozen monuments throughout the ancient city, and was beginning to understand the shortcomings and dangers of academic research as it was currently practiced. Many modern researchers, she believes, are Orientalists at heart. They were fed an image of the Arab world long before they became interested in its systematic study and desperately want their findings to conform to what they have come to expect. "Take the idea of the haramlik, for instance. You will often read that this is where the women of the household used to congregate in order to observe the men down in the salamlik, through the mashrabiya. In fact, as I examined the historical documents, I found no mention of the word haramlik before the first decades of the Ottoman period. However, during the earlier periods I examined I did find a room corresponding to similar architectural specifications called Al-Aghani (the songs). More research led me to suppose that this room was not originally built for the convenience of secluded women, but for the musicians and singers hired to enliven the feasts of the music-loving Mamelukes, who had created a stereophonic sound system of sorts by placing the entertainers in a mezzanine above the salamlik, allowing the melodies to filter down through the sides of the mashrabiya. On the other hand, the haramlik, as it were, was simply the private apartment where the whole family retired, as opposed to the reception room where they entertained their guests."
Reading the Orientalists as well as many modern historians, we are nevertheless overwhelmed with images of a stern patriarchal society that strictly enforced segregation. What Zakaria wants to stress is that very little is hard truth in history; one always has to keep an open mind. Maybe this is why she is constantly asking questions, revising her opinions, trying to rely on what she hears, sees and sometimes feels rather than on what she has learned in her academic forays. The latter she uses as a yardstick against which she measures all the new information she is able to glean.
During one of her assignments, she was instructed to draw the architectural plan of an occupied rab' (a commercial building including shops on the ground floor and rooms for rent, one per family on the upper stories). Since she did her work in the mornings, the young architect was only in contact with the female inhabitants. By the time she arrived, the men -- mechanics, small vendors or craftsmen -- had already gone to work. At first she kept to herself, but she was soon irresistibly drawn into this community of women, their good humour, solidarity, camaraderie and daring jokes. Here was a real community whose lifestyle was reinforced by the design of the architecture. The women were in constant contact; they shopped together then sat on the steps of the rab' peeling vegetables and stuffing cabbage leaves, singing and exchanging gossip, wisecracks and useful advice. To Zakaria, these women were not oppressed by life or by their menfolk; they were enjoying their time to the full, discovering a thousand strategies to improve their lot, and finding support in their numbers. Her description of the women's sorority brings to mind the vivid reminiscences of Fatima Mernissi's years in mid-20th century Morocco, as recounted by the author in The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood.
Zakaria went back to her supervisors with the survey, but also with stories about the community of women, and tried to convince them that historical research excluding "the people" was sterile and worthless. She was told that she was overstepping her boundaries: this was really the realm of sociology. Was she not an architect and a historian? She should leave the rest to specialists in the field. Zakaria did not agree. She wanted to understand the history of the country with its buildings and its people, but could find no discipline that would entail a study of the three together. Her doctorate had been successfully obtained and Maisons et Palais had earned her a reputation as a first-class architect and historian. She had been working on several restoration projects with Maury, among them the famous Beit Al-Harawi. It took her two years to make her decision. Finally she abandoned research and took her first steps in architecture and restoration, the former to earn a living, the latter for her pleasure. She is currently putting the last touches to the rehabilitation of the city of Fustat. What does the future hold? "More of the same, I hope," she says with a wistful smile.
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