|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
18 - 24 January 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The mosque, the church and the kilnFayza Hassan and photographer Randa Shaath rest a while in the shade of Babylon
AN ANTIQUE SLUM: Masr Al-Qadima, or Old Cairo -- otherwise known as Al-Fustat, where Egypt's Muslim history began -- is today many things to many people. There are the archaeological digs, constantly yielding new discoveries, and the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-Aas, founded in the winter of 641-642 (immediately following the conquest of Egypt): the first mosque on the continent of Africa and the object of numerous controversial reconstructions. Then there is the Coptic Museum, with its façade reminiscent of Al-Aqmar Mosque; the Roman fortress of Babylon (Qasr Al-Sham) and its mysterious past; the old churches and monasteries, with the Hanging Church making the headlines more than once recently. In Old Cairo, too, one finds the synagogue, the Christian and Jewish cemeteries with their extravagantly decorated tombstones and mausoleums. Until a few years ago, this was also the quarter where the slaughter-houses and, more importantly, the pottery works were concentrated, thus gathering in a relatively small site two principal sources of urban pollution.
'I have learned a great deal about people in the past two years; I make it a point to discuss changes with them and let them make suggestions. I listen. If we don't agree, we look for a compromise' Top: the bus station; above: restored buildings with new wooden shutters and awnings
For a long time, this area was among the most depressed in Cairo, choking beneath the fumes of the potters' kilns and overwhelmed by the stench from the abattoirs. All the leitmotifs of urban decay were readily available: garbage piled several metres high in the streets and surrounding wasteland; at nightfall, wild dogs and cats, as well as prostitutes, drug dealers and addicts, roaming freely. Consequently, Old Cairo, historically a pole of attraction for tourists of all religious denominations and from all over the world, shrouded its peerless churches, mosque, and synagogue in the misery of the neighbourhood and framed them in mounds of refuse accumulated over centuries. It is hardly surprising that various authorities, finally alarmed by the area's progressive decay, decided to take action.
THE LONG ROAD AHEAD: A rehabilitation project was set in motion two years ago, entrusted by the Ministry of Tourism to architect/restoration expert Mona Zakaria, who received a budget of LE15 million (approved by then Prime Minister Mustafa El-Ganzouri) of entirely Egyptian money. Zakaria insists on that point because, she says, rumours have attributed the financing of this particular venture to various foreign sources. When she first met Minister of Tourism Mamdouh El-Beltagui to discuss the project, she says she could not believe her ears. "It is as if he had read my mind and was telling me to do what I had always dreamed of accomplishing. He thought like an architect and a restorer rather than a government official, and I could see that he had spent much time planning the work ahead."
Operating on a shoestring budget, Zakaria conceived the plan of rehabilitating as much of Old Cairo as she possibly could. She took up the challenge because it allowed her to take her academic research in urban development to the street and apply it to a real-life situation. The gamble was to effect the work without disturbing the daily life of the quarter. Seldom before in Egypt has the upgrading of a whole area been attempted while its inhabitants remain in their dwellings. A comparable experiment was conducted successfully in the squatter neighbourhood of Al-Nasriya in Aswan a few years ago, but the examples remain few and far between.
"This project is not about design and planning only," explains Zakaria; "it is about daily contact with the people, finding out what their needs are and trying to improve their living environment while adding features that were sorely lacking, such as street cleanliness, a sounder infrastructure and improved aesthetics."
INAUSPICIOUS BEGINNINGS: Removing the masses of garbage, enlarging the streets, reconstructing the footpaths, preserving the existing vegetation and planting new green spaces, including a large garden and a playground, were followed by a general facelift of the façades and, sometimes, internal structural transformations to the buildings of the area. The inhabitants were quite suspicious at first, going so far as to lodge official complaints and concocting accusations against the team of restorers. It took a great deal of diplomacy to secure their consent before the work was allowed to start. As we sit in Zakaria's tiny makeshift office, temporarily erected on the grounds of the local health care centre, she receives a phone call from a woman who had opposed the scheme virulently at first. On the occasion of the Coptic feast, the woman had just visited the cemetery and toured the environs. She was calling to say that she was sorry to have caused so much trouble. Zakaria assured her that she would hold no grudge.
During the first phase of the project, the woman lodged 12 official complaints with the municipality and the governorate against the architect. Engineer Mahmoud Yassin, Zakaria's assistant and general troubleshooter, shakes his head in wonderment. "Does she know how many headaches she caused us? Did it take her two whole years to make up her mind and pay the quarter a visit? What did she have to complain about if she had not even seen what we were doing?"
Zakaria knows that a number of people would not mind seeing her enterprise fail. Many would have liked to be entrusted with the work themselves, while others resent the fact that she has achieved so much on such a small budget. She is under-cutting the market for future multi-million-dollar restoration projects. Others still are simply jealous of success. I suggest to Zakaria that we are engaged in a race to lower our standards: those who are unable to deliver high-quality products or workmanship want to drag others down to their level rather than rise to the challenge. This is particularly obvious in a number of restoration jobs I have looked at, I tell her. Zakaria shrugs. She will continue doing her best, and that involves listening to the people's needs, fitting their demands into the character of the area and, especially, supervising every detail personally.
TWO YEARS ON: The area behind the Mosque of Amr is now intersected by wide avenues bordered by tidy, low-rise buildings, newly painted in quiet shades of cream and fawn, with clay birds' nests clustered on the walls (to prevent advertisers from putting up garish billboards, says Zakaria). We walk through the quarter, marvelling at each new addition: cobbled pedestrian alleyways; ramps for easy access to the churches by wheelchair-bound visitors; a vast open-air market featuring high stone arcades, where fruits and vegetables as well as traditional crafts will be accommodated; a brand-new fire station, erected to the firefighters' specifications; and an entirely redecorated police station. Even the power stations have been clothed in stones to blend in seamlessly.
From top to bottom: street vendors are still welcome; arcades in the open-air market; restored gate to the Maronite Cemetery; another gate awaits attention; form and function find harmony as cream masonry and brown stone form arresting patterns on the refurbished walls, while unsightly generators are camouflaged in huts inlaid with mashrabiya panels
On the square, bound on one side by the wall of Amr's Mosque, a well-planned bus stop offers numerous benches and wooden awnings for the convenience of inhabitants and visitors alike. Zakaria hopes to open up the space between the bus stop and the mosque, allowing for a full view of this most ancient Muslim place of worship.
The walls of the cemeteries have been redone in pale masonry and brown stone. They face an area at the back of the market where Zakaria hopes restaurants and cafés will flourish soon. Why shouldn't Masr Al-Qadima be the Montmartre of Cairo? asks the architect. It has all the potential, and is one of the few spots in the city where there is still room for creativity.
A GOOD OMEN: Zakaria has put all her energy in the project, working ten-hour days on average. She considers that she has been blessed and that luck, so far, has been on her side. One day at the very beginning, she recounts, she was visiting the various sections where work had begun; as she approached Bayn Al-Adyira (Between the Monasteries) Street, where the workers had been repairing the wall of one of the cemeteries, she heard an ominous rumbling. Suddenly, the whole structure collapsed before her eyes. There was too much dust to see anything, and besides she was loath to look. She believed that all the workers had been buried under the rubble. When the dust finally settled, she heard them cheering and saw them all standing on the opposite side of the road. They had been taking a short tea break when the accident occurred. "It was like a miracle," she says. "I felt much stronger from that point on."
It was easy to convince the inhabitants that Alumetal windows were not a status symbol after that shock. "I have learned a great deal about people in the past two years; I make it a point to discuss changes with them and let them make suggestions. I listen. If we don't agree, we look for a compromise."
The windows were a case in point. When she suggested simple panes of glass protected by mashrabiya, a delegation of the most influential figures in the quarter came to see her. "Why do you want to lower our status?" they demanded angrily. "We are not that poor, we can afford aluminium windows." Zakaria, realising what was at stake, offered several alternatives, hinting that wooden shutters (the most expensive proposition) could be a good solution. They were the only substitute in harmony with the style of the area, she explains. Agreement was unanimous. Everyone wanted them. "They cost slightly more, but the people are happy and if they like the look of their houses chances are that they will keep them clean and tidy," she comments.
SPENDING A PENNY: Zakaria, however, fails to comprehend some decisions taken by the powers that be. Cairo Governor Abdel-Rehim Shehata, who along with El-Beltagui has been the driving force behind the scheme and has given his unequivocal approval to most of her suggestions, put his foot down and adamantly refused to let Zakaria build rest rooms at the bus stop. She is puzzled by the decision. Visiting Old Cairo is a long process and people will undoubtedly need to use such facilities. She is at present trying to convince him that such a convenience is a necessity, not extra icing on the cake.
PLANNING MAINTENANCE: For the time being, however, she is concentrating most of her efforts on the open-air market, her magnum opus. A series of square cubicles, some with their inside walls and ceilings featuring pseudo-historical scenes by Omar El-Fayoumi, overlook arcaded passages paved with mosaic tiles and lit at night by old-fashioned cast-iron lanterns. The main alley leads to Bayn Al-Adyira Street, where tourist buses will stop in future to let their passengers disembark.
Outside the building, Zakaria has planned for an empty space where small vendors who cannot afford to rent a stall will be able to sell their wares in the open air for the symbolic fee of ten piastres a day. "We really need a kind of committee that will collect income from the market and use it for the maintenance of the quarter. There is no point in restoration if the place cannot be cared for adequately later," she points out.
She is thinking mainly of trees, the ones she fought to preserve, often changing her original blueprint to accommodate a majestic eucalyptus, a royal palm, or a pretty mulberry tree. They have pride of place in her plan and now stand tall in their specially designed tubs. "They need to be attended to on a regular basis. We need sources of steady finance for all these reasons. The market is a good way to start and later, when the restaurants and cafés are prospering, we can ask the owners to contribute to upkeep," she reflects.
To diminish pollution levels in the area, the occupants of workshops devoted to noisy or fume-producing activities are being encouraged to shift to other, less toxic trades. Renovated, offending shops that previously harboured mechanics and body repairmen have been transformed into elegant boutiques, their entrances shaded by identical wooden canopies. They offer an array of glassware, clay statues, pottery, silver and brass objects bound to attract tourists. Are the owners content with this change of venue? Most of those we talked to considered that their status had greatly improved and say that the others were content to sell at the right price and move to a more industrial part of town.
THE POTTERS: Pottery is one of the most ancient crafts in Egypt. Potters of times gone by were more artists than craftsmen. Excavated Pharaonic tombs have yielded an abundance of artefacts, establishing the reputation for talent and expertise of Ancient Egyptian potters. Later, during the first centuries of the Islamic conquest, the secret of giving clay objects the famous metallic sheen that enhanced their floral, animal and calligraphy motifs was transmitted from father to son among members of the craft. During the Fatimid era, a Persian traveller, Nassir-i Khusrau, wrote that "faience of every kind is manufactured in Egypt. It is so fine and so diaphanous that one can see through the inner side of a vase the hand holding it on the outside. They make bowls, cups, plates and other utensils which are decorated with colours whose nuances change according to the position of the object." This crockery was made in Fustat, called Pottery City in those days. Today, these artefacts can be seen in museums across Egypt and overseas.
Twenty-first-century Egypt cannot boast such art in pottery making, but the production still steadily emerging from Fustat, where the potters have resided since those distant times, is essential nevertheless. The industrial revolution has not changed much in the craft and, if modern potters confine themselves mainly to the production of containers for the preparation and storing of food, they have their faithful clientele among the poor, merchants of traditional foodstuffs, and tourists. Dishes baked in an earthenware casserole are known to be superior in aroma and taste to their counterparts cooked in aluminium or cast-iron. And a pot from Fustat can become a conversation piece in Paris and London, or help a Minnesota housewife stake her claim to a secret recipe.
PRESERVING A TRADITIONAL CRAFT: Zakaria considers that her most worthwhile achievement has been convincing El-Beltagui and Shehata to return the potters to their traditional home, forsaking the plan of exiling them to Shaq Al-Te'ban.
The rehabilitation of a historic area, she argues passionately, does not entail the transformation of a poor quarter into a genteel neighbourhood. She has had to fight long and hard to preserve the potters' area from the greedy hands of developers. Overlooking Salah Salem, the site seemed ideal for a high-priced complex of luxury homes. There was talk of building a hotel, or a state-of-the-art arts and crafts centre. The potters, on the other hand, knocked at every possible door to have their case heard.
"By removing the fakharin (potters), we would completely change the character of the area and deprive it of the main reason for its popularity," explains Zakaria.
We drive a short distance and stop near a tree, where a few men are chatting and drinking tea. Behind their backs, facing the Salah Salem underpass that leads to the Maadi Corniche and the small, suspended village of Kom Al-Ghurab on the other side of the highway, the bulldozers are hard at work. This is the land that Zakaria, with some help from El-Beltagui and Shehata, has managed to wrest from those who had hatched grand moneymaking schemes. Tons of garbage had to be removed from the three-feddan site; the earth beneath, soaked with the decomposing refuse, has been stabilised in order to reestablish the potters' community on sounder ground.
More environmentally friendly gas- or electricity-fired kilns will replace the traditional ones; once this has been achieved, there is no reason why the craft should not thrive on the site where it was born in the first place, says Zakaria, who plans to use the old kilns in the construction of the surrounding walls as a reminder of times gone by.
AN EXPERIENCED ARTISAN: 'Amm Abdin is the potters' elder and their spokesman. He arrives as we settle in the shade of the tree and are served a welcome glass of burning hot, strong tea. "I have been a potter in this area for the past 7,000 years," says 'Amm Abdin provocatively, waiting for our reaction. We just smile at him, and he teases us some more. "Ask me why," he urges. We do so enthusiastically, if only to please him; sure enough, the smile returns to his face. He gives us the whole spiel about the Pharaohs and his forebears, who have never left Fustat for untold generations. He, Abdin, is the repository of a traditional craft that does not deserve to die because it is so intimately linked to the love of Egypt and its fertile land. "They say we are polluting the atmosphere? I agree, but mind you, the black cloud still hovers although we have stopped firing our kilns. But let us for a moment assume that we were the cause of this pollution. Why not give us the means to continue in our craft in a cleaner way? What is progress for? There are very powerful gas and electrical kilns which would suit us fine. If they can't introduce natural gas, we can use butane. They should just tell us what they want, instead of moving us to that God-forsaken place [Shaq Al-Te'ban, near Maadi], with the stone and marble cutters. Our profession is an art; theirs is a simple technique. In Shaq Al-Te'ban we feel isolated and cannot reach our habitual clients. How would we make a living?"
At this point 'Amm Abdin launches into the story of his life, telling us how he provides movie directors with clay paraphernalia to give their films a touch of couleur locale. He started working for the cinema with Cecil B de Mille, manufacturing all the clay containers needed for The Ten Commandments. He is particularly proud to have contributed to such a great film. More importantly, he is worried about his ordinary clients, the women living in the environs who need a jar for their fuul, a casserole for their oven and a qulla to keep their water fresh. And there are the artists too, painters and calligraphers whose task is to decorate the vases and cups according to the ancient tradition. Where would all these people go if the potters suddenly lost their means of livelihood? Besides, from time immemorial Fustat has been synonymous with pottery. "We are the soul of the place," 'Amm Abdin concludes proudly.
Zakaria smiles. "He is right," she says. "Without the potters, Old Cairo would lose its focus and its identity. Tourists expect their visit to Fustat to include a tour of the potters' area. They like to watch them at work, and the potters enjoy performing in front of an audience. The tourist gets the pot that he has watched the potter make; the artisan gets enough money to feed his family. Nowadays, although potters insist that their children get an education and even go to university, they expect them to make their living in the craft. I think that by keeping this closely knit community here, we are achieving several commendable aims: we are offering something unique to the tourists and we are giving a chance to people whose work is their only passion to improve their lot and assure a future for their children. Isn't that what sustainable development is all about?"
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