|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
19 - 25 July 2001
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Cultivating CairoShe knows the city's secrets: urban legends, metropolitan myths
Profile by Fayza Hassan
Marise Hilal was spared l'âge ingrat -- the growing pains of adolescence. At the time when most youngsters feel messy and miserable, she was tall and slim, her skin unblemished, her demeanour cool and composed. I can still see her on the deck of the s/s Esperia, her unruly blond curls flying in the wind, her eyes scrutinising the horizon as we approached various landmarks. On the ship, all the boys had fallen in love with her, to the other girls' greatest dismay.
We were a group of youngsters going on holiday with our parents after a long school year. Books had been forgotten during the four days it took to cross the Mediterranean; romance was paramount on our minds. Marise, however, spent most of the time poring over a book, unaware of the impression she had made on the male element of our little group. The three o'clock movie was an occasion for budding courtships to develop; boys and girls held hands and stared at each other, indifferent to the actors' exploits on the screen. Marise, in contrast, donned her glasses (a terminally unfashionable thing to do at the time) and sat alone, engrossed in the action.
From the time she was a toddler, she has had one passion, she says: Egypt, its architecture and history. From the Pharaohs to the Mamelukes, Mohamed Ali to the 21st century: she has devoured eras and topics indiscriminately. Provided they are related to the country, they have captured her attention, or, more correctly, bewitched her. She does not want to give the wrong impression, however: "I am no scholar," she states firmly. "André Gide's famous words 'Culture is what remains when all else is forgotten' apply to me and, in that sense, you can say that I am cultured in things Egyptian."
Her father was Syrian; the family hailed from Aleppo and came to Egypt at the turn of the century. Her mother is Greek (or were her maternal ancestors Venetian? She really doesn't know, and although a passionate historian when it comes to the Pharaohs or the Mamelukes, she is not intrigued by the history of her own family: she bursts out laughing when I suggest that she should try to retrace it). Yet she felt from the start that her roots were here and nowhere else. Her family was already involved in Egypt in the 1860s: a maternal great-grandfather had come from Italy to participate in the building of the Opera House. But all told, she could have been a member of one of the affluent Levantine families whose closed community empathised more with the Western component of Egyptian society than with its native majority. The Syrians, since the first wave of immigration in 1730, were often accused of having arrived in Egypt hungry, enriched themselves at the Egyptians' expense and then remained aloof. But the Hilal family was different. Although several of its members did indeed become quite wealthy, they were always keen on stressing their Arab heritage.
By the time she was 13, Marise was voraciously delving into Egyptology books, "maybe because I sat next to Fayza Heikal, who took her class notes in hieroglyphs," she says; "I know that I was completely fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians. I read every book on the subject I could lay my hands on."
This was in her first year at the French Lycée of Bab Al-Louq. She was thoroughly enjoying the change from the Pensionnat de la Mère de Dieu, which she had attended before. "We spoke French at home," she explains. "Both my mother and father spoke French fluently; they spoke other languages as well, but they only had this one in common. Besides, everyone spoke French in those days. But," she insists, "we do not have a drop of French blood in our veins -- unless of course, unbeknown to me, an ancestor was less than virtuous in the past..."
Marise's mother and all the women in her family had been educated at the pensionnat and it was only natural that she should follow suit. "My father had studied at the Jesuits, like most Syrian-Egyptians of the period. In their minds, religious education was supposed to be the best. I therefore went to the Mère de Dieu at first, but soon realised that I was learning precious little and was wasting my time." The censored schoolbooks (which she could read at leisure at home in their unabridged versions), the long hours of prayer and the strict discipline that took precedence over academic excellence were stifling. Marise had been decisively unhappy in this oppressing atmosphere. "When I finished primary school, I insisted on being transferred to the Lycée. My mother objected at first, probably in the name of tradition, but my father, who was very broadminded, agreed to enrol me there. It was like a breath of fresh air."
Marise graduated in June 1956, in the last class to sit French government exams. She received her Baccalaureate with high distinction.
Unlike many Westernised youngsters, for whom it meant the end of dreams built upon the possibility of higher education abroad, Marise had welcomed the nationalisation of the Suez Canal and felt deep pride in Abdel- Nasser's steadfast defiance. While studying at Cairo University, she had accepted with enthusiasm a teacher's position at the Lycée, where young Egyptian graduates of this institution were replacing the ousted French teachers. "The challenge was to carry on with the programme as well as our foreign predecessors," she comments.
During the following couple of years, she married, had a son and followed her husband, who worked for an airline company, to Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iran was a new and exciting experience. It had a decisively Oriental flavour and enough cultural links with Egypt to draw her in at once. She engrossed herself in the art, history and literature of the country, enrolling at the university in Tehran to learn Farsi.
We have crossed paths occasionally during the long years that followed our voyage on the Esperia and our four-day friendship. Early on, our lives had taken totally different directions. Marise divorced, remarried, traveled to the States and divorced again. During all the emotional upheavals, her love for Egypt has never wavered and she has returned "home" at every opportunity. Now, married to an American, she lives in Cairo with her mother while he remains in the States. "We visit every couple of months," she explains. "He knew from the start that I could only feel fulfilled in Cairo; besides, he adores coming here. You should see him playing tawla with the best players in the café!"
So here we are, on a hot summer morning, almost half a century after our first meeting, sharing a passion for a city that we both feel equally helpless to save from decay and wilful ruin. My interest in Cairo and its history is fairly recent. Hers began in childhood and has lasted a lifetime, surpassing all other enthralments.
I look around the cozy living room, with its comfortable seating arrangements, its cleverly positioned side lamps and its walls covered from top to bottom with sketches and paintings, many by Egyptian artists, some by Persian masters, and others, that I am unable to identify, old family treasures. Several pieces by Hassan Soliman testify to their long friendship. The display is definitely devoid of any trace of ostentation, although later, she points to several works that could take pride of place in any reputed gallery.
The building where Marise lives with her mother is one of the better-preserved apartment blocks adjacent to the old radio broadcasting edifice and facing the new Bourse. It belongs to her grandfather's heirs. Now that the street has become a pedestrian passageway, the sounds that reach us through the open balcony are muffled. The sun streams in and plays with the warm colours of the polished wood. Unlike many downtown apartments, which seem hastily put together for a transient dweller, this one looks like home. It is easy in this setting to reminisce about the past splendour of the quarter, once the exclusive province of the genteel bourgeoisie. "Were you born here," I ask, trying to imagine the studious little girl she once was sitting at the dining room table, in the glow of the lamp, with stacks of textbooks in front of her.
She was born in the Raddinger clinic on Soliman Pasha Street, she says with a smile, and she did not move here until her father's death in the 1980s. In her childhood, the family occupied a huge apartment in the Asher building, where the Townhouse Gallery is now located. For Marise, all the downtown buildings are landmarks: she knows their history and often remembers their original owner. She learned to love the area with her grandfather, who used to take her on long walks interspersed with pauses to admire the architecture of the most striking edifices. "I don't know if he ever told me the names of the architects -- I have forgotten -- but he taught me really to enjoy the city and its different aspects." She did more than enjoy it: it exercised a magic attraction on her. She has never considered settling permanently anywhere else.
After her second divorce Marise came back "for good." In 1966, her father had bought the Estoril, a downtown restaurant that has kept its faithful clientele for decades. There she met artists, writers and foreign correspondents. It was enough to sit there for a little while to find out what was going on in the city at that very minute. History was being made, and she was part of it. But she soon felt she needed to study some more and went back to her books, enrolling at the American University in Cairo, as an auditor this time. "George Scanlon did not believe in the status of auditor, however, and I had to give in papers like the regular students," she reminisces. With her accumulation of degrees and knowledge of languages, she had no trouble obtaining work as a guide for very exclusive tourists. Soon she was only taking Mrs Sadat's guests around, and she enjoyed the experience thoroughly. "They were all very cultured people, often versed in Egyptology. It was a real pleasure to discuss my favourite topics with them."
After her father's death, she took over the management of the Estoril with her mother. The changing fortunes of the downtown area began to eat at her heart. She noticed the garbage accumulated on street corners, in the courtyards of buildings and on terraces, the potholes on the footpaths overcrowded with parked cars, the peeling paint on the buildings, covered now with black soot from the gridlocked traffic. Her dear friends were not ageing well. Some were suffering from terminal diseases. And she hated the newcomers, those cheaply built, garishly decorated new blocks raising their ugly heads over the charming turn-of-the century villa-like structures. "Please go and have a long hard look at the mall on Talaat Harb," she says. "There should be a law preventing such aberrations." The vulgar shop façades, offending billboards and name plaques covering every square centimeter cause her real anguish. Marise knows, of course, that Khedive Ismail's "new quarters" were not built to last, that in many cases, with their plastered and glued-on finery, they have been compared to a theatre set -- but what a set! So harmoniously put together that it once competed with all the older, more "settled" capitals of the world.
"And now this," she says, shaking her head in sad wonderment. When the decision was taken to "embellish" Cairo, indiscriminately smearing a coat of paint on every building, she could stand it no longer. She began to speak up at conferences on architecture and urbanism, warning about the irreparable damage being inflicted on the buildings by using the wrong kind of chemicals. "We need a strong association for the protection of our heritage and we need it now, before it is too late," she keeps repeating. Marise knows many architects, artists and writers, who are ready to join forces with her and who, unlike many in charge, actually know how to preserve our rich heritage. All that is needed is permission to form the association. She frowns in determination. "Somehow, I am hoping that we will succeed and save at least samples that will tell future generations: we loved the Cairo of times gone by."
photo Randa Shaath
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