Not so quiet on the West Bank
Years after settling in the West Bank of Luxor, residents find their homes demolished by the authorities, Dena Rashed reports from embittered Al-Boa'irat
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Illegal housing on the West Bank of the Nile, inhabited for years, is set to be destroyed by the government's demolition forces
A few days after the demolition forces knocked down a number of houses in the Al-Boa'irat area in the West Bank of Luxor, George Abadir sat surrounded by torn down fences, worrying over the fate of his own two-storey building. Abadir is one of the people whose house may soon be demolished though he has lived there for years. In Al-Boa'irat area on the West Bank of the Nile River, land grabbing was the means most commonly used to build on government-owned grounds. However the situation in the West Bank has grown increasingly tense for the past few days, as the government's demolition forces have started to tear down houses without giving prior notice to the residents.
Most of the houses in the area are two-storey buildings or villas with a view to the Nile. The spot gained its importance due to its location in a tourist area from which sightseers begin their felouka Nile cruises.
In order to prove that he has won several court cases legitimising the construction of his home and the fence surrounding it, Abadir pulled out the documents resulting from the hearings. His papers seem to have provided him with no defence, however. "I was out when the demolition forces arrived, so I thought it would be best if I stay at home until I figure out whether there are plans to demolish my house too," Abadir told Al-Ahram Weekly. Arguing that he has been paying for electricity consumption for the past year, for him this signifies that the government acknowledges his ownership of the house.
A small demonstration was organised last Sunday by the local and foreign residents who share the land and businesses of the West Bank. The protest managed, however momentarily, to put a stop to the bulldozers destroying the houses, according to Jim Scout, a British citizen who owns and lives in a house in Al-Boa'irat. He told the Weekly that "all the people who bought land or houses here know it is a land owned by the government. But it has become an established village with houses, supermarkets, a mosque, two hotels and a number of restaurants. I bought the house a year ago when it was only a one-storey building, and I then built two other floors."
Scout contends that in fact the government implicitly gave its consent for the construction to take place. "The present situation was allowed to happen, and it has been going on for years now -- since the 1980s," he said. "Besides it has attracted many foreigners to invest their money and come and live here by the Nile." Scout added that the current situation is unbearable, adding that "there is some kind of a list of houses that are going to be demolished very soon, and I can't leave the house and go anywhere because that could mean I won't find it when I come back".
Further into the West Bank stand the remnants of one of the houses demolished last week. The residents have been sitting in front of their destroyed house since then. "It was made of mud bricks; then we started rebuilding it with bricks," said Hussein Tayie. "We inherited this house and the land from our ancestors but now I have nowhere to live." Many other residents in the West Bank fear a similar fate to Tayie's. "If they had wanted to forbid the construction, why didn't they do it from the beginning? Besides they provided us with water and electricity and we pay the administrative fees every year," said resident Abul-Hagag Omar.
A similar situation was faced by residents nearer the river, where a villa's fence was demolished by the city council. "It is the second time they demolish the fence, even though I have been paying for water consumption for the past year," said the owner of the house, Khelawy Hassan. Voicing feelings of dismay and defiance was Shahenaz, a British woman married to an Egyptian, who lives in a big house by the Nile. "I have all the legal papers that prove my ownership of the house, and I won't let them demolish it. I have invested a lot of money in my house," she told the Weekly. She too plans to stay in the area fearing that her house will be demolished if she is not present.
While many of the residents are unsure about the fate of their buildings, the authorities apparently have the law on their side. As the head of Ancient Egyptian Antiquities at the Supreme Council of Antiquities Sabry Abdel- Aziz told the Weekly, in 1981 Presidential Decree number 267 pronounced the area of the West Bank in Luxor an archeological protectorate. The area as Abdel-Aziz defines it stretches from the bridge of Luxor in the south to Al-Seninia area in the north, and from the Nile in the east to the mountain in the west. "There are a lot of violations in the area of the West Bank of the Nile, and due to the complex situation, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni has asked the head of Luxor City Council to quickly eradicate all these violations," he said.
In a small village like Al-Boa'irat stories and rumours spread quickly. Gossip has offered up a variety of interpretations of the demolition orders. One possible explanation relates to local political interests in the West Bank. Another more commonly used interpretation claims that it is the area's businessmen who are keen to have the houses demolished. "An owner of one of the hotels in the East Bank of the Nile also owned about 15 feddans in the West Bank. However a local resident's house stood in the way of his land and so he pushed for the removal of all [illegally constructed] houses on the West Bank," a resident claimed.
Some other locals added that the owners of the hotels on the East Bank argue that the panoramic view onto the West Bank is ruined by the houses. A West Bank owner Medhat El-Rezeili countered this argument by pointing out that "there are a number of houses on the east side of the Nile that are only few metres away from the river; some hotels have even land filled parts of the river in order to build swimming pools".
In order to further support their argument that the panoramic view is not being blocked by their homes, a number of residents of the Al-Boa'irat area organised a felouka trip. "Hotel residents on the East Bank have a clear view of the West Bank and of the mountain: we don't block their view as some people were saying," said El-Rezeili. Another resident meanwhile pointed at the five-star hotels on the East Bank of the Nile and reiterated that most of them have encroached on the river- bed. "We have not encroached on the water of the Nile and our houses are not as close to the river as the hotels of the eastern side, so the law should be applied equally," said El-Rezeili.
It seems odd that the government should be accusing the residents of the West Bank of jeopardising the local tourism industry when most people, tour operator Mohamed Kinawi said, are well educated and not as poor as they are pictured. "Tourism is our sole business, so we wouldn't build houses that could affect the view. This is a tourist area that requires the presence of locals to manage the businesses," he added.
The loss of investments in the area is not a problem that the locals face alone for foreigners also share part of the problem. Frederiek Wendsefelder, a partner in a small hotel, believes that the money she has invested in the business cannot be compensated. "I brought all my money to invest in this area, and when we were building the hotel no one complained, so we just went ahead," she told the Weekly. With an angry tone, she demanded that the city council provide her with prior notification as to "which houses are going to be demolished. We have the right to know what the government is planning to do".
Similarly Joanna Tidy, a British national married to an Egyptian, came to Luxor and invested with her husband in a two-storey building located on a side road in the West bank. "When I first came, all the lawyers we consulted told us that there is a nonverbal agreement that allows people to build in this area, and since the city provided us with electricity and water, we assumed that there was no problem," Tidy said. Information was only provided later on, when the issue had already become problematic.
For Arnfinn Sorensen, who came all the way from Norway to settle in Luxor, leaving the West Bank is no longer an option. "I am diabetic and I have a heart problem, and the dry climate of Luxor is the most suitable for my poor health," said Sorensen. With shaking hands, he pointed to the nearby houses. "We should all have been all notified, but they just went ahead with their demolition plans," he told the Weekly.
Hassan Mohamed, a resident and a lawyer for some of the residents of the area, believes that at this point the main problem is how to provide housing for those who live in the city. "It is not just about the demolition orders, but about where to stay afterwards. No housing is permitted in the mountain because of the presence of monuments. As some of the land belongs to the government and other parts are agricultural, the people here assumed it was okay," Mohamed said. He insisted that residents need to be provided with alternative shelter if their homes are demolished.
For now it is clear that he city council will not provide the residents of Al-Boa'irat with any solace. "It is forbidden to construct any buildings in the West Bank, and all those who reside there were aware of this in the first place but they just went ahead with their construction plans," El-Dessouki El-Banna, the head of the city council told the Weekly. Still, El-Banna said that although residence in the area is illegal, the council will seek to handle the social dimension of the issue with care. "Previously we provided houses for the residents of Al- Gourna -- a village in the mountain built on the archeological tombs -- and this time we will certainly provide housing for those whose houses are demolished," he said. However El-Banna added that most of the people living in this area are wealthy and own several houses elsewhere, "so many of them already have other shelters, and for them it is not as bad as it seems".
Said Farag, a member of the Luxor local council, proposed that people pay fines for their violations in order to avoid the demolition of their homes. He also submitted requests to the city council demanding the halt of all demolitions and at the same time asked it to halt any new construction in the area. However, in response to such requests, El-Banna replied that "the law has to be executed". Further, although many residents have been pushing for their right to know whether their homes will be demolished, El-Banna said that all the houses were all illegally built so the owners need not know which ones will be demolished. "They don't have that right as they all know their housing in the West Bank is illegal in the first place."
The time frame for the demolition plan is not yet known, as El-Banna added. What is known however, is that the orders have been planned to be executed in three phases. The illegal houses in Al-Boa'irat area were counted and put into three categories. The first includes the inhabited houses with access to public utilities -- as in water and electricity -- while the second category accounts for inhabited houses with no public utilities. The third category includes the houses which are uninhabited and under construction; these will probably be demolished first. Some of the demolition orders have already been executed in Al-Boa'irat. El-Banna said 23 houses have already been destroyed.
El-Banna did, however, admit that it is contradictory that the residents should have had to pay an administrative fee to the government despite their housing being illegal. "The Central Auditing Agency contradicts us and demands the collection of the administrative fees for all those using public property whether legally or illegally," he added. Nevertheless, he explained that many of the residents signed statements granting their houses access to water and electricity on the condition that the city council could decide at any point to cut off the utilities. "The city council still has the right to stop the utilities from reaching the houses, for they are all shanty houses," said El-Banna. "We will abide by the law and keep the West Bank an archeological protectorate."