Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Images from the mind

Many old villas in Cairo have been pulled down and replaced by far more profitable high-rises. A few remain, however, moving reminders of times gone by. With help from some passionate conservationists, Fayza Hassan discovers architectural relics in the heart of Cairo
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A DIFFERENT SHADE OF PINK: When I was six years old, every time we drove from the Gezira Club towards Hassan Sabri Street down the narrow, crooked side road, I made sure to remember and look at the house. It had been built on a triangular plot, dividing the avenue into two lanes, with the building set near the base and the leafy garden, enclosed in a bare iron fence, spreading towards the summit. It looked like a ship, or what I imagined was a ship, never having set my eyes on one at the time.

A mysterious turret at the back, almost reaching the top of the eucalyptus tree where kites had their nests, was the focus of my attention. I tried to imagine what life could be like in such a house. How would the sun shine on the furniture in the morning? Before they lit the lamps, did the children feel the infinite melancholy that always grabbed my heart at dusk? How many people lived there, I wondered. One big family would be about right, I decided, very different from the people I was given to meet ordinarily. Such a strange house had to leave its mark on those who dwelt in it. Were there any doves laying their eggs in the recesses of the balconies? Did the children play in the garden and hide in the shrubs to observe a stray cat with her newborn kittens? For a long time, I had no answers to these questions, nor did I actively seek any. I was quite happy to secretly make up the story of the house, adding a chapter every time I went by. It never occurred to me then that I would have a chance to set foot in the object of my attention, and in a rather unremarkable fashion at that.

While studying for our final high school exams, we used to meet in small groups, going to each other's houses for long evenings of homework. It was quite unusual for me to visit my friends, but permission was granted, albeit reluctantly, during that particular period, and I was finally able to discover the setting in which my classmates spent the other part of their lives. To my utter amazement, one of the girls in my class actually lived in my dream house, and always had, with her mother and younger sister. To think that I had known her all these years and never suspected that she actually slept every night in the turret. I did not tell her about my fantasies, but she instantly became my best friend. I could not wait to actually walk up the path that led to the main entrance. I expected that my mere presence in the garden would transform me into a supernatural being.

Strange as it may seem, the actual circumstances of my long-awaited admittance into the magic citadel are rather blurred, and I can only surmise that they must have been eminently unimpressive and disappointing. On the other hand, I vividly remember my friend's bedroom on the second floor, at the back of the building, in the turret. It was a study in pink, from the paint on the walls to the frilly bedspread. There were dolls everywhere, sitting on shelves, in adorable little niches, while an overstuffed, chintzy armchair stood prominently by the bed. The room was further adorned with mirrors and a real little girl's vanity table, completely robed in pink taffeta and lace, an extravagance certainly unknown in our house. I recall being slightly irritated, because I thought at the time that all this candy floss stripped the house of its aura of mystery. When the sun set, with my nose deep into my geometry book, I even forgot to look out the window and feel the poignant sadness of the day's end. From that moment on, I completely lost interest in the house and only gave it a perfunctory glance whenever I happened to be in the neighbourhood.

Years went by. My friend died, and the house probably changed hands. I never thought much about it, although I could see it still standing at the crossroads, much the worse for wear, its shutters pried open by the harshness of the sun bearing down on the unpainted wood, the light yellow of the masonry slowly turning into a drab grey.

Last week, Patricia Kahil, who shares with many of us a consuming love for Cairo's old houses, gave me a call: "There is a run-down, turn-of-century villa in Zamalek I have discovered," she said. "I am afraid the owners might be thinking of tearing it down. It seems deserted except for the bawwab. Do you want to see it? We could take pictures so that if it disappears, at least we will have a photo."

I felt little surprise when she led me to my dream house of half a century ago. Somehow, I had known all along that it would come back into my life. The garden was unkempt, but still retained its charm. At the back, the bawwab had organised a modest vegetable patch which provided his family with fresh lettuce and a few cucumbers. His wife and several children were occupying the ground floor except for two rooms, locked and bolted, where the owner, the bawwab informed us, kept his furniture. The washing was hung out to dry across one of the ground-floor windows. I noticed that the entrance door and stairs were reminiscent of those one can still see sometimes in the old middle-class apartment buildings of Abbassiya and Daher, and did not feature the magnificently heavy wrought iron, glass-work and marble that normally adorn the more luxurious villas of the period. The hall was of restricted proportions, more like a simple corridor opening onto the reception rooms, now closed by common wooden doors. There were no decorative frills, nor any indication that that there had ever been any. This may account for the absence of impression the house had left on my mind when I first visited it. Now, on the other hand, I grasped that it was this unusual lack of pretension that made it so exceptional in an upscale area like Zamalek. Could it be that the first owner/builder had come from one of the quarters falling out of fashion in the 1920s and had wanted to replicate the style of his old dwelling? My friend's father had died when she was very young and I had never known anything about her family. It was too late now to find answers to these questions.

Near the back entrance, the walls of the empty kitchen and the antechamber were covered with traces of hands, large and small, some pink and fading, others still red with fresh blood. "This is for the baraka," the bawwab's wife explained when she saw us examining the marks. "The owner only comes once a year with his sons and relatives for Eid Al-Adha. They slaughter the sheep in the kitchen. Every year they leave new marks on the wall for good luck." On the kitchen door, a poster spelled out the name of a foreign company in big blue letters. "Our son works for them," the woman said proudly.

I led Patricia to the second floor. On the landing, we turned left and opened the door of what had once been my friend's bedroom. The paint was faded and bits of bare masonry were visible, but there was no doubt about its original pink colour, some of it still lingering around the niches. Unaware of the little girl who had once occupied it with her neatly arranged collection of precious dolls, the new owner had stored onions in the room, bunches of them on rusty metal racks drying by the window in the nook of the turret. Their sickly smell permeated the air. On the right, another room, very large, the mother's as I remembered it, was totally empty, except for some straw scattered on the wooden floor. It still bore marks of light blue paint under the remainders of a simple white cornice. "I have seen enough," I told Patricia, who was busy examining an arched door decorated with red and blue glass, which led to a small recess. I wanted to get out in the sunshine, away from memories, the drying onions and the imprints of sacrifice. I wanted to cry and decided instead to check the salads. "Is the owner thinking of selling, or renting to a company?" I asked the bawwab, knowing that even if he possessed this information, he would be reluctant to share it with me. "No," he said, as I had expected, "he wants to keep the villa as it is. He lives in a nicer place, but he likes this one and we mind it well for him." We said our good-byes to the old house and its keepers, wondering whether its days were counted or whether it would sleep for many more years on its little island, protected by the tall eucalyptus trees from the unrelenting waves of traffic, and still firing the imagination of young passersby who may know in their hearts that it is haunted.

Hassan Sabry Str. Zamalek Building
PRAYING FOR RESURRECTION: far top, the mosque of Fatma Al-Nabawiya, with the half-demolished block of flats in the foreground (photo: Randa Shaath); right, Zamalek Building (photo: Cynthia Myntti, Paris along the Nile: Architecture in Cairo from the Belle Epoque, AUC Press, 1999); left, the house off Hassan Sabri Street (photo: Patricia Kahil)

TEA IN THE SUNROOM: The voice on the phone is quite pleasant, but at 8.30am no one can be pleasant enough to catch my undivided attention. The gentleman's name is M A, and he is worried about the block of apartments he is living in at present. It is situated at the corner of 26 July and Al-Kamel Mohamed, in the "nice" part of Zamalek, and it is being ruined by the butcher and fishmonger whose shops encroach on the garden enclosure. According to the voice, the shopkeepers are discarding dirty water, which is threatening the foundations.

Sensing no reaction from his correspondent (he is not aware that I have gone back to sleep for all practical purposes), A insists: "The landlord has dishonest intentions, I know it. He is taking over every flat that becomes vacant and refusing to lease it, furnished or unfurnished. He now has several empty floors and is trying to get rid of the remaining tenants. This is why he keeps the building in a shameful state of disrepair." I feel that I have to make appropriate noises, but I really do not have all my wits about me yet. This is probably why for once I find myself feeling for the landlord. Here is a man with a piece of real estate worth several millions, but because he -- or his father -- leased the apartments for two or three pounds a month when the pound was worth its weight in gold, he is condemned fifty years later to collect the same, now ridiculously low, monthly rent unless he manages to work out a system of compensation that will allow his tenants to move to other premises of equal standing at today's prices. I imagine that he must be going mad thinking of the fortunes made by other proprietors lucky or crafty enough to have repossessed all the apartments in their blocks. He must be hoping that the butcher and fishmonger will throw all their refuse as well as their dirty water into the garden behind their shops. He may even be dreaming of the day when the building will collapse of its own accord. "How much rent are you paying?" I ask A accusingly. "Shouldn't you and the remaining tenants at least be paying for the maintenance of the building?" I feel like suggesting that repainting the façade as a gesture of good will may endear him to his landlord but I do not say anything, because on second thought, I believe that the poor man must be long past the point where his rage could be assuaged by a mere coat of paint, and also because I believe that Egyptian tenants have not been trained in the professional upkeep of common property. For years, we have relied on building owners to do all the repair work, and I clearly remember a time, not so long ago, when our own neighbours dragged our landlord to the police station for refusing to fix a blocked drain. The owner/tenant law is still in limbo and arrangements seem to be left largely to individuals at present.

A is saying that his own apartment on the last floor of the building is in good order, but it is the rest of the building he is complaining about: mainly the stairs, the elevator and the basement, into which water seems to be seeping constantly. The motor of the elevator needs to be replaced periodically. A has been paying for it alone. The other tenants don't want to share in the expense, he explains. I tell him that this is typical, as they live on lower floors. They don't need the elevator as much as he does. My neighbours refuse to pay for the lighting of our stairs because they never go out at night, I relate, in an attempt to console him. "Such a pity," wails A, "so much negligence. You can see the picture of our building in Cynthia Myntti's book, Paris along the Nile; one should be proud of owning a building which is so much a part of historical Zamalek."

Later, I drive over to take a look. The no-nonsense façade may need more serious ministrations than a simple coat of paint; still, set on its rather large plot of land overlooking Al-Kamel Mohamed Street, it remains quite impressive. Designed by the Italian architect Guido Gavasi, with its delicate wrought iron gate, it bespeaks of leisurely afternoon teas in sunrooms, rose gardens and gracious living, turn-of-the-century style. Facing 26 July Street, the shops are doing a brisk business; but examining their rear walls, on the garden side, I can see that the picture corresponds to A's description. Water is seeping from the cracked masonry into a shallow drain which appears to be clogged with unidentified debris and crawling creatures. The smell is far from pleasant. I now fully sympathise with A, but rack my brains as I may, I cannot come up with a solution that will save the building and do justice to all parties concerned. Still, I understand how one could long for the days when Al-Kamel Mohamed Street was lined with elegant small blocks of apartments set in the middle of leafy gardens featuring immaculate lawns.

In those bridgeless days, the street must have been shaded by the ancient trees of immense height so characteristic of the suburb, of which the main features were the vast green spaces of the Gezira Club and the quaint chinoiseries of the Fish Garden, now being destroyed. I tried to recall the building as I had seen it in my childhood. Had the butcher, the baker and the fishmonger been there already? I can't say. All I remember is the noise our car made clanging across Abul-Ela bridge, and the Greek grocer Vazilakis at the corner of Hassan Sabri and 26 of July Streets, who made delicious sandwiches. Beyond, just a great deal of opulent vegetation. Is A haunted by the same vision as he desperately tries to save "Zamalek Building"?

FATMA AL-NABAWIYA'S FOUNTAIN: We met Seif El-Rashidi in front of Al-Azhar and followed him through the little alleys to Al-Darb Al-Ahmar. Working for the Aga Khan Foundation, he knows the area inside out and as we walked along he pointed out old buildings which, although not necessarily registered by the Supreme Council for Antiquities, are definitely worth saving. Seif is going to show us a mud brick block of flats, possibly dating from the 19th century, which he fears will be demolished soon. Adroitly negotiating their way past trucks and donkey carts, he and interior decorator Ayman El-Azabawi are discussing adaptive reuse. Just behind Al-Azhar, facing Bayt Al-Harawi, Ayman has opened a gallery in a one-storey Ottoman house, which he has restored in the spirit of the area.

When we arrive, we are met with a rather unpleasant surprise: the house we have come to see is being enthusiastically pulled down by young workers hammering away at the walls. "They started last night," says someone in the crowd, as we stand aghast, contemplating the damage. A covered overhead bridge links the building being demolished with another identical one on the other side of the narrow alley. Randa, our photographer, disappears into a hole that has just been knocked out of the wall and returns with a young man, the owner's son. Having been told why we are here, he looks apologetic. His father owns only part of the structure, facing the mosque of Fatma Al-Nabawiya; the rest is the property of the Ministry of Endowments. The government, not his father, made the decision. We follow him to a small piazza at the rear, where men are sitting at a café playing backgammon, apparently undisturbed by the noise and the dust generated by the demolition. The dome of the Fatma Al-Nabawiya Mosque appears amidst other, equally derelict buildings, just behind the players. Its minaret was pulled down years ago and was never restored.

Several people are surrounding us now. Some are the former tenants of the building and they want us to know that they are quite pleased with the decision to pull it down. "The government has given us brand-new flats, with real bathrooms and enough money to open our shops elsewhere. This block of flats where families had only one room each was not connected to the sewage system; we only had a septic tank and the living conditions were appalling," a man says rather defiantly. Someone else shouts: "It was filthy, full of vermin; what do we want with this old heap of dust?" A woman admonishes him to keep quiet and, pulling at my hand, shows me a series of blocks embedded in the ground. The Saba' Banat (seven girls) are buried here," she announces triumphantly, and waits for my reaction. I must look just puzzled, because she adds for my benefit that when Fatma Al-Nabawiya (the granddaughter of Al-Hussein) came to Egypt, she brought with her seven orphans whom she raised. When they died, they were buried next to her tomb. She points to window-like openings in a crumbling wall and explains that this was actually the entrance to the shrine. Just above, a gaping hole shows the interior of a room where a three-legged chair is precariously balanced on what remains of the floor. "Can you imagine the poverty of these people?" says the young engineer in charge of the demolition. "Now at least they will have decent accommodation."

The owner's son explains that the building had been in his family for over one hundred years, but although his father is sad to see it go, he could not have carried out the necessary repairs to save it. The plan now is to enlarge the square where the backgammon players are carrying on their game and drinking their tea, build a fountain in the middle and create surroundings worthy of the saint whose mosque is going to be restored. "She is a great saint, almost equal to Sayeda Zeinab," says the woman who knows where the Seven Girls are buried; "why shouldn't she have a similar square with a beautiful fountain spouting clean water?" I can't help thinking that the fountain will probably be adorned with spindly-legged tin frogs or paunchy plaster dolphins. "This is why they want to destroy the last vestiges of a glorious architectural past," I whisper bitterly to my companions. I check myself, however; who am I to impose my taste on these poor people, whose only horizon has been a rat-infested room, in a street where the piles of garbage are an outstanding feature? To them, a fountain is sheer luxury and reinforces their genuine reverence for the saint buried nearby. There seems to be nothing more to do except take pictures.

"Don't kid yourselves," says Ayman on the way back. "The people are happy. They have little awareness of the past, especially one that seems to condemn them to live in squalor. They are not interested in the properties of mud brick; they want cement and mortar and modern constructions, because they have been told that these are better. Preserving the few blocks of flats similar to this one is a dream for the rich who can afford to remodel them and use them as offices, art galleries or restaurants. Unfortunately, until now, few have the imagination, or the available cash to do this on a large scale." Meanwhile, there is no harm in dreaming that before this type of buildings disappears completely, more and more people will be struck by the enchanting vision, and the infinite possibilities offered by a modern resurrection of these relics.

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