Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Boathouses on the Nile

The boathouses moored along the Nile in Cairo bear witness to periods of past glamour and present neglect, writes Farah El-Akkad

Al-Ahram Weekly

Cairo’s boathouses are associated with an era many Egyptians have long forgotten, when many men dressed in neatly tailored suits and women donned elegant dresses to walk gracefully by.

People have changed, and so have the city’s boathouses, but they remain witnesses to former times. Even after decades of neglect they are associated with a wealth of hidden stories that many people do not know about.

Considered one of Egypt’s neglected gems, the history of the boathouses goes back to the l9th century. At this time, boathouses were moored along the Zamalek Corniche and up to the area of the Galaa Bridge. Most were the residences of the city’s upper classes, men who served the royal government and artists who wanted to reside in the capital and were seeking places where they could develop their talents away from the city’s hustle and bustle.

Later many public figures such as the great writer Naguib Mahfouz, Armenian-Egyptian photographer Van Leo and actor Salah Al-Saadani, who sold his boathouse in the late 1980s, often spent time on the boathouses. They were places where leading cultural figures would meet to discuss their hopes for a better society and a better Egypt. Most of the boathouses were located in the districts of Agouza, Imbaba and Kitkat, which was once the home of the “Kitkat” boathouse, where even some government meetings were conducted in the 1950s and 60s.

“If a journalist had thought about spying on what was going on in my boathouse at the time, he would have been able to get information about everything going on in the country,” artist Mounira Al-Mahdeya wrote in her diaries, which were published in Al-Ahram in the late 1960s.

Adel Al-Shahed, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota in the US, said that the boathouses were “safe havens” for many politicians and prominent public figures during the early part of the last century, including Hussein Roushdy Pasha who was prime minister from 1914 until 1919. He used to meet in the boathouses with other officials to discuss political issues. Some historians even claim that most of the government’s decisions at the time were taken in Mounira Al-Mahdeya’s boathouse, Al-Shahed said.

The wooden boathouses were all built in a common style. To most people today their stories are a closed book. However, Fawzy Nour, 82, one of the oldest boathouse guards in the Kitkat area, witnessed many of the changes that have taken place to the boathouses over the years. He agreed to take Al-Ahram Weekly on a trip down memory lane.

As late as the 1940s, a Nile boathouse was considered a must for many members of the Egyptian upper classes, he said. They were furnished in the English style, “and a piano was also a must”.

Nour commented on the remains of a boathouse that once belonged to an Italian-Jewish family and now looks like an abandoned mansion. “It was rented to a family in the 1970s for a couple of years, but no one knows who the owner is today or who the original owners sold it to,” Nour said.

A layer of dust covers the place. All that remains are some forgotten black-and-white photographs and wooden antiques. The boathouse was abandoned by the family after most of Egypt’s Jewish families left the country in the 1950s. “It is worth around LE2 million today,” Nour said.

He points to a boathouse that was once associated with Naguib Mahfouz, still moored off the Nile Corniche. According to Nour, the famous author lived in the boathouse from time to time over a period of some 25 years, and later sold it to a businessman.

“This boathouse saw the writing of many of his most famous works, including Tharthara fawq Al-Nil (Chitchat on the Nile), Al-Liss wa-Al-Kilab (The Thief and the Dogs) and Awlad Haratina (Children of our Alley),” Nour said.

In an interview with the Al-Hayat newspaper, singer Mohamed Al-Kahlawi, whose family once owned two boathouses, recalled, “The boathouses were not for the super-rich and people seeking luxury. They belonged to influential members of society, people who were in touch with real Egyptians and wanted to make a difference to their lives. 

“They were actors, singers and political activists. My father’s boathouse was a place where many famous sports stars and artists like Soad Hosni and Sabah would come in the 1960s, for example.”

The boathouses also hosted famous artists such as dancer Badeia Massbani and actor Naguib Al-Rihani, who owned a boathouse, moored in front of what is now the Sheraton Hotel in Giza, in the 1930s and 40s. Others owners included singer Farid Al-Atrash, who lived in an Arabian-style boathouse that contained a grand piano.

Artists such as Asmahan, Samia Gamal, Sabah and Abdel-Salam Al-Nabulsi would gather there every weekend. The famous dancer Taheya Carioca sold her boathouse in the 1970s. She and Samia Gamal were both boathouse owners in the 1950s.

The famous poet Ibrahim Hafez, known as the “Poet of the Nile,” was even born in the boathouse where he lived for most of his childhood years. A popular boathouse belonging to dancer Hekmat Fahmi was frequently visited by Anwar Al-Sadat and other members of the Free Officers when they were plotting the 1952 Revolution.

In the 1950s, Al-Kahlawi’s boathouse was considered one of the most luxurious. In 1958 it was used to host visitors to an international Islamic conference held in Egypt. It contained rare antiques and old paintings and was decorated with inlaid pearl designs and Persian carpets. When most of the other houseboats were moved to Imbaba in the 1960s, Al-Kahlawi’s remained in Zamalek because of its value and heritage associations. “It was worth some LE195,000 at the time, and moving it would have caused damage,” Al-Kahlawi’s son told Al-Hayat.

Al-Shahed, who visited the boathouse in the early 1970s, is a witness to its former glamour. “At the time I visited, it had already been sold and reopened to host an exhibition of papyrus. But its former glory was still very vivid,” he reminisced. 


DEMISE OF THE BOATHOUSES: In his book Nile Gems, author Essam Nabil writes that Cairo had more than 500 boathouses until the 1980s. Today, only some 20 are left, according to the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

In 1966, Zakaria Mohieddin, then the minister of the interior, issued a law to move most of the boathouses located in Zamalek and Agouza to Imbaba because, as the press said at the time, the “boathouses are narrowing the Nile”. The decision disappointed many residents and led them to sell their boathouses.

Besides being owned by prominent artists, writers and filmmakers, some boathouses were known as places associated with crime. Nour explained that after the boathouses were moved from their original places, most residents sold them, and in the 1970s in particular people started to abandon the boathouses and move elsewhere. In the 1990s, some newspapers even reported unfortunate incidents taking place in the boathouses, including their use by drug-dealers and, in the 2000s, by football fans.

Nour said that the boathouses are of two kinds: one is fixed and is made entirely of wood, and the other can be sailed up and down the Nile and is equipped with engines. The latter were often moved to Ras Al-Bar and used by singers such as Abdel-Halim Hafez and Sherifa Fadel during the summer season.

Today, there are around 20 boathouses in the Kitkat and Imbaba areas. Some of them belong to the government, others to foreigners, and others still to Egyptian businessmen. In 2006, the government issued a law that prohibited the establishment of new boathouses and tightened up on public licences. In 2011, it increased rents, leading to protests from the owners.

Ikhlas, 67, who inherited her boathouse from her father, told Al-Ahram in 2012 “Boathouses are not the same as they were. I am probably the only person left from the ‘beautiful days’. Nowadays, motor boats come very close to the boathouses, causing some of them damage.”

Nour said that maintenance costs can be high, and many owners are not in a position to pay them. In addition to regular maintenance, fixed boathouses require frequent painting to guard against water damage and rust. 

Between 2013 and 2015, many boathouses suffered from even greater neglect, witnessing incidents such as fires caused by electrical short circuits. A number of boathouses were badly affected, including the Cinderella, whose four floors were completely destroyed.


THE PRICE OF NEGLECT: Yehia Hamed, a professor of environmental awareness at Cairo University, said that many of the remaining boathouses are not connected to the sewerage system, with the results that this implies.

Many of the remaining boathouses are divided into apartments and rented out by their owners. “Rents range between LE2,500 and LE8,000,” said Fawzy, adding that the rents are usually higher in Agouza than in Imbaba. Many people “do not see the real value of the boathouses. They should be looked upon as historical gems that must not be neglected or taken for granted. They should be seen as homes to be protected,” he said.

Nadia Gamaleddin, 66, is a former boathouse owner and painter who lived along the Nile for more than 20 years. She recalled that she “got married in a boathouse, and it was then my home for 24 years.”

Gamaleddin continued: “It belonged to my husband’s grandfather. I never imagined moving out of it, but after giving birth to my fourth child I knew we had to find a bigger place. Even though I am a grandmother now, I still recall how sad I was to leave the boathouse and move to Maadi because nothing compares to waking up to the sight of the Nile and the sound of the birds. It was like heaven on earth.”

She remembers buying her groceries from small boats that sold fruit and vegetables more cheaply than market prices.

Al-Shahed believes that various governments have ignored the idea of looking at the boathouses as tourist attractions because of the cost and because some officials still link the boathouses to crime. “Some people even want to get rid of the boathouses altogether, seeing them as potential lairs for criminal elements,” he said.

Today, due to the small number of boathouses left in Cairo and their high maintenance costs, some owners rent them out as cafés or night clubs at prices ranging from LE15,000 to LE30,000 per month depending on the number of floors and rooms.

“It goes without saying that this is not the right way of treating what should be national treasures. If I was working for the government, I would have called for the boathouses to be turned into museums, at least the most famous ones,” Al-Shahed lamented.

Some owners refuse to rent out their boathouses. “They do not want to threaten the peace and tranquillity of the Nile. If they agreed to rent the boathouses to investors, there is a danger they would be turned into cafés and restaurants playing loud music, and this would definitely ruin the atmosphere,” Nour said.


The writer is a freelance journalist.

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