Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Should Boulaq have a mayor?

The Cairo district of Boulaq has played a distinguished role in Egypt’s history. It’s time it had its own mayor, says Samir Sobhi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Growing up in Helwan, a leafy suburb just south of Maadi outside Cairo, I had no particular reason to go to the district of Boulaq. But from the day that Mostafa Amin came to lecture to my class at Cairo University I have felt a connection with this historic neighbourhood in the heart of Cairo.

Amin, one of Egypt’s most successful journalists at the time, was a co-founder of the newspaper Akhbar Al-Youm, and he was kind enough to invite us, young journalism students, to its headquarters in Boulaq.

It was his idea that the newspaper should build its offices in this district, an area that was already well established in trade and industry. By the middle of the 20th century, however, it had fallen on hard times, being upstaged on both sides: by Zamalek to the west and downtown to the east.

Amin talked about his project with Edgard Gallad Pasha, at the time the owner of the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Zaman and the French-language newspaper Journal d’Egypte, and with Bechara Tekla, the owner of Al-Ahram newspaper. The two men liked the idea, and the three of them decided to acquire land off Fabrikat Al-Miyah Street, which later became known as Galaa Street.

When I first laid eyes on the modern buildings of Akhbar Al-Youm I nearly gasped at the contrast between these buildings and the many dilapidated houses in the surrounding neighbourhood of Al-Turguman, named after Haj Ali Al-Turguman, the lead translator of the French expedition that invaded Egypt at the turn of the 19th century. I later realised that this particular neighbourhood had been at the forefront of progress since the time of Mohamed Ali, the 19th-century founder of Egypt’s monarchy and architect of the country’s modernisation.

It was Mohamed Ali who created the government printing house, known as Al-Matbaa Al-Amiriya, and the shipyard complex known as Al-Tarsana. During his rule the Boulaq harbour was a commercial hub, attracting merchants selling wheat, oil and sugar from all over the country. The area was abuzz with activities, warehouses and mosques, mansions and schools, rooming quarters and wholesale trading centres known as wekalat.

When the French came to Egypt in 1798, they needed port access to the old city, so they started building a straight modern road to connect the city’s old quarters near Azbakiyya Lake with Boulaq, a project supervised by Jacques-Marie Le Père, the expedition’s civil engineer, who planted trees on both sides of the new street.

In just a few years, Boulaq had become so important that new industrial businesses began to spill out into the nearby district of Sabtiya, which to this day houses major metal and wood workshops and warehouses. Further north, the district of Mabyada became a major centre for bleaching fabrics, hence its name, which in Arabic means “bleaching”.

In 1912, Boulaq underwent another change when a bridge was built to connect it with the up-and-coming island to its west, now known as Zamalek. The Abu Al-Ela Bridge, completed under the khedive Abbas Helmi II, launched urban development in Zamalek and boosted the strategic significance of Boulaq.

With another, shorter bridge linking Zamalek across the western branch of the Nile with Agouza, tramlines hopped across the island, encouraging residential development on what had formerly been farmland.

Boulaq still bears the marks of its growth across the centuries, with the splendid Ottoman Mosque of Sinan Pasha, now a few blocks away from the Nile but overlooking its banks when it was built in 1571. A short distance away there are two older mosques, one of Judge Zein Al-Din Yahya, built in 1448, and the other of local saint Sultan Abu Al-Ela, built in 1485 and renovated by King Fouad in 1922.

The royal family, whose palaces once ringed Ismailia Square, now known as Tahrir Square, also had their stables behind the Abu Al-Ela Mosque, where they have now been turned into a museum.

The advantages of Boulaq’s central location have continued to attract modern establishments, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, built in what used to be called the Al-Khattab area. To its south is the Television and Radio Union Building, and to its north, past Wekalet Al-Balah, is the World Trade Centre and several hotels and entertainment establishments.

A thriving business centre is bound to attract places of entertainment. A century ago, Boulaq was a major attraction for sunset promenades. The area was filled with coffee houses where patrons would smoke hashish as they sipped aromatic coffee and herbal tea extracts. Liquor stores offering expensive brands of alcohol served more affluent customers, while the working classes flocked to more affordable joints where bouza, a fizzy drink made of barley and stale bread, was sold.

Customers sitting at stands selling lahma and fatta (a meat and rice-bread dish) in the district could glance at the wall and read a popular slogan that went “Koll lahma wa fatta be aman, wa edie lil-sultan” (Eat meat and fatta in peace and say a prayer for the sultan).

During the boom years of the 1930s and 1940s, Boulaq attracted more businesses and cultural establishments, including the Galaa Maternity Hospital, Italian Consulate, Cairo Electricity Company, Cinema Fouad and Cinema Ali Baba. There were also many journalists.

Today, Al-Ahram has four buildings in the area, two of them on Galaa Street. Akhbar Al-Youm has two buildings a block or two to the west, encircled by the older developments of Al-Turguman and Al-Adawiya, now also home to a modern intercity bus terminal.

Behind this is the bustling Wekalet Al-Balah, a historical market named after the date trade, which it once dominated. Many of the old warehouses are still in operation, but instead of food the focus is now on metal, especially junk metal and machine spare parts. Textile shops line the western approaches of the Wekalet Al-Balah, while secondhand clothing shops encircle it from the south.

 

F

rench invasion: The 19th-century chronicler Al-Jabarti recorded much of the political turbulence the neighbourhood experienced during the short-lived French expedition to Egypt.

In December 1798, Al-Jabarti reported that French engineers had renovated the Maghrabi Bridge and created the straight road running from Azbakiyya to Boulaq. This road was some 1,200 metres long. To Al-Jabarti’s amazement, the French built it without resort to forced labour, a common mode of getting public work done under the Ottomans. They even paid the workers higher than normal wages, he reported.

The French created a quarantine area in the Boulaq Harbour, where they kept newly arrived for a few days to make sure they were free from infectious diseases. Around Boulaq, which served as the French naval base, they created fortifications, including a fort on the harbour.

Initially, they had no trouble with the locals, as the affluent merchants of Boulaq elected not to take part in the first Cairo Revolt of 1798. But by the time Cairo revolted again on 20 March 1800, Boulaq had risen up against the occupiers.

Encouraged by the news that Ottoman troops were advancing on Ain Shams, just to the north of Cairo, Boulaq decided to take its chances. The second Cairo Revolt was led by religious scholars, including Omar Makram and Al-Gohari, as well as top merchants like Ahmad Al-Mahrouqi, Al-Jabarti wrote. “Boulaq rose up as one man, and the Haj Mostafa Al-Bashtili called for revolt. The public was agitated and went out brandishing sticks and lances,” according to Al-Jabarti.

The insurgents headed out to the French fortifications and ammunition depots, killed the guards, and took all the tents and belongings they could get their hands on. Then they stormed the grain storehouses and ransacked them. Afterwards, they barricaded themselves in anticipation of battle.

When the French general Jean-Baptiste Kléber came back to Cairo after repulsing the Ottomans, he found the Boulaq mutiny in full swing. Local sheikhs tried to negotiate a truce with the French but it was too late. Emotions running high, the public rose against the sheikhs, threw their turbans on the ground, the ultimate insult to men of religion, and refused to make peace.

The French then responded with force, using cannons to bomb residential areas. “They attacked Boulaq from the River Nile near Abu Al-Ela. The inhabitants were no longer able to resist,” Al-Jabarti wrote.

Once the French had gained the upper hand, they combed the streets of Boulaq, burning buildings and seizing property. Blood ran in the streets like a river, the chronicler said. However, the French could not stay in control indefinitely. In June 1800, Kléber was assassinated and in September 1801 the French finally left Egypt.

The Wekalet Al-Balah survives to this day, although the trade of balah, or dates, has moved northwards to Rod Al-Farag, a mile or so downstream. But the energy of the traders of Boulaq is unabated, and the wekala has featured in more than one film over the years.

In the 1980s, the actress Nadia Al-Gindi starred in Wekalet Al-Balah, a film about corruption and the yearning for power. A decade later, Nour Al-Sherif starred in the television series I Will Not Live in Father’s Robes, about a poor young man who seeks his fortune in the wekala.

Even today, the neighbourhood still attracts a large clientele looking for bargains. “I came to work here 60 years ago, and my clients are from all social classes,” said one octogenarian trader who sells secondhand clothing. In the past, wekala merchants used to buy army surplus supplies, including clothes, blankets and bags.

Now the bulk of the trade is balat, or bales of used clothing imported from Europe. The merchants buy the bales by weight, but they are generally willing to pay more for bales from Belgium, as the quality of the clothes is often better. Once the clothes in the bales are sorted out, the merchants wash and iron them before offering them for sale.

Not far from the used-clothing shops are the junk merchants who also buy their merchandise in lots from factories, sort it out, and then sell it as spare parts or junk metal ready for recycling.

The mood in the wekala has changed since the 2011 revolution. Before the, there was a kind of seniority pact under which new merchants had to get permission to work in the area from well-established traders. After the revolution such unspoken rules were ignored and the market, or at least the area, was invaded by thousands of newcomers hoping to gain a foot in the used-clothing trade.

Before long, their stalls had filled up the nearby streets, extending all the way to the downtown area. The Ibrahim Mehleb government then tried to defuse the situation, which had made driving around the wekala almost impossible, by promising the newcomers special locations near the Al-Turguman transit terminal and in a place on Galaa Street that has yet to be built.

One interesting footnote on Boulaq was the emergence of local strongmen known as fetewwat. Originally, the fetewwat were locals hired by the British authorities to inform on other local people and to prevent attacks on British facilities. But once they had consolidated their position, some of the fetewwat decided to turn against the British.

Some of the names still remembered in the neighbourhood are those of Hamidou, Ibrahim Korum and Hassan Falas, all of whom wielded a great deal of power in their time. Ibrahim Korum, in particular, is remembered for his role in helping the Ismailia resistance fight the British before the 1952 revolution.

After the revolution, Korum rode in a procession with the then president Mohamed Naguib. One photograph that appeared in the magazine Al-Musawwar at the time shows him riding a horse in front of Naguib’s motorcade.

The story of the fetewwat is significant because it tells us that unless power is legitimate it can degenerate into an extralegal pattern that can be hard to contain. Therefore, I believe that the time has come for neighbourhoods such as Boulaq, with their long history in our political life, to have their own elected mayors.

Such elected mayors would be able to identify local needs, negotiate local concerns and rally local people behind a feasible agenda that would offer neighbourhoods the chance to manage their futures, decide on the best course of modernisation, and keep the needs of the local residents in balance with those of the nation as a whole.

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