Demolition deadline set to pass for historic houseboats in Cairo | New
Cairo, Egypt – Historic Egyptian houseboats have lined parts of the banks of the Nile in Cairo for generations.
In their most glamorous days, they hosted some of the city’s most important political and cultural chapters.
But that is coming to an end, as authorities move in to demolish or tow away what remains of these relics, and residents rush to pack up their belongings.
The owners have been informed that Monday is the last day they can collect their belongings, before the authorities intervene.
Some still refuse to leave the only places they have called home, while others have already seen their barges destroyed or swept away.
Ebtessam Amin Afifi, 78, is one of them; his house was towed away late last month. She is now temporarily staying with her sister, but has not given up.
“They took my boat, I was only informed two days before. I couldn’t get my things out. Now they have my boat. I am a citizen with rights, and this will not be the end. I’m going to court,” Afifi said by phone, imploring Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to support boat owners against what she described as a “miscarriage of justice”.
“They want to evict us and replace our houses with cafes and restaurants to generate profit, but this is my house – my investment,” Afifi added. “I was offered millions for this boat, and I didn’t let go. I put all my savings into it. »
In recent years, Cairo’s neighborhoods have witnessed drastic transformations as the government embarked on infrastructure and development projects. Countless bridges, highways, museums and even a new capital have been built, affecting citizens along the way and uprooting the distinct characteristics of one of the oldest cities in Africa and the Middle East.
Trouble on the Nile
Moored along a 2km stretch of the west bank of the Nile and nestled between the bustling 15th of May and Imbaba bridges, 32 wooden floating houses were – for decades – all that remained of dozens of others that once adorned the landscape of Cairo.
A symbol of Egyptian culture in the 20th century, the Nile barges were one of the first hotbeds of the modern Egyptian intellectual movement, with renowned directors, actors, artists and writers owning or living on them at one time. of their lives, and cultural and political salons being frequently hosted on their decks.
Houseboats were even depicted in such immortal works as The Cairo Trilogy and Adrift on the Nile, written by the late novelist and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, which shed light on the more liberal lifestyle adopted in the insulated walls of the dwellings.
The place the houseboats therefore hold in Egyptian memory has caused people to voice their disapproval of the government’s decision, citing it as another erasure of one of Cairo’s landmarks and heritage to make way for new developments. which are often inspired by modern cities of the Gulf.
In recent weeks, demolitions have begun, with owners receiving moving orders with only 10 days’ notice to settle their affairs.
Authorities say evictions and demolitions are a necessity.
“A presidential directive was issued in 2020 banning all residential barges on the Nile,” Ayman Anwar, the head of the Central Administration for the Protection of the Nile, said in comments on Egyptian television.
Anwar said the houseboats were unlicensed, unsanitary and unsafe, and some are used for non-residential purposes. Although he also said that acquiring a business or tourist license could give a houseboat a second life, residents complained that they were denied permission when they applied.
‘Break My Heart’
At 35, Manar al-Hagrassy is one of the youngest houseboat owners, but is equally attached to her home, and says she tried to follow government rules, but couldn’t get the permit she needed.
“The last time we renewed our licenses was in 2020. Since then, we have been told several times that the governor [of Cairo] has suspended all renewals,” said the mother-of-one, who is also caring for her brother’s three children.
Al-Hagrassy refused to leave despite having her electricity and water cut off for days, and claimed she had been fined 420,000 Egyptian pounds ($22,300) for not having the proper permit .
“What is happening now is not legal and will not encourage foreign investment… All Egyptians are against the demolition of Nile barges,” al-Hagrassy said. “I won’t leave.”
Ekhlas Helmy says she won’t go either.
The 88-year-old widow was born and raised on a houseboat, leaving only briefly when she got married, only to quickly return as she ‘couldn’t bear a life away from the Nile’.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Helmy said with tears in her eyes. “I am an old woman and this situation is too much for me. It breaks my heart.
Helmy, who turned his turquoise-painted houseboat into a home for all sorts of pets and animals, became a symbol of houseboat evictions, eventually catching the attention of el-Sissi himself.
But she couldn’t get him to change his mind.
“Respect is due to every Egyptian, especially if it is a woman and an elderly person,” el-Sisi said on Sunday. “But there is something crucial that we are doing is restructuring the state…there are roads that when we build we take away…3,000 to 4,000 homes…we compensate those affected by giving them decent compensation, or a substitute. ”
“In short, and not to personalize the case and make it a stake: will she be the victim of injustice, or left without consideration? No. Neither will happen.
Helmy says that instead of being compensated, she faces a hefty fine of 800,000 Egyptian pounds ($42,400).
She is now helped by her brothers, neighbors and just ordinary people who sympathize with her plight, to get her things back. But she’s still not ready to leave.
“If I ever leave my boat, I will die,” Helmy said. “I can’t live anywhere else.”
This article was published in collaboration with Egab.