Why Do We Destroy What Makes Us?
By Yasmine El Rashidi
Ms. El Rashidi, a journalist and novelist, is a long-time resident of Cairo.
CAIRO — There is a district close to the center of downtown Cairo that extends from the banks of the Nile about one kilometer into one of the city's most significant historic thoroughfares. Known as Maspero Triangle, it's a wedge-shaped area of some 85 acres that has been home to 18,000 residents — until this year, when the government started forcibly evicting what residents it could by cutting off water and electricity, and then bulldozing buildings to the ground.
The district's first signs of development date back to the 1400s, with the Sultan Abu El Ela Mosque, which still stands at its northern tip. But its main structures were erected in the 19th century and passed down through generations after that. Over the years, vacant land in the center of the triangle was built up informally, by residents with no formal deeds, slowly becoming part of the architectural and cultural heritage of Cairo. Some of the buildings have — had — facades with elaborate stone corbels, internal marble staircases and palazzo-style apartments of room after room with four-meter-high stucco-detailed ceilings.
Today, when you drive into the city over the main bridge and look down as you approach Tahrir Square, Maspero Triangle is a mass of rubble and rising dust, reminiscent of photographs of many a city after war. Only a dozen or so buildings remain, some with their top floors destroyed by cranes — a government tactic to then declare the structures unsafe.
As the country's population swelled in the 1960s and people migrated from rural to urban areas, city housing fell in short supply. Cairo grew outward and inward at the same time, with buildings taking over surrounding agricultural land and desert, and high-rises replacing villas or vacant lots in the city's center. Today, Greater Cairo's population is estimated at 23.5 million, and grew by approximately 500,000 people in 2017. Two-thirds of its residents live in informal settlements, according to government and NGO sources. Maspero Triangle encapsulates all that history — the country's history — and the richness, sociological and cultural, bred by adaptation to economic challenges.
In the late 1800s, the district was the property of a wealthy Ottoman nobleman, Sharkas Pasha, who let his servants build houses on the land in exchange for rent. When the Sharkas family left Egypt for Turkey in the 1940s, the land was placed in an endowment that guaranteed the servants' leases for the next two decades. It reverted to the government in 1968 and was sold to Kuwaiti and Saudi investors.
But those deals overlooked the fact that by then some of the area's residents had already sold their shares in plots. And they overlooked a 1941 rent-control law under which residents couldn't be evicted nor could their rents be raised.
President Anwar el-Sadat contended with this problem in the late 1970s by ordering a moratorium on renovations or improvements to buildings in the area — the intention being to let them fall into forced dereliction. In the late 1990s, under President Hosni Mubarak, a law was passed that gave the government the right to claim and demolish anything for "public utility."
In 2008, the government entity for physical planning unveiled a development plan called "Cairo 2050" that envisioned the city like a rendition of Dubai. Maspero Triangle was deemed to be a slum and was to be remade instead as "Manhattan in Cairo." The plan was the first of many proposals over subsequent years, and subsequent governments, that were shelved for lack of planning, funds or support.
Then, in 2016, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that all unsafe informal settlements would be eliminated within two years. Maspero Triangle is among the most visibly contested, partly because of its location and heritage status, and partly because only about one-third of it, according to several urbanists I spoke to, might have been fairly called unsafe. It was an area I walked or drove through every day for years, when I worked at a local weekly paper in a bordering neighborhood; the Maspero bakery, the corner fruit stand, the Italian club and the historic watch shop Hinhayat were all places I frequented.
One can't deny that parts of the city are run down, or that haphazard additions on buildings can be unsafe. But the organic way in which such districts developed, mixing the historic and the makeshift, gives them a unique cultural value. The heritage they represent is tangible, in the form of buildings and trees, and intangible, by way of customs and characters.
Residents in Maspero Triangle would exchange news and recipes across balconies, and passed on disappearing skills like clock repairing from one generation to the next. The neighborhood held on to age-old traditions: During Ramadan, musaharati walked the narrow streets at dawn hollering to observing Muslims to rise for their last meal before the fast. The oral history of these alleyways spans several political eras. When the residents of Maspero Triangle leave, all of this will disappear.
Maspero residents were offered 60,000 Egyptian pounds (about $3,350) per room, a relocation fee of 40,000 Egyptian pounds (about $2,200) and either rent-subsidized housing in Asmarat, a low-income suburb in the desert, or the chance to return to Maspero once it is rebuilt — a possibility that few of them believe in.
Yet randomness is why in Cairo, as in, say, Rome, you might turn a corner or enter a crumbling alleyway and find an ancient ruin.
But even as rising water levels have threatened monuments, such as the Sphinx, cultural landmarks like the singer Umm Kulthum's home are left to be demolished and sold off to developers. Earlier this year, the government began destroying the Grand Continental hotel in downtown Cairo — a majestic building that was the site of Egypt's declaration of independence from the British in 1922 — to make way for a luxury hotel and shopping mall. The pyramids of Giza used to be a long drive of desert stretch away; now the city just about touches their edge.
It may be too late as well to save what remains of Maspero Triangle, but there are two dozen other informal neighborhoods in Cairo alone that are slated for a similar fate and might still be spared. The government must stop looking outward to mimic other parts of the world. Instead it should focus inward — on its own population's needs and human dignity here, and on that piece of the world's heritage that resides in Egypt and that once lost can never be recovered.
-- Sent from my Linux system.