Dozens of brightly colored floating houses have dotted the banks of the Nile for decades, rare oases of verdant seclusion amidst the bustle of the Egyptian capital — but perhaps not for much longer.
Residents of the 30 or so houseboats moored on the banks of the Nile last week were given eviction orders, giving them less than two weeks before their homes are taken away for demolition.
“Buying this houseboat was my dream,” acclaimed British-Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif told AFP. “I set it up to house my grandchildren and spend my final days here.”
The boats have long held a special place in the Egyptian collective consciousness, having been the focus of conversations in Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz’s Gossip on the Nile, as well as in various classics from the golden age of Egyptian cinema.
But while many have lobbied to protect the houseboats for their historical value, authorities have argued that they are an eyesore standing in the way of the state’s major development plans.
Unlike others who previously faced evictions, residents have not been offered alternative housing or compensation, and many have nowhere else to go.
It’s a big blow for Manar, a 35-year-old engineer who put everything into buying her houseboat four years ago.
“I sold my apartment, my father sold his car and we used both of my retired parents’ severance pay,” said Manar, who declined to give her full name.
“People from the slums were resettled, the state even moved graves when they built a road through a cemetery, but nothing for us.”
– ‘Uncivilized Sight’ –
Barely a week after the eviction order, several boats were already being towed away and impounded at a state marina, despite petitions and campaigning, even from pro-government TV pundits.
Soon, the sight of these homes perched on metal caissons on the banks of the working-class Imbaba district across from posh Zamalek Island will be nothing but a memory.
The first warning came in 2020 when the governor of Cairo “suspended new parking permits for houseboats”.
No word had been heard from local residents since, until June 20 when the eviction order was issued, which one resident said “didn’t leave them time to appeal.”
Adding to the pressure, authorities have asked for parking and registration fees of between £400,000 and £1million per flat ($21,000-$53,000) – around 20 times the previous annual charges.
Ayman Anwar, head of the government-affiliated Central Administration for the Protection of the Nile in Cairo, said residents had been fully warned.
“In 2020, the state banned the use of barges as dwellings because they are an uncivilized sight and pollute the Nile,” he said on a talk show this week.
The process is reminiscent of earlier evictions and demolitions in Cairo’s central districts such as Bulaq and Maspero.
But while it may have started in poor informal settlements, the steamroller of development has now found its way into more affluent neighborhoods and homes.
The only alternative seems to be to turn every houseboat into a commercial enterprise.
“Become a cafe manager at my age?” exclaimed Soueif, who is in her 70s. “It’s eviction, no matter what you call it.”
– ‘A Lost Case’ –
The banks of the Nile were once among the few public spaces where residents of Cairo — a sprawling megalopolis of more than 20 million people — could escape the noise.
Dotted with cafes, visitors from all walks of life sipped waterside tea and juice for a modest price.
On the opposite bank of the Nile, the Mamsha Ahl Masr (“the Egyptian People’s Promenade” in Arabic) development has garnered a moderate response.
The promenade is heralded by the state as one of many “mega-projects” launched by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and executed by the army, whose crowning jewel is a sparkling new capital stretching 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the sand rises. east of Cairo.
“It’s a disaster,” said Soueif. “Every square centimeter has to be profitable. There is no longer any public space, people can no longer be outside without being paid.”
But the promenade, with its restaurants, a planned marina and an open-air theater, will “guarantee public access to the Nile,” the government said.
Awad, who has lived with his family on their houseboat for 25 years, says: “A square meter of commercial space is worth £1,000 so obviously they would rather rent it out to cafes than keep us.”
“It’s tragic,” said Awad, who also declined to give his last name.
Now in his 60s, he laments the loss of “parts of Cairo’s legacy” from the time of the late King Farouk, as well as iconic 20th-century divas Umm Kalthoum and Mounira al-Mahdiyya.
“It’s a hopeless thing. There’s nothing we can do, we’re told it’s a decision from above,” he said, cigarette in hand, pointing to the sky.
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