Lush trees laden with pink blooms surround the steps leading down to Ekhlas Helmy’s houseboat on a bank of the Nile by a busy Cairo street. But it is all chaos inside the blue and white wooden structure where the elderly widow has lived for 25 years.
Almost 88, Helmy is distraught because she is being forced to leave her home in a hurry. The government last week ordered her and her neighbours in some 30 houseboats to evacuate their homes within 10 days because the authorities want to develop the bank into a leisure strip with cafes and commercial establishments.
“I was born on a houseboat and only left it when I got married,” said Helmy. “But I couldn’t bear it when I lived in a flat. Even my husband didn’t like it, so we sold our property and built this houseboat, but he didn’t live long enough to move in here with me. Now I don’t know what to do or where to go.” She said she lost 6 kilogrammes in two days because of the grief.
The removal of the houseboats, a long-established presence in Egyptian culture and featured in many famous books and movies, is part of bigger changes to the city that many fear will destroy heritage or green space under the pretext of development. A major highway intended to ease traffic in the congested capital will plough through a historic cemetery protected by Unesco. Food outlets and petrol stations are swallowing up scarce green areas in a city of 20 million already severely short of public parks.
Egypt is undergoing a massive infrastructure drive under president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former general who ousted his elected Islamist predecessor in a popularly backed coup in 2013. The military is in charge of most of these projects, which include bridges, utilities, real estate — even a new capital. Many of the ventures respond to real needs after decades of under-investment. But a top-down decision-making process and lack of public consultation alarm those whose lives are directly affected. Others worry the remaining charms of this vast concrete metropolis will quickly vanish.
“The houseboats are a unique typology of building, which started in the mid 19th century,” said Mohamed Elshahed, a historian and author of Cairo Since 1900 : An Architectural Guide. “Their numbers peaked at 300 all over the shores of Cairo. Now they are just at this one point on the river since they were moved there in 1966. They are at risk of disappearing.”
Houseboat residents say they are being forced out with little notice and no compensation. Ayman Anwar, a government official who heads the Central Administration for the Protection of the Nile, told a television interviewer on MBC Egypt last week that a decision was taken in 2020 that there should be no residential houseboats on the Nile.
“Residential houseboats are like dilapidated cars from 1978 whose licences are cancelled by the traffic authorities,” he said. “They don’t have mooring permits or licences . . . [but the owners] insist on locking horns with the state, and this will not be allowed.” He said the owners were not owed compensation, but instead they owed fees to the state. He added: “ This will be an area of civilisational development and it will be handed over to the Armed Forces Projects Agency.”
Houseboat owners, however, say they were not told about the 2020 decision until now, and that the authorities have been refusing to accept their money or grant them licences after they went to court to contest a massive increase in mooring fees in 2017.
“For some years now decisions have been taken against us, which it is now clear have been aimed at displacing us and making us leave our homes,” said Ahdaf Soueif, a well-known novelist in her seventies who has been living on a houseboat since 2013.
She said the authorities are offering to sell licences for those who decide to convert their homes to businesses such as cafes. “So at my age, and in this place and despite my profession, I should turn my home into a café,” she said. “By what logic and why?”
Jerome Geyer, a French Egyptian business graduate who left a job in Europe to restore his family’s houseboat to its 1920s style and receive Airbnb guests, said he was not opposed to development but that the plans were vague, had no timeframe and were “all oral”, which did not allow him to calculate the cost of reapplying for a licence.
“I want to know the price to see if I am able to pay it or not,” he said. “My goal was to recreate a piece of Egypt’s national heritage. I want special things like these houseboats to be part of development. We want to have a place in Cairo.”
The houseboats have a long-established presence in Egyptian culture, some point out. Adrift on the Nile, one of the most famous novels of Naguib Mahfouz, the late Egyptian author and Nobel laureate who once lived on a houseboat, was set on one.
“They represent a significant part of Egypt’s modern history,” said Yasmine Dorghamy, publisher of Rawi, an Egyptian heritage periodical. “But things like these, that have quiet charm but don’t make money, are being obliterated to make way for commercial businesses.”