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Wed 1 Apr 2009 04:00 AM

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Is Cairo being hijacked?

Change may bring in the new, but is the new always better than the old? Darah Rateb finds out from the Mideast.

Change may bring in the new, but is the new always better than the old? It is unlikely that someone would consider trying to change Florence into Times Square, but in the Middle East, this idea is far from far-fetched.

Cairo signifies my home and history. More specifically, the home I speak of is actually my family’s fifth floor apartment in the downtown Yacoubian Building which was built in 1937; the same building which inspired Alaa Al Aswani’s best-selling novel on the ever-changing society of Cairiennes, “The Yacoubian Building”.

I remember being a mere ten years old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap, and listening attentively as she started a typical Egyptian phone-a-thon to gather her girlfriends to give their final goodbyes to “Socrates”; no, not the classic Greek philosopher Socrates, but Cairo’s premier hairdressing salon.

At the time I thought it ridiculous that all these old women would go to some hair salon to pay their respects, but I decided to tag along. As I walked into Socrates I noticed several black and white pictures on the wall of some of Egypt’s premier actresses of yore, who apparently all flocked to Socrates for their aesthetic needs. As I sat under an intricate and somewhat dusty crystal chandelier waiting for the yapping to cease, a younger woman came up to me and asked if I’d like a manicure.

As she painted my nails a hideously bright shade of red I figured I’d ask her why Socrates was shutting down, and she explained that some wealthy Saudi Arabian investor wanted to open up one of several fast food chains downtown, and that their place was prime real estate. Walking back home from Socrates that day gave me taste of what was about to hit Cairo decades later.

As early as April 2008, word began to spread that ‘unnamed investors’ were planning to tear down Cairo’s downtown buildings and turn the area into gargantuan cement monoliths. It all started with Café Riche, built in 1908, which prides itself on being Cairo’s venue for art, culture and freedom.

Café Riche was host to the leaders who started the 1919 revolution against the occupation of British colonialists, and where Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s first president, met with the Free Officers to plan the 1952 revolution. Um Kalthoum sang her first song in the Café, while Naguib Mahfouz wrote dozens of stories while drinking tea there.

Several months ago, the anonymous company bought the Tala building which houses the Café for $1.77m, and proceeded to take legal measures to forcefully evict Magdi Abdel Malik, the owner of the Café. Adding to the ambiguity of the situation, the legal notice received by Abdel Malik identified the company as the Ismalia Real Estate Investment Company, which upon further investigation had a capital of $888,000 and had no identifiable headquarters.

The issue permeates beyond the boundaries of the Tala building, as there are several other companies, also without permanent addresses, which have sent letters to the residents of downtown Cairo indicating the company’s willingness to purchase any piece of real estate at any price. My family has received at least two such dubious letters, which we regarded as the equivalent of spam. However, in the downtrodden areas of Bulaq and Gamaliya, which are areas just beyond Cairo’s centre, worn out buildings have been bought for $355,000, and subsequently, similar offers were put forward to juxtaposing buildings.

With all the brouhaha, one company came forward: Maspero Real Estate. The company announced its intention to buy land in the Bulaq area and create a ‘huge investment triangle’ between Bulaq and ‘other areas’.

Maspero Real Estate’s chairman, Dr Hafez Al-Sharif, refused to reveal any details about the ‘triangle’, stating that the company would have to first acquire all the needed land prior to disclosing any information.

However, what he did say was that this ‘triangle’ would cover an area of 100 acres and act as the city’s new downtown. Al-Sharif also promised that the project would develop buildings unlike anything seen in the Arab world, and in other words, would challenge Dubai’s ambitious edifices.

Why all the secrecy? And where is all the money coming from? No one is sure as of yet and the lack of disclosure is leading to a constant state of fear and worry across the great city.

What agenda could one possibly have by trying to buy decrepit buildings at astronomical prices? Some journalists, such as Dr Mahmoud Hamza of Al-Masry Al-Youm have called it a foreign attempt at acquiring Egypt’s territory in order to control Egypt’s policies. Others, such as Mohamed Shaeer of Al-Akhbar see it as an attempt to have Cairo become a ‘mini-Dubai’ at the price of its history.

Whatever the case, I think the Romans said it best: “It is forbidden to disfigure external decorations on private buildings through modern additions, and to spoil historic buildings in an important town out of avarice and the desire to make money.” (Theodosius, Roman Emperor from 379-395)Darah Rateb is the managing consultant of the Visionary Consultants Group with bases in the UK and Egypt.

Philipp Schumann 10 years ago

It would be a shame to have the fantastic old buildings replaced with Dubai-style developments. But what I'm wondering is whether maybe this is the price a city and her residents have to pay for letting their loveliest treasures slowly deteriorate and allowing widespread, advanced decay to happen. These buildings would be so much more valuable if their owners had done what owners do, take care of them and feel and act responsibly towards them. Being a 'poor country' is not an excuse, since the really poor people are not downtown building owners, and wages/prices for handimen/materials are about as much lower as general income/wealth rates are. Witness the state of repair and the polished appearance of government buildings and mosques versus your average downtown building. They are fantastic old buildings but their low value is entirely due to their crumbling state of repair. And yes, buildings with both so much potential and yet so much need for detailed attention, care, repair and maintenance will always attract buyers and investors. Some will renovate them to sell at a profit a few years on, others may just tear them down for new developments. But both will create employment, increase overall economic activity (Egypt surely needs every bit of that), and help bring about the very boom they are now betting on, so much they risk quite a bit of time, money and efforts on their part. It's true and I agree that the shadiness of their practices is worrying. But unfortunately, that's how a great many people seem to operate over here often. And sometimes the reason is simply that they don't want their competition to notice what they're up to...

Pascal 10 years ago

This lyrical and evocative piece should have great resonance among the few people left in the Middle East who actually think old can still be beautiful. Dubai has wasted the few bits of old architecture it had and turned to mere ersatz the Bastakia district and Creek-side buildings. Cairo's amazing collection of Deco and other period buildings are part of its faded (and fading fast) charm, and simply demolishing the buildings because their land footprint is work millions is unethical and haram, to say the least. The Yacoubian Building was a wonderful read, in part because it celebrated life as a building. Dubai glitz has no place in the dusty streets of Cairo, not now or ever.