May El-Ibrashy: We are here to exchange knowledge

Amira Noshokaty , Monday 19 Apr 2021

Focusing on Al-Khalifa District in Sayeda Zeinab, Al-Hattaba district down by the citadel, and Al-Imam Al-Shafii district, Al-Ibrashy’s participatory conservation initiative puts all community stake holders in one proper sentence

May Al-Ibrashy
Dr. May Al-Ibrashy at the premises of Al-Imam Al-Shafii mausoleum. Photo credit to Amira el Noshokaty

For almost 10 years, the name of the Architectural Historian May El-Ibrashy is more of a magic spell that conserves the relationship of the residence of historic districts with their monuments and highlights the intangible heritage of the place.

Focusing on Al-Khalifa District in Sayeda Zeinab, Al-Hattaba district down by the citadel, and Al-Imam Al-Shafii district, Al-Ibrashy’s participatory conservation initiative puts all community stake holders in one proper sentence.

Best Known for ‘Al-Athar Lina’ (The monument is ours) initiative that kicked off in 2012, May Al-Ibrashy restored much more than the historic buildings in Al Khalifa district.

Run by the Built Environment Collective Megawra, a twin organisation including an NGO and an architecture firm, Al-Athar Lina is a participatory conservation initiative that aims to establish modalities of citizen participation in heritage conservation based on an understanding of the monument as a resource not a burden. Al-Athar Lina believes that only when cultural heritage is beneficial to the community will the community become an active partner in its conservation.

The results were impressive. A five-year-old local festival in Al-Khalifa district where heritage walks, art activities, and handicrafts of the neighbourhood is promoted. A community dialogue that materialised into several community facilities that illuminated not only the historic sites but also the whole district with colourful light strings, and the list goes on.

As we sat outside the Mausoleum of Imam Al-shafii, one that she and her team have just finished restoring, we talked about her journey into the heart of historic Cairo and all the leanings there is.

“It looks like Al-Athar Lina became more of a motto rather than an initiative,” I tell her. She laughs and nods.

Why Al-Khalifa district?

“We picked it pragmatically, because it was not very much of a touristic site and has a live community which was very important for us, as we were exploring the relationship between heritage and people. Having a high touristic potential, Al-Khalifa district reflected a very strong connection between the people and their monuments, which are mainly mausoleums of Awlia (Saints or Pious Religious Icons). We refrained from sites such as Khan Al-Khalili or Al-Moez street because they have already become more touristic and commercial than a residential area,” El-Ibrahsy said.

Since 2012, El-Ibrashy and her team have been building bridges of trust with the residential area. However, the People of Al-Khalifa were quite sceptical at first; After all, so many people walked the same path, asked the same questions, and left them with no real impact.

“Plus, they are all very busy trying to make ends meet and have no time to spare,” El-Ibrashy told Ahram Online, noting that they had to be very creative to establish community engagement.

“At first, we would invite them to meet on their vacation for two hours only, or we would go to them with our board and wait to meet them outside the mosque after Friday prayers. We would ask their opinion while sitting in a local coffee shop or pay a visit to a group of women in their homes.”

“Another key element for community engagement was creating children’s activities. By time, their mothers wanted to participate in similar activities. Also, collaborating with the craftsmen of the district established grounds for trust.”

Valuable knowledge

Mogawra (apprenticeship), an educational methodology known in Arab and Egyptian heritage where people gain experience of any trade or practice by simply accompanying the masters of such trades. It is also the name of the NGO and architecture firm El-Ibrashy founded. And as the name resonates, El-Ibrashy reveals three valuable lessons from working with the community.

“The most important thing we’ve learnt is that you deal with the situation as if it is work. To deviate completely from the concept of good doers and not to expect people to thank us. Of course, we will be happy if they do, but this is not the point. The point is that we have work, and we have to do it professionally,” she explains.

“The second lesson is flexibility, she noted, reflecting on the many times they deviated from their original plan to fix along the way. “However, every now and then, one has to stop and ask oneself: what is your mandate?”

“And the third is that we are not here to teach anyone, we are here to exchange knowledge,” she adds. “I come to a district with a lot of knowledge about their history, but I know little about their relationship with each other, about the district, about the socio-economic status, their opinions,” she notes

“I come in with technical knowledge that people do not have, the government walks in with another form of information, represented in administrative and legal work, and the idea is how to create the right environment that allows us all to learn from each other. But I am not here to raise awareness or introduce them to their heritage, because they are quite aware of their heritage, maybe they view it differently, so I have to understand their perspective,” She notes.

“Take any mausoleum, I see the architectural design, they see the meaning behind it. So, I cannot come in and say that I did some historic excavations in this part so I will make it a glass floor and show the excavations. This means that I took away part of the meaning cherished by the religious visitors, because a glass floor will be a sort of distraction to them. They would want to go in big groups, but glass floors would mean only a few people can come in. So, I have to think of what the building means to the religious visitors, to the residents of the area, to the touristic visitor, and put them all into consideration.”

In historic districts, a big part of this history is about the families that live there and what would they do for a living and how it changed. “When I walk in and have an input that changes the social fabric of the district, part of the history of the district disappears. These are things that I have to see from the point of view of the residents.”

“Through Mogawra, we managed to create a community space for the residents. In Al-Khalifa, we created a football court, in Hattaba we made a garden, in Al-Baagiya youth center we made a football court, and now we are working on another garden. Each one of them is not 100 percent successful, but we have learnt from each one of them something.

The Hattaba Big Plan

Currently El-Ibrashy is carrying out a comprehensive plan for the ancient district of Hattaba. Situated in one of the corners of Saladin’s citadel, this historic neighbourhood was known for being the residence of carpenters and woodworkers.

“During the Ottoman reign, the residents were the main providers of charcoal to the citadel and the neighbouring districts, hence the name Hattaba (meaning charcoal workers). They are mainly carpenters and also work in Sadaf (mixing seashells with woodwork). Al-khayamia (The art of tent making) is something that is affiliated with the women of Hattaba but it is more of the finishing touches of khayameya. So, we started to train the women of khayamia about the authentic art of khayamia,” she added.

Al-Hattaba district made headlines in the past few months because it was at risk for being demolished. The ancient district was finally spared as the Egyptian prime minister declared it will stay since it is a part of historic Cairo.

“Currently we are charting a touristic route around the district. We are building health care, social, and handicrafts facilities to serve the neighbourhood on empty land,” she explains.

However, there seems to be an obstacle that Hattaba inherited since the 1970s and it is putting some old buildings at risk.

Buildings of Hattaba

Hattaba has 400 pieces of land and 500 households. Located in the entrance of the Citadel and stretching to reach Sultan Hassan and Al-Refaay mosques, 20 percent (80 Buildings) of the houses of Hattaba are in very bad condition and need urgent restoration.

Back in the seventies, the government issued a decree by which Hattaba was marked as a clear area, so that it makes the Citadel more visible. This decree prohibited residents from restoring their houses until today. Being part of historic Cairo, we are all hoping that the government will resolve this situation soon. 

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