Cairo places and people

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 23 Mar 2021

Chairman of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony explains work being done to document the architectural and social history of Cairo and other cities

Abu Seada
Abu Seada

Tahyia Karioka, Baligh Hamdi, Naguib Mahfouz, Mama Loubna, Shahinda Maklad, Youssef Chahine and Mohamed Abdel-Ghani Al-Gamasi are just some of the noted names from Egyptian art, politics, and the military whose association with buildings in various neighbourhoods of Cairo have been underlined by the “Lived Here” documentation programme of the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH), responsible for heritage and urban social history in Egypt.

“This is one of the programmes we have been working on to document the history of Cairo and other cities in Egypt. We identify the buildings where prominent figures from Egypt’s contemporary history lived — if the buildings are still there — and then we put a plaque on the façade to identify the association of these people with these places,” said Mohamed Abu Seada, chairman of the NOUH.

Abu Seada was speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in the midst of a public debate in Egypt over the need to preserve the history of Cairo and other cities and shortly before Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli promised his government’s commitment to the cause during a recent visit to two historic neighbourhoods in the city.

According to the NOUH chairman, the “Lived Here” programme is not just an attempt to preserve the buildings where such figures lived, but also to “document an important part of the social history of the city associated with the prominent figures that lived in it.

“When we were doing research to decide where to put the plaques, we faced the sad reality that the Um Kolthoum villa in Zamalek was demolished, for example. So, we ended up putting a plaque on the façade of the building where she lived prior to getting her own villa,” he said.

photo: Sherif Sonbol

“We also found that the Sayed Darwish house in Kom Al-Dekka in Alexandria is practically gone. But we were lucky to find that the house where Dalida lived in Shubra is still there.”

Abu Seada said that the programme was initiated in 2018. Today, he added, about 450 plaques have already been put in Cairo, Giza, Qalioubiya, and Alexandria. Port Said is the next stop. A committee made up of government and non-government participants decide on the names to be commemorated.

Abu Seada said that the “Lived Here” programme was only one of three certification programmes that the NOUH is working on as part of its work on the documentation of the social history of Cairo and other cities. Another programme is also related to the names of prominent figures, this time the names given to streets.

According to Abu Seada, the NOUH has also decided to incorporate the houses of members of medical teams who died on the frontlines in the fight against Covid-19 and the names of army and police officers who died during the war against terror groups.

One issue has been whether or not people will be able to recognise the names commemorated. Most people would be able to recognise that Mohamed Abdel-Wahab Street is associated with the prominent 20th-century Egyptian composer-singer. But Abdel-Salam Aref Street might not immediately ring a bell, even though it is named after a former president of Iraq from the 1960s.

 “Street Story” is a NOUH programme set to inform residents and passers-by of the stories behind the names of streets. “We have already worked on 150 streets, starting in Cairo and now working on Alexandria,” Abu Seada said.

Again, the NOUH set up a committee to put together a list of all the streets whose names merit clarification. Only a very brief biography of the person who a street is named after can be included on a blue plaque, but there is a QR code for further information accessible via smart phone.

The NOUH’s third project is a series of books on the history of neighbourhoods known for their architectural heritage. Zamalek Island: The Value of Heritage was the first publication that came out in the summer of last year to document the architectural heritage of this Cairo neighbourhood and to recount the history of the prominent people who once lived or still live there. The book includes pictures of some buildings that are gone today.

The plaques of NOUH’s “Lived Here” initiative

According to Abu Seada, the objective is twofold: first, to inform people of the history of a particular neighbourhood, and second to try to protect existing buildings against demolition now or in the future.

Garden City in Cairo is next in the history series. “This once very beautiful neighbourhood has sustained so much damage that we are trying to capture what is still there to try and protect buildings against possible demolition plans or to make sure that if they are already going they will have been properly registered,” he said.

Future books are expected on Khedival Cairo and Islamic Cairo. Other neighbourhoods that are known for their distinguished architectural profile like Heliopolis and Maadi are also in the pipeline. The project was initiated in Cairo, but it will also cover other governorates across the country to try to capture as much as possible of their architectural beauty.

According to Abu Seada, it is not within the mandate of the NOUH to stop the demolition of any building that might or might not be included in the books that are issued in the Memory of the City series.

“Our mandate is to give advice when our advice is solicited, but we are not an executive body,” he said. “Our mandate is to register buildings and places with architectural value and social significance. This is an indication of the importance of preserving such buildings, but our role ends there,” he added.

The NOUH was not involved in recent debates over the construction of a fly-over next to the Basilique de Notre Dame in Heliopolis or the construction of a “Cairo Eye” observation wheel in Zamalek. Abu Seada would not comment on projects that were “only brought to public attention in social media”. Neither were brought to the attention of the NOUH, he said.

But he said the NOUH would only encourage projects that are mindful of the architectural profile of the neighbourhoods they are planned for. The NOUH publishes guidelines on preservation and on how to execute projects without violating the architectural character of different neighbourhoods. By 2006, he said, the NOUH had recommended the preservation of over 6,700 buildings, either for their architectural or their social value.

“What we do is to document these buildings in detail, making drawings and taking pictures,” he explained. The NOUH also tries to make people aware of buildings and their value.

Engaging people with their neighbourhoods is something that is important for the cause of preservation, he argued. He said that this can make people more aware of the history and architectural heritage of their neighbourhoods and consequently make them more willing to take a stand to defend buildings and neighbourhoods in general.

To encourage people to get better acquainted with their neighbourhoods and their cities in general, the NOUH started a campaign to promote online guided tours of different neighbourhoods. The start, he said, was in Zamalek where a 45-minute guided tour online allows one to walk from the Aisha Fahmi Palace through to the house where Souad Hosni lived and then to the houses of both Mahmoud Reda and Abdel-Halim Hafez back to 26 July Street.

Abu Seada accepts that it is the nature of things for cities to go through changes. The NOUH’s role, he argued, is to act as the memory of this evolution.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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