The city and the Nile

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 21 Aug 2022

The Nile is at the centre of a debate on the present and future of Cairo.

photos: Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian
photos: Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian


It has been almost four weeks since Ekhlas Helmi received the keys to her new Zamalek apartment that the government rented to her after she had to bid farewell to the houseboat where she had been living for over four decades.

The government had decided to remove the 30 or so residential houseboats located on the banks of the Nile in the Kit-Kat neighbourhood of Cairo, and Helmi had had to move.

Over the last month, she has been going through an enormous amount of interior-design work to get her new apartment ready to accommodate this close to 90-year-old lady who is still finding it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she is no longer living on a houseboat where she would wake up every morning to the sounds of ducks and small boats passing by.

“I am very grateful to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi for having issued the orders to find me an apartment. Everyone has been very patient, showing me so many apartments in Zamalek before I settled on this one. It is true that it overlooks the Nile, but it is not the same as the houseboat,” Helmi said.

 “On my houseboat, I could see and feel the Nile wherever I was, but this apartment only has two rooms that overlook the Nile.”

By the end of this month, Helmi is hoping to be able to move into the new apartment and to bring in the boxes full of her belongings from the houseboat that she once called home.

She is hoping and planning to try to accommodate to the new set up, but she is not sure that she will be able to. Nor would she ever have thought that she would have to be “stripped away” from the Nile for the remainder of a life that she said was always rejuvenated by being so closely attached to this river that gives life to the city and to the entire country.

“The Nile has been my life. The houseboat was a life that was full even when I was all by myself because on the houseboat I was in touch with the people on the boats, the ducks around the houseboats, and the cats and dogs in the garden at the entrance. Now I will have to live between four walls in enforced solitude. I can still look at the Nile, but I cannot be with it as I used to be,” she added.

Earlier this summer, Helmi and the residents of some 30 other houseboats were told that the government had decided to put an end to this 150-year-old tradition of people living in houseboats. The orders were strict, and they came in the wake of a litany of decisions that introduced exorbitant increases in fees and taxes.

In hindsight, the residents of the boats say that these increases were the warning of a government decision to remove the houseboats once and for all for a reason that they can only guess at.

A presidential directive was issued in 2020 prohibiting residential houseboats on the Nile. Government officials said that since 2020 people had no longer had valid docking licences or licences for the boats themselves, making them illegal.

Campaigning to prompt a shift in the government’s decision to remove the houseboats failed, and people had to succumb. Today, many houseboats are being turned into junk, though the owners of five are in talks with the authorities to turn them into environmentally friendly commercial activities and community service spaces.

But the era of the houseboats that in the early decades of the last century had allowed close to 300 houseboats to be moored on the banks of the Nile across Cairo has certainly now come to an end.


ARGUMENTS AND COUNTERARGUMENTS: Officials from the Ministry of Irrigation said that the houseboats were contributing to the pollution of the Nile and that having them removed was part of a bigger scheme to free the river from all “encroachments”.

Off the record, one official said that removing the houseboats was only part of an overhaul plan for the banks of the river and for the river itself. “The idea is to upgrade. Some people might not like it, but this is the idea,” he said.

He said that removing the houseboats was coming in parallel with the inauguration of the first segment, almost opposite the Kit-Kat district to the fringes of the 15 May flyover, of the Mamsha Ahl Masr, or the promenade of the people of Egypt, a two-level boardwalk that has already been partially opened.

Other parts of the plan include the “relaunch” of the Al-Warraq Island, some seven square km in area, as a high-end residential compound carrying the name of Horras Island.

Both Mamsha Ahl Masr and the Horras Island scheme have been subject to criticism from environmentalists and other quarters, who argue that both superimpose artificial terrain on the banks of the Nile and on an island that has been inhabited for years by a population that has been mostly opposed to the transformation.

But according to the same government official, concerns over the projects are exaggerated. The Mamsha Ahl Masr project allows for organised and economically beneficial access to the river banks. Eventually, he said, “we will see some clubs and cafés being removed further south on the Corniche to allow for the introduction of the two-level scheme, with the platform next to the river being accessible for a fee while the upper platform will be accessible for all with no fee.”

The transformation of Al-Warraq will not overlook environmental concerns, he said, given that at least one third of the land “will be allocated for gardens and green spaces.” He argued that it was not impossible to opt for economically purposeful schemes that could still accommodate the environmental requirements of a city as big as Cairo.


CLIMATE: However, Nabil Al-Hadi, a Cairo University professor of architecture who is dedicated to the pursuit of nature-friendly urbanism, argued that the issue is more complex. Having dedicated close to 20 years to monitoring the environment in Egypt, Al-Hadi says that climate change is already taking a serious toll, and it is necessary to be cautious when opting for schemes that have an environmental side to them, especially if they relate to the Nile, “the heart and soul” of the country.

“Today, we have to make sure that our urban-development schemes are designed in a way that integrates the measures necessary for the management of the impacts of climate change. We need to remember that climate change is not an abstract idea; it is something with a very happening impact on our lives, every day and every hour,” he said.

“To understand how we should go ahead with any plans in Cairo, we need to understand how the Nile works and to learn how it has always influenced this city that was effectively built to live on the Nile banks. It has moved along with the Nile that has shifted by close to four km over the past 5,000 years.”

Al-Hadi is sympathetic to the wishes of people who want to live in direct contact with the Nile, as the residents of the houseboats did up until earlier in the summer. This was the case from the rule of Mohamed Ali in the 19th century who turned the city’s ponds and lakes into gardens and residential areas as was then the trend in Europe.

“But it was Mohamed Ali who ‘neutralised’ the relation between the city and the Nile — or at least started the trend of ‘dehydrating’ the city,” Al-Hadi said. “This process continued until the late 1970s, when all the ponds became dry.”

Later in the 19th century, the khedive Ismail contributed to the scheme when he introduced a wide range of non-native trees that unfortunately came to the country with plant diseases. “They might have looked more beautiful than the native trees to some, but in fact the native trees were more environmentally friendly, especially when it comes to water consumption,” Al-Hady said.  

“However, as Cairo was expanding significantly away from the Nile, it was time for these non-native trees to find larger spaces.”

Al-Hadi said that the relationship between Cairo and the Nile has seen many interruptions, starting with the end of people’s houses being placed on the Nile and moving into the era of exclusive access to the banks of the river with the construction of cafes and clubs that require either a large budget or a particular membership.

The construction of high-rising buildings overlooking the Nile could be seen as an attempt to keep up the connection with the Nile, “but not at all an urban smart or environmentally friendly one.”

Al-Hadi said it was not right to “over-localise” the discussion of issues such as the houseboats, the Mamsha Ahl Masr, or the Al-Warraq Island. These issues have to be addressed from the perspective of their impacts on the Nile, the quality of the water, and the space for native trees, and also from the perspective of the deep connection between people and the Nile, he said.

“We need to think of the banks of the river, which should be a space for native trees. We need to think about the quality of the water and how to improve it and about how to reduce the volume of waste that goes into the river,” he said.

He added that it should be clear that the Nile belongs to all the people of the city and not just to one segment that can afford to live close to the river.

“We need to think of the possible impacts of the transformation that is planned on the environment and consequently on people. From an economic perspective, we need to think about the cost of air and water pollution, which is estimated to be in the billions of pounds every year.”


ACCESS: Artist Mohamed Abla says there is a need to assess the cost of any possible transformation to the landscape of the Nile for the visual identity of the city.

“A city like Cairo is not an ‘enterprising’ landscape, and it should not be dealt with as such. This is a city with a particular identity, to which visibility and the easy accessibility of the Nile is central,” he said.

Abla exhibited his most recent paintings two weeks ago. Images of the Nile are central to the work of this artist who says that it is impossible to think of Cairo away from the Nile and that all development schemes for the city need to take into consideration the visual identity and the historic identity of Cairo.

“Tampering with one is tampering with the other,” he said.

“The memories of the people of this city are in good part related to the Nile and to being able to simply stroll by the Corniche,” he said. “This is not just about the collective consciousness of the city, but also about its tempo. A city loses its tempo when it is pushed into the rush that comes with excessive flyovers in parallel with tight restrictions on accessing nature,” he argued.

For Abla, the Nile has always been the ultimate pacifier for Cairo when the city starts to get tough. “Looking at or strolling by the river in the late evening has always been the ultimate get-away for the people of this city. People should be able to walk by and live around the Nile and on its islands,” he said.  

According to historian Mohamed Afifi it is also hard to over-estimate the passions that Egyptians have always had for the Nile.

“In documents from the Mameluke and Ottoman eras the Nile is described as a ‘river from heaven’. Throughout successive centuries, Egyptians celebrated the Nile on 15 August. They called it the Wafaa Al-Nil — the day the Nile makes good on its promise to bring abundant water for those on its banks to live and cultivate by,” he said.

“The Nile is not just a river; it is an essential part of Egyptian identity.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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