“It is not so much about nostalgia; it is much more about a sense of continuity — posterity in a sense. I had wanted my city to be there for my children, to have at least got a good glimpse of it,” said Sayed Mahmoud, a writer and critic in his eulogy of a suburb that is almost no longer there.
“It is there physically on the map, Helwan is there - still. But the Helwan I knew is not there; I can hardly find its traces every time I go back there to the place I once lived in and loved,” he said.
It was just as the legacy of Gamal Abdel-Nasser was coming to an end that Mahmoud was born to a family that had found its way to what was once a remote and in a way elitist suburb as part of Nasser’s ambitious industrialisation scheme that gave that particular suburb a series of grand factories — some of which are currently being privatised.
Growing up in one side of the suburb that was “not in harmony with” the more exclusive neighbourhoods that in the early 1940s had hosted ‘King Farouk’s corner’, a winter mansion built for the monarch of Egypt and the royal family over the bank of the Nile, Mahmoud learned early on that at times, good intentions can be unkind to the city’s architectural memory.
Still, he said, things were not too bad, “maybe due to an almost natural segregation” that allowed the few families who remained in the elitist quarter to keep hold of their residence, although not for long, because with the intrusion of the pollution from factories, Helwan lost its main claim to fame as a southern Cairo suburb for people with pulmonology ailments to tend to.
According to Mahmoud, building the grand factories of the Nasser Era was a big thing for sure, but it was also a big problem for the identity of the neighbourhood, as it defeated its identity as the posh resort at the outskirts of the city.
“This is how cities are sometimes defeated in the most noble intentions of all,” he said.
The ‘sad evolution’ was not so sudden. “It was dramatic but gradual,” he said. By the late 1970s, when Mahmoud was still a young boy, he saw the end of the elitist quarter and not long after its middle-class profile was also forced into decline. By the late 1990s, even the ‘Nasser era factories’ were seeing the end of their heydays.
However, as Mahmoud said, “the city sometimes resists decay — some buildings are not immediately rendered to rubble, and some people and some things continue to pull the city on its feet.”
As a Cairo University student, Mahmoud would walk his way to the Helwan tram station — now the Metro station of the first line that extends from Helwan to Margue — with a book to read. At times, he would be lucky enough to be on the same tram with Egypt’s prominent novelist Gamal El-Ghitany, who in the 1980s lived there.
“I am talking about a tram drive where a university student of history could engage in a profound conversation with a prominent novelist and end up falling more and more in love with books,” Mahmoud said. “I would then get off the tram and walk for about an hour or a little under to get to the university; I would actually stroll not walk, stop by a café look at some buildings, buy some newspapers and discounted books; just be part of the city,” he added.
As he graduated and found himself a job in the early 1990s, Mahmoud saw the end of the heydays of the Nasser era factory.
“Helwan was just becoming a pale memory of its old self, for it was no longer an elitist suburb with an extension of a workers’ neighbourhood; it was not even the new middle class province; it lost the buildings; they have become ruins except for a few that have just become there-and-neglected,” he said.
“When I watch the movies ‘Awdet Mowaten’ (a Citizen’s Return), ‘Afarit Al-Assfalt’ (Demons of the Asphalt), and ‘Banat Wast Al-Balad (Downtown Girls), I see the evolution of the decay of my suburb as it happened from the mid-1980s into the first decade of the 2000s,” Mahmoud said.
“I talk to my children and I tell them of what I knew and what I saw and of what they can no longer see or know; and it hurts that this sense of continuity that a city should give to at least two consecutive generations is simply not there,” he added.
Being his birthplace and venue of childhood memories, Helwan is perhaps the place that Mahmoud laments most. But having been all around the city, more often than not as a pedestrian, Mahmoud is missing so much about Cairo.
“Some parts of the cities have resisted better than others, but the entire city has changed,” he said.
In the early 1990s, Mahmoud would then frequent yet another suburb of southern Cairo that seems today to be also losing ground to the tough hand of urbanisation.
“Maadi was the nearest spot to Helwan, another suburb that attracted many of the elite who exited Helwan in the 1950s and a little beyond. It was a place where one would simply love to get lost around the streets and where the streets were marked by the trees,” he said.
It was in Maadi that Mahmoud met and fell in love with Abeer, now his wife. “We walked the streets of Maadi for hours and we had memories in so many streets,” he said. Today, Mahmoud cannot find most of the buildings and the trees that he would pass by.
“I have taken my children to Maadi and I cannot find the places as they were; most are gone; the villas were knocked down and their gardens were erased to allow for new apartment buildings to come in their place,” he lamented.
With the pain he feels for Helwan, Mahmoud’s hearts goes to those who were brought up in the suburbs of Cairo – Maadi and Heliopolis. “The suburbs have been hurt, some more than others, but there has been a violation of the whole concept of a suburb as a place where one lives and sends his children to school and find some entertainment, and where one could walk around to do his errands without having to drive and where you counted on a tranquil tram ride to get into the heart of the city,” he said.
Mahmoud wonders today what the readers of Ala’a El-Dib’s ‘Zahr Al-Limon’ (Lemon blossoms) would think if they read the novel and went for a walk in Maadi. He even wonders what El-Dib himself would have thought of his suburb that he so much loved and literally cherished.
“What is left of Cairo as has been narrated in the literature of Naguib Mahfouz, Gamal El-Ghiatny, and Alaa El-Dib, I often read and re-read their novels and I don’t wish to answer the question. I am not just talking about the buildings but about the city and its urban integrity and energy,” he said.
“The movies of Mohamed Khan, Atef El-Tayeb, and others are there to catch the last glimpses of the city as has been lived by my generation. They will also be there for the younger generation to ask about where the buildings and the places have gone,” he said.
Today, Mahmoud lives with his wife and three children in Al-Mokattam, at the very high and east end of Cairo. He sees the little connection that his children have with their own neighbourhood as they tend to pursue their outings with friends in the cafes and cinemas of New Cairo.
“I try to encourage them to go to Zamalek where there is a blend of lots of cafes and something left the city as I knew it,” he said. He is not always so successful, because the children don’t experience the city the way he did.
“I am really scared to face the fact that my city is not my children’s city; I try to tell them about it and to make them love it for what it was – just as I loved it for what it was and what it had been,” he said.