Cairo's floating homes are disappearing to make room for a tourism project

·6-min read
© Nada Zien Elden

Egyptian authorities announced on June 26 their plan to clear all houseboats moored along the portion of the Nile that winds through Cairo’s Embabeh neighbourhood. In the weeks since, residents have been forced to leave their homes, many of which have since been demolished. Our Observers say they are devastated to witness the destruction of homes that are an important piece of Cairo’s cultural heritage.

One after another, Cairo’s "awamas" have emptied, with residents leaving and taking their belongings with them. On June 26, the Egyptian government began a campaign to clear the Nile of these houseboats by either destroying them or moving them farther down the river.

The authorities want to transform the banks of the Nile into an area for tourists that would include a promenade and lots of shops, cafés and restaurants. An initial part of this project was already completed on the eastern bank of the Nile near the Qasr El Nil bridge.

In the Elkit Kat and Agoza neighbourhoods, 25 of the 32 "awamas" moored on the banks of the Nile have already been completely or partially destroyed. Other houseboats have been brought to hangars belonging to the Egyptian ministry for the management of water and irrigation.

Former residents, many of whom had owned their boats for decades, were powerless to stop the demolition. Many have taken to social media to share their stories and photos documenting life on their lost houseboats.

In the wake of the authorities’ announcement, both local and international media outlets have been publishing portraits of some long-term residents of these special houseboats.

"Madame Ikhlass" Helmi, age 88, lived her entire life on an awama on the Nile.

Writer Ahdaf Soueïf decided to live on a houseboat decades ago, to get some distance from the city's big buildings and urban brouhaha of the Egyptian capital with its 21 million residents. Her home was also destroyed on July 4.

The minister announced on June 26 his desire to clear up this riverbank in Cairo’s town centre, citing both health and safety reasons. According to the director of the Central Administration for the Protection of the Nile, houseboat residents haven’t been paying for permits to moor along the Nile and most awamas don’t respect construction regulations meant to ensure safety and security. For those reasons, he says it is impossible to renew their licenses. He also says that people tend to throw waste from these houseboats overboard.

'I witnessed the destruction of my dock and my garden'

Our team reached out to the association formed by former houseboat owners. Egyptian writer and longtime houseboat resident Ahdaf Soueïf told us her story:

I stayed in my awama up until the last minute. I watched from far away as it got pulled away. I witnessed the destruction of my dock and my garden. My heart was broken for the homes and gardens that we’ve cared for for decades.

We [the residents] actually do pay all of the permits and taxes relating to our homes. We pay for a permit to dock the houseboat. We also rent our little plot on the bank from the government. We also pay a fee for the right to live on our boats.

'Both Egyptian literature and cinema immortalised these houseboats'

Soueïf says that in 2016, houseboat residents witnessed a sudden spike in permit prices after the ministry of water and irrigation changed how they calculate the mooring fee. In 2018, the fees increased again and authorities instituted higher penalties for late payments.

Two years later, in 2020, houseboat residents found themselves suddenly living outside the law because authorities refused to renew their residential permits. Eventually, the authorities promised they would fix the issue, but residents saw no changes.

We’ve been experiencing this administrative harassment for two years. We’ve gotten regular visits from the armed forces and experienced intimidation.

My awama was my whole life, it was my home. Most residents have managed to find some kind of housing elsewhere. However, Madame Ikhlass Helmi is the only one who has received any kind of compensation for her loss so far.

We could have found some kind of compromise if the ministry had agreed to hold dialogue with the owners. For example, we could have organized an open door day and invited people to visit our awamas to learn about their history.

These awamas are part of our history; both Egyptian literature and cinema immortalised these houseboats. There has always been a link between awamas and the arts. Both Farid El Atrach and Mounira Al Mahdiya [Editor's note: both prominent Egyptian musicians] lived in awamas. These awamas are a cultural relic that don’t exist anywhere else. But our government is destroying this cultural heritage and erasing this history.

The Egyptian government only offered one solution to residents – to transform their homes into businesses, requiring a significantly more expensive license. The ministry of water and irrigation also said that only residential awamas would be moved.

However, our team spoke to a man, Mohamad Awad, who lost his commercial houseboat on June 28. He said that he held all of the necessary touristic and commercial licenses:

We were warned about the destruction essentially the night before. None of the awamas that cater to tourists were destroyed except for mine. This summer, I will lose revenue from an entire season. I went to see all of the administrative officials in an attempt to resolve the problem, but was sent from one bureau to another.

'Cultural heritage is taking a back seat to commercial interests'

Ahmad Al Bindari is a historian and a photographer who specialises in documenting Egypt’s modern architecture. He said he was both saddened and angered by the destruction of the last awamas on the Nile:

These floating homes were never classified as part of our cultural heritage officially, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are part of our history, especially the old town centre. Just like singing cafés and the old buildings of the early 20th century.

Between the 1920s and the 1940s, most of these homes were located in the wealthy Zamalek neighbourhood. Then, the wealthy residents left these homes and moved into villas. The middle class then started buying these homes and the authorities moved them to the Elkit Kat neighbourhood in Embabeh. At the end of the 1980s, artists and intellectuals started to renovate awamas and, since then, a number of families have moved into these floating homes.

Many other historic monuments in Cairo have been destroyed in the same way – the Maspero triangle and July 26 Avenue [Editor’s note: a historic neighbourhood in central Cairo that borders the Nile] were demolished in 2018 to make room for new building projects, even though locals resisted. In 2020, the City of Death [Editor’s note: the largest and oldest necropolis in the Middle East, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site] met a similar fate. The authorities planned a giant road cutting through the necropolis to help ease traffic.

>> Read more on The Observers: Graves in Egypt relocated and demolished to make space for a highway

For the authorities, cultural heritage is taking a back seat to commercial interests and construction investments in strategic locations along the banks of the Nile. If they really want to clear up the banks, then they could put in a walkway instead of moving or destroying the houseboats.

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