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Cairo in despair after demolition of iconic Nile houseboats

Tradition unleashed: Cairo in despair as Egypt demolishes iconic Nile houseboats
5 min read
Egypt - Cairo
13 July, 2022
Cairo's houseboat residents are mourning the loss of their homes, memories and lifestyle after the Egyptian government's decision to evict and demolish the heritage properties. The decision paves the way for greater commercialisation of the Nile.

Neama Mohsen, 50, has spent the best part of three decades waking up to the majesty of the Nile River on her houseboat, a stationary structure overlooking the banks of the Nile in the Kitkat neighbourhood of Giza.

“I remember the first day I woke up in the houseboat after I got married and it felt like a dream, seeing the great river, birds, people having fun. It was so peaceful, a beauty that cannot be explained in words."

“Whilst there has been noise pollution caused by sound systems in recent months, the grandeur of the Nile remained,” Neama reflected.

Hidden agenda

The middle-aged woman was surprised to receive an eviction order by the government earlier last month among almost 30 other residents, under the pretext that they had failed to pay license fees and other payments to the concerned public authorities.

“It seemed like an unannounced plan as the authorities refrained from renewing our licenses for two years, and refused to renew our usufruct rights to the army. A houseboat is troublesome as we have to deal with multiple entities and spend a lot on maintenance," Neama explained.

Ayman Anwar, head of the general administration for protecting the Nile in Greater Cairo, a government body tasked with any encroachments on the Nile, told talk show host Amr Adeeb in MBC Masr that in 2020, a decision had been made to remove residential houseboats, deeming them illegal entities. 

As part of the Egyptian government's plans to modernise the capital city, houseboats on the river Nile have received eviction notices to clear the way for new construction projects. Over the decades, the houseboats were inhabited by a wide range of the Egyptian society [Getty Images]

If a person wants to keep his or her boathouse, s/he must now transfer the official papers from residential to commercial.  

“How illogical! I received a huge fine over not paying the renewal fees that they had not accepted to receive in the first place,” Neama argued.

On the other hand, authorities have claimed houseboat owners pollute the Nile.

"I can’t be literally living in the Nile to then choose to pollute it. What about the many restaurants and cafes overlooking the Nile in other areas like Zamalek [in Cairo] that thousands visit every week? Aren’t they polluting the Nile?" said Neama.

Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Souief (2nd left) and companions lament the imminent loss of their houseboats on the Nile [Ahdaf Souief]

Owners of the houseboats have never been compensated for the residence units except for two.

“It’s like taking away your flat from the building. So they take away your unit and leave. We took the houseboats away but there are no places to put them,” Neama argued.

“We are not limited-income brackets, and yet we are treated this way, what about the poor? We spent hundreds of thousands on the maintenance of our boathouses.

“We call on the President or whoever is in charge in this matter to give us another chance [for our boathouses] and revive this tradition under whatever status they want, but they must keep in mind our conditions and the fees they owe us. We are psychologically attached to our homes, we have built up memories here,” she concluded.

The Egyptian authorities’ decision to tow away Cairo’s iconic houseboats sparked the outcry of Egyptian activists. For weeks, the hashtag #SaveCairoHouseboats trended on social media with pictures of famous houseboats attached to the posts.

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Rich history

Cairo’s houseboats, stretching along the Nile river's west bank, have been present since the 1800s. They symbolise Egyptian culture and are featured in several famous songs, films and novels. Until the end of the 1940s, there used to be 400 boathouses in Giza and Cairo provinces.

Several legendary figures once lived in boathouses in the past including late Nobel Laureate novelist Naguib Mahfouz, singer Mounira El-Mahdia, singer and composer Farid El-Atrash, and actor Naguib El-Rihani and several others.

Many of those boathouses appeared in classic Egyptian films and books including one written by Mahfouz entitled Tharthara Fawqa Al-Nil (Chitchat on the Nile), which was also adapted into a successful movie filmed inside a boathouse and released in 1971.

Another also filmed inside a boathouse is celebrated director’s Khairy Beshara Awama Raqam 70 (Boathouse no. 70) released 11 years later.

The last famous boathouse owner was Ahdaf Soueif, an award-winning Egyptian-British novelist, who is also the aunt of jailed prominent activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah.

Ahdaf was evicted from her boathouse earlier last week amidst the outcry of her fans and supporters after living there for 10 years following her return from England with her children. Ahdaf moved to her family house in the Dokki neighbourhood in Giza.       

“There were no negotiations... we were told, ‘you rented the land [overlooking the Nile] and we no longer want you',” Ahdaf wrote on her official Facebook page one day prior to being evicted.

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“Today is the last night we spend in our boathouse,” Ahdaf added, attaching a picture with her and her family and friends inside the boathouse.

One day later, she posted a video of the removal of the boathouse by workers, with her furniture gone. 

Unconfirmed news revealed that the Nile banks will be turned into commercial places like cafes and restaurants, expected to immensely pollute the river.   

“What is most heart-wrenching is mourning the houseboats themselves, as a lifestyle, and as a home," Ahdaf reminisced. 

Thaer Mansour is a journalist based in Cairo, reporting for The New Arab on politics, culture and social affairs from the Egyptian capital