CAIRO: Protruding from the corner of a torn up, dirty street in the Gamaliya neighborhood of Islamic Cairo is the clean and imposing, freshly restored Old Cairo Wall. The ancient gateway to the early city currently embraces one of the poorer parts of Cairo. Residents trek through the mud caused by exposed water pipes to buy wares from nearby stores and chat with neighbors. But the tumultuous life of Gamaliya jerks to a sudden halt at the foot of the old wall, leaving a small, barren wasteland of trash along its sides.
The wall used to be surrounded by old, dilapidated homes. But in the recent efforts of the Egyptian government to renovate Islamic Cairo, residents here and in many other areas near historical monuments are being paid to leave, or relocate themselves to new neighborhoods in Cairo. The monuments will then be restored and renovated to create a more visually appealing site, and to prevent the monuments from further decay.
But 18-year-old Samar Ahmed has seen a different view of renovation. Sitting from her doorstep, only 15 feet away from the newly stripped Old City Wall, she scorns the mess in front of her: “Look at this; this is not a nice sight! All that trash, and they’re breaking the streets every now and then, and they’re not fixing it.
Ask when the project to isolate the wall will be finished and Ahmad offers a blank stare. The exact plans of government renovation seem to be a mystery to residents themselves. Most of what they learn of reconstruction plans comes from rumors – some turn out to be true, others morph into a different story by the alleyway. One shopkeeper will claims a neighborhood is being removed, but upon reaching that place, the hordes of vendors busily peddling their wares suggest that nothing is happening, at least not anytime soon.
Feelings about the renovation and removal projects are mixed among residents. Many say they would be happy to take either the $25,000 check offered them, or the new neighborhood home.
“The houses themselves are better, says one vendor, ticking off the amenities they would have, such as air conditioning. “I would personally be happy to go to the new city.
But some were adamant about staying. “If we stay here, we’ll make money from tourism and from the stores. But if we move, we will only get the reimbursement and there will be no income, says Adel Ali Mateen. “What’s the reward for going to a new place? No one knows me there. There is no material reward.
The choice may soon be a reality for Ahmad and her family. Rumors have spread that houses on her side of the street may also be removed. Grasping the dirt stained walls of her home, her body shaking, she proclaims, “We’ll live here and we’ll die here. We insist on staying. She couldn’t imagine how she would live away from her childhood home. “We can’t just leave the area of our loved ones, our friends, our neighbors, are brothers and sisters. We can’t just leave them. We’ll feel that our souls have been removed from us.
There is debate as to what to do with the people that live in and among the monuments continues among specialists. Dr. Al-Kahlawi, Islamic Arts and Architecture professor at Cairo University, says they need to be removed. “The people don’t respect anything, he says. “The people don’t understand the importance. The one aspect of government planning he does support is the removal of citizens to outside areas.
Dr. Soheir Hawas, architecture and urban design professor at Cairo University, acknowledges that the treatment of monuments is problematic.
“Many people living there are poor enough that they’re more concerned with living than with preservation. But she argues that these same people are also an integral part of the cultural dynamics of the area. “For the historical area of Cairo, it’s not only important to maintain and restore buildings. You should keep the activity. The workshops and activities are part of what keeps the place historical, she said, noting that the practices have often been associated with these areas for hundreds of years.
Hawas thinks that a major public awareness campaign among residents could be the solution. Salah Hageb, current president of the Architectural Committee in Higher Council for Culture, agrees, saying “We have to make them feel that keeping these monumental buildings preserved is an economic benefit to them. They have to be proud of the area and consider that keeping things proper is an economic benefit for them.
The threat of destroying the essence of Islamic Cairo, though perhaps exaggerated in some instances, is not an empty one. The isolated, lonely cement alleyways of Coptic Cairo, often a source of disappointment among recent tourists, stand as a jarring reminder of what can happen when preservation for the past ignores the importance of the present. These streets used to be filled with more than shiny plaques commemorating their restoration.
American University of Cairo professor Dr. Eleanor Fernandes remembers a time when they were crowded with shops and homes. Now, the area has been emptied of any trace of human presence outside the old churches.
“They killed the Coptic Quarter.There’s nothing. It’s absolutely nothing now, she says. “They focused on tourism, and lost the spirit of the quarter.
Back on the muddy streets of Gamaliya along the half renovated Old City Wall, Ahmad now feels conflicted about her feelings toward tourism.
“When you see a tourist throwing you out of your own house, you’ll be mad too, she says. After a short pause, she adds, “But, when tourists come and honor us as our guests, we will take really good care of them. They’re not the ones doing [this]. It’s the government.
Further down the street, one shop owner says, “Only the rich people will get a reward from this. Only people who can own a hotel or something. The poor person here dies.