125 years ago, if you were sitting on the veranda of Ismail Pasha’s palace (now the Marriott Hotel), on El-Gezira, (now Zamalek), you would have been able to see at the western edge of the grounds the Grotto Garden (now the Fish Garden).
Replete with imported plants and animals, it was entirely artificial, but all the fashionable potentates had them; so while building his new mansion Ismail brought the Belgian horticulturalist Gustave Delchevalerie, a friend of Baron Haussmann, who had done some landscape architecture in Paris, to help him with the Grotto and other Cairo projects including the gardens of Azbakkiya. If you know Paris well, you will easily see the resemblance between the Fish Garden and the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
It was a lovely addition to the estate, an enchanted fantasy getaway where the Khedive and his friends could take walks, gossip, picnic, tell stories, listen to music, and even talk of more serious concerns such as how to pay for the Suez Canal or how to get Ismail’s son Hassan back from the Ethiopians who had captured him in battle when he tried to annex part of the highlands northwest of Asmara.
Although the family paid a fortune, eventually Hassan was returned to Cairo where he once more was able to spend spring afternoons in the enchanted grotto. Looking back, however, we now know that there is an unhappy side to this story, for poor Hassan was deprived of Dixie Cream donuts and Beano’s cappuccino and he never had the pleasure of listening to Ahmed Harfoush sing “You Give Me Fever”. This would have to wait for over a century, until last Saturday in fact, when another by now famous Zamalek resident, Nihal Selim, and the Zamalek Association finally made this possible.
With the help of co-organisers Nazli and Selim Shahine, and many other volunteers, Nihal told me that her group wanted to hold an event that would “get people together, show residents what the Zamalek Association could do, and let everyone know that it is okay”. They succeeded phenomenally. No matter the state of the city, last Saturday in the Fish Garden it was impossible to be depressed.
Around 5,000 visitors grazed at stands set up by Beano’s, Dixie Cream, Makani, Top Dawgs, Ali Baba, Gringos, Cairo Kitchen, Good Cals, Zeitouna Bistro and others. Music by Harfoush, Mariam Ali and Like Jelly kept feet tapping and bodies swaying as the guests browsed the tables and booths of local artists and entrepreneurs. Even the Nūn Center moved their Saturday Farmers Market there for the day.
When I first moved to Zamalek in 1996, we lived in a high rise that overlooked the Fish Garden, and we used to go there for afternoon walks. At night I used to watch the film crews come in to shoot scenes for movies and television series, and every spring people from Zamalek, Dokki and Mohandessin would come to the Fish Garden for the annual plant sale.
It was here I taught my children how to ride their bicycles. Most days it is empty. On weekends working class families and couples come here to hang out in the grass and have their own picnics. I have never seen it like this. No one has.
The comment that I heard most often Saturday was that people hope the Zamalek Association will do something like this again, maybe even every month. There are no immediate plans to do so, in part because there are other projects in the works, for example the garbage truck plan, which was officially launched at the Taste of Zamalek.
The Association raised money to pay for a garbage truck for a year to cruise the neighbourhood six days a week and pick up the trash that the regular garbage collectors leave behind. They hope to have a few more trucks in operation soon.
And they have started a tree planting campaign. After surveying all of Zamalek they have begun planting trees in areas where there are gaps. The spirit and the pride of this neighbourhood are on the rise and it reminds us that people really can make a difference. Nihal Selim certainly has.
It took an Ottoman Pasha to build the garden and to draw people to live on the island. 125 years later a determined lady is making the island a place we can once again all be proud of by bringing us back to the garden. Here’s hoping there is another Taste of Zamalek in the not-too-distant future. All of us will volunteer this time for sure.