With green gardens on one side and water on the other, they were an anomaly in a city bordered on three sides by desert. For decades, Cairo’s houseboats have occupied prime waterfront real estate, giving residents a front row seat to the passing Nile, with its water taxis, fishermen, sports rowers and his occasional family of ducks.
But that is coming to an end: a government push to remove the city’s chain of floating homes from the banks of the Nile has reduced their number from several dozen to a handful. Houseboats are a Cairo tradition that dates back to the 1800s and government efforts to remove them have drawn criticism in Egypt, where residents mourn the loss not just of their homes, but of a way of life. Critics say the move is part of a series of development decisions taken by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government that put the city’s heritage at risk.
“The thing is, they really, really don’t seem to understand that there’s value – intangible values - there’s value in the story,” said Ahdaf Soueif, an award-winning Egyptian novelist who has bought and renovated a houseboat after his return. in Egypt from the UK 10 years ago,
Floating homes are being removed or renovated to commercially develop the waterfront, officials say. They haven’t released detailed plans of what that entails. In recent years, an increase in infrastructure projects by el-Sisi’s government has raised concerns about heritage sites, including an ancient cemetery and historic gardens.
In late June, residents of at least 30 houseboats were ordered to evacuate within 20 days. Located on a stretch of the river in the popular neighborhoods of Imbaba and Kit-Kat, they faced the upscale residential island of Zamalek. The eviction notices came after years of government pressure in the form of increasingly expensive mooring licenses.
Action followed soon after, with most homes being dismantled by their owners or relocated by the government at the end of June. Evictions continue.
Soueif said her two sons held their wedding parties on her houseboat and that’s where she plans to spend the rest of her life. This week, his family saw him floating.
Soueif had to pay 72,000 Egyptian pounds (about $3,800) for a mooring license in 2018, up from 160 pounds in 2013.
Omar Robert Hamilton, Soueif’s son, said in a social media post that Soueif and other residents had stopped paying the fees and filed a lawsuit to fight the increases. But the government imposed fines and they are now demanding that Soueif’s family produce 900,000 pounds, or about $48,000, in arrears.
Soueif comes from a prominent family of anti-government activists in Egypt, and her nephew Alaa Abdel-Fattah, perhaps the country’s most prominent activist, was imprisoned under el-Sissi. She said the opacity of government decision-making is surprising. She learned from a recent TV interview with an official that the Armed Forces Engineering Authority had made the decision to evict the houseboat residents in 2020.
Authority is the force behind the army’s many road projects and the country’s mega-plans, including the construction of a new administrative capital in the desert outskirts of Cairo. The construction and development of new buildings is not easy in Cairo, a city with layers of history. But Soueif says sacrificing the story isn’t the right way to go.
“When you try to turn Egypt into Dubai, you actually devalue it,” Soueif said, referring to the newness of one of the most modern capitals in the Middle East. “You’re just destroying your assets that no one has.”
Iklas Helmy, 88, owner of a bright blue houseboat, said she couldn’t imagine life anywhere else. She was born on a barge. She tried to get a new permit for her houseboat – her home of the past 25 years – and was told it couldn’t be renewed and the decision came from a very high level.
“Are you going to take my whole life to build a cafe?” she says. Talking about it brings her to tears.
Walking with a cane, Helmy greeted two geese that live on the riverbank next to his house.
After being featured in a number of media reports, Helmy’s case caused an outcry. She called on the government to let her live in the boat until she died. His plea went all the way to the president. In a rare televised media question, a reporter from the pan-Arab satellite channel Al-Hadath asked him about Helmy’s situation in particular.
El-Sisi said he appreciated Helmy’s situation but said: “We are restoring order in the country.” He did not specify.
It remains unclear what will happen to some of the boats that have been towed – where they will be moored or if their owners can afford the cost.
Tariq al-Murri, an Egyptian architect who specializes in heritage issues, said the wooden barges are most reminiscent of those that floated on the Seine in Paris in the mid-1800s, and where some still exist. At the time, the Egyptian ruler Ismail Pasha tried to imitate architecturally everything he had seen in France.
Al-Murri said barges on the Nile have captured the imagination of Egyptians and have been featured in several of the country’s classic films and books. Some have become places of cabarets and bars. But now those in question are largely just houses.
Al-Murri said government officials should have considered other options before forcing the demolitions. He said the boats could be preserved, moved to another stretch of the waterfront and turned into one of the city’s attractions.
“I think a conversation could still happen,” he said.
But there are indications that there is no room for discussion on the issue.
Last month’s television interview in which Soueif and other locals learned of the fate of the floating houses was given by Ayman Anwar, a government official who heads the Central Administration for the Protection of the Nile. He said boats that work in the tourism industry will be allowed to stay, but not those that are residences.
“Barges are like run-down cars from 1978 whose licenses have been revoked by traffic authorities,” he said.