A Dream of Cairo Reborn

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 27, 2005

CAIRO As Abdelhalim I. Abdelhalim recalls it, the power of the vision struck him, as if he had been on a modern-day road to Damascus. It was in 1982, though the Egyptian architect no longer remembers the precise date. He stopped the car in front of an open lot. Even today, a generation later, he cannot forget the inspiration.

He had arrived in Sayyida Zainab, a hardscrabble neighborhood in Cairo as poor as it is vibrant. Down the street was the Ibn Tulun Mosque, one of the city's oldest, with a courtyard so vast it could be seen in satellite images and a 1,100-year-old, spiral minaret that stood like a sentry over the road where he had parked.

Scattered across the skyline were the domes of Cairo's history -- Mamluk, Ottoman and more modern. And before him, along Qadry Street, suffused with lead-laden exhaust and incessant horns, was a wasteland claimed by criminals, drug dealers and beggars, bordered by the refuse of modernization: utilitarian houses of crumbling brick, a dank cinema playing third-rate Hollywood films and a neglected hospital.

In that fetid expanse, the government was soliciting architectural proposals to build a cultural park for children.

"Right away, I saw the connection, which was just unbelievable," recalled Abdelhalim, a handsome man of 64 with a gray beard, glasses and thick hair, his gravelly voice deepened by age. "I realized that I had to do it."

This is the story of Abdelhalim's vision, the fate of an idea. It is a story, too, of Cairo, and the fortunes of Egypt, long the heart of the Arab world. In their despotism, Egypt's rulers have eschewed the brutality of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the delusions of the Baath Party in Syria, but have given rise to a plight no less menacing: decades of authoritarianism that suffocates, a bureaucracy that abets stagnation and a malaise that provokes the most painful of emotions, nostalgia for an imagined past.

For Abdelhalim, the children's park was a remedy to those ills. In its design, he would draw on his identity -- Egyptian, Arab and, most importantly, Muslim. In its execution, he would invite the neighborhood to take part. And in the realization of his dream, he would put his faith in a government that, even back then, was espousing the language of democracy and pluralism. "Architecture has always been a tool, a very effective tool for enacting social, economic and cultural change," Abdelhalim said in an interview nearly a decade ago, a time filled with "a lot more hope."

He sat in his office then, the park's destiny still undecided. Perched on an easel was an aerial photo of the park. He excitedly pinpointed the features with a red penlight. His words were more forceful than they are today, his movements a little more agile.

"You're not building a park, you are intervening in a pivotal point in the city that has all kinds of significance," he said then. "We wanted to do something that would work as a catalyst for change -- transformation -- but also a turning point in the continuous architectural decay and deterioration of the physical and social fabric of Sayyida Zainab."

His words are similar today: "We thought this park could change the community." But he now calls himself "more bleak and more pessimistic."

"It might be a question of age, myself getting older," Abdelhalim said, laughing softly. Or maybe it was a regretful, if grudging surrender in the autumn of life.

Searching for an Answer

In an olive suit, with a tie of pastel flowers, Abdelhalim sits in his labyrinthine office in the neighborhood of Mohandiseen. It is crammed with his maps, drawings, diagrams and pictures, many of them dedicated to the new campus of the American University in Cairo that he is helping design. On his desk -- a dining room table, really -- are scattered books and pamphlets on architecture: "The Mediterranean City: Dialogue Among Cultures," "Poetics of Architecture" and "Architecture of the Islamic World." There is a book about Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as several others by Abdelhalim's onetime mentor, Christopher Alexander.

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