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A Dream of Cairo Reborn

The designs in the office are imbued with the spirit of Hassan Fathy, arguably Egypt's greatest 20th-century architect, who sometimes supervised construction as a gramophone played at his side and whose book "Architecture for the Poor" won him fame as a visionary who drew on age-old techniques to build affordable housing.

Abdelhalim is a man of many, sometimes conflicting worlds.

He was born 70 miles south of Cairo in Sornaga, a village of 50 families centered around an Italian building materials factory. He was educated at Cairo University, then traveled abroad in the 1960s, first for a master's degree at the University of Oregon, then a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.

It was a time of soul-searching. Like most in his generation, he struggled with the devastating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. Arab nationalism was discredited; so was the authoritarian leadership of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who until then spoke on behalf of the Arab world as the leader of its most populous and powerful state. In the humiliating wake of the war, Abdelhalim said he searched for an answer, a way to empower communities to take charge of their own destinies.

As he sipped a cup of tea on a chilly morning, Abdelhalim recalled 1967 as "a turning point."

"I was just a young graduate, and that made me think of the deeper causes of that defeat," he said. "And I realized -- and it took me some time to realize -- but I realized that the engagement of the people, the community in the affairs of their lives is the real guarantee against disasters and against defeat."

His inspirations were many: '60s-style American activism, and, as he got older, his own relationship to his faith. Raised religiously, as are most Egyptian youths, he nevertheless considered himself secular until he was in his late twenties. But as he studied in the United States, he found himself looking more and more to his Islamic heritage for artistic inspiration, a way to overcome his disenchantment and disillusionment with his country's fortunes.

"When I ventured along that road, I wasn't saying the solution was Islam at all, I was just exploring the question, what defeated us as Egyptians, what defeated us as a Third World people, what are the other creative venues for overcoming defeat? Then I came to embrace Islam as a creative tradition among many other traditions," Abdelhalim said.

Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature, who has a knack for conveying the sentiments of a generation, once wrote about the contradictions of what he called a typical Cairo Muslim, pulled between a modern life and a more traditional culture. Mahfouz questioned the identity of such a person -- to which world did he belong? "He realizes that in this society he has been afflicted with a split personality: half of him believes, prays, fasts and makes the pilgrimage" to Mecca. "The other half renders his values void in the streets, even in the cinemas and theaters, perhaps even at home among his family before the television set."

In interviews over the years, Abdelhalim has often puzzled at this dual nature of life. At times, he seemed overwhelmed by the West's power and persuasion. He admires much of it, but occasionally alienation lingers in his words. Nearly always in his work he struggles to discover what makes him Egyptian and Muslim, that element of his personality that, as he once put it, makes him "free, authentic and local." As he envisioned the park, it would be part of that struggle for identity.

The project would represent something traditional yet revolutionary, challenging the stagnant status quo but also rooted in the past -- from its design, to its construction, to its role in the community. Looking back, Abdelhalim said he wonders whether the government understood the vision that he was trying to bring to life.

"I think they were not fully aware of the implications of what we were doing," he said.


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