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A Dream of Cairo Reborn
The Old and the New
In 1982, when the Culture Ministry sponsored the competition for the park's design, Abdelhalim was working with just a few colleagues in his Community Design Collaborative, dedicated to architecture that would be innovative and grounded in history and the community.
Before submitting the proposal, his office organized three teams of 10 students to spend seven weeks speaking to Sayyida Zainab's residents, conducting hundreds of interviews. Suggestions for the park poured in. A library and child care center. Trees, others said. Some wanted to turn a nearby street, Abul-Dahab, into a pedestrian area lined with stores for local craftsmen. The ideas were included in the proposal, and a year later, in June 1983, Abdelhalim's team won the modest $570,000 contract to build the park on the 2 1/2 -acre plot.
From the beginning, Abdelhalim envisioned it as an intellectual and community project.
The design would evoke the spiral minaret of the Ibn Tulun mosque, visible from the park, and reinterpret it in walkways, blue-tiled fountains and stone buildings. Brick paths, arrayed geometrically, would wind across a stream and through trees in an attempt to bring together nature's elements, a motif repeated in Islamic architecture from Spain to Central Asia. Domes, arches and the wood latticework known as mashrabiya would adorn buildings constructed in what he envisaged as "Islamic modernism."
"It's just a matter of helping to rediscover and open up the communication between where we are today and where we were," Abdelhalim said. "That's the significance of historic buildings to me."
At the groundbreaking ceremony in October 1983, he planned something other than the usually stodgy affairs of officialdom and a shovel. About 5,000 residents were invited, along with hundreds of children. To make the design recognizable to the community, his office hired farrashin , local tentmakers, to take the brightly colored canvases used for weddings and feasts and drape them into shapes around the park to imitate the contours the structures would take. The largest tents marked the museum, fountain and theater; others represented the park's walls.
So elaborate was the result that the visiting Suzanne Mubarak, the president's wife, thought the tents were the park itself.
"The idea was that we wanted to break the gap between the designer and the community," Abdelhalim said, "a gap that was usually used to mystify professional work and to create a sort of barrier between the local people and officials."
He gazed ahead, recalling the moment. "I still feel it was a remarkable kind of experience."
For the construction, his team recruited stone masons and carvers, trained in traditional methods, from Sayyida Zainab and another poor, nearby neighborhood, Darb al-Ahmar. In an age of construction firms, their techniques had become obsolete and they were jobless. To help them work, Abdelhalim's team substituted engineering schematics with easy-to-follow models of plywood and cardboard. They relied on local limestone for arches and domes that portrayed a medieval Cairo, long hidden beneath generations of grime.
"They were regaining their knowledge," Abdelhalim said of the stone workers. "In a way, it was real empowerment, not just a phony jargon of empowerment."
To integrate the park with the community, his team then built an arcade of 20 shops that would open both to Abul-Dahab Street and the park itself. There was a cafe, a street fountain, a library, a prayer room, a plaza, and shops for books and artisans. The plan called for children's workshops in pottery, carpentry and textiles, as well as a choral group. To manage the activities, his team helped found the first non-governmental organization of its kind in Cairo, the Abul-Dahab Street Association.