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A Dream of Cairo Reborn

The park was finished in 1989 and opened a year later. In 1992, it was awarded the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which hailed it as a "three-dimensional history lesson." At each step, the park reveals a view of a different Cairo: the timeless minaret of Ibn Tulun, then the two domes of the tomb of Salar and Sangar Gawli, by folk legend gay lovers. In the distance is the landmark Mohammed Ali Mosque. And at the park's highest vantage point is the neighborhood it was to serve: Sayyida Zainab, with its scraggly trees, brick-and-cement tenements, rickety donkey carts plying Qadry Street and cafes spilling their water pipes on the buckling sidewalks.

The old and new, Abdelhalim said -- what he calls "unlocking a reservoir of meaning."

"For me to be able to realize this quality of building, with so modest of resources, was a triumph," he said.

Dashed Hopes

In the heady days after the park's completion, Abdelhalim had hope. He moved his architectural firm next door to the park. Through the 1990s, he served on the board of the street association. He wrote a 15-page manual for officials to operate the park.

"I don't think they ever read it," he said.

Egyptians debate the country's future; the past is often read through the lens of class. But few question the present sense of stagnation and decline that has abdicated Egypt's role as the unquestioned leader of the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s, when Cairo radiated power and culture. Stagnation, to many, is a synonym for bureaucracy, a suffocating blanket of order. Some critics go further, seeing bureaucracy as a metaphor for the state's monopoly on expression.

"The government cannot accept another perspective, it cannot endure it. It considers it something subversive," said Mohammed Abou Naga, an art professor and painter who vainly struggled with the government to establish a private art center in an abandoned Cairo building. "The problem is that the government considers itself Egypt. Egypt is an expression of the government."

At the park, almost from the start, the government closed the prayer room. There was concern over unlicensed mosques and the power of underground preachers. The room was turned into a meager library; within a year or so, its doors were shut permanently.

Government officials made a rule: Only children were allowed inside the grounds. Parents could not accompany them, ostensibly to better tailor the programs to the young. Few children came alone. Then, within a few years, the shops were closed, with brown-painted padlocks over their doors. The shops were designed as a bridge between the neighborhood and the park, but the bureaucrats worried there were too many entrances they could not control. Of 12 gates, all but one was chained and locked.

In the early years of the park's opening, the Culture Ministry provided funds, the project still a showcase. But they soon dried up. So did the staff. In time, professional employees dwindled to a few, outnumbered by security guards and gardeners, who drifted away. Despite its promise, a neglectful government left the cleaning of the street to the local inhabitants; bereft of funds, that chore was abandoned, too.

As the street deteriorated, Abdelhalim moved his staff to newer quarters. The Sayyida Zainab office became a dusty archive, overlooking the shuttered shops, a repository for ambitions rather than an agent for change.

The street association tried, at times desperately, to play a role, Abdelhalim recalled, but no one in a position of power would listen. "They faced resistance, enormous resistance from the park officials and the government," he said. "We tried in many ways to convince the Ministry of Culture that the local community is legitimate, it can actually run and operate these shops, it can maintain the street. And actually we just ran into a wall all the time."

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