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A Dream of Cairo Reborn
Last year, the association finally closed its doors and dissolved itself. The park, said Abdelhalim, who stayed on the street association's board until almost the very end, had become "an envelope without content."
"There's still a vision that actually we can tell them what's good for them, that the government is the guardian," Abdelhalim said, a hint of anger in his voice. "It's a metaphor for the whole relationship between the community and the government, where the projects of development became an image more than a reality."
"The real claim of success of the park is that it is local. It draws its image locally. It was built by stone -- that's a very local material -- built by the local people," he added. "Yet the urge is to say: 'No, it's a monument. It's something bigger.' "
Omar Shabawi, the government-appointed director of the park and one of the men Abdelhalim blames for its fate, dismissed the idea of the park as a center of the community -- the essence of Abdelhalim's original concept.
"It's a national project," he said, and as such, it would cater as much to children in Sayyida Zainab as it would to government-organized tours from Alexandria on the Mediterranean coast or Aswan, near the High Dam in southern Egypt. "Any child who wants to enter, our doors are open," said Shabawi, 45, a veteran Culture Ministry employee.
He was respectful of Abdelhalim as an architect but said Abdelhalim's "responsibility was solely to design the park." He said the park is no longer Abdelhalim's business -- no more than a hospital's administration would be the responsibility of its builder.
"If there's something Dr. Abdelhalim wants to offer -- an idea, a reform, something to make the park better -- ahlan wa sahlan ," he said. "He's welcome. But it has to be on his own account. The ministry doesn't haven't any money to do anything."
Sowing a Seed
In his pharmacy on a tattered street of Sayyida Zainab, Abdel-Galil Hamad fetches medication from dusty shelves and offers advice as a stand-in doctor. One customer tries to shortchange him by seven cents. He grabs him by the shirt, threatens to hit him, then throws him out. From another, he receives a torn five-pound Egyptian note. He grimaces, then drops it in a drawer.
"He had an idea," Hamad said of Abdelhalim, recalling the headiness of the park's opening. Then he shook his head.
"The park's on one side, and the people are on the other," he said.
On a recent morning, Abdelhalim walked by Hamad's pharmacy and past the minivans waiting for passengers at the curb. He ignored the cacophony of horns and glanced briefly at the cityscape, what he calls Cairo's "accumulated layers of ugliness."
"We didn't just have the opportunity, we had the reality. We managed to turn a dull, ugly, polluted place in one of the oldest and most impoverished communities to become a fantastic place to the acknowledgement of the whole world, and then we withdrew our support," he said. "We ran away, we betrayed our dream, and we just let that place sink back to the lowest of urban destinies."
In the years since the park's opening, Abdelhalim has gone on to professional success. He has won accolades for his designs and the respect of his colleagues at home and abroad. His staff has grown from five to 45. But a little wistfully, perhaps defensively, he admits struggling to keep alive the ethos of the earlier years that marked the park's construction.
"Architecture for me is a community-based process," he said. "And I don't joke about that."
These days in Sayyida Zainab, all that remains of Abdelhalim's vision is Fouad Mahmoud Mugahid, a 75-year-old potter. He is the last of the artisans and craftsmen who organized workshops for children. He once came four days a week. Now he comes one, and Abdelhalim pays him about $7 a day from his office's budget. On this day, children crowded around him, spinning a wheel with wet clay.
Along Mugahid's stand is the promenade where shops once did business. It is littered with cigarette packs, banana peels, newspapers and excrement. Around the prayer room, its door chained, is the stench of urine. The cafe, and every other door, is closed. Government employees had doubled the height of the iron gates. Atop the arches, they installed a fence, with spikes spaced every so often.
"They turned it into a prison," Abdelhalim said, gazing at the wall. "I should take them to the court, actually."
Abdelhalim walked into the park. The fountains he celebrated no longer flowed, the flower beds were no longer planted. Fences were constructed across the graceful stone walls that the elderly masons had built, and weeds sprouted between the bricks. Dogs rested in the shade. The architect picked a bud of sweet basil and held it to his nose. Then he looked at the trees planted more than 15 years ago.
"In many ways, the park is decaying but the trees are very beautiful," Abdelhalim said.
He smelled the basil again and walked on. With each step, he seemed to become more inspired, as though his own memories were being unlocked. His words tumbled over each other, lamenting the park's fate while extolling its beauty.
"It will live beyond my lifetime. That's the beauty of buildings -- they can carry a message with them," he said.
"What can be said about the park is that is a seed for something. We planted the seed . . . put local knowledge in the hands of the local community. We tried. What remains may be very little. It is dead here. I don't see anything alive, but maybe it can happen again." He waved his hand across the park. "One can imagine the spark will be there again."
The basil still in hand, he walked through the gate and back to a tumultuous street, shadowed by Ibn Tulun, with its spiral and sharp angles. His car waited at the curb, but his steps slowed. Then he stopped. He glanced down the promenade at Mugahid, leisurely spinning his wooden wheel on the cool morning. The children were still gathered around the old potter, laughing.
Abdelhalim turned to a visitor.
"I think I'll stay here for a little while," the architect said.