A Dream of Cairo Reborn
An Architect Reflects on What Could Have Been in Egypt

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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