CAIRO — When Ekhlas Helmy married and went to her husband’s spacious new apartment in Cairo’s tony island neighborhood of Zamalek in 1961, she felt like she had moved into a prison. Born and raised in one of the ornate houseboats that adorn the banks of the Nile, she said nothing could compare to the river breezes and the lush garden she had left behind.
Her husband agreed, and together they designed and built a houseboat of their own where she has lived the rest of her days, with an army of cats, a dog and several ducks.
Until the government decided last week that Cairo’s few remaining houseboats were an eyesore and had to be removed.
“After I have lived very happily, now I hate my life,” said the 87-year-old as she watched volunteers help cart away her possessions from the once lavishly furnished two-story boat with its sky blue walls, carved balconies and white trim.
The African continent’s largest city has always been in a state of flux with more historic buildings than are found in most countries, but now more than ever, its managers are seeking to change and modernize it — often to the detriment of its older treasures. Trees are being felled, public spaces reworked and old neighborhoods bulldozed in a process inspired more by the glittering cities of the Persian Gulf than Cairo’s own heritage.
The houseboats, once found all over the city’s Nile banks, have been an integral part of the country’s history, hosting belly dancers, artists, intellectuals, even American diplomats and German spies, seeking a peaceful oasis amid Cairo’s intense bustle.
With a steady breeze coming down the river from the Mediterranean, the houseboats were cool even during the blazing heat of summer and cushioned from the blaring street noise by the riverside greenery.
The boats’ tenuous position between water and land, however, has also been their downfall, as residents had to appease a string of government institutions: the Ministry of Irrigation for their place on the Nile, the Ministry of Agriculture for their mooring spot on land and a host of other bodies including, eventually, the all-powerful military.
The increasing pressure on the boats came to a head these past weeks with the announcement that they would be either towed or demolished starting June 27. Half of the 32 vessels have been removed, with the rest expected to be gone by July 4.
Ayman Anwar, head of the Nile Protection Authority, has become the face of the government effort to clean up the river and said bluntly that despite repeated warnings, all the boat owners had failed to renew their licenses and were behind on fees.
“In 2016, we sent many notices through the Irrigation Ministry and gave owners the opportunity to sort things out by 2020,” he said on June 26 on ONTV. “Their status was in violation of the law. The state gave them many opportunities, but no one was responsive.”
“A decision has been made by the state, not the Ministry of Irrigation, that the Nile should not have residential houseboats,” he said, adding that it might be acceptable to remake them into commercial establishments.
His account is sharply disputed by residents of the boats, who describe an escalating campaign against them starting in 2016, with rising permit fees and taxes by several government bodies, climaxing in a refusal to accept money to renew the permits.
Even as boats are demolished and towed away, residents are told not only that they will not be compensated, but also that they owe hundreds of thousands in unpaid fees.
Award-winning Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif, 72, dreamed of retiring on the Nile and bought and renovated a boat in 2013. She described an escalating process as more government bodies began charging the houseboat for being allowed to exist, with fees that jumped one year from $100 to $3,200.
“We got caught in this legal labyrinth,” said Soueif, whose activist nephew, Alaa Abdel Fattah, has been in prison for much of the past decade. “Every one of us has hired four lawyers.” At one point, she was told she owed $48,000 in back fees, but “that even if you pay it, you will be moved.”
“They will cut it up and sell it for scrap,” she said in tears, recalling how both her children had their weddings on the boat and its Nile-side garden. During the pandemic, her son and his family moved in with her.
“These houseboats are very much part of the cultural identity,” she said. “Everyone, and I mean all Arabs, know at least one iconic movie scene that was set in a houseboat.”
There have been reports of houseboats since the 19th century, but they seem to have reached their zenith in popular imagination during World War II. The patriarch in Nobel-winning author Naguib Mahfouz’s famous Cairo trilogy kept his dancer mistress on a house boat.
The U.S. envoy to Egypt during WWII, Alexander Kirk, had a houseboat decorated with bowls of white ostrich feathers where he held well-attended parties for the diplomatic corps and wore lavender silk tuxedos.
Most famously, two German spies were discovered living on a houseboat where they conspired with future Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (and a belly dancer) to pass information on British troop movements to Gen. Erwin Rommel.
Ahmed Zaazaa, an urban designer and researcher, said the removal or transformation of the houseboats into commercial properties is all part of the wholesale revamping of the city, which has gathered pace since 2017 and includes building a massive new capital out in the desert.
Whole neighborhoods, including public housing projects, have been bulldozed to widen roads and build new ones. There has been an extensive reworking of some areas along the Nile to accommodate high-end cafes and restaurants.
“They are commercializing all the public spaces and reintroducing them as public spaces, and of course these are not public spaces, these are food courts,” Zaazaa said, noting that many of the designers have taken their inspiration from the very young, skyscraper-ridden city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. “There is a very clear approach from the government that doesn’t see any kind of value in the heritage, any kind of value in the city memory.”
With their role in Egypt’s novels, movies and plays, he said, the houseboats are a big part of the city’s legacy that is all being swept away in a vision that has little time for the historic.
For Helmy, on her blue boat, it’s all about history. While her husband died before the boat was finished, Helmy lived a happy life along the Nile that she could never have imagined in the steaming concrete and cement that wraps around so much of Cairo.
“Someone who lives in a houseboat feels all the beautiful things around them, fresh air, animals and for a widow like me, you don’t feel alone, you feel like you have the whole world with you,” she said.
Volunteers have agreed take care of the dog and cats and ducks, but Helmy, who has no other home, doesn’t know what she will do.
“They should tow it while I am inside. Either we drown together or we live together,” she said.