The Nile River at sunset.
Many years ago during a visit to Cairo my three-year old daughter Marya and I were taken on a tour by Judge Jasper Brinton, an historic figure who had presided over Egypt’s Mixed Courts trying cases between Egyptians and foreigners during Britain’s occupation. The judge, then in his nineties, swerved his elderly open car through the crowded streets of the capital, ignoring stop signs and traffic lights. Familiar with his rules of the road, Egyptians leapt cheerfully out of the venerable judge’s way.
He had decided to take us to visit a fellow Philadelphian George Scanlon at the first capital of Egypt under Muslim rule, Fustat on the edge of the vast modern city. Judge Brinton reasoned, “It’s never too early for a child to see an archaeological dig.”
Marya was not impressed by the trench where we found George, who was almost as famous as the judge, but was captivated by an invitation to visit his houseboat on the Nile. Alas, this did not come to pass and the river’s remaining 32 iconic houseboats may now be extinct.
Ayman Anwar, director of the administration for the protection of the Nile, told local media that the plan is to restore “the civilised scenery of the Nile River, in the Cairo and Giza areas, which are considered tourist attractions.”
He added, “These houseboats are damaging the civilised scenery. They don’t have permits to dock in the Nile, and they will be removed...while the tourist houseboats will remain in place.”
Egyptian bureaucrats have tried to move the houseboats for decades, but owners, who included influential personages, resisted. In recent years, the government has both raised fees and refused to renew or issue houseboat licences.
Since they were on the river but moored on its banks, owners and tenants faced constant harassment from the ministries of irrigation and agriculture as well as the tax authorities until, at the end of last month, the military decided the houseboats had to go as they are not compatible with plans to modernise the capital.
Parked along a stretch of the Nile’s bank between the busy 15th May and Imbaba bridges, these one- and two-storey stationary wooden vessels are/were the only survivors of dozens that formerly graced the sluggish brown Nile. Residents not only painted their houseboats in the colours of rainbow but also created “civilised scenery” on the riverbank by cultivating gardens and planting trees.
Over the past two weeks, some houseboats were towed away while others were smashed by demolition machinery installed on barges and rafts after owners carried away their possessions, mouring lost homes and lives on the water.
Houseboats are not the sole targets of the modernisers. Historic houses, entire “Downtown” neighbourhoods, parks, and parking lots are being bulldozed to transform entire quarters of the sprawling city into commercial and IT hubs. Even Tahrir Square’s massive Mogamma building — emptied of bureaucrats who tie everything and everyone in red tape knots — is being transformed into service apartments, entertainment venues, restaurants, and offices. Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of Egyptians rose up against ex-President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, has been reconfigured to discourge uprisings.
Damp in winter, cool in summer, houseboats were happily inhabited by Egyptians and foreigners, rich and poor, honest folk and rascals, intellectuals, musicians, poets, painters, journalists, World War II British military officers, and archeologists like George.
Egyptian novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif bought and renovated a houseboat in 2013, not expecting what has been in store for her and other houseboat folk. She told The Washington Post’s Heba Farouk Mahfouz and Paul Schemm that she faced a barrage of demands for fees from various government departments. “We got caught in this legal labyrinth..Everyone of us has hired four lawyers.”
Even if she paid fees they claimed she owned, her boat would be moved and either dismantled and sold for scrap or, if suitable, turned into a restaurant, food court or an Airbnb catering to tourists.
In the run-up to the July 4th deadline, water and electricity were cut. “It’s forced eviction, no matter what you call it,” Soueif told France 24 television.
“These houseboats are very much part of the cultural identity,” she stated. “Everyone, and I mean all Arabs, know at least one iconic movie scene that was set in a houseboat.”
Houseboats have not only featured in films but also in literature, including the novel “Adrift on the Nile” by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who owned a houseboat. In this work he depicted young intellectials who gather by night on a houseboat to debate and smoke shisha. Egyptians have taken to social media to condemn the elimination of the houseboats as an affront to Cairo’s culture and history.
Unlike poor families evicted from renovated neighbourhoods, houseboaters have not been offered either compensation or alternative housing and, instead, have been asked to pay outrageous back taxes and license fees in spite of losing their homes.
Nile houseboats built for long river cruises have an ancient history dating to the time of the pharaohs. During Ottoman times, wealthy Egyptians used houseboats as second residences or places where they could entertain or keep mistresses.
While there were houseboats on the Nile in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they grew to number several hundred before World War II when, infamously, Anwar Sadat, then an army officer, met with German spies living on a houseboat to provide them with information on British troop deployments. His aim was to use the Germans to expel Britain from Egypt. After the death of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1970, Sadat became Egypt’s president.
Tower blocks and luxury hotels of the upmarket Zamalek district on Gezira island loom over the river where multi-deck restaurant and casino boats are moored along the bank. No one speaks of demolishing or moving these money-making enterprises.