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Eviction on the Nile: Historic Cairo houseboats facing demolition

(CAIRO, Egypt) — Ekhlas Helmy, 88, has spent decades waking up every morning to the scenery of the Nile flowing seamlessly beneath her houseboat, a stationary house moored to the banks of the famous river in Cairo.

But the aging woman, who inherited her house ages ago, now faces eviction after the Egyptian government gave her what she and other houseboat owners described as a short-notice order to evacuate, citing failure to pay license fees and several other reasons.

The Nile houseboats are entrenched in Cairo’s history. Some date back to the early 20th century and hold significant historic value.

“How can we simply wipe out our history?” Helmy told ABC News, her voice cracking. “I was born in the Nile and I lived my entire life here.”

Government officials say the houseboats are dilapidated and cause pollution, reasons which the owners believe are a mere pretext to take them down and make room for other commercial buildings, such as restaurants and cafes, which already straddle big chunks of the river.

More than two dozen houseboats stationed on the banks of the Nile in the working-class neighborhood of Imbaba, a Greater Cairo district, face the imminent threat of being demolished. Five of the 29 houseboats, which are situated opposite the upscale island of Zamalek, were towed away on Monday.

The rest are expected to face the same fate on July 5, as the government presses ahead with a “restructuring plan,” the details of which it has not specified.

Ayman Nour, the head of the General Administration for Nile Protection in Greater Cairo — a government body responsible for removing any encroachments on the river — told MBC, a Saudi-owned television channel, that a government decision was made in 2020 to ban the registration of any residential houseboats.

If owners would like to stay put, they will have to turn their licenses into commercial ones, according to Nour, and thus pay far higher fees.

Owners said obstacles had been thrown their way in recent years, including a decision to increase the fees they pay 20-fold and the “inexplicable” refusal of authorities to accept money from them. While the houseboats are private properties, owners have to pay rental fees for the land and the docks to which they are tied up.

“When I married, I moved with my husband to an apartment in Zamalek. But when he died, I sold it and returned to my houseboat 30 years ago,” Helmy said. “I couldn’t live on my own in Zamalek. In the houseboat, there are people around you. There is warmth.”

Historic value

The wooden structures are featured in many classic black-and-white movies. In one famous novel, “Adrift on the Nile,” written by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in 1966, a group of people gather every night in a houseboat to smoke hash — symbolizing the deterioration of society during the era of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It was adapted into a 1971 film Chitchat on the Nile.

A houseboat owned by late Egyptian actress and dancer Hekmat Fahmy housed two German Nazi spies in the early 1940s and another hosted government meetings during the reign of King Farouk I, from 1936 to 1952.

The houseboats used to number in the hundreds, but had sharply dwindled to a few dozens when they were moved from the Zamalek island to Imbaba in the mid-1960s. It was not until then that the residential houseboats were legalized.

“They never let us know that a decision had already been made [to evacuate us] two years ago,” award-winning novelist Ahdaf Soueif, who is one of the owners, told ABC News. “They didn’t give us a proper chance to argue and get any result. Even if we hadn’t got one, we would have at least been given a decent amount of notice to change our lives.”

“The presence of those houseboats is something beautiful for people passing by. We can have an open day where people can be let into the decks to experience life on a houseboat for one day,” she added, vowing to fight on.

Activists accuse the government of disregarding any historic and architectural heritage when it embarks on urban development. The government says it’s keen on preserving the material fabric of Egypt’s past and that such projects are necessary to accommodate the ever-growing population.

“Where would I go at this age?” Helmy, the 88-year-old woman, said. “This houseboat is my entire life. I’m an old woman who walks on crutches, where would I go?”

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