CAIRO — Paddling toward the cheery turquoise houseboat on the Nile, a fisherman waved to the white-haired woman bobbing on the deck.
“As you take?” he called the woman Ekhlas Helmy, 88, while his wife dragged the oars. “God bring down the bully!”
This week may be the last they share that particular stretch of the Nile, a narrow stretch in central Cairo that, since the 19th century, it has been lined with wooden houseboats, houses that double as a living tradition. This month, the government suddenly ordered the demolition of Ms. Helmy’s houseboat and 31 others, saying that they were unsafe and unlicensed.
More than half of the 32 structures, connected to mainland Cairo by lush riverside gardens, have already been destroyed or scrapped, with at least 14 of them missing on Tuesday alone. The rest, including Mrs. Helmy’s, is scheduled to be torn down in early July.
With them will fade the remains of a brilliant story that is quickly disappearing. The divas organized salons of debauchery in them. Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz wrote a novel about one, and famous movies were set in others. On the riverbank, life was peaceful, airy, and private, nothing like the dusty, frenetic metropolis whose imagination houseboats had captured for so long.
“I was born on a houseboat and I will never be able to get away from the Nile,” said Helmy, her pink toenails as bright as her turquoise house, which she and her husband built some 20 years ago. Born and raised on the houseboats, she briefly moved into an apartment when she got married, but soon rushed back to the river.
“I would die if I had to live in a real apartment. How could you imprison me within four walls?”
Mrs Helmy, Egyptian woman who lives on a houseboat
Although the government has offered little information about its plans for the riverbank, residents say authorities have pushed increasingly in recent years to replace residential boats with floating cafes and restaurants. That is in line with government plans to modernize and monetize much of Cairo by handing it over to private developers or the military, demolishing several historic neighborhoods to build new skyscrapers, roads and bridges.
But even in a country where the heavy hand of the state often falls on ordinary citizens without warning, houseboats have disappeared with disturbing speed.
During decades, successive Egyptian rulers attempted to move houses from the river, but the owners were able to negotiate with the authorities. In the past five years, the government has raised fees or changed regulations several times, residents said, finally stopping renewing or issuing houseboat licenses two years ago.
A letter sent to residents last year indicated that the government would issue new licenses only for commercial vessels. Still, previous experience left residents hopeful of a reprieve.
Now, officials are using lack of licenses to justify demolitionsalthough, according to residents, they refused to renew those licenses.
“They are just sitting there without any security system,” Ayman Anwar, head of the Central Administration for the Protection of the Nile, said in a phone conversation Monday, warning that boats could sink, hit something and kill residents. “They are not licensed by a single government authority.”
He also suggested that one of the residents was affiliated with a political opposition movement, in what residents said was an attempt to blunt public sympathy. Anwar did not return a call seeking comment.
“It’s been brewing, but I never thought it would actually happen,” Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist from a prominent family of Egyptian intellectuals and dissidents, said last week. was sued for nearly $50,000 in back license fees along with the demolition order.
“I mean, things have worked one way for 40 years,” he said, “and now they’re turning around and saying this is illegal.”
Ms. Soueif bought and fixed up her cream-colored houseboat a decade ago, thinking it would be her last home.
“They are kind of a romantic dream,” he said. “They are such an important part of Cairo’s heritage that it was strange that they told you that you could buy one of them”.
The heritage they represent is not necessarily the kind that the government wants to advertisewhich may explain why the authorities, in justifying the demolitions, recently insinuated that the houseboats were used for “immoral” purposes.
Since the early 1800s, when wealthy and high-ranking Ottoman officials known as pashas used their houseboats to meet their lovers, the boats have radiated a kind of glamor in the half light.
Secluded from the hustle and bustle of Cairo, they were private spaces that floated in plain, inviting sight, offering some Cairenes a haven where they could drink, drug and mingle freely in the heart of a deeply conservative city.
Outsiders saw the novels of Mahfouz, who owned a houseboat near his apartment.
In adrift on the nile, disaffected Cairenes gather on a houseboat to smoke hashish and discuss the hypocrisy of the times; in the famous Cairo Trilogythe dour family patriarch often spends evenings with friends on a houseboat, enjoying the company of fictional singers Jalila, Zubayda, and Zanuba.
According to local tradition, government cabinet meetings used to take place on a houseboat owned by Mounira al-Mahdia, a famous diva of the 1920s. The houseboat of another singer, Badia Masabni, was said to be so popular among the Cairo elite that a rumor spread at the time governments were formed on board.
Back then, there were at least 200 houseboats up and down the Nile. But under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, many of the structures were moved to clear the river for water sports, said Wael Wakil, 58, who was born and raised on the houseboat he still lives on.
That left about 40 boats moored where they sit now, next to Kit Kat, a neighborhood named after a local World War II-era nightclub popular with Allied soldiers.
During the war, British officers seized many of the houseboats. It is said that the Hungarian desert explorer, Count Laszlo Almasy, who was made famous in the film The English Patientset up a pair of German spies on a houseboat in the area, aided, by some accounts, by a belly dancer.
Over the years, more and more houseboats became businesses, and the banks of the Nile, once largely open to the public, became filled with private clubs and cafes.
Authorities have made it clear they want more of those: Houseboat owners say they’ve been told they can pay more than $6,500 to temporarily dock elsewhere while they apply for business licenses to open cafes or restaurants in their former homes. But that, they argue, is not a fair or attractive option.
“They are destroying the past, they are destroying the present and they are also destroying the future,” said Neama Mohsen, 50, a drama instructor who has lived on one of the houseboats for three decades. “I see this as a crime, and no one can stop it. They are taking our lives as if we were criminals or terrorists.”
Today, some of the houseboats are owned by politicians and businessmen, others by bohemians, and others by middle-class Egyptians who know no other life.
Mr. Wakil said his family moved into his houseboat in 1961. He remembers growing up fishing off his deck. Every time he dropped a toy into the Nile, he said, a passing boatman would rescue him.
Now Mr. Wakil, a retired finance manager, has packed up and is preparing to move into an apartment his wife owns in the desert.
“But nothing will come close to making up for this,” he said.
From Mrs. Soueif’s favorite spot in the house, the dressing room where she bathes her grandchildren, she can see a mango tree in her riverside garden that hasn’t borne fruit for four years. Suddenly this year, she produced what promises to be a bumper crop.
But this type of mango cannot be picked before mid-July. By then, if nothing changes, she and her houseboat will be gone.
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The historic houseboats on the Nile are being destroyed and will cease to exist this month