In the heart of the Egyptian capital, on a kilometre-long stretch of the Nile river’s western bank famed for its tranquillity, government-commissioned diggers on flat barges have been unmooring and towing away the area’s historic houseboats, acting on a widely denounced demolition order from the country’s water resources ministry this week.
Residents of houseboats in Kit Kat ― an area named after a British nightclub popular among artists and intellectuals at the end of the 19th century ― have been distraught over the past week since a June 20 eviction notice gave them two weeks to leave their homes, which would be confiscated and dismantled to make way for commercial and tourist enterprises.
“This is my home, my only home. I built it myself and I thought it would be my last home,” said prominent Egyptian novelist and literary figure Ahdaf Soueif, 72, who lives on a Kit Kat houseboat.
Kit Kat’s residential houseboats, many of which are elegantly designed in European architectural styles, are certainly not a recent phenomenon in Cairo and have been around since the second half of the 19th century.
A beautiful sight that continues to captivate passersby, over the decades, the floating structures became homes for some of the country’s top political figures, artists and aristocrats, who were charmed by the area’s scenic riverbank and its seclusion from the hustle and bustle of the nearby city centre.
“I was born on a houseboat and I have lived my whole life on one. I simply can’t switch to living in a closed apartment. I just can’t,” said Ikhlas Helmy, 88, another resident.
The boats featured heavily in many films and novels, most notably Naguib Mahfouz’s seminal work Tharthara Fawq Al Nile (Chatter Over the Nile).
At their peak, residential houseboats numbered more than 300, but over the years that number dwindled to 32, all of which are expected to be removed and dismantled by July 4, the government has promised.
To the dismay of the owners, houseboats are now being taken apart and sold for parts by officials who have offered residents no compensation in return, saying that the money made from the sale of the structures will go towards paying off longstanding fees owed to the government by the boats’ owners.
However, many houseboat residents have taken to social media to angrily protest against the grounds upon which the government has indebted them, with one describing the way the government has handled the matter as reminiscent of Kafka’s novel The Trial, in which the protagonist is confused and deliberately misled by the state.
Owners were confused and surprised in 2016 by sudden changes to the terms of their lease agreements with the government, when exorbitant price increases stopped many of them from being able to pay fees collected to rent small pieces of land on the banks of the river. Their use of the river, according to the constitution, was free of charge since that is public property.
“All the notices and rate changes were confusing at first, but it is now clear that the ministry was merely setting the scene then to evict us from our homes now,” Ms Soueif said.
Until 2013, owners were paying 160 Egyptian pounds ($8.51) a year for their use of 20 square metres of the bank, according to a document Ms Soueif’s son, Omar Robert Hamilton, published on social media. The rates were increased in 2015, reaching $53 a year for the use of the same land.
When the increases were small, residents didn’t really pay any attention to them, but when in 2016 the rate jumped to almost $2,400, they began asking questions.
The response they got from the government was that the increases were because residents would now be charged for occupying the Nile waters on which their homes floated, which, as Mr Hamilton notes in his document, is unconstitutional since the government does not own the river.
Many owners stopped paying the fees at that point and waited to see how things were going to pan out. In 2020, they were told that they owed hundreds of thousands in outstanding fees.
Ms Soueif was told she owes one million Egyptian pounds. They were also told that their houseboats would be confiscated to pay off these outstanding fees.
In a rather heated statement released on El Hekaya with Amr Adib, a popular Egyptian talk show, Ayman Anwar, an official responsible for the protection of the Nile, alleged that the houseboats are of concern because they pollute the river, likening them to rickety old cars that simply do not meet the standards needed for a licence.
This claim has also been widely rejected by residents, who insist that since the 1960s their septic tanks have been emptied into the national sewage drain and not into the Nile.
Additionally, Ms Soueif says that she, with many other houseboat owners, received certificates from specialists who confirmed that the houseboats are sanitary and in good condition. These certificates were also ignored by the government, she says.
While 15 boats were dragged away to be demolished as their heartbroken former residents looked on, the rest are still afloat as residents hurry to find a way to save their homes.
Because the government prioritises business and tourism, Mr Ayman said, the only way for owners to save their beloved homes is to turn them into commercial or tourist establishments and license them as such.
Mr Anwar was vague on what the government intends to do with the area once all the houseboats have been removed, saying only that it will be developed.
The demolitions have been widely denounced by Cairo’s residents who are sorry to see an essential part of the country’s cultural fabric being torn apart.
“I think what’s happening here is that people who have come to love Cairo and its rich history and culture are having a rude awakening that today’s Egypt, the New Republic as it has been called, is no longer the same country where Naguib Mahfouz wrote his novels, or the same country that saw value in elegantly unassuming, beautiful structures," Mohamed Mohamed, 31, a former renter of one of the houseboats told The National. "Only the colossal and imposing is allowed in today’s Egypt.”
This week, Mr Mohamed moved all his possessions back into his father’s home because he has nowhere else to go.