Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The continuing catastrophe in al-Darb al-Ahmar

The neighbourhood of al-Darb al-Ahmar has a long history that spans almost 700 years. Having been located in close proximity to the citadel (the seat of power from the time of the Ayyubids until the 1860's) it was the center of Cairo's political, cultural and economic activity. Its streets and alleyways are (or were) littered with impressive monuments and historical buildings that are a testament to it's once vibrant past - structures built by the patrons, elite and governors of the city. When Khedive Ismail moved the seat of power to Abdeen Palace in the 1860's, the neighbourhood began to witness a steady decline. Although this decline rapidly accelerated in the last few decades, exacerbated by bad planning policies (or lack thereof) and a disregard to the area's heritage, historic character or tightly knit urban fabric, the antiquity of the place remained apparent. Behind the piles of rubbish and raw sewage, the derelict buildings and dilapidated monuments still expressed the area's strong historical character. A revitalization program was begun by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture at the beginning of 2000 and aimed at preserving the historic character of this extremely important part of Egypt's heritage. Mosques, a palace and Ottoman houses were restored, as were many turn-of-the-century residential buildings. The neighbourhood was being transformed.

Old building in the neighbourhood

Part of an alley in Darb al-Ahmar with old buildings still preserved

However, today, and for the last two years, a real catastrophe has unfolded. Taking advantage of the almost complete absence of authorities from the municipality and interior ministry (who also never carried out their jobs properly prior to the revolution), construction companies have begun tearing down 3-4 storey old houses and registered monuments, and replacing them with ugly 10 storey monstrosities. Most of these new residential buildings have been built along the eastern edge of the neighbourhood overlooking the Azhar Park. It is clear from the pattern of construction that the contractors' goal is to take advantage of the view of the park and consequently sell their new apartments blocks at exorbitant prices - an action motivated purely by greed. Ironically when first envisioned, one of the goals of the park, located at the edge of al-Darb al-Ahmar, was to conserve the neighbourhood's past and restore it's vitality. Today, the park has pushed contractor's to do the exact opposite.  Authorities have on their part failed to take any form of action to counter these blatant violations. The only reaction noted so far is to fine contractors for exceeding the height limit allowed for a building (a fine contractors are more than willing to pay and which in turn keeps the authorities pockets full and happy).

One of many examples of the horrible buildings overtaking the neighbourhood

One of the new constructions towers over an Ottoman Sabil Kuttab

The new apartment buildings leave no breathing space

A building still under constructions dwarfs the original houses of the area

Several new buildings spring up along this narrow alley

Less and less of the original houses and structures remain

All compete for view of the park

A new building next to one of the old houses restored by the project

I walked through al-Darb al-Ahmar last week, a place I had worked in for almost 6 years, and found it unrecognizable. The small alleyways that were once lined with stone structures and turn-of-the-century buildings, now host towering apartment buildings that are glued to one another and which have succeeded in shutting off any light or air from reaching the street. What has happened and is continuing to happen in al-Darb al-Ahmar is by all means, a disaster. It is an attack on our history and our heritage - an attack that has unfortunately become all too common in Egypt today.

Monday, 18 July 2011

On Abdel-Fattah al-Banna - the new Antiquities Minister

Yesterday we heard the delightful news that Zahi Hawass had resigned from the Ministry of Antiquities - something many Egyptians had long been waiting to hear. It was about time the Mubarak of Antiquities, who had been head of the SCA for over 10 years, be removed.

However when I heard about his replacement, Abdel Fattah el-Banna, I was shocked. I first heard about el-Banna post Jan25 when he appeared several times protesting against Zahi Hawass. He had a group of followers, mostly fresh archaeology graduates, and others who had an interest in Egyptian archaeology, that I saw several times outside of the SCA building in Zamalek. His dislike of Zahi was obvious and there were always chants calling for Zahi's resignation. Unfortunately though it seems that el-Banna is somewhat crazy. A month or 2 after the ouster of Mubarak, I heard that a group of Egyptians with an interest in protecting Egypt's antiquities were surrounding the villa of American Egyptologist Mark Lehner. They were claiming that Mark was hiding antiquities inside. Mark is a very well-known and respected Egyptologist who has worked in Egypt for a very long time. His has done extremely important work in Giza especially with the worker's settlement there. He also organizes a yearly field-school for Egyptian archeologists that offers them a great opportunity to train in proper archaeological techniques - something that many Egyptian archaeologists would never have had the chance to do. I myself worked with Mark in Luxor on one of his fieldschools and saw how beneficial his work is to Egypt.
So when el-Banna spearheads a campaign to discredit Mark and claim that he is dealing in, or hiding Egyptian antiquities inside his dig-house in Haram, then I have to automatically cross-out el-Banna as credible. el-Banna even threatened to barge into the dig-house with his 'followers' to reclaim what was inside. Apart from that he has been campaigning tirelessly to be instated as the new antiquities minister - again another bad sign. It is obvious that in his strive for power, he will do anything, such as launching an attack on a respected Egyptologist's villa.
Although I sincerely believe that whoever should head the SCA should be someone far removed from the Egyptology sector (and el-Banna is a conservator not an Egyptologist) since most of those working in Egyptology have been corrupted by Zahi, I strongly disagree with the choice of el-Banna. However, I am also not in favour of the 'general strike' being called for by staff in the SCA because those calling for this strike are people who were very close to Zahi and benefited immensly from him. They are no doubt worried about their positions after el-Banna takes over and are only fighting to hold on to the corrupt benefits they were able to attain under Zahi. They have no interest in Egyptian antiquities and could not care less about the credentials of el-Banna. They simply want someone that will allow them to hold on to their positions, and obviously Banna will not do this. Where were these same people, that are now taking mass action, when Zahi was in power and his corruption was known to all?

Monday, 27 June 2011

STOP Amer Group!

We are all too familiar with the construction giant 'Amer Group' and the monstrosities they create to haunt us forever - their Porto-horrors. At Porto Sokna, along the red sea, the construction company have made it a point to completely block any surrounding mountains from view. Instead of gazing into the beautiful mountainous landscape of the eastern desert you are forced to stare at these horrendous giant pink pyramids with thousands of rooms. They seem to have been intentionally built for that purpose - to overcome the landscape of the area and be completely out of harmony. There is no construction that could have been more unfit for a beautiful place by the sea, with prominent mountains. Simplicity, harmony, environment are terms that have no place in the vocabulary of 'Amer Group'. They identify more with butchery and destruction.

Their other disasters are their portos along the Mediterranean coast which go hand in hand with the rest of the butchery that has been ongoing there for the past decade. Again they have built huge constructions that are completely out of harmony with the nature of the sea and its surrounding landscape. Again, they have created eyesore after eyesore that harm our eyes, the environment and no doubt the Roman archaeological remains in the vicinity.

But they are not stopping there. Today, we learn that 'Amer group' will go ahead with two new projects - Porto Fayoum and Porto Pyramids

Quoted from the article:

Porto Pyramids, with capital worth 5 million Egyptian pounds ($838,900), will develop a 102,000 square-metre project including 240 residential villas near the Pyramids of Giza, the paper said.

The other Egyptian-based firm, called Porto Fayoum, with 10 million pounds of capital, plans to begin a resort on 2.7 million square metres in Fayoum, south of Cairo, by the end of 2011, according to al-Borsa.

Although it is unclear how close Porto Pyramids will actually be to the pyramids of Giza, the fact that they have a view of the pyramids is already too close. At the same time, I am sure many will share my sentiment that any more 'portos', no matter where they are located have no place in Egypt anymore. Building a monstrosity like these 'portos' anywhere near archaeological sites is a catastrophe that has to be stopped.

The same goes for Porto Fayoum where 'Amer Group' is planning to build one of its huge complexes on the northern shores of Lake Qarun, on top of a neolithic site! If this project goes ahead as planned, it will completely destroy the unique environment and landscape of this magnificent place and endanger its wildlife. It will also ruin the remains of Neolithic sites scattered along the shores of the lake and that were inhabited 9000 years ago. Excavations at these sites are still helping scholars piece together what Neolithic life in ancient Egypt was like and no other area in Egypt has as yet offered so much information.

Amer Group HAS to be stopped. Enough with these greedy, selfish businessmen who will stop at nothing to make money. They have no conscience, no regard for the landscape, the environment, nature, and definitely no appreciation of our cultural heritage which they are more than happy to destroy. The group has to be taken to court and tried for its crimes.

And finally, where is Zahi Hawass in all of this? The all so-divine Minister of Antiquities, who "cannot live without antiquities, and antiquities cannot live without him"? Oh sorry, he's busy trying out his new clothing line and seeing if it goes well with his hat. Or maybe he's busy chasing mummies - quite difficult tasks he has at hand. Or making new 'discoveries' or falsifying history or.....the list goes on. Of course our mini-mubarak of antiquities doesn't have time to save archaeological sites from destruction - he only has time to blab about how great he is and how he is gods gift to 'OUR' antiquities (not his) - something he always tends to forget.

These antiquities are MINE you Egyptian bastards!

Monday, 16 May 2011

Tarek Shalaby Arrested!

Last night, my brother Tarek Shalaby, was arrested by the Egyptian army along with 10's of others from in front of the Israeli Embassy in Giza. Yesterday marked the commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba, and many Egyptians were out protesting in solidarity with the Palestinians against the Zionist entity. The demonstrations quickly turned ugly, when army and riot police started firing tear gas, rubber bullets and pellet shots at the demonstrators. Tarek was taken later that night and live streamed his arrest through his phone which he managed to hide in his shirt pocket. Later the phone was switched off and there was no way of communicating with him throughout the night. Friends of his at the scene told us they had seen him being pushed into a CSF truck, and that the trucks with the detainees had driven away from the embassy. In the morning, we were advised to go to the Military Prosecutor in Nasr City. When we got there, the soldiers at the gate told us that the detainees from the 'embassy' were no longer being held there and that they had been taken downtown to the Public Prosecutor in Bab el-Khalk. However, friends asked there and found that they had not in fact been taken there. It was only when we accidentally bumped into a military officer, that he told us that the 'embassy' people had been taken to the military detention facility - Hykestep, because there had been no space for them at the Military Prosecutor's in Nasr City. We however had to obtain stamped permission to visit him at the detention facility - something we managed to do after a 3 hour wait. We finally got to the Hykestep, and after long negotiations with a very arrogant military officer, we were able to go in for a visit.

We actually only saw Tarek for about 5 mins, but he was in high spirits, much to our relief. He was wearing these blue overalls, which he thought were quite amusing, and told us that he had been treated well so far. They had arrived at the Hykestep at around 10 am and were immediately questioned by the prosecutor. They were then told that they would be taken to court the next day. Tarek was pretty optimistic that they would be released in a matter of days. A friend of his, Mosab, was also there with him, and seemed to be holding up pretty well. However, a 3rd detainee, Sadaty, was not doing too well. It was obvious from the bruises on his face that he had been beaten up pretty badly. He also looked quite terrified and was crying non-stop.

Overall we are not exactly sure what will happen next. From the beginning of this ordeal, nothing whatsoever has been clear or transparent. We had to run around the city in order to find out where he was being held, and no one at these military facilities offered any kind of assistance (although the soliders at the Hykestep were quite cooperative and friendly). However, until now we do not know anything about what procedures are followed, and what we should except next. But inshallah we are optimistic that Tarek and the rest of those that bravely protested at the Israeli embassy will be released soon.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Muhammed Radwan Arrested

My cousin Muhammed Radwan @battutta has been arrested by the brutal Syrian regime. They claim that he has been receiving money in exchange for sending photos and videos from Syria. They also accuse him of being connected to Israel and of being in contact with a Columbian who took the photos and videos from him for 100 LE! These are all blatant lies. Mohammed is an engineer who has lived in Damascus for about a year and has never been to Israel. He was in contact with a Columbian journalist who works for a radio - therefore they do not need photos. The Syrian regime is just like all the other authoritarian regimes in the Middle East that fabricate stories and arrest innocent people just to cling on to power. To hell with Bashar el-Asad and his bloody regime.

Friday, 11 March 2011

State Security Officials Exposed

Two DVDs with photos of State Security officers were found by Hossam el-Hamalawy when protesters stormed the headquarters of the notorious State Security building in Madinat Nasr last Saturday. These photos have been uploaded by Hossam onto flickr here and here, and will hopefully get as much exposure as possible. As Hossam writes: "Each member of SS has to be brought to justice. This was an agency devoted to spying, surveillance, torture and murder. Every member of this organization from the informer all the way up to the generals should be prosecuted. SS has to be dissolved. It cannot be "restructured" like what the current PM is calling for."
I sincerely hope that one day all these pigs will get what they deserve, and exposing them is just the first step.
As I browsed through the pictures, I was really dumbfounded by the number of officers who have prayer marks on their foreheads (zibeeba). Hypocrisy really has no limits with people who torture and murder for a living.

This picture was also interesting: The army and the SS, one hand together?

That's A LOT of State Security officers. And to think they are still roaming around freely is scary.

Oh, there's another zibeeba person. This guy actually has two!

These photos speak for themselves. They are all part of the same system:

Thanks Hossam for finding this treasure trove. We need to go get them one by one.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Protest at the Supreme Council of Antiquities

Around 200 archaeologists gathered today at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in Zamalek to protest corruption, low wages and lack of contracts. They had a list of demands they were hoping to present to the newly appointed minister of Egypt's Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, but failed to do so when he slid out of the building from a side door to avoid confrontation with the protesters. An army tank showed up at the front door of the SCA building at around 4pm, and about a half hour later, Hawass had left the building.
Although the protesters grievances were mostly focused on low wages and lack of jobs, there were chants against Zahi Hawass himself, whom they see as a self-promoting dictator of antiquities, as well as chants against the rampant corruption that plagues the SCA institution. The protesters decided to give their list of demands to the army in hope that they would follow through - these included 1. Prosecuting Zahi Hawass for corruption and accountability for the theft of 18 masterpieces from the Cairo Museum 2. Demanding a minimum wage of 1200 LE 3. Demanding jobs for new graduates

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Sphinx-less Avenue, Fabricated Luxor

We have to congratulate Samir Farag, the Governor of Luxor, for his tremendous work in creating Disney-Luxor. I was there just about 2 weeks ago and was lucky enough to be able to walk along the newly uncovered 3 km sphinx-less avenue that connects the Luxor temple in the south, to the Karnak temple further north. Here are some of the photos I took:

The paving and sphinxes are all reconstructions; they were not there last year

Not a single sphinx appearing in this hole; Luxor temple in the background

Bases of the sphinxes are visible in this hole, but no sphinxes (this is actually what the whole avenue looked like when it was uncovered); 100-yr old church in the background earmarked for demolition

This entire empty space used to be a residential area. All the houses were demolished.

Another stretch of the avenue being rebuilt (notice the non-existent sphinxes) after everything in its way was destroyed. You can see the doomed church and the Luxor temple in the background

More reconstructed sphinxes can be seen in this photo, and we actually have some original paving. You can make out the Luxor temple in the background, but can you imagine walking along this avenue in the summer heat? bad idea.

This is the final stretch of the avenue. You can make out the Karnak temple in the background where there is a crane.

And finally a view of the whole avenue looking towards the Luxor temple, with my back to the Karnak temple. The number of houses that were destroyed for Disney-Luxor must have been quite significant to say the least.

This ludricious undertaking, spear-headed by Samir Farag, is all part of his open-air museum vision for the city of Luxor - a vision that I find to be extremely harmful to Egypt's rich heritage and which also has had negative effects on the city's local residents. From an archaeological point of view, this project is a disaster. No clean and proper archaeological methods were used to uncover the avenue - the governor prefered to use bulldozers and in the process successfully destroyed an enormous amount of archaeological data that would have undoubtedly added to our knowledge of the city's history. Not to mention of course the amount of damage the bulldozers must have done to the sphinxes themselves.

In addition, to this, there has also been a systematic removal of the city's 19th century architecture. I myself saw the destruction of several beautiful mudbrick houses that dared to be in the way of the avenue, and which were torn down without any hesitation on the part of the authorities. These houses in themselves represent a significant part of the history of the city and it's local architecture - they cannot just be removed without even proper documentation. More and more of these old houses and villas will most certainly be destroyed, until a significance part of Luxor's history will just have been effectively erased. An early 20th c. mosque was removed, and a church will be next.

The local residents themselves are being thrown out of their own city. Those who were unfortunate enough to live in the area where the avenue runs have lost their homes and have been forced to move to areas at the city's outskirts. It is no surprise that the governor wants to hide the 'offending' locals from the poor tourist who is only here to see ancient things.

The fact that none of the sphinxes, or the avenue itself has even survived, makes this endevour even more ridiculous. There is nothing there to preserve in the first place! I would have maybe understood if a small part of the avenue was exposed and preserved as an example of what had existed before, but to uncover 3 km of a completely destroyed avenue and have it completely rebuilt, is essentially what people in Disney-land do - it shouldn't be happening here. Plus, what is the use of the avenue now? So people can walk along it and suffer sun-stroke? In antiquity, it had a purpose - a religious one, and there was therefore a need for it. What kind of purpose will it serve now?

What is happening in Luxor today is a massacre of it's history - a history that has been manipulated and fabricated by those who believe that history ends with the end of the ancient Egyptians. But this is not and will never be the case. One individual with absurd and fantastical ideas should not have sole power or authority to reconstruct a city's history according to his own vision. May god save us from any of his future visions.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Rebellion in the Neighbourhood

I found this paper posted on the entrance to my building in Mohandeseen. It's calling on everyone to participate in a demonstration this Saturday, at our famed Medan - Medan Anas Ibn Malak - to protest rising fruit, vegetable and meat prices. They ask to boycott those 'greedy' fruit and vegetable vendors who have increased prices on everything irrationally. It's quite funny to see this in a neighbourhood where everyone seems to be going about their business unaware of what's happening elsewhere in the country. Always good to see some rebellious behaviour where least expected.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Lifeless Museum

My article in al-Masry al-Youm about recent developments in Luxor:

Luxor--A few years ago a decision was made to turn the city of Luxor into an open-air museum and give it a complete make-over. Luxor is known for its extensive ancient history, having been one of the most important religious and administrative capitals of ancient Egypt. It boasts a large number of temples and tombs, both on its east and west bank, and is a hot spot for tourists from all over the world. Although Samir Farag, the governor of Luxor and mastermind of the city's development scheme, speaks continuously of his great achievements, many question his reasoning and wonder who the true beneficiaries of his scheme really are.

In 2007, as part of the governor's plan to beautify the city and preserve its ancient monuments, the historic village of Gourna had its residents forcibly removed and relocated to a modern residential area further north. The authorities argued that the village's 100-years old mud-brick houses were built on top of ancient Egyptian tombs that were being looted by the residents on a regular basis. Following the relocation, bulldozers were mobilized to tear down the houses and salvage what remained of the looted tombs. The decision to use bulldozers to level the homes contradicted what was meant to have been an effort by officials to protect and preserve these monuments.

Regarding their new homes, the relocated ex-Gourna residents have much to complain about. “The houses are all crammed together. We have no more space to raise livestock,” says one local resident, “now we must buy many things from the souk [market], when before we used to have our own chickens and we could bake our own bread.” Many cracks have already appeared in the walls and ceilings of their new homes, and many believe it is because the houses were built with very cheap material. “No one is happy about their situation here,” affirms the resident.

On the east bank, the situation is changing very rapidly as more and more buildings are being demolished. Part of the governor's plan in this part of the city is to give greater exposure to the approximately 3-kilometer avenue of sphinxes that had previously linked the Luxor temple with the Karnak temple further north. However, since it fell out of use by the Graeco-Roman period, over 2000 years of the city's history would need to be removed first to achieve this plan, though that clearly does not seem to concern the governor much.

The bulldozers are already busy at work. The area in front of the Luxor temple was recently cleared, with layers of historical property removed to uncover the sphinxes, of which only the bases remain. The use of bulldozers to uncover delicate antiquities is a process that is disapproved of by any credible archaeologist, since it results in the loss of important straigraphical information. To the east and west of where the avenue runs, old mud-brick houses with intricate woodwork were also demolished to provide more space for the avenue.

To the north of the Luxor temple, more demolition is underway in a large residential area behind the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Virgin Mary Church. The residents were given some monetary compensation and asked to look for alternative housing. “My apartment was worth more than LE 250,000 and I wasn't compensated for even half of that,” says Emad, a resident whose house was demolished recently, “now my family and I live in a rented apartment after we had owned a flat. Here, antiquities have always been more important than the people.”

The area's churches, historical property in their own right, have also become a subject of controversy. They lie directly in the line of the sphinx avenue, and would therefore have to be removed if the governor intends to fully realize his plan to uncover the entire length of the avenue. At present, only the areas surrounding the churches have been cleared away, and no official notification of demolition has been given to the churches. With the Virgin Mary Church having recently celebrated its 100-year anniversary, it's likely that the church will be adamant about preserving its spot in the city and its history, and will not be going anywhere anytime soon.

Numerous other parts of the city have also been destroyed or earmarked for destruction. These include one of two old classical-style villas that adorn the corniche near the Luxor temple. While the villa belonging to the Andraus family was spared, the other was swiftly torn down for no apparent reason. The 100-year old garden of the Chicago House, an important Egyptology center belonging to the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, was also truncated to make way for a wider corniche. Local media recently noted a LE 250 million figure allocated for the development of the Luxor corniche, leaving many of the poor residents baffled at how much money the government is able to spend on accommodating tourists while they are left to struggle and fend for themselves. The area around Karnak temple was also demolished a couple of years ago and a large piazza built in its place, with it's lack of shading or apparent function eventually driving tourists away.

Turning Luxor into an open-air museum, while an interesting concept, has in reality turned out to be a huge cost borne mostly by the city's inhabitants. It is development that does not take into account the needs of local residents, or ask for their input in "modernizing" their city. It only pushes them, forcibly, to the periphery where they will not be seen or heard. But is not the local population, and its homes, mosques and churches, many over 100 years old, as much a part of the city 's history as the dilapidated sphinxes? Perhaps, as seems to be the case in Luxor, history ends with the end of the ancient Egyptians.

It is difficult to imagine that even tourists would welcome the forcible relocation of residents or the razing of the old and charming architecture that once adorned the streets and alleys of Luxor. The result will eventually be a long uneventful avenue of sphinxes (ironically with no sphinxes), an open platform in front of the Karnak temple that is only good for sunburn, a gaping hole where the village Gourna was once a testament to the area’s local architecture, and hundreds of needless shops and bazaars. Luxor may perhaps one day become an open-air museum, but the concern is that it will be one that is bare, lifeless and uninviting.