From neighborhood to museum?

A few meters away from the entrance of Wekalat Oda Pasha two men sit around a small campfire made from scrap wood and garbage. Across from them, an old woman sells piles of fish and shrimp. The smell of the fire and the fish mix together and move down the unpaved Gamaliya Steet apace with the donkey carts and hand trucks.

But Gamaliya probably won’t look or smell this way for long.

The Ministry of Culture plans to spruce up the area and to develop it into an open air museum, like its neighbor, el-Muezz Street. "I need your help and support,” Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni told Gamaliya residents during his 7 January visit to the neighborhood, according to the local press.

Just two weeks after Hosni’s visit, teams of contractors in blue jumpsuits are already apparent throughout the neighborhood repainting mashrabiya and tearing down concrete walls. Ultimately the “museumification” of Gamaliya will also require the displacement of its inhabitants, according to reports of Hosni’s statements in the neighborhood. The Ministry of Culture was not available for comment on the Gamaliya restoration project.

While the government thinks the project will bring in tourist dollars, some experts and locals are not sure that this is what Gamaliya needs.

“It is an area that used to be a great part of the city and part of its living memory,” says Ahmed Sedky,  a conservation specialist and the author of Living with Heritage in Cairo: Area Conservation in the Arab-Islamic City.

“All they are trying to do is make it a pedestrian route,” says Sedky. “They are compromising the livability and the actual needs of the inhabitants.”

The Ministry of Culture’s ultimate goal is to replicate the restoration of el-Muezz Street, a central thoroughfare running from Bab el-Fotouh to Bab Zuweila. Due to recent renovations el-Muezz Street now has new lighting fixtures, cobblestones, and freshly painted building facades. The street has also been closed off to cars and stands as a distinct area in the ancient part of Cairo, a clean and orderly oasis flanked by poor and chaotic residential areas.

Gamaliya locals, however, aren’t necessarily supportive of the ongoing “improvements” to their neighorhood.

"Before, it was better," Kalef Mohamed says of the changes to el-Muezz Street as he sits in the scrap metal shop in an alley around the corner from Wekalat Oda Pasha. He has owned the shop for about five years, and while it’s not likely that the restoration process will affect his alley in the short term, he is unsure of the project’s real value."Now they can’t bring cars on el-Muezz Street. Sometimes I need to move goods in cars! And now they are doing the same thing with Gamaliya?"

"But the government does what they like," he says.

Gamaliya is perhaps best known as the childhood home of Nobel Prize winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz and the setting for a number of his novels, but the area’s history goes as far back as the name “Cairo” itself.

According to Chahinda Karim, an affiliate professor of Islamic art and architecture at the American University in Cairo, the area was first settled in 969 AD after the Fatamid invasion of Egypt. Four years later, when the Fatamid caliph came to live in a palace in what is now known as the Gamaliya neighborhood, he renamed the area “al-Qahira.” The city continued to evolve as Egypt saw successive ruling dynasties. Ayyubids, Mameluks, and Ottomans all contributed their own flourishes to Gamaliya. (The majority of the buildings there today are Mameluk, according to Karim.) The result is an area that is rich in architectural history.

Karim, who also teaches at the Faculty of Tourism at Helwan University, praises the restoration project. “I think they’ve done a good job,” she says. El-Muezz Street “was an area that was hard to walk through. It was a mess.”

Hisham Gedres, a middle-aged man who pushes carts of sheet metal through the streets of Gamaliya, has lived in the area his entire life. He believes that the residents of this ancient part of Cairo form a special community.

“The people here are very smart,” Gederes says. “We believe we’re alone. We don’t need the government because we help each other and make each other strong.”

“Have you read Naguib Mahfouz? It’s like that,” he says gesturing towards the commerce around him. “They meet every day in the same coffee shops, they sell things together, they help each other.” Gederes is concerned about how the changes to the neighborhood will affect the social fabric of his community.

As the Ministry of Culture makes the rest of Gamaliya look more like el-Muezz Street, it will require some businesses and residents to be removed from the area. Though Farouk Hosni promised residents that they will be adequately compensated, the effects will be huge. Gederes says that when Gamaliya locals are moved to their new neighborhood–a suburb behind the airport, according to Gederes–they will lose their sense of community and identity. Levels of crime and atheism rise as people move away from the watchful eye of the community and out of the shadow of Cairo’s most important mosques.

“Like fish taken from the sea. That’s how they’re feeling,” Gederes says.

Ahmed Sedky says that the money invested in these projects–and the impact that they have on local communities–may not even be worthwhile for the government in the long run. Tourism, Sedky points out, is a vulnerable industry. Moreover, he says, cultural tourism ranks behind leisure tourism and ecotourism. “Go and invest in Sharm el-Sheikh and Marsa Alam to get the dollars you need,” says Sedky.

Sedky says that behind the restoration project in Gamaliya and other parts of historic Cairo is not a desire to preserve history or even to attract tourists. Culture Minister Farouk Hosni’s own personal ambitions are significant, says Sedky, as is corruption involving government ministries and well-connected contracting companies.

But the voices of Ahmed Sedky and scholars like him seem to be going unheeded. The government is continuing apace, albeit slowly, with plans to transform much of Fatamid Cairo, from Khan el-Khalili to the Northern Gates, into an open-air museum.“There is an agenda,” Sedky says. "They need a clean, ‘civilized’ area free of people."

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