The Funambulist Correspondents #01 Cairo: Hope Is the Thing With Feathers



Introducing a new project: The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents (of course this is a tongue in cheek name!) in as many places of the world. The Funambulist magazine’s content being funded almost exclusively through its subscriptions and its sales, its contents is kept behind a paywall. Although we have implemented different levels of discounts (including a 100% one for six months for people who simply can afford any of them), we are aware of the problem of accessibility it causes. The Funambulist Correspondents was thus thought as a project to increase the production of open-access content. As such, we are very grateful to the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, which founded the totality of the correspondents’ honoraria. We begin this new project with a text by May al-Ibrashy (see our 2015 podcast conversation with her) about Cairo, ten years after the Revolution.

Today we submit a proposal for funding to form an alliance. Working with two more entities, we hope to share the knowledge gained working in Cairo on issues of architecture and urbanism.

We could not find a name for the alliance.

All names had been taken by similar groups, institutions, and initiatives working on the built environment locally, in Egypt and regionally, in the Middle East and North Africa.

‘Umran – Mi’mar – Makan – Amakin – Amkina – Nitaq – Magaz – Hara – Hitta – Arkan – Megawra

Irony of ironies.

All names related to the built environment are taken in a region that is infamous for its poor handling of the built environment.

We finally arrived at the name Tahayyuz. Its modern meaning could be translated as bias, taking a position. It comes from the noun hayyiz, meaning a space or volume that is occupied, taken. In the sufi philosophy of Kalam, it is a prerequisite of being. To be is to take up space, it is not simply to be located in space, it is to occupy part of that space, to claim it as you. Not yours, you.

We, as Megawra-Built Environment Collective, have worked in Cairo on issues of space and place since 2011. 2011 is the year of the Egyptian Revolution, the Arab Spring. Two weeks ago, we marked its tenth anniversary. The idea to set up Megawra, an alternative practice and cultural space for architects and urbanists, was born in December 2010, a mere month before the revolution.

In a reflection piece written about the inception of Megawra-BEC as we were in the throes of revolutionary action, I reflect on how the words of Lebanese-Australian thinker Ghassan Hage were a trigger. At a conference in Beirut in December 2010, he ruminated on how our region was in a state of stuckedness. I sat there, both convinced and uncomfortable with what he was accusing us of; the inability to change. I concluded that alternative models of knowledge exchange and education were the answer. And there I was, two months later when the regime fell on February 11th 2011, thinking about how wrong I was. It was possible to get unstuck. It was possible to change radically. And there I was thinking how right I was. Change had to be reinforced with knowledge and education. We may have changed but we still did not understand.

And here I am ten years later.

I am wrong. I was right. I am right. I was wrong.

Our collective hayyiz is heavy and laden with frustration. Yet, the moment frustration seems to tip over into regret, a glimmer of hope appears. We are overloaded with work. Even during the infamous year of Covid, we worked and worked. Megawra-BEC’s Athar Lina Initiative works in Cairo on the heritage of the historic neighbourhood of al-Khalifa linking heritage to socio-economic development through heritage conservation, heritage education, heritage industries and urban regeneration. We fundraise both globally and locally, we work with communities and with the government and we collaborate with both professional and academic partners. We join networks and go to meetings to discuss the state of our built environment. We move. We shake. Yet we are also stuck.

The built environment changes under our very eyes. News of demolition comes hand in hand with news of construction. Some of it may be for the good. All of it happens beyond our sphere of control. We are uninformed and disenfranchised. In this, all Cairenes are fairly equal.

I have started to write a diary to understand why I am always tired. Why anything new, whether good or bad, is a burden. In the year of Covid, the government built miles of bridges and overpasses, uprooting trees, removing gardens and demolishing historic cemeteries. It declared a war on slums. Some of the neighbourhoods demolished, being demolished, or slated for demolition are historic neighbourhoods. For the last three years, we have studied one of them, al-Hattaba, and advocated for its preservation. It is still there. Barely. It may or may not join an ever-growing list of neighbourhoods that have lost trees, lost buildings, or are lost to us forever.

Maspero , al-Warraq, ‘Arab al-Yasar, Madinat Nasr, ‘Ayn al-Sira, Heliopolis…

We meet with the community, meet with officials, propose plans for development, our plans are approved, the government announces it will demolish al-Hattaba anyway.

We lose hope, we are called back, we regain hope, we prepare new plans, we meet new officials.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

We question our actions. We discuss our mandate among ourselves. We second-guess ourselves. We debate ethics and efficacy. We decide on a course of action. A new day brings new surprises that require a new course of action. We revisit our mandate. We discuss. We debate.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

In the meantime, we conserve a 13th century dome. Some metres away, tombs are being demolished for a new overpass. Inside the dome, all is sublime, beautiful, and tranquil. We work with children, teaching them about their heritage. The laughter drowns out the loudspeakers calling people to participate in parliamentary elections that almost everyone ignores. We design a garden and dream of the types of trees we will grow and how they will be irrigated by water harvested from under the ground; water that has leaked from supply pipes that should be fixed but never are. We collaborate with Cairo Governorate on a much-awaited project to upgrade al-Khalifa’s infrastructure and open spaces.

Converting salted fish into sherbet – a much-quoted Egyptian proverb.

And what about all these other urban initiatives, with all these names, carefully chosen from the poetic and complex Arabic language to evoke a poetic and complex present? I imagine they too go through this daily grind of urgency, uncertainty, disorientation, recalibration, determination, and action. Some find it within themselves to continue. Others (the sane ones?) choose to fall behind.

Takween focuses on the city of Esna in upper Egypt, on trying to save its historic homes and revive an economy long-lost to mismanagement and poor planning.

10 Tooba monitors the unfolding saga of the transformation of the built environment, at the hand of a government that gets full grades in speed yet fails in transparency and inclusion.

Tabdee advocates for inclusive mobility and safe cities. The sight of young men and women cycling in the polluted streets of Egypt’s cities is hope in its most limpid state of poignancy.

All of us work with space and place. Our hayyiz is part of a whole that is changing at an unfathomable pace with a clear direction. Our hayyiz struggles with its own trajectory. It oscillates. It vacillates. It cogitates. It takes a deep breath and jumps right in. It goes with the flow and tries to change from within. It orients itself in an opposite direction and pushes for change.

I ask myself. Are we in a constant state of imperceptible movement? Shuffling our feet, shifting our weight, turning slightly, then changing direction and staying put? I am tired. I write that down again in my diary.

Today we have a design meeting for the visitors’ centre we will install in the 13th century dome we are conserving. We then hold our final design meeting for a toolkit on how to build in Historic Cairo. Another team member enters with an alphabet book designed by al-Khalifa’s kids with words from their world.

Alif – Azmil. Ba’ – Bab al-‘Azab. Ta’ – Tuktuk.

Two students walk in to take maps for the neighbourhood to use in a design project within a university course we are collaborating on. Groundwater is sent to be analysed to make sure that we can use it to irrigate the park that is currently under construction.

We meet to plan for what we promise ourselves is our last attempt to save al-Hattaba from demolition.

Tahayyuz is also translated as ubication; “The condition or fact of being in, or occupying, a certain place or position; location; whereness; ubiety.”

I am struck by the word whereness. A noun, in and of itself, can hold within it a question. Is our position a whereness? A never-ending redefinition of position? And does that mean we are always where, not here?

Is this our form of being in space?

Does it matter? It may be that to move imperceptibly is to avoid getting stuck.

I receive a phone call. The prime minister has issued a temporary stay on the demolition of al-Hattaba.

Hope is the thing with feathers that never stops at all.

May al-Ibrashy is a licensed architectural engineer with almost 30 years of field experience in conservation and heritage management in Historic Cairo. She is currently founder and chair of Megawra-Built Environment Collective, a twin institution consisting of Egyptian NGO and consultancy working on issues of the built environment. She coordinates Athar Lina, an initiative run by Megawra-BEC in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities and Cairo Governorate that conserves the heritage of al-Khalifa in Historic Cairo and conceives of it as a driver for community development.  She is also Adjunct Lecturer of Architecture at the American University in Cairo and Professor of Practice at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.