CAIRO — I spent the three days ofEgypt’s presidential elections late last monthpacking up and carrying out, with my brother, the final items of our lifelong home — a 22-room villa my grandmother had built in Cairo in 1940, along the banks of the River Nile. It was where my mother was born and lived her whole life. And I as well.
My grandmother, Esmat, had dreamed of a house that would withstand generations, and when she married, she forewent standard bridal gifts in exchange for money to save toward building it. First, in 1938, she bought the land; then, she had the concrete and metal fence constructed around it. Soon enough came the house itself.
It took up almost an entire block on the residential island of Zamalek, with extended and (at first) unobstructed views of agricultural lands and the Nile. The gardens were lined with mango trees; a fig tree and an olive tree stood at opposite corners, planted out of the belief that they would give the house a longer life.
Back in the 1920s, modernism embodied the imagination of a newly independent state, and in the 30s, the early years of Egyptian nationalism, my grandmother, a politically inclined and strong-willed feminist, commissionedthe architect Ali Labib Gabr, the dean of Cairo University’s architecture school and a pioneering architect in Egypt, to design the house under her direction.