Goodbye to the House My Grandmother Built

CAIRO — I spent the three days of Egypt’s presidential elections late last month packing 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, commissioned the 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.

He mixed large arches and multileveled floors, majestic wood-and-glass-paneled doors that disappeared into the walls, vast windows that brought the garden into the house and small windows of different shapes and configurations. It was Modern verging on Art Deco, with the exception of two grand rooms for entertaining that were embellished with ornate cornices and other detailing in the French Beaux-Arts style still most widely favored at the time. Every aspect was carefully considered, including the bathroom tiles that curved at the corners rather than meeting at the edges.

The house came to be widely documented, and listed as part of the city’s architectural heritage, legally never to be altered or demolished. It became a landmark in the neighborhood, as well as, perhaps, the most dominant character in all our lives.

Growing up, I always thought of the house as ours. My mother, the youngest of four siblings, had been the last to marry, and when that time came, rather than leaving her aging, widowed mother to live alone, she stayed. The house was formally divided into two floors, and my mother moved back from the south side of the house into the bedroom she was born in, now with my father. It is there that she slept — alone again, after my parents divorced in 2001 — during all the years until she moved out on March 23.

I grew up upstairs with my parents and elder brother, and my brother and I occupied the house like it was ours alone. We ran up and down the backstairs two steps at a time, played hide-and-seek everywhere — taking cover in fireplaces and secret rooftop rooms, squeezing into a dumbwaiter — and opened the doors of the garden each afternoon to play with neighborhood children. We took over the basement for experiments; my brother housed a mini-zoo on the roof, with gazelles, rabbits, pigeons, guinea fowl, myna birds and parrots. We spent hours, which made up weeks of our lives, tapping at walls, floors and steps in search of an echo that might reveal the cavity where my grandmother was said to have buried a box of treasures.

It was after my grandmother died in 1984, just a few years into President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades in power, that I came to learn the house would never be entirely ours. Inheritance laws adhered to Islamic jurisprudence, and Esmat’s one son would get more than my mother or her two sisters. Many cousins soon got involved.

Yasmine El Rashidi

 

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