Cairo Restores The Eclectic Glory Beneath Decades Of City Dust : Parallels Grime and gaudy shop signs obscure much of downtown Cairo's ornate and varied architecture. The city is undergoing a major wash to uncover that beauty, but at the cost of some residents' livelihoods.
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Cairo Restores The Eclectic Glory Beneath Decades Of City Dust

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Cairo Restores The Eclectic Glory Beneath Decades Of City Dust

Cairo Restores The Eclectic Glory Beneath Decades Of City Dust

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Now to Cairo, where decades of dirt and grime and neon signs have hidden some of the city's greatest treasures. If scratch the surface a little, or maybe you have to scrub, you'll find many gorgeous old buildings, a blend of European and Middle Eastern architectural styles from the 19th century. Preservationists want to restore the area's past glory, but Cairo's facelift is forcing out some of the locals. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Egyptian architecture professor Soheir Zaki Hawas has dedicated her life to documenting the beautiful historic buildings in downtown Cairo and trying to preserve them.

SOHEIR ZAKI HAWAS: Heritage is the memory of a city. If I lose my memory for five minutes, I will not be able to introduce myself to tell you anything about anything.

FADEL: She shows me her book on Cairo's architecture.

HAWAS: I want to show you this page here. Here, for example, this is a beautiful catalogue.

FADEL: There are renderings of ornate wooden doors that are somewhere in downtown Cairo, but I've never seen them.

HAWAS: They exist.

FADEL: I know they're there, but when I go downtown I don't see this.

And that, she says, is the point of the downtown renovation project, started last year by the local government in partnership with private and public companies to restore and showcase the eclectic architectural styles.

HAWAS: You have the Renaissance. You have the Baroque style. You have the art nouveau and art deco and the Roman classical style, too, and expressionist style, also.

FADEL: Her late father, famed Egyptian architect Zaki Hawas, said, Cairo is a glamorous city. It only needs a face wash, and Soheir Hawas is trying to give it that. Modern downtown Cairo was built in the 19th century and is known as Khedivial Cairo, named after the local ruler Khedive Ismail, who commissioned many European architects, mostly from Italy and France, to design the buildings. Today, these buildings are covered in dust, the streets are gridlocked with traffic, and the ground levels of the buildings are distracting with tacky storefronts in bright colors and neon signs. So as the city renovates, they're asking shop owners to change their ways. Riham Arram is in charge of heritage preservation at the Cairo Governorate.

RIHAM ARRAM: It was a very good experience because we started for the first time to have talks with the people and their places.

FADEL: She says they urged merchants to overhaul their stores to match the old aesthetic, a reminder of Egypt's glory days.

ARRAM: People need to have confidence in their country, to know that their country is strong and it could be like the time when it was the head of the Arab world.

FADEL: On Alfi Street in downtown Cairo, the buildings have fresh coats of paint, the local fast food restaurant has changed its facade to match the sandstone colors of the buildings around it, and people are sitting outside listening to music in relative peace. But coffee shop owner Zakaria Shouri says much of the change is superficial.

ZAKARIA SHOURI: (Foreign language spoken).

"It's nice," he says, "we like that it's clean." But he pays a few hundred dollars a month to the city in upkeep and it's hard to afford. "And if you look just beyond the facade and into the buildings," he says, "everything's falling apart." Others have bigger problems with the project. Part of it is a plan to develop the Nile into a promenade. To do that, police forced out from downtown dozens of men who sail tourist boats on the Nile.

FADEL: Mohammed Sayed showed us his boats, docked under a bridge off the island of Zamalek. He says the police forced them to move, beating and threatening him and his employees, mostly other family members, even though they are licensed to work. And now he's stuck here, where no tourists can come to take his boats into the Nile. Can you work from here, I ask? He says, no. He's been doing this work for 50 years and now he has nothing, nor do the 50 other families that depend on his family's 13 rickety boats for survival.

So how are you going to live?

He jokes that he's going to sell his children. But he has a serious point, that this is how you put children on the street, by eliminating their family's employment. He blames everyone, from the local government up to the president, for his desperation. He asks, why do they have to hurt the poor to make a better downtown? Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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