A few years ago, as Mubarak was entering his 27th year in power, the Egyptian regime launched a new initiative for the capital: Vision of Cairo 2050, or Cairo 2050, as it came to be known. The idea behind it is a concept familiar to metropolises across the world: “urban renewal” — restructuring city life in a way that essentially benefits the well-to-do at the expense of the urban poor. The scheme for Cairo was to demolish parts of its informal neighbourhoods and relocate the residents to dwellings in the desert.
One area targeted by Cairo 2050 is Bulaq, an old neighbourhood where alleys are narrow and houses are stacked on top of each other. Before the revolution, the authorities started destroying parts of Bulaq and evacuated some of the residents. With a new political leadership, the future of Bulaq and its people remains unclear.
Meanwhile, the story of the neighbourhood has been turned into a short documentary by first-time directors Davide Morandini and Fabio Lucchini. The movie, Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution, has been screened at international film festivals and is shown for the first time in Egypt on March 27 at Cairo’s AUC. Mashallah News spoke to Sayed Korany, a Bulaq resident since birth and one of the lead characters in the film.
“Bulaq is a neighbourhood where everyone knows each other, like in one big family. The area means a lot to the people, who have shared memories connected to the place. But it deserves to be looked after better. People suffered a lot from the stupid policies of the last government,” says Sayed over a cup of tea in one of Bulaq’s street cafeterias. He puts a spoonful of sugar in his cup and grabs a plate with falafel and foul sandwiches, prepared by his mum — “She makes the best falafel there is. Even the falafel vendors here think so!”
“I’m very happy here in my house. I have the sun coming in, and the wind. Sometimes I even feel like I’m flying.”
Sayed continues. “The area is old, at least 200 years. It got its name from Napoleon, who came when there was a lake here. He called it ‘beaux lac’ — beautiful lake — which then became Bulaq. There are all sorts of people living in the area: engineers, doctors, officers. People who are very useful to society.”
The neighbourhood is set right in downtown Cairo: a prime location for urban developers looking to expand commercial activities. “What they’re trying to do now is to remove the people and build fancy streets,” says Sayed. “Why? Because it’s right in the centre of Cairo. You can find everything here: Tahrir, the Nile, many hotels, the Ramses station. Then, in the middle of it all is Bulaq.”
For the residents, not knowing what will happen is hard. But, with the renewed meaning of common action in Egypt, they got together to protest. “We understood that now is the only time for us to act if we want to keep Bulaq. We organised a demonstration saying ‘No to the destruction of Bulaq, Yes to renewal of Bulaq’. The only way to earn respect is to protest, and do this in a nice way. That will make people listen to us,” says Sayed.
“No to the destruction of Bulaq, Yes to renewal of Bulaq”
“We hope that the documentary can help to make things happen. If they want to change the neighbourhood, they can do something nice for the families who live here. Fix the area, improve the houses.” He continues. “We have an amazing country, but the government hasn’t been caring about us. Two things are wrong with Egypt. We have no education and no medication. How can you have a good society without that?”
Sayed leads the way to his place, a three room apartment in a small house in one of Bulaq’s side streets. His flat is on the top floor, up a steep stairway. “It’s a big place for being in Bulaq. Not many families have two rooms and a kitchen.” He opens the windows and leans out. Calls for a kid on the street to bring a pack of cigarettes, waves to a woman passing by. “I’m very happy here in my house,” he says. “I have the sun coming in, and the wind. Sometimes I even feel like I’m flying.”