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Memories of Maadi – Culture – Al-Ahram Weekly

Best known today for its high standard of living and leafy streets, the Cairo suburb of Maadi was originally a private sector colonial development designed to provide housing for mainly European professionals working for the Egyptian government or companies contributing to Egypt’s economic boom at the end of the 19th century. .

Like its major competitor Heliopolis, dating from the same period, Maadi offered more and better fresh air, space and amenities than central Cairo. However, while there were similarities between the two developments, there were also important differences, illustrating the types of private sector development underway in Egypt at the time.

Heliopolis has been the subject of much research, notably by French author Robert Ilbert in his book Héliopolis, genesis of a city, but Maadi has received less attention. American researcher Annalize DeVries has now caught up with this in her much-loved Maadi, The Making and Unmaking of a Cairo Suburb 1878-1962, which traces the history of the suburb from its founding to its nationalization.

She drew on multiple primary and secondary sources, which gave her a rich picture of Maadi’s development, and interviewed many of the first surviving residents, even looking for former Maadi to renew places in the area. ‘foreigner. She scoured the available documentary material, much of which is in British archives, and may have drawn inspiration from Maadi’s only previous comprehensive study, Samir Raafat’s Maadi, 1904-1962 published in 1994.

Héliopolis was built as an autonomous district in a Moorish style by the Cairo Electric Railways of Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain and the company Héliopolis Oasis. It was zoned according to the socio-economic status of its residents, and there was a mix of building types, usually apartment buildings in disguise behind elaborate facades and arcaded streets housing commercial units on the ground floor. pavement leading to public places. It not only had one of the largest hotels in the world when it was built, now the presidential palace of Al-Ittihadiya, but also an amusement park and a race track.

Maadi was not on the same scale and his inspiration was the English middle class dormitory suburb, or perhaps the Garden City, although it was never a city in the true sense of the word. Unlike Heliopolis, where stylistic uniformity was the norm, in Maadi residents could build houses in any style they wanted as long as they followed certain spatial rules.

As a result, Maadi quickly filled with eclectic villas built in English vernacular styles with half-timbering, brick walls, and towering roofs and gables. There were flower beds and herbaceous borders, vegetable gardens and patio doors opening onto croquet lawns. While Heliopolis was designed to make the locals feel like living in some sort of Arabian Nights update, Maadi took a different approach, aiming for an Egyptian iteration of the English garden suburb.

While subsequent development diluted the original character of the two suburbs, extending them far beyond their original footprints, filling in new construction and, more controversially, allowing for the demolition of low-rise buildings and construction. of high-rise buildings in contemporary styles, there are enough of them left that even casual visitors want to learn more about their history.

Ilbert’s book on Heliopolis is a wonderful resource for French-speaking readers, although unfortunately Raafat’s book on Maadi has long been unavailable or out of print. So DeVries’ new account of this originally most English suburb of Egypt comes at just the right time, and hopefully it will lead to many more books on the history of Cairo’s built environment.

HISTORY: In December 1904, the Egyptian Delta Light Railways Company, domiciled in London, purchased the Cairo-Helwan tram line as well as 700 feddans of land (726 acres) in and around the village of Maadi al-Khabiri between hills of Muqattam and The Nile.

Three years later, she bought land belonging to the Suarès Frères company in the same region, making this investment, according to DeVries, the largest in Egypt through what had now been renamed Egyptian Delta Land & Investment Company. The idea was to develop the land, conveniently located on a main transmission line to Cairo, for residential purposes.

It was divided into a numbered grid of residential roads, with Route 9 in the middle accommodating the station. The larger intersecting roads and roundabouts have been given often English names like Colvin and Palmer Avenues in honor of the members of the company’s board of directors. Plots of land were sold for the construction of houses, provided that the heights and footprints of the buildings obey a set of regulations called cahiers des charges.

“The specifications state that Delta Land sold all the parcels of land as residential space, and the buyers could not use the land for any commercial reason,” writes DeVries. “During the construction of a villa, it could not exceed 15 meters in height nor occupy more than half of the total area of ​​the plot. Residents were to devote the remaining space to cultivating a lawned garden, and the entire property was to be bordered by a green hedge.

While Maadi’s early residents tended to be British, this was not necessarily the case, with DeVries reporting that “between 1907 and 1913 Delta Land sold 41 lots in Maadi to people with names like Angelo, de Cramer, Crawford, Whitman, MacDonald, Pilavachi, Bondi, Joanovitch and Veloudakis. All were “resident aliens” in Egypt, often but not always Europeans, who were protected by the system of “capitulations” which subjected them to the legal regimes of their respective countries and sheltered from Egyptian law.

“According to the 1907 census,” writes DeVries, “the Egyptian capital was home to 74,221 resident foreigners from 28 different countries. The largest foreign nationality residing in Egypt were the Greeks… Over 5,000 of these resident foreigners were originally from the British Isles. These larger contingents were accompanied by smaller French, German, Russian, Austrian and Armenian communities.

Such people flocked to Maadi, and it gained a reputation as an exclusive foreign enclave. This started to change after World War I, when the suburb welcomed a contingent of Australian troops and by the early 1920s Maadi was attracting Egyptian residents. In the wake of the disruption of the war and subsequent political changes in Egypt, the goal of the Maadi company was to “maintain compliance with the specifications” while making the suburb “into an upper middle class space than the he Cairo elite and the European and Egyptian elites could come and see me as at home.

Egyptian nationals began to play a more important role in the board of directors of the company, and perhaps just as important, they could now be admitted to the Maadi Club. “During the 1920s, admission limitations became less strict and the Club developed into a shared multinational space,” comments DeVries. Political and other changes in the 1930s led to a sharp decline in the number of foreign residents, even as increased local population growth and rural exodus meant Cairo’s population was growing by 5.9% per year. .

Such developments, along with broader political and economic changes in Egypt, meant that the Company would have to plan carefully if it was to see the Maadi model of upper-middle-class English suburban life survive.

END OF THE SOCIETY: DeVries takes the reader through the 1930s and 1940s, stopping to describe Maadi’s fortune during and after World War II before piecing together the last decade of Maadi society before its nationalization in 1962.

The suburb experienced an Indian summer in the years leading up to the 1948 war, but many of its foreign residents, especially British ones, were leaving and mainstays of Maadi society like Henriette Devonshire, leading tours of Islamic Cairo until his 80 years, and Faris Nimr Pasha, the founder of Syrian origin of the newspaper Al-Muqattam, had died.

New areas like Hada’iq al-Maadi and Maadi Digla were developed in the 1940s and 1950s, in which the Company abandoned its original specifications. The 1952 Revolution and the end of the Ancien Régime in Egypt, initially welcomed by many residents of Maadi, brought further changes, including the determination of the new government to continue the Egyptianization of the economy and to force private companies to think more for collective ends. .

The Maadi Company has responded to these changes by constructing apartment buildings in Hada’iq al-Maadi and Maadi Digla in response to the growing demand for modern housing among the new class of managers and others created by development policies. of the new regime.

However, after the tripartite aggression of 1956, the remaining French and British residents were forced to leave, and French and British interests were sequestered. With the increasingly collectivist leadership of government policies, this meant that the Company, its ability to control Maadi already undermined, must have seen the writing on the wall.

In his book on Maadi, Samir Raafat, a long-time resident, yearns for the former Maadi of the Company, describing him as a “dream world” vulnerable to the political and economic changes taking place around him that ultimately rendered it non-viable in its original form. DeVries agrees that “the changing demographics associated with a national identity rooted in pan-Arabism and socialism set the backdrop for Maadi’s decline” and that “in this new social and economic climate, the garden city of Maadi has become unsustainable.” .

She says that “the social divisions that made Maadi possible also turned out to be the weakness of the community,” dissolving “under the pressure of waves of [domestic] mass migration which transformed not only Maadi but also the rest of the Egyptian capital. The model Maadi relied on, “needing a lot of [private] wealth to be sustained ”, could never be expanded to provide housing for more than a tiny minority and was unable to meet broader social needs.

In this, it probably sounded a lot like the English garden city movement that DeVries says Maadi drew inspiration from, which, in the hope of eliminating urban slums, recommended building low-density housing on virgin land. . The problem here was also of scale, since housing of the type originally recommended would have been prohibitively expensive, while generating new areas of urban sprawl.

Annalize JK DeVries, Maadi, the Making and Unmaking of a Cairo Suburb 1878-1962, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2021, pp254.

* A print version of this article appears in the December 9, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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