Flanked by the Cairo citadel and the Nile on its eastern and western sides, respectively, Sayyida Zaynab, a neglected neighborhood, is but a stone’s throw away from the city center. Inhabited by poor families, its old buildings are rapidly deteriorating, while new owners haphazardly add extra rooms and extensions to the existing structures. The lack of essential services, garbage dumps and chaotic traffic conditions characterize the area surrounding the famous Sayyida Zaynab mosque from which the quarter derives its name. In 1987, in an attempt to begin the rehabilitation of the neighborhood, the government began the construction of a public recreational green area which would serve as a space and cultural center for children. Formerly a lake, the site of this cultural garden was filled in during the second half of the nineteenth century to accommodate Sayyida Zaynab’s growing population. It was abandoned later, as merchants and government employees moved to more fashionable areas. For decades, the area of the proposed project remained a wasteland, taken over by the destitute and the marginalized, drug traffickers and petty criminals. For a time, an informal shelter for abandoned children was erected on part of the grounds until the Ministry of Culture selected it as a target site for remodeling and urban development. Fayza Hassan spoke with Abdel-Halim Ibrahim Abdel-Halim, professor of architecture at ‘Ayn Shams University in Cairo and recipient of the Agha Khan award for his design of the Sayyida Zaynab Cultural Garden.
What inspired you to participate in this project?
I was interested in community building. A number of architects have been studying community participation and the development of architecture for the people with the people. It was a good opportunity to apply these ideas on the ground.
How did the people of the neighborhood participate in the project?
Since we were designing a garden for the people, it was only sensible to find out what they wanted. We organized meetings and invited people around the area to attend. When they realized we were serious about the project, they came in throngs. There were opponents, of course. Nawal ‘Amir, then the Sayyida Zaynab representative at the People’s Assembly, was one of the fiercest. During the day, children in the area had been using the space as a sort of playground. She did not want us to deprive the children of their playground without giving them anything in its place. There were many, however, who welcomed the idea wholeheartedly.
First, we asked the people to exchange ideas with us. They all agreed that we should have a library. Some wanted a child care center. Others insisted on a large number of trees. They also agreed that the shops of nearby Abu al-Dahab street should be rented to craftsmen and they liked the idea of using the street as a pedestrian area to surround the garden with a peaceful atmosphere and considerably diminish pollution in the area. We tried to incorporate all these ideas into our plan. We then moved to the second phase, that of a practical demonstration. The children contributed most here. We set up a life-sized model of the garden on the grounds and watched the children move from one area to the other.
Initially, everything worked very well in your plan. By the end of 1990, the garden was finished. Now, however, visitors to the garden are told by caretakers that within the walls lie only tombs. The garden, designed originally for children, remains void of life. Why was the garden created and then simply closed?
I had great hopes for this project. I wanted the garden and the street to make a difference in the lives of the children of this community. There is no clear-cut answer. The garden became famous as a showcase of modern Islamic architecture to be shown to important visitors. The cultural garden was built for the children, but they are not allowed to use it. It is like an expensive toy parents buy for their children but then do not allow them to play with because it might break. The official reason is that there are not enough people to run the place properly.
In retrospect, I think it is also because we were trying to wrestle from the people their authentic culture and adapt it to the expectations of the educated. We wanted to intellectualize it and use its popular origin as an added attraction. It is like Arabic music performed at the Cairo Opera House. Those who want to enjoy a concert have to wear a tie. This small detail sets the tone — the poor are excluded. The Opera House itself is a forbidding place, an impressive edifice built in the middle of large grounds. There is no immediate access. Such as opera house would be open to the street and welcoming.
But I have not lost all hope. The residents of the area have formed an NGO, of which I am a member. We are trying to get funding to have the garden managed by local residents and reopened for the children.