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Paradise is a garden, and Cairo now has its own

By Maria Golia
Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, September 21, 2004

On summer nights in downtown Cairo, the streets seethe with people in such numbers that the cars, for once, have to stop for them.

Cairenes aren't out shopping, since most are broke. They're out breathing (or trying to) amid earsplitting, noxious traffic. The Nile bridges are favorite promenades, the river ensuring cooler air; some families even picnic there, their backs to the stream of cars. By current estimates, Cairenes dispose of approximately one square meter of green space each, a figure that may well include the patches of grass between opposing lanes of highway where people often sit, relieved to be out of poorly-ventilated and crowded homes. For this reason alone, the imminent opening of the Al-Azhar Park, developed by the Aga Khan Foundation's Historic Cities Support Program, is the greatest thing to happen to Cairo in decades. But there are several other reasons why this new development merits recognition.

For one, the 30-hectare park is a superb aesthetic achievement. Situated at a significant elevation adjacent to medieval Cairo, it provides stirring panoramas of centuries of Islamic grandeur, including the dense geometries and domed mausoleums of the City of the Dead. This cemetery, inhabited for generations by the poor, is revealed in all its poignant beauty, a vast and living memento mori skirting the edges of the city's heartland. The park and its several constructions (including a hilltop restaurant and a cafeteria beside a small lake) embody Islamic building and landscaping traditions to great effect. Scheduled to open in October, the park is already green, cool and inviting. By virtue of its presence, the surrounding neighborhoods have reacquired their prestige as generational communities and guardians of a rich legacy of Islamic architecture.

It seems miraculous that such a large, central parcel of precious real estate could have remained empty for so long. For this we may thank the Cairo police, which stabled its horses there, and a major contractor who leased a portion of the site for storage. Primarily, however, the park site was an age-old garbage dump, a fact that considerably complicated its transformation into a garden, necessitating re-grading and soil replacement on a monumental scale.

Likewise, a decision on behalf of the U.S. Agency for International Development to install gigantic water reservoirs to serve the neighboring communities had to be incorporated into the park design, which was skillfully accomplished by Sites International, a local firm. In the course of excavations, over a kilometer of Cairo's 13th century Ayyubid wall was unearthed and restored to form a natural boundary with the neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar. This wall and numerous other monuments and buildings were renovated with the assistance of local craftsmen. During the seven-year effort, old skills were revived and new ones taught, while fresh value was introduced to an under-appreciated environment, restoring people's pride and sense of ownership.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) relies on community involvement throughout and beyond the building and-or restoration phase of the work. By placing people - not projects - at the center of its strategies, it has achieved outstanding results. The Al-Azhar Park is its largest endeavor to date, but it has also helped transform Darb al-Ahmar - upgrading homes and schools and providing meeting centers and health facilities. These latter programs are ongoing and have been facilitated by the Egyptian Swiss Development Fund and the Ford Foundation. The park is expected to host an estimated 1.5 million visitors annually, generating income from entrance fees, eating outlets, as well as from a garage and commercial facility situated on the park's fringes.

It is little wonder that Cairo was chosen for a project of this scale and importance to the fabric of city life. The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Shiite community, which counts among its cultural achievements the founding of "Al-Qahira" itself in the 10th century by the Fatimid dynasty. Representing Ismaili Muslims who live in 25 different countries, many of them underdeveloped, AKDN, through its initiatives, seeks not only to provide assistance, but also to evolve a style of development that reflects Islamic values. Islam, for example, comprises an enlightened environmental ethic, beginning with humanity's duty as earth's stewards to balance and respect the needs of every community, including those of animals and plants.

However scant public awareness of Islam's eco-friendly side may be, the conceptual framework nevertheless exists in the Koran, the Sharia, or Islamic law, and the Hadith, or the tradition of the Prophet, and the AKDN's work goes a long way toward exemplifying it. The Prophet Mohammed is quoted as having advised the faithful to "plant a tree, even on Doomsday," and as pointing out that "all the earth is a mosque," in other words, a place of worship.

These observations reawaken the knowledge encoded in characterizations of paradise as a lush garden. The conservation of shared but limited resources like water is also emphasized in Islam. Of the man who gave a thirsty dog water to drink the Prophet said, "In everything that lives there is reward," an observation that synthesizes the Islamic environmental ethic. The other signature concept is tawhid or unity, understood as the balanced interface of many diverse elements, all of which are necessary for life.

This value for diversity illumines the AKDN's work. By respecting the ways of life of different communities, proposing processes that will enhance not supplant them, not only can historic buildings and cities be preserved but also the living cultures that produced them. This model for development stands in bright contrast with those that seek to remove people from the equation, perceiving them as agents of disintegration; or those that rely on the introduction of special training and complex equipment for projects that equate the old and traditional with "inefficient" or "obsolete."

These, unfortunately, are the tactics most frequently adopted in Egypt, despite the overwhelming evidence of their failure to either significantly improve living conditions or provide replicable examples of how to do so. The Al-Azhar Park will bring Cairo a much-needed breath of fresh air, but it may also work the subtler good of helping restore what is as vital as oxygen: a sense of human dignity and accompanying self-confidence that people have for far too long been denied.

Maria Golia recently published a book on Cairo titled "City of Sand." A long-time resident of Egypt, she contributes to Middle East International and the Times Literary Supplement in addition to THE DAILY STAR, for which this commentary was written