Surrounded by gardens and water, houseboats in Cairo, Egypt, occupy prime waterfront real estate. But a push to remove the floating homes has dwindled their numbers from several dozen to a handful. Residents mourn the loss of not only their homes but also their way of life.
Houseboats have been a Cairo tradition since the 1800s. Offering desert residents up close views of the Nile River, the charming vessels appeared in several classic films and books.
Now Cairo’s government wants to remove or renovate the floating homes, allowing development of the waterfront for profit. And while it’s true the Christian’s “citizenship is in heaven,” (Philippians 3:20) on Earth, there’s no place like home.
Located on a stretch of the river in the working-class neighborhoods of Imbaba and Kit-Kat, the houseboats sat opposite an upscale residential island. Eviction notices came after years of government pressure in the form of increasingly expensive mooring licenses.
Critics say removing the houseboats is just one of several poor decisions by the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
According to government official Ayman Anwar, “A presidential directive was issued in 2020 prohibiting all residential houseboats on the Nile.” Today, most dwellings have been dismantled by their owners or moved by the government.
“The point is that they really, really don’t seem to understand that there is value . . . in history,” says Ahdaf Soueif, a prize-winning Egyptian novelist.
Soueif had planned to spend the rest of her life on a houseboat she renovated 10 years ago. In July, her family watched it float away.
Soueif and other residents stopped paying ever-rising government fees. They sued to fight the increases and lost. Now Soueif’s family must pay roughly $48,000 in back fees.
New development isn’t easy in a city with such a layered history. But Soueif says sacrificing the past won’t benefit Cairo. “When you’re trying to turn Egypt into Dubai, you actually devalue it,” she says, referring to one of the Middle East’s most modern capitals. “You are just destroying your assets.”
Iklas Helmy, an 88-year-old houseboat owner, says she cannot imagine life elsewhere. She was born on a houseboat. She’s tried to get a new license for her home, but officials wouldn’t renew it.
Helmy called on the government to let her live in the boat until her death. Her plea reached the president.
El-Sissi claims he appreciates Helmy’s situation but says, “We are bringing order back to the country.”
To which Helmy answers, “You’re going to take my entire life away to build a café?”
Why? Although earthly homes are important, God puts in the human heart a longing for an eternal home—and for believers, He also provides it.