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Struggles That Fueled a Revolution

[Still image from [Still image from "Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution"]

Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution. Directed by Davide Morandini and Fabio Lucchini. UK/Italy/Egypt, 2011.

“Bread, freedom, and social justice” has been one of the most memorable chants from Egypt’s year of mass protests. Although world and Egyptian media have been fixated on the symbolic Tahrir Square, little attention has been directed towards places where many Egyptians converging on the square actually live. Bulaq, only a few hundred meters north of Tahrir Square, is one such neighborhood. The residents of Bulaq represent the essence of why Egyptians erupted in mass protests last year. This is a community that has suffered for nearly forty years at the hands of the Sadat and Mubarak regimes, which aimed to erase the district from Cairo’s map. Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution is a short documentary film that shifts the focus from the square and into a community at the heart of the struggle for social justice.

The twenty-five minute film by Davide Morandini and Fabio Lucchini documents a deteriorating residential district where residents have faced police brutality and forced evictions for decades. Residents speak directly to the camera, sharing their ordeals and personal experiences. Although those voices speak for the specific case of Bulaq, they also reflect a wider struggle by an entire class of citizens the Egyptian government has long disregarded. As a recent Amnesty International report states, the government has used the longstanding Emergency Law to legitimize its repressive policy of forced evictions targeted at populations in areas such as Bulaq. The repeal of the Emergency Law and the demand for social justice, including housing rights, have been cornerstones of the Tahrir movement. Bulaq threads together these many strands, along with providing a rare look into the everyday lives in popular neighborhoods such as this one.

Nearly sixty percent of Cairo’s residents today live in so-called “informal areas.” These are areas that urbanized without the guidance of a government-approved urban plan. A more accurate description of those areas is “improvised urbanism,” as they continue a long tradition of improvised planning found in Cairo for centuries prior to the city’s relatively brief encounter with formal planning from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. From the 6th of October Bridge, Bulaq may appear to be another of Cairo’s informal communities; however, this is in fact one of Cairo’s oldest districts.

The name Bulaq is an Arabic adaptation from the French “Beaux Lac,” meaning beautiful lake. In the fifteenth century, Bulaq was Cairo’s main commercial port and was home to some of the city’s wealthy merchant families. The district was also home to the Egyptian Museum in 1858, and Muhammad Ali’s Bulaq Press was established in 1820. Throughout its history, the district developed organically as a middle and working class neighborhood with an interesting variety of domestic architecture. Despite this rich history, today the word Bulaq is synonymous with collapsed homes and desperate living conditions. It is a community under constant threat from the authorities.

Because of its central location, the district has been envisioned by various regimes as a clean slate for the implementation of new urban models. The film does not cover the trajectory of current state policy towards the district, which can be traced back to 1930, when a plan proposed the reconstruction of the district. Another 1950s plan proposed to “cleanse” Bulaq by replacing its rich fabric with massive modernist blocks surrounded by gardens. These earlier visions remained only on paper. In the 1970s, however, Sadat envisioned the area as a new business district to showcase Egypt’s economic realignment with global capitalism. An aggressive campaign of forced evictions and relocation was commenced. Residents were forced out of their homes and given flats in concrete blocs built on the desert fringes of Cairo. This campaign continued under the Mubarak regime. One of the residents filmed narrates her ordeal when she was evicted in 1982, only to return later.

[Left: Plans for Bulaq in the 1930s. Image from Mercedes Volait, Architectes & Architectures de L'Egypte
Moderne 1830-1950
via the author. Right: Plans for Bulaq in the 1950s. Image via the author.]

The film portrays the intimacy and sense of community that Bulaq offers. It also highlights the sense of security provided by living within such a community. Despite the economic hardships and the deteriorating physical environment, the community is thriving socially. The filmmaker intercuts interviews with scenes of everyday life: a woman smoking outside her home, a butcher cutting meat, a child on a bicycle, and a man who is uncomfortable with the presence of a camera and demands to know what is being filmed. Because this has been an ongoing struggle for decades, it has become an intergenerational struggle where young adults echo the concerns of their older neighbors. The film succeeds in highlighting the fact that strong social ties and a community’s sense of ownership of place are far stronger than state plans and oppression. In light of this long struggle, as well as this last year’s unfolding upheaval, the film captures a sense of anxiety and uncertainty.

However, the film lacks historical perspective and context. Although it focuses on the present situation, particularly in light of the revolution, it could have benefited from a well-researched introduction. While the English translations are fairly accurate, the interviews fail to capture how the residents of this community fit within the larger context of Cairo. Also, it would be useful to link the experience of Bulaq to other communities in the city suffering from the same state-sanctioned brutality and eviction. Another shortcoming of the film is its one-sidedness. It would have made a stronger case against government policies if the audience had the chance to hear from officials directly how they view the issue of Bulaq. The multinational developers and hotel chains that also benefit from this government policy are also unheard. An interview with the management of the Hilton Hotel overlooking the district, for example, could have been interesting.

The film is well shot and provides a series of sharp images ranging from intimate close-ups to wide panorama shots. The filmmaker uses a combination of still frames for scenery along with moving shots where he follows some of the film’s characters as they traverse Bulaq’s streets. The sound quality and editing are well done.

The strongest aspect of the film is the residents’ direct address to the audience without the mediation of a third party. They are strong-willed. They know their rights and they demand justice regardless of the obstacles. “Those responsible for demolitions have to be tried,” says one man. “In neighborhoods like Bulaq we love each other and work together like one family,” says a woman. Another man confirms that “the owners of this place are the people living here; we own this place.”

Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution provides a much-needed portrait of the real places where Egyptians live. Officials turn a blind eye to the community they were elected to serve. With Egypt’s centralized governance and lack of local authority, Bulaq residents continue to live under the threat of forced evictions and demolitions. Their right to the city is constantly under duress. Meanwhile, the government carries on with its Cairo2050 plan that aims to transform the area into a zone of glass towers and international hotels. Currently under construction is the St. Regis, a six star hotel along the Nile turning its back on Bulaq.

[The projected image of Cairo according to the Cairo2050 plan. Image via Digital Architectural Papers.]

Egypt’s revolution is about the people of Bulaq and their rights. It is about ending crony capitalism that allows such a disregard for citizens while making concessions to international corporations that aim only to increase their profits rather than develop and rejuvenate communities. As was the case with many Egyptians, the eruption of the revolution gave hope to the people of Bulaq. However, over the course of the past year, little has been done to ensure that the violations of the past and state oppression will end. In this sense, Bulaq continues to wait among its ruins for the still unfinished revolution to deliver real change.


2 comments for "Struggles That Fueled a Revolution"


I've often heard that the name Bulaq comes from French, but do you know if there's any evidence for this? The name dates from long before the French occupation (I've seen it in a fifteenth-century Arabic text), to a period when the French presence in Egypt was limited to a few merchants and the occasional diplomat, and I'd be surprised if they would have had the privilege of naming a town.

Benjamin Geer wrote on February 17, 2012 at 02:04 PM

Yes, the name Bulaq predates French Occupation. According to the standard narrative, the contemporary use of the word is the Arabized version of Beaux Lac. However I agree with, Bulaq probably has Ottoman/central Asian origins. I suspect Nelly Hanna has something to say about this.

Mohamed Elshahed wrote on February 18, 2012 at 04:39 PM

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