Goodbye To The House My Grandmother Built

In those years, other nearby villas were sold and demolished, and the cityscape around us drastically changed. High-rises replaced gardens, two or three to a single plot of land. Our house was sought after — not for its architectural value, but because developers saw it as sitting on prime land along the Nile. Second to buying it out ourselves, which we couldn’t afford, placing it in the hands of a buyer who would preserve it was the best we could do, and that task became a mission for my mother, pitting her against her family in a standoff that lasted 30 years.

In my early 20s, as the country was beginning to reform economically and I was starting to write, I moved downstairs, inhabiting my grandmother’s floor, and my brother and I took on the cause of protecting the house ourselves. We searched widely for possible patrons who might make our home their own or turn it into a cultural center, a library or a museum. The interest that came, when it did, was always from abroad. Egyptian businessmen and patrons of culture seemed intent on investing in new developments, suburbs and multimillion-dollar modern homes, but not the center of the historic city, not the heritage already there.

For 30 years the garden bell rang with real estate agents promising “respectable” buyers. Every deal fell through, and it seemed like the house might stay in this limbo forever. I wrote the house into my novel in 2014: It was the only true-to-life character in the book, and the only thing in my life, and the neighborhood, that seemed unchanged through the revolution of 2011, as our hopes for real change after Mubarak’s fall first rose only soon to be shattered. Ours was the last of family homes still inhabited by its original owners, and everyone remarked how it was the one thing that they could depend on always being there.

And yet, when I wrote it into fiction, I conjured the moment where we might, indeed, pack it up.

On April 1, the day that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s re-election was confirmed, we handed the house to its new owners, who had circled it for two years, admiring it. My mother had at last found her buyer, a woman whom she felt would be the next best custodian to the house and its legacy. We walked through its every room together on that last day, and once the handover papers were signed in the garden, I returned inside alone to close all the doors, windows and shutters. I then led myself out of the main door, locking it behind me.

Those final moments walking out, as well as the months that preceded — as we sifted through nearly 80 years of a family history, packing and throwing out and giving things away — felt like a closing, the end of an era, both for my family and for modern Egypt, independent since 1922. The house now has foreign owners, and the country — perhaps at its most conservative and repressive — is a far cry from what I ever expected it to become. The latest elections came and went, for me, unacknowledged, too farcical to consider. What might have been a turning point, a political opening, became an end.

My mother’s new apartment overlooks her old garden; from her balcony, I see what used to be mine. The new owners haven’t moved in yet, but their groundsman and his family occupy the basement of our old house, and spend their days sitting on the plastic garden chairs we left behind. When the sun is setting, shutters left open offer a glimpse into my brother’s childhood bedroom; I forgot to roll them down, and the room’s white muslin curtains still hang. I feel shut out of our home, my lifelong prism into the city, and out of the future of this country.

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Goodbye to the House My Grandmother Built
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