CAIRO — Rowing to the cheery turquoise houseboat on the Nile, a fisherman saluted the white-haired woman waving on deck.
“How are you?” he called to the woman, Ekhlas Helmy, 88, as his wife dragged back the oars. “May God take down the bully!”
This week may well be the last time they share that particular section of the Nile, a narrow canal in central Cairo that has been lined with wooden houseboats since the 1800s — houses that double as living lore. This month, the government suddenly ordered Ms Helmy’s houseboat and 31 others to be demolished, saying it was unsafe and unlicensed.
More than half of the 32 structures, connected to mainland Cairo by lush gardens on the banks, have already been destroyed or towed for scrap, with at least 14 disappearing on Tuesday alone. The rest, including Mrs. Helmy’s, will leave in early July.
With them, the remnants of a glittering, fast-disappearing history will fade. Divas organized debauched salons on them. Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz wrote a novel about one, and famous movies were set on others. On the riverbank, life was peaceful, breezy and private, nothing like the dusty, frenzied metropolis whose floating houses had captured the imagination for so long.
“I was born on a houseboat and I can never be away from the Nile,” said Ms. Helmy, her pink toenails as bright as her turquoise houseboat, which she and her husband built about 20 years ago. Born and raised a few houseboats below, she briefly moved into an apartment when she got married, but soon rushed back to the river.
“I would die if I had to live in a real apartment,” she said. “How could you shut me up between four walls?”
While the government has released little information about its riverside plans, residents say authorities have increasingly urged in recent years to replace houseboats with floating cafes and restaurants. That’s in line with the government’s plans to modernize — and monetize — much of Cairo by turning it over to private developers or the military, bulldozing several historic neighborhoods to build new high-rises, roads, and to build bridges.
But even in a country where state crackdowns often fall on ordinary citizens without warning, houseboats have vanished at an alarming rate.
For decades successive Egyptian rulers tried to move the houseboats, but the owners managed to negotiate with the authorities. Over the past five years, the government has raised rates or changed regulations several times, residents said, and stopped renewing or issuing houseboat licenses two years ago.
A letter sent to residents last year indicated that the government would only issue new licenses to commercial boats. Still, previous experiences gave residents hope for a postponement.
Now officials are using the lack of permits to justify the demolition, even as residents said they refused to renew those permits.
“They’re just sitting there without any security system,” Ayman Anwar, the head of the Central Administration for Nile Protection, said on a television phone Monday, warning that the boats could sink, hit something and kill the residents. “They don’t have licenses from a single government agency.”
He also suggested that one of the residents was affiliated with a political opposition movement, in what residents say was an attempt to water down public sympathy. Mr Anwar did not respond to a call for comment.
“It’s kind of brewing, but I never thought it would actually happen,” said Ahdaf Soueif, a novelist from a prominent family of Egyptian intellectuals and dissidents who last week received a request for nearly $50,000 in back license fees. along with the demolition order.
“I mean, things have been going one way for 40 years,” she said, “and now they’re turning around and saying this is illegal.”
Mrs. Soueif bought and repaired her cream-colored houseboat ten years ago, assuming it would be her last home.
“It’s kind of a romantic dream,” she said. “They are so much a part of Cairo’s heritage, it was strange to hear that you could just buy one.”
The heritage they represent isn’t necessarily the kind the government wants to advertise, which may explain why authorities, in justifying their demolition, have recently hinted that the houseboats were being used for “immoral” purposes.
Since the early 1800s, when reportedly wealthy, high-ranking Ottoman officials known as pashas used their houseboats to meet up with their mistresses, the boats exuded a sort of seedy, half-light glamour.
Aside from the bustle of Cairo, they were private spaces that floated in the plain, tantalizing sight, offering some Cains a haven where they could freely drink, drug and mingle in the heart of a very conservative city.
Outsiders glimpsed the novels of Mr. Mahfouz, who owned a houseboat near his apartment.
In “Adrift on the Nile,” disgruntled Cairenes gather on a houseboat to smoke hashish and discuss the hypocrisy of the time; in the famous ‘Cairo trilogy’, the stern family patriarch regularly spends his evenings with friends on a houseboat, enjoying the company of the fictional singers Jalila, Zubayda and Zanuba.
According to local lore, government cabinet meetings took place on a houseboat owned by Mounira al-Mahdia, a celebrated 1920s diva. Another singer’s houseboat, Badia Masabni, is said to be so popular among Cairo’s elite that it was rumored that governments had been formed on board.
At the time, there were at least 200 houseboats up and down the Nile. But under President Gamal Abdel Nasser, many of the buildings were moved to clear the river for water sports, said Wael Wakil, 58, who was born and raised in the houseboat on which he still lives.
That left about 40 boats where they now lie, next to Kit Kat, a neighborhood named after a local World War II nightclub popular among Allied soldiers.
During the war, British officers confiscated many of the houseboats. Hungarian desert explorer Count Laszlo Almasy, made famous in “The English Patient,” is said to have installed a pair of German spies on a houseboat in the area — with the help, in some stories, of a belly dancer.
Over the years, more and more houseboats were converted into businesses, and the banks of the Nile, once largely open to the public, became full of private clubs and cafes.
Authorities have made it clear they want more of it: Houseboat owners say they have been told they can pay more than $6,500 to dock temporarily elsewhere while applying for commercial licenses to open cafes or restaurants in their former homes. to open houses. But according to them, that is hardly a fair or attractive option.
“They destroy the past, they destroy the present, and they also destroy the future,” said Neama Mohsen, 50, a theater instructor who has lived on one of the houseboats for three decades. “I see this as a crime and no one can stop it. They take our lives as if we were criminals or terrorists.”
Today, some houseboats are owned by politicians and businessmen, others by bohemians, others by middle-class Egyptians who know no other life.
Mr. Wakil said his family moved to their houseboat in 1961. He remembers growing up fishing from the deck. If he dropped a toy into the Nile, he said, a passing skipper would make it.
Now, Mr. Wakil, a retired financial manager, has packed up and is preparing to move into an apartment his wife owns in the desert.
“But nothing will come close to compensating for this,” he said.
From Mrs. Soueif’s favorite spot in the house, the dressing room where she bathes her grandchildren, she can see a mango tree in her riverside garden that has not been fruiting for four years. Suddenly, this year, it produced what promises to be a bumper crop.
But this type of mango cannot be picked before mid-July. If nothing changes, she and her houseboat are gone.