Saturday, May 25, 2019

Egyptian Places : The Last Days of Building No.54 in Cairo’s Boulaq Abu Ela

Do you remember that very old watch shop I once spoke about in summer 2018 and how it was going to disappear as its building was going to be demolished by the government ?

The building , officially known as No.54 in the street was demolished as part of the governmental plan to revamp Maspero triangle area but before it was demolished , I was lucky enough to document some of its last moments and to know more about its history or rather its people.

Specifically the shop owners who owned shops in the buildings , most of them spent half of their lives in that buildings maintaining their shops for more than five decades and for that they tried to fight the battle till the end.

It was a lost battle in times where no mainstream media or social media can raise their concerns and screams to the officials.

Here is in my very bad and shaky video, I focused on two stories: the story of S. Hinhayat Clock shop and the story of Hajj Hosni, the mannequin maker.

P.S: I know it is not the best video or audio recording or editing but I hope you like it and share it.

Building No.54 was originally built in 1906 in “Avenue Boulaq” or “Boulaq street” in Boulaq Abu Ela district.

Despite Maspero Triangle is portrayed in the mainstream media now as low-income shanty town area “Which is partially true”, the area had several European Neo-Classical buildings especially in the area adjacent to Avenue Boulaq.

Once I spoke with a taxi driver who was raised there and he told me that those buildings were owned by foreigners who left Egypt after the 1952 Coup.

I think due to the fact that the Old Italian Consulate is located there, there were many foreigners or rather Italians who lived in the area.

An interesting fact that that Italian Consulate complex which included a school in the past was turned in to prison for foreigners or Italians by the British occupation during the World War II.

Back to our building, in 1907 a Bulgarian Jew watchmaker called Solomon Hinhayat inaugurated his clock shop in Boulaq street at Building No.54 according to shop’s last shopkeeper and owner Essam Solomon.
Founder Solomon Hinhayat
Solomon Hinhayat in the last days of his shop 
Later that street was renamed  Fouad street named after Egypt’s King Fouad I and during that era, it became one of Downtown Cairo’s busiest and commercial street. 
The original S. Hinhayat business card
Its old card 
At first, he used to sell watches and medical glasses before focusing on watches and clocks only. 
Watches leather straps in their last week in S.Hinhayat shop
Watches' straps at the shop 
The main workshop was an upper small chamber that overlooked the shop itself.
S.Hinhayat's workhop
S.Hinhayat's workshop
His shop boomed and he began to manufacture his own watches and clocks under his own brand.

Nomolas watch package at S.Hinhayat Clock shop
Nomalas Watch as a brand 
The client list of the shop included Mohamed Ali Royal Family above them King Fouad I and his son King Farouk as well Prince Mohamed Ali Tawfik.

Famous customers of S.Hinhayat Shop
The client list was like Who is Who in Pre-1952 Egypt 
The names of pashas, ministers and prominent figures including some of those who played critical roles in its political, social and economic life in the first half of the 20th century.

By time and after nearly spending 50 years in Egypt, the Bulgarian was not a foreigner anymore as he was granted the Egyptian nationality.

His workers were mostly foreigners from Bulgaria but he had Egyptian workers including his student Ahmed El-Siyad Mostafa who soon became his partner.

The watches and clocks repair table
The watches and clocks repair table

El-Siyad Mostafa was called “the head of watchmakers syndicate in Egypt” by King Fouad I.

According to Essam Solomon , King Farouk had once a broken Swiss clock and nobody was able to fix it except his father who was only a child playing with clocks and watches learning his father’s craft. 

Later Farouk gave that Swiss clock to that child as a present and his family kept it since then.

Following the 23 July 1952 Coup,things began to change as nationalization policies began to expand.
Cairo’s King Fouad street was renamed to 26 July to commemorate the day President Nasser declared the nationalization of Suez canal in 1956.

In the same year ,Solomon Hinhayat and his son left but some of the Bulgarian workers remained till they were forced to leave the country by forces.

One of the tales I learned on that day that one of the workers who committed suicide when security forces came to deport him.
An old Egyptian certificate of identity
An identity certificate for a Jew Bulgarian that used to work at S.Hinhayat Clocks shop Mr. Albert Cortezberg

Fouad street’s name was changed but S. Hinhayat Watch shop kept its name as Ahmed El-Siyad Mostafa kept it as a sign of gratitude to his old teacher and partner.

For three generations, the Mostafas kept a good job in keeping the S. Hinhayat shop working.
The shop’s client base was still distinguished, from maintaining the occupation British army in Egypt’s watches to the watches of the Egyptian ministry of war “during the time of Nasser”. 

British army was a customer too
The British army was a customer too
From maintaining the watches of Egypt’s top feminist leading figures like Huda Sharaawy to the watches of popular Egyptian actor Laila Taher.

Huda Sharaawy was among the shop's customers
Huda Sharaawy was a customer too 
From the Kings’ ministers to the presidents’ ministers, S. Hinhayat survived decades as the Mostafas inherited the shop till Essam Solomon.

Essam Solomon told me that he took Solomon as a common surname to show his gratitude to that Bulgarian man.

Essam Solomon working
Essam Solomon working for one last time in the shop 

That gratitude was translated in his restless fight against the government to evict him and to demolish the building and the shop as part of its plan to “upgrade Maspero Triangle area”.

He had previous offers to sell the shop for at least LE 5 million from the second hand imported clothes Upper Egyptian merchants who have controlled the 26 July street in Boulaq Abu Ela but he rejected them. The compensation given by the government is less than what the Upper Egyptian merchants offered a couple of years ago.

Essam tried to keep the shop so another generation can run it for another couple of decades but he failed.

Besides that old shop that was featured many times in Egyptian press and media, there was another hidden tale and I met in the building and it was not related to time but rather to mannequin making.

In his 80s, I was introduced to Hajj Hosni as the oldest mannequin maker in Egypt not only in Cairo.

He started as an apprentice for famous sculptors in Egypt like Mostafa Naguib before he was taught mannequin making by foreigners and Egypt.

Hajj Hosny speaking about his workshop
Hajj Hosni 
His trip with Building No.54 started in 1951 when he opened a small workshop in the building and soon expanded in other room on the ground floor of that 1,100 m floor building.

That workshop of Hajj Hosni graduated most of Egypt’s mannequin makers.

A day earlier on 22 July 2018, the district workers came and started to move the demolished Maspero buildings rubble into the backyard of building No.54.
Hajj Hosni’s had his workshop in that backyard, when I went there it was totally destroyed.

Destroyed mannequins workshop
Destroyed mannequins workshop
The man who was not a member of any union or syndicate or has another source of living except that workshop told me that he used to work in landscaping and film set design.

He told that he worked with great Egyptian directors like Salah Abu Seif and Mahmoud Rahmy, Egypt’s Jim Henson.

In October 1992, Cairo was shaken to the core in a deadly earthquake that left 545 dead and 50,000 people homeless as not less than 350 buildings became dust including buildings in Boulaq Abu Ela itself.

Up till now, you can see several old buildings with its upper floors removed.

The original handrail of the 112-years old building
The original handrail of the 112-years old building
In that unforgettable year, the district issued its only official order to the owner of the building to remove the fourth floor of the building and to renovate it.

Amazingly the building and its fourth floor that beautifully oil painted ceiling stood for another two decades as well the construction of 15th May bridge extension.
The painting of the ceiling that does not exist anymore
The original painted ceiling in the building 
There is no doubt that the building did need renovations to restore its old glory.
I have read comments architects who visited the building and saw its condition, they all agree that little renovation was a better choice

On 11 August 2018 evening, Essam Solomon announced his one-man battle defeat.
A day before he met with Cairo governor and the head of Boulaq Abu Ela municipality who came to check out the latest updates in the evacuation of Maspero triangle

Following that, I followed how Egypt’s oldest clock shop was demolished for the sake of the government’s ambitious project to develop the Maspero Triangle period.

The 26th July street buildings’ demolishing phase started with Building No.54 and extended to other buildings in the same row and in the same block.

Even building No.50 located in front of the Italian consulate that was originally was spared for its “unique style” as its owner changed his mind and decided to sell it.
A before and after photo of the building 
Already it seemed to be deserted from the residents and the shops were only working.

 I saw with my own eyes how the second-hand and old imported clothes took over a dessert shop and half shop “from a traditional men’s clothes and cloth shop to a half shop selling Chinese jeans”.

Now there are few old buildings standing still against the construction taken place in the area.
What remained from old residential buildings in the area
What remains from old residential buildings in the area
  Time has come to an end for that shop opened more than 100 years by a Bulgarian Jewish man and was inherited and ran by Three generations from the family of his wise Egyptian Muslim student and protege.

The clocks stopped ticking at S.Hinhayat Co. est.1907 at 26 July street in Cairo in August 201. Everything has its own time.

Broken Clocks at Egypt's S.Hinhayat Clock shop
A clock that stopped working in the shop 
Personally, that building and its people reminded me once again that Egypt is more than old buildings under the sand.

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