August 08, 2022
Rent Control in Cairo

After a stock market bust, real estate looked safe. And it was — for the tenants.

By Marie-Helene Rousseau

My great-grandfather was a lawyer from Cairo, Egypt’s bustling capital city. His father lost his shirt in the stock market with disastrous consequences, so when it was my great-grandfather’s turn to try his hand at making a fortune, he took a different tack.

In 1920, he figured the best investment was real estate. He constructed an apartment building in Heliopolis, a flourishing, quiet neighborhood in Cairo. He designed the building with the help of an architect and built the structure from the ground up. “A self-made man,” my mother calls him.

The structure is two small apartment buildings, side by side. The walls of one fuse into the walls of the other. Whenever I visited this building as a child, I was always amazed at the secret doors that passed from the pantry of one apartment to the hallway of the adjoining building. I suppose that’s what happens when families settle in Siamese-twin homes.

One of my great-grandfather’s first tenants was an Armenian named Kevork Hagopian, who arrived in Cairo in the 1930s. At the time, and for many years after, real estate “contracts” in Cairo were based on good faith and a firm handshake. That’s all my great grandfather required when Hagopian took up residence n the 2690 square foot, three-bedroom first-floor apartment — a New York Dream. Just one small gesture of trust: a handshake. In return, Hagopian promised to pay about seven Egyptian pounds a month in rent. That comes out to about one American dollar.

This was more than 70 years ago.

Hagopian was faithful to the handshake, even after he started going a little crazy. Hagopian wasn’t always crazy, though no one in my family can recall when Hagopian started to get a bit loopy. Maybe when he hit 60, around 1980. It’s hard to pinpoint a moment, but he was still paying his own rent in the ’60s, so that was a good sign. He aged with the building. As the walls yellowed with time, he got older. He lived unmarried and alone. His social etiquette dried up like the sickly plants that lined his dying first- floor garden. It was always dark in Hagopian’s apartment. No one visited, no one came. He talked to no one except himself. As he got older, his nephew started to pay his rent.

Over the years, the outer walls of that building in Heliopolis have seen a lot: independence, three presidents, one massive nationalization plan, the assassination of one of those presidents, and a couple of wars, to name just a few. No wonder the walls have aged.

Charles, my great-grandfather, died in 1960. After his death, the Heliopolis property was split up and the various apartments passed down to his five children. He had four girls, and one boy. His only son, now the man of the family, dealt with the tenants and rents. One of the girls, Hilda, was my grandmother.

Inevitably, all five offspring had children of their own. Hilda, my grandmother, met my grandfather, a young lawyer of Armenian descent who worked in her father’s office. They got married and had two daughters, one of whom is my mother.

More offspring came. Bits and pieces of the building were passed down further. Ownership of the apartments was scattered across the globe, as the descendents moved to various places. Some stayed in Egypt and lived in the building. Others left. My mother married my father and moved away. Her sister, my aunt, ended up in France with her two sons. A few descendents remained to take care of the aging building.

Which brings us to the present.

Recently, my father’s foreign service job, which led to 23 years of country-hopping, led my parents back to a post in Cairo again, where they originally met. Suddenly we were re-immersed in the world of the Heliopolis building again. The many complications of its many tenants had exploded since its simple beginning in the 1920s. The storeowners on the first floor didn’t have contracts. The fifth floor tenant left her faucet on, causing an impromptu flood of water that poured down on the apartment below. The list of grievances grew longer and longer.

In the meantime, old Kevork Hagopian, the original Armenian tenant, was still unassumingly wasting away in the darkness of his first-floor apartment. He rarely went out, rarely bought food, rarely ate, it seemed. He was small, pale and perpetually wore a pointy hat on his head. He occasionally could be seen peering out through the slats of his window shades. He took to spitting on passers-by when he could get a decent shot as they entered the building. Once in a while, my aunt got him to talk to her, but she was the only one. I was terrified of him.

When he died in 2007, his death had the gnawing heaviness of any death that almost goes unnoticed. The only one who came to Hagopian’s side after his death was his nephew — who happened to share the exact same name as his uncle; Kevork Hagopian.

No one is sure where he swooped in from to clear his uncle’s belongings, but we presume he lived in Cairo his entire life. It was one of the gray, unknown areas of the nephew’s life that remain obscure. He spoke with my relatives. He insisted that he needed some time to gather all of his uncle’s things, receive grieving visitors, and then he would be off. My relatives agreed that he could stay 40 days, to mourn and collect the leftovers of his uncle’s existence.

He stayed a week. Then two. Then three weeks, which turned into a month, then two months, then several months. Before we knew it, the 40 days had passed without a peep from him.

He refused to return the apartment keys. My relatives, frustrated with attempts to negotiate and get him out, finally filed a lawsuit against him. In response, the nephew took refuge in what everyone knew was an ingenious lie.

He stood up in court, in front of the judge and everyone, and exclaimed, “What are you talking about? I’m not dead. No one has died. I’m Kevork Hagopian. I defy you to find any piece of paperwork that proves that this man, whom they claim to be dead, is dead.”

Since that moment more attention has been paid to Kevork Hagopian than in his entire life. What was his middle name? Where was he born? Where was he buried? Was he buried in an unmarked grave or an Orthodox Armenian cemetery? In December 2008, while visiting my parents in Egypt, I witnessed a macabre chase to salvage any information about Hagopian’s life. My relatives were completely flummoxed, totally frustrated with the lack of viable paperwork, and everyone was running out of ideas.

The entire affair spun even further out of control when the apparent imposter turned the tables. He decided to sue the family for perjury. He claimed that we lied in court about him being “dead.”

The only way my family could retaliate was by finding any documentation of his uncle’s death to prove to the court we werenâ??t lying. Oddly enough, the certificate of death was nowhere to be found.

I should explain here something about Egyptian rent laws. The law is traditionally on the side of the renter and not the landlord, probably because of the socialist strain in Egyptian law that started when President Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power in 1952.

Because so many “contracts” were made with a handshake, it’s practically impossible to kick out a tenant if they are not paying rent, because there is no paper contract. To add to that, rent control is considered hereditary. Hagopian’s rent had risen from seven Egyptian pounds to 15, but due to President Nasser’s rent control changes the 1960s, it has remained 15 pounds — about two and a half U.S. dollars per month — till this day.

Recently, the law was changed to apply only to the first generation of children, and to children who had lived in the residence with their parents. But until recently, you could pass down an obscenely low rent from generation to generation. My mother’s cousin, who had lived in that apartment building practically all her life, one floor up from my grandparents’ apartment, had noticed some changes. From below, from that first floor apartment, she could hear the hollow thud and crash of breaking concrete. It was coming from Hagopian’s. The nephew, a photographer, was knocking down the walls of the place, attempting to build what we presumed was his very own photo studio.

None of us could approach him about this business of breaking down walls. That would be “acknowledging his presence,” the lawyer said.

On my last day in Egypt, my parents took a trip to the Armenian Orthodox cemetery, a bouquet of roses in hand, to find out where the mysterious uncle had been buried. After an afternoon of trying to decipher gravestones covered in Armenian script, and interrogating the graveyard guard, they returned home, defeated and empty handed. No corpse. No grave.

“The guard said he could have been buried in a mass grave,” my mother said. I shuddered at the idea of a faceless, lifeless mass of people pressed against each other, robbed of their place in collective memory.

And that’s where we stand.

This evident imposter had swept in, picked up the neglected pieces of his uncle’s life, and erased any trace of his uncle’s existence. He’d stolen almost seventy years of someone’s life for a rent-controlled apartment.

It kind of begs the question–what won’t people do for a three-bedroom apartment with kitchen and washer/dryer?

This story first appeared in Street Level, the annual magazine of top undergraduate reporting of New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

6 comments about “Rent Control in Cairo”

  1. Insanity Workout says:

    I always wondered how much it would cost for a one bedroom apartment in Egypt?

  2. Nancy says:

    I don’t like the sound of all those lists he’s making - it’s like prepossessing too many notes at school; you sensible of you’ve achieved something when you haven’t.

  3. Miscellaneous Sources « clip collection says:

    [...] 1. “Rent Control in Cairo” (from Big World Magazine) [...]

  4. Dalia says:

    I am an administrative member in a group called “United We Stand Against the Old Rent Law of Egypt.” Our group consists primarily of landlords who have been drastically affected by this law, which still continues to hold today. Our common goal is to bring an end to this heinous law which goes against all morals, as well as, human rights, and has destroyed & continues to destroy, the relationship between landlords & tenants, alike.
    If you would like to join us please visit us at:!/group.php?gid=123866654818

    *Though the site is primarily in Arabic, don’t let that deter you from joining. I post a lot in English, since Arabic is my second language and have managed to become an “admin!”

  5. Enough of injustice says:

    I also support the end of the old rent law in Egypt

  6. AHI: United States » Micro and macro housing issues: Part 3, the political forces says:

    [...] post on Cairo rent control introduced us to a first-person tale by Marie-Helene Rousseau, from Big World Magazine, of a Heliopolis block of flats owned by an increasingly fractionalized set of heirs scatted around [...]

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