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In the Middle East — with its seemingly relentless stream of bad news — building a house in the Egyptian countryside has offered many hours of soul-nourishing escapism, as well as the excitement of watching a stony and barren piece of land being transformed into a handsome weekend home with a garden.
For years I have wanted a house in the village of Tunis in the Fayoum, a large oasis in the western desert with stunning views of water, palm groves and sand — and an easy two-hour drive from Cairo. Flamingos and a host of colourful waterfowl live around Lake Qaroun and the lake’s many moods are framed by stark sand dunes on its northern shore.
Tunis — which in recent years has become known for its pottery workshops — is located on a ridge overlooking fields dotted with palm trees sloping down towards the lake. It has long attracted a community of writers, artists and nature lovers, foremost among them Evelyne Porret, a Swiss artist and craftswoman who introduced pottery-making to the village where she has lived and run a ceramics school for local children for almost 30 years.
Yet as much as I wanted the house, I dreaded the prospect of the build. As a novice to construction and architecture, I feared the process would turn into a nightmare with endless arguments with builders taking advantage of my total lack of experience.
Friends helped me find a suitable plot of land, 1,000 sq metres of earth, bordered by other homes, but still with a view of the lake. When construction began all previous worries proved baseless. Placing the project in the hands of Ahmed Abdallah, a local builder with a solid reputation for quality work and straight dealing banished my anxiety.
So, I had a builder but no architect. Enter my friend Max Rodenbeck, who has just moved to India to head The Economist’s bureau there, and who drew up plans for the house. He and his wife, Karima, had designed an elegant home in the same village close to my plot and knew just what would work on my land: how to place bedrooms so they captured the cooling bahari, or northern breezes; and how to position a terrace to catch the sun on cold winter mornings.
He designed a one-storey structure, with domes and barrel vaults, an open inner courtyard with a staircase leading to the roof, and a hall with a fireplace and wooden ceiling beams.
It was to be constructed in the hybrid style developed by the builders of Tunis, which marries traditional rural techniques, including the use of mud as mortar, with elements of Islamic architecture such as domes and vaults.
What amazed me most was the speed at which everything progressed once we got started. The house seemed to be racing ahead each Saturday when I travelled down to view it. The shell was built and the domes were being plastered within two months of the day in April 2015 when I stood with Ahmed and his assistants on the cleared land — as they marked the outlines of the rooms with white lime before digging the foundations. In a procedure that I could not understand — and using nothing more than a metal rod, ropes and a tape measure — Ahmed worked out the first right angle on the south-western corner from which the rest of the house would grow.
The week after the foundations were dug and filled with stones, I had to decide where doors and the fireplace would go. Then there were decisions to make about windows. Ahmed held out for small ones placed high — in the manner of Egyptian rural houses to preserve coolness and privacy — but I preferred large windows placed low, to provide light and frame views of the garden. To a total novice, these were difficult decisions, but many problems were resolved just by running with a tape measure across the lane to the Rodenbecks’ house to check what they had done.
For millennia, Egyptian builders in the countryside have used mud bricks plastered with a mixture of fermented mud and hay to cover walls. They are good for keeping out the heat but they also need frequent repair, and shed dust continuously. We used unfired mud brick made on the premises and left in the sun to dry for the garden walls. For the house, Ahmed created thick walls of fired red bricks, with a few rows at the bottom bound with cement mortar, and the rest with mud and hay.
Wooden lintels hold up the walls above doors and windows and a big arch in the living room supports the flat roof — which has a panoramic view of the lake. A mixture of white cement, sand and hay was used to plaster both the exterior and the interior, including the brick platforms which serve as beds and night tables. A local carpenter made the doors and windows.
Building the house has provided an excuse to explore Egyptian markets and workshops in search of cheap local items such as earthenware light fixtures and beautiful second-hand floors and doors. The huge storerooms of Hagg Fathy, hidden in Cairo’s lanes, are a treasure trove of salvaged wooden doors with wrought-iron grills and reclaimed patterned cement tiles that used to be fashionable in the first half of the 20th century. It is hard to think of all these beautiful objects without a pang of regret for the old, often elegant buildings that are being torn down, usually to be replaced by much uglier ones.
There were also trips to the City of the Dead, the massive graveyard in eastern Cairo, where a workshop in the shadow of an old mosque provided handblown coloured glass to be embedded in decorative openings in the domes and vaults.
The first weekend in the house has been delightful, though I still had to call on the Rodenbecks for help with lighting a fire — something Cairo residents have no experience of because it is warmer in the city. Waking up under a dome with light filtering through the coloured glass was bliss.
Now that the house is ready, I have a feeling that I will actually miss the building process. There is something deeply satisfying, even life affirming, about seeing your house rise from the dirt. But, I tell myself, there is always planting the garden to look forward to.
Where Tunis village in Fayoum oasis, Egypt
Work began April 2015
Work completed December 2015
Size 230 sq metres
Worst moment Having to tear down an arch after it was built because it was ugly
Architect Max Rodenbeck (not an architect but a friend and fellow journalist)
Best tip Find a builder you trust
Heba Saleh is the FT’s Cairo correspondent
Photographs: Nour El Refai