Narrator of Stories, an interview


Shaimaa Ashour, PhD

The last meeting of the Cairo Architectural Heritage Group (an initiative of Professor Nasser Rabbat) was ten years ago.  I had the privilege to meet a talented group of architects, urban planners and heritage aficionados who are, today, Egypt’s leaders in these fields. One dynamic member was Shaimaa Samir Kamel Ashour.  Shaimaa’s  enthusiasm and dedication to Egyptian cultural heritage was hard to miss and her warm, friendly nature was contiguously positive. Shaimaa was one of the young Egyptians that showed intense interest to take action to preserve cultural heritage.  To this day Shaimaa—architectural engineeer, author, lecturer, blogger, photographer, traveller, organizer of heritage events, conferences and city walks— continues her upward trajectory of contributions to the community in which she lives and works. This interview is to spotlight her commitment and dedication for her career and her country, Egypt.

“I like to narrate stories about architecture and places whether through teaching, writing, photography or public lectures. Through stories we explain how things are, why they are, and our role and purpose,” says Shaimaa one Friday over coffee at Maadi’s newest wellness centre, Osana.  Her day job as an assistant professor at The Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transportation (AASTMT) in Cairo gives her the opportunity to teach and mentor students plus she heads the Cultural Committee in the Department of Architectural Engineering & Environmental Design where she organizes the highly successful guest lecture program, Beyond Lecture Halls.


Beyond university walls, Shaimaa continues to narrate stories about architecture. “I’m an architect with multi-disciplinary interests ranging from Egyptian modern architecture to cultural heritage, architectural advertisement and urban history,” says Shaimaa. Most recently she and Alia Nassar, began walking tours for foodies called The Taste of Heritage .

47471001_1803358829793347_6663501322903355392_nShaimaa also maintains “The io Weekly” since 2012 as a hub to connect individuals  by sharing news about the city, environment, architecture, heritage, and platform of upcoming events and exhibitions. She holds a seat on the Committee for Architecture at the Supreme Council of Culture, which gave her the opportunity work for the national competition to represent Egypt at the 15thInternational Exhibition for Architecture, Venice Biennale. Recent publications include sustainable conservation strategy to the Eastern Necropolis in Cairo, the changing housing policies and Sixth of October City, and citywalks as tool to narrate the history of Cairo. Last year, she published her book, An Overview of Pioneer Egyptian Architects During the Liberal Era (1919-1952). And let me not forget to mention her TV series,“A journey with books” program with broadcaster Dr.Khaled Azzab, about modern Egyptian architecture. (can be viewed at the end of this interview.)

As we munched on biscuits, I asked Shaimaa about her long list of accomplishments. She confided that sometimes she feels that nothing is happening and sometime feels like a moth on a wire mesh window.02

So what motivates Shaimaa to keep fighting for the issues she cares about? “Persistence and passion,” she says. “I always believe there is a way. I never lose hope and try hundreds of times because someone might change or something might change.” She explains that during the moments of personal doubt or fear, she realizes that those feelings are natural so they do not become barriers on the path of achievement.

Of course, family is the most important part of Shaimaa’s daily life and she credits her mother and father as the two people whom she admires most and who have given her the freedom and encouraged her curiosity, career, travel and knowledge.


Shaimaa (left) and friends on an excursion to see Mahmoud Fathi’s (famous Egyptian sculptor) statue, Egyptian Peasant

As I looked back over my notes, I counted five points mentioned that describe Shaimaa’s satisfaction with her career and life choices :

– Making a difference.
– Inspiring people.
– Writing about people who inspire.
– Listening to others tell their story.
– Making other lives better with her work.


Sharing a moment between sessions at Inheriting the City: Advancing
Understandings of Urban Heritage in Taipei, Taiwan. We presented our paper, #CityWalks: Another Perspective, April 2016.

TV Series




Original Egypt: Arouset el-Moulid

Kol Sanah wenta Tayyeb [كلسنةوأنتطيب]

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It is candy-making season in Egypt. Every year the streets and shops throughout the country light up with colourful lanterns and tables of sweet delights as Rabi’ al-awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar rolls around. Preparations begin with making tons of sugary morsels that consist of sugar coated peanuts, chickpeas, split-peas, coconut and sesame seeds, which are eaten in celebration of the birthday of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), Mawlid al-Nabi. This year Mawlid al-Nabi is on November 30th.

The most popular candy in Egypt that symbolized the approaching birthday of celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi is the Arouset el-Moulid doll (bride of the moulid or sugar bride) and the sultan on horseback, also made of sugar. Although satin-sequin plastic dolls are beginning to overtake the popularity of the sugar doll still one can venture through the alleyways of Share’ Bab el-Bahr and find workshops busily making dolls with entire families crafting and decorating dresses for the Arouset el-Moulid.


Share’ Bab el-Bahr



The most favored folklore is from the Fatimid Period (909-1171) with the legend that a Fatimid ruler during the mawlid rode his horse through the center of Cairo while one of his wives clothed in a white dress and decorated tiara walked next to him. The candy makers of Cairo then crafted sugar dolls and sultan on horseback to commemorate the scene and thus the two images became a symbol of the festival. Another folklore is that when soldiers went off to war they were promised to marry a beautiful girl upon their return and were presented with a sugar doll bride, while the tale also included the story that candy dolls were made to honor the soldiers for their bravery. Whatever the story, the making of sugar dolls has been passed down from generation to generation and has become a special confectionery to celebrate Mawlid al-Nabi.



Watch movie in 1955 about the “Mawlid Bride” starring Tahia Carioca. This film is a sad story to a doomed Arouset el-Moulid.  Fantasy with the devil, deceit, desire, and unrequited love… classic Egyptian music and song  and a glimpse into Egyptian society during mid-twentieth century.

The sugar dolls and sultan on horseback are made of sugar. The sugar is boiled and put into molds that makes a solid sugar form.  The dressing of the doll is a laborious undertaking. According to Abdel Ghani Al-Nabawi Al-Shall’s book, Arouset Al Mulid,(translated by Amira el-Noshokaty), “The dolls are given kohl (black eyeliner) to emphasize their eyes as well as pink powder to highlight their cheekbones. This Pharaonic makeup is coupled with typical Mamluk attire: a tight vest with long, generous sleeves. The vest fans out into a long, spacious dress covering the doll’s ivory body which weighs the doll down. The doll poses with her hands at her waist to show off her beauty. Colorful paper fans hug her back like wings, symbolizing feathered fans used to cool the caliphate. Fransha, or frills, are said to reflect the Fatimid influence, while gold and silver shimmering papers are fashioned in the likeness of the kirdan, a necklace typically known as being worn by Egyptian villagers.” To decorate one doll can take an entire day.P1000915

Arouset el-Moulid season is short and it only comes once a year so the entire family gets involved in making the beautiful and elaborate attire for the dolls.



In recent years, plastic dolls have flooded the market to take the place of the traditional sugar candy brides. IMG_9217 (1)Although the plastic doll forms are said to be imported from Asia, here is a video that claims all parts and clothing are made in Egypt.Watch this interesting video: Beyond the Factory: The Moulid Doll Maker

Arouset el-Moulid is depicted in dance, art and sculptures. The famous Egyptian sculptor, Gamal el-Sigini (1917-1977) featured Egypt in most of his works and used different symbols of Egypt as in this sculpture using Arouset el-Moulid  is an expression of hope, encouragement, and love. This sculpture stood, previously, on Share’ Gameat al-Dewal al-Arabiya in Mohendiseen but it disappeared during the Revolution of 2011.

Screen Shot 2018-11-15 at 1.21.14 AMBefore leaving the alleyways of Bab el-Bahr, a young girl named , Amar, meaning moon, came up to me and wanted to take a picture. So we posed and it was one of those moments when two people shared pure happiness.P1010883

**All rights reserved by Lesley Lababidi. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required.

Book Launch at ARCE

ARCE* hosts book launch for Field Guide to the Street Names of Central Cairo! Thanks to ARCE for hosting this launch, what I re-learned and remembered is the importance to celebrate an accomplishment. Usually, we just move onto the next thing but to stop and put a flag in the ground and breathe for a moment, gave such joy.

Field Guide Book Signing copy


photo credit: Shaimaa Ashour


picture credit: Alhaji Aminu Shamsuddin

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*ARCE Founded in 1948, the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) is a private, nonprofit membership organization comprised of educational and cultural institutions, professional scholars and private individuals. ARCE’s mission is to support research on all aspects of Egyptian history and culture, foster a broader knowledge of Egypt among the general public, and strengthen American-Egyptian cultural ties.




Mobile Date Mart


If it is autumn in Egypt, it is date season! Red and yellow panicles hang from date palms throughout Egypt. The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, is probably the oldest cultivated tree in the world. Archeologist found evidence of cultivation of the date palm more than 7000 years ago in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Today, Egypt is the number one producer of dates in the world producing yearly around 1.7 million tonnes.

Whether traveling in the Sahara, or Northern Nigeria, or the Pamir Mountains, I always keep a stash of dried dates in my backpack.  They are high in sugar content, fiber, potassium, and protein; a hungry traveller can find peace and sustenance in a cup of tea and a handful of dates.



Enjoying Cairo in Larnaca

IMG_9135American University in Cairo Press – Facebook posted a short essay on:

“The Story Behind the Book” 

Or read on in October Newsletter:

Mantiqti Arabic Newspaper promotional interview.

Humphrey Davies interview in Arabic