‘Your house should represent your culture,’ says Shahira Mehrez. ‘And if you have a culture, it shouldn’t shame you to take from another, but wear something that shows who you are.’Mehrez, an Egyptian scholar, collector and designer, sits on stiff but comfortable Arabic cushions in the majlis of her apartment in Dokki, a neighbourhood at the heart of urban Cairo. ‘This seating area used to be on the floor but, as I grow older, I keep having to elevate it,’ she laughs, adjusting her vibrant gold Nubian necklace and its matching square earrings.
Mehrez is a long-time collector of Egyptian handicrafts, which she documents and archives. She’s also the founder of Shahira Mehrez Designs – a shop and gallery that has sold antique and heritage-inspired Egyptian dresses and handmade objects since the 1980s.
Sharp-witted and enthusiastic about her heritage and culture, Mehrez can be intimidating. Her passion for Egyptian history and tradition is one that can be gleaned not only from her wardrobe choices, like the traditional black sequinned jellabiya that she wears, but also from her sixth-floor penthouse, designed by the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy.
When Mehrez took up her apartment in the late 1960s, she sought Fathy by name. The two shared an aspiration, she says, to find modern value in the country’s traditional ways of living.
‘Like me, he was a hybrid of two cultures, but instead of being torn apart, he saw it as a blessing,’ Mehrez wrote in her memoir. French-educated and an alumni of the American University in Cairo, Mehrez, on the other hand, spent her childhood detached from her culture and even her mother tongue, Arabic.
‘I found myself caught in a conflict between my education and my belonging to an Egyptian Muslim family,’ she says, reflecting on her youth. ‘I felt a contradiction, so I decided to study Islamic Art to know my culture better and to find my identity. The secret was in deepening my knowledge of both and choosing what suited me best from each.’
Mehrez is attached to the idea of having a home with an identity – one that reflects the needs of its inhabitants. Her home crowns a building owned by her mother, and reflects the hybridity that both she and Fathy learned to embrace.
Upon entering, visitors are greeted by a large wooden wall, or magaz – a feature of traditional Egyptian architecture that protects the privacy of more intimate spaces by preventing visitors from immediately accessing the entire apartment. Although another architect originally designed the apartment complex, Mehrez asked Fathy to work within the existing framework of the penthouse to create a more personal series of spaces.
At one end of the apartment is a study area furnished with a large wooden desk and shelves endlessly lined with academic books on Islamic and Coptic art, Pharaonic monuments as well as other aspects of Egyptian life. Elevated cushions, too, are left scattered around a simple brass table. Here, guests are invited to take a seat beneath a window that overlooks a terrace shaded by tall walls and mashrabiyeh screens.
The original intention of the mashrabiyeh pattern, says Mehrez, is to protect a home’s privacy by making the outside visible from inside, but not vice versa. In addition, the design of the mashrabiyeh pattern also refracts light, which not only protects against the heat, but also allows the study to be indirectly sunlit.
Mehrez can access her bedroom via the terrace, which contains two different seating arrangements as well as a marble mosaic fountain at its centre. The bedroom is split into two levels by a minimal staircase consisting of four wooden steps. There is another seating area on the lower floor and a smaller room hidden behind a colourful curtain where only a bed and nightstand sit.
By using variations in vertical scale, as well as level changes and highly detailed surfaces to form each zone, Fathy expanded the feeling of space in the apartment. ‘I asked him for a small, big room,’ Mehrez says with a knowing smile.
A traditional bathroom laid with white and grey marble is visible from the bedroom. Naturally lit, the bathroom features a marble seating area with cushions, a Japanese-style sunken bath and a skylight, referred to as a shokhshekha.
The practical purpose of the skylight, Mehrez says, is to generate air circulation and keep the room cool – an important factor during Cairo’s extreme summer heat. ‘I host people here,’ Mehrez says. ‘Sometimes we sit and have dessert in the bathroom.’
In many parts of the apartment, patterned textiles, low-hanging artwork and tokens of the past instil a sense of historical setting. The different seating areas, the subtle luxury of the marble and the soft lighting evoke an older time. And while there’s a strong traditional layout throughout the entire home, Mehrez has worked to employ a number of modern appliances throughout the house, from plumbing to air conditioning.
The Fathy-designed home isn’t Mehrez’s only residence. Just a few levels down in the same complex sits another, less traditional apartment – located on the first floor. The second space offers seasonal respite for half of the year, when the penthouse overheats during the summer months. While less traditional, it also serves as a theatrical stage of sorts, where Mehrez leaves her collection of objects sourced from around Egypt on display.
‘I wanted to show people that a few things can indicate authenticity – without needing Hassan Fathy to design your house,’ she says. ‘If you want to have a future you have to know your past. Egypt is a melting pot of cultures, and today’s youth have to make an effort to know their culture and understand their roots – to wear and be proud of it.’
This article appears in Brownbook’s November/December 2015 issue.
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