Dr. May Al-Ibrashy: Linking Heritage to the Community

Living in countries rich in cultural heritage, such as Egypt and India, Dr. May Al-Ibrashy grew to develop an attachment to history. Not only is she fascinated by history, but also the ways in which we interact with it. Indeed, what appeals to her the most is how our everyday life is very much grounded in history and how what we do is actually history in the making. Her love for history directed her career into historic conservation. In her first year as an architecture student, she was not quite sure this is what she wanted to do. However, she discovered her chosen career after training in different conservation projects in Cairo.

Dr. Al-Ibrashy comes from a family whose careers are far from her field, as they are centered in the humanities. Her father was a journalist and a diplomat, her mom was a translator who worked in the government, and her sister teaches English literature. Growing up, she decided to go for architecture because she was interested in the arts. While her family was supportive of her decision to pursue such a career, it took them some time to understand the connection between studying architecture and going into conservation. They also do not understand why she chooses to run her own private business and go through the hassle of the worries of doing that, as opposed to taking a job in academia and having the prestige that comes with it.

Dr. Al-Ibrashy runs a twinship between an NGO and an architectural firm called the Megawra-Built Environment Collective (BEC) which started as a coworking and cultural space in 2011. The main interest was in investigating the built environment in a way that connects it to other disciplines like humanities, social sciences, and the arts, as well as a creative space for people to work. This work developed to become more practical. The Megawra-BEC’s biggest project is called Athar Lina Initiative, translating to heritage is ours. This conservation initiative is a participatory one that aims to establish modalities of citizen participation in heritage conservation based on an understanding of the monument as a resource, not a burden. The idea is to link heritage to the community through mutual benefit. The premise is that people will take care of their heritage that they benefit from it. 

Megawra-BEC works on different architectural conservation and the adaptive reuse of historic buildings for the benefit of the community. It also works on an urban level by studying neighborhoods and conducting needs assessments. Based on the findings, Megawra-BEC identifies solutions not only for the management of the area and for the preservation of heritage, but also for specific problems that harm heritage and people alike. Megawra-BEC also works on heritage education, mostly with children and women. It also works on heritage industries, such as any kind of income-generating activity based on heritage like tourism and crafts. Since 2012, Megawra-BEC has conserved five buildings as well as prepared conservation and management plans for two neighborhoods. Megawra-BEC also works on rehabilitating open spaces for the benefit of the community. Knowledge production is a core component because a lot of what is learned and what is done is transformed into some kind of educational or research output.

Working in such a multi-faceted career comes with many challenges. Since it is very participatory and people-centered, this line of work also requires working and dealing with people all the time. It also involves learning about different disciplines and areas of work, ranging from history, archeology, math, and chemistry, to running a business and a construction site. Dr. Al-Ibrashy also expressed how running a private business in a country like Egypt, which is quite so uncertain, makes it hard to plan ahead. There are also other challenges related to funding as well as political and legal issues, considering that Megawra-BEC is a hybrid construct between an NGO and an architectural firm.

Dr. Al-Ibrashy believes that although there are plenty of barriers for women in Egypt, they are not structural. In general, the challenges of being a woman are more related to the practical aspect of conservation and dealing with the government. While archeology and art history are female-dominated, construction and conservation are male-dominated. She thinks that this is a mix that works in that way because it balances things out a little bit. Surprisingly, although the field is male-dominated when you’re working on-site, Dr. Al-Ibrashy finds it sometimes actually easier for women to deal with construction crew than men, because it’s a different dynamic. She believes this line of work is as easy, and as difficult, as anywhere else. Being a woman worked in some ways; it didn’t work in others. 

Despite all of these challenges, Dr. Al-Ibrashy enjoys her career because it is never boring and gives credit to her being one-track-minded which made her stick to this career path and flourish in it. She was never afraid of conflict, which made her challenge people even if she felt that she was being disrespected. These challenges have made her become harder and taught her how to be aggressive when she needed to be. She learned that sometimes too much aggression in a woman is not acceptable, but also that women get away with a lot. To deal with the restrictions, she had to figure out the right dynamic to make the best out of it.

If Dr. Al-Ibrashy were to give one piece of advice to all young women and girls, it is to understand themselves as individuals. She thinks it is very easy for young kids to be affected and influenced by the community, which is why she encourages them to not be afraid to be a bit of an outsider if it means that they make their own individual choices. She also thinks that education is very key, which does not have to necessarily be through formal channels. Wanting to learn and grow is very important, and it’s even more important to never lose that kind of curiosity.

Working in historic and “marginalized” neighborhoods in Egypt, Dr. May learned that what is seen on the surface tends to be women’s weakness. But she believes that if one digs deeper, one will find incredible core strengths that should be investigated, excavated, and celebrated. While there’s a lot to be done for the state of women in our communities, Dr. May thinks that we should not just celebrate this core strength, but understand it. She thinks that, in a lot of cases, people try to deal with these issues as if they’re going into a vacuum, as if these women have no rights, have no say, have no voice, and we’re going to give them all that.

Dr. Al-Ibrashy believes that one should look for resilience, strength, and joy in order to build on them because then you deal with these problems from a place of respect. Otherwise, you end up objectifying women by trying to help them, and this kind of objectification that comes from good intentions makes a problem endemic and it becomes a structural barrier. Dr. May believes that we should be more mindful and more respectful of the communities that we work with and the sectors of society that we work in.

This story was written by Carla Akil

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