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 by how we interact with it. Indeed, what appeals to her the most is how our everyday life is grounded in history and how we do it 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 was what she wanted to do, but she discovered her chosen career after training in different conservation projects in Cairo.
Dr. Al-Ibrashy comes from a family whose careers 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 is an English literature teacher. This grew her interest in the arts, which is why she decided to go for architecture. 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.
She runs a twinship between a non-governmental organization and an architectural firm called the Megawra-Built Environment Collective (BEC). It started as a creative coworking space in 2011 with the aim to investigate the built environment in a way that connects it to other disciplines. Its work developed to become more practical as evident in its biggest project called Athar Lina Initiative, translating to heritage is ours. This initiative 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 with the premise that people will take care of their heritage if they benefit from it.
Megawra-BEC works on different architectural conservation projects, particularly the adaptive reuse of historic buildings for the community’s benefit. 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. 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 and 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 part because a lot of what is learned and done is transformed into an educational or research output. Megawra-BEC also works on heritage education, mostly with children and women.
Working in such a multi-faceted career comes with many challenges. Since it is 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. 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 there are plenty of barriers for women in Egypt, especially because the fields of construction and conservation are male-dominated. Despite the challenges, Dr. Al-Ibrashy enjoys her career because it is never boring. 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 tougher and taught her how to be aggressive when she needed to be.
If she were to give one piece of advice to all young women and girls, it is to understand themselves as individuals. She thinks it is quite 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 especially important, and it’s even more important to never lose that kind of curiosity.
Working in historic and “marginalized” neighborhoods in Egypt, Dr. Al-Ibrashy 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. Al-Ibrashy 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 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. Al-Ibrashy believes that we should be more mindful and more respectful of the communities that we work with and the sectors of society with whom we work in.
This story was written by Carla Akil