German spies hid out on the Nile's floating abodes. Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz used them as a literary backdrop for drug-hazed gatherings of Egyptian bohemians.
Cairo's houseboats own a history steeped in truth and myth. The romance of watching the world's longest river flow north toward the Mediterranean - below flocks of migratory birds and away from Cairo's grit and grind - has lured locals and foreigners alike to live afloat on the Nile.
Nile vistas, river breezes and shady riverbank gardens filled with flowers, creeping hyacinth and guava trees virtually block out Cairo's masses, noise and pollution.
Historical figures from Cleopatra to officers of Napoleon Bonaparte's victorious army have lived on the river, sailing as the Egyptian queen did along papyrus tree-lined banks in a royal barge or living in apartments tethered to the Nile's edge.
Known as "awamas" or "dahabiyas," the 30 or so houseboats of Kit Kat are akin to oases in the Arab world's largest city. Kit Kat is the main mooring for such boats, located off a Cairo suburb named after the dance club Egypt's last King Farouk frequented until it was torn down and replaced by a mosque.
Kit Kat attracts everyone from backpackers and British teachers there for relatively short - and cheap - stays to Saudi millionaires and Egyptian TV personalities.
Following numerous Nile relocations, the Kit Kat cluster of boats - which vary in quality and sturdiness depending on their age and the owner's budget and willingness to spend - now float a fine line separating Egypt's haves and have-nots.
Moored to the river's western bank, the boats abut Kit Kat and the working-class district of Imbaba - once a hot bed of Islamic fundamentalism and also the scene of the 1798 "Battle of the Pyramids," in which Napoleon's 25,000 French troops defeated a 40,000-strong army defending Egypt, an Ottoman province at the time.
On the river's opposite shore is Zamalek, the leafy and posh island neighborhood from where the line of two-story wooden awamas - each bearing its own design and color - can be seen slowly rocking on the Nile.
During World War II, the houseboats were home to British army officers, as well as two
German spies who were spirited into Cairo from the Western Desert by Laszlo Almasy, the real-life Hungarian count whose character was reshaped into Ralph Fiennes' role in the
Academy Award-winning film "The English Patient."
In last year's Egyptian-made film "Days of Sadat," the renegade army officer Anwar Sadat - more than two decades before becoming Egypt's president - is shown meeting the spies in the clandestine setting of a secluded houseboat to plot against British forces stationed in Egypt. The scene, based on historical events, was filmed on a Kit Kat houseboat with a houseboat dweller playing one of the spies.
History has it that Hekmet Fahmy - a famous belly dancer who worked at the Kit Kat Cabaret - was a double agent who helped the spies from her own neighboring houseboat.
Mahfouz, who in 1988 became the first Arab Nobel literature laureate, published his "Adrift on the Nile" in 1966, depicting the daily sunset gatherings on a houseboat of malcontent Egyptian friends who talk about the ills of post-1952 revolution Egypt, all the while passing a hashish-filled water pipe.
Mahfouz's book also describes the giant Amm Abduh, dressed in a traditional peasant robe, or galabeya. He is a version of the watchmen who act as both real estate agent for vacant awamas and security guard.
"I was born on the houseboats, I could never live anywhere else. Being in an apartment would be like a prison," says Ikhlas Helmy, 55, a Kit Kat denizen known for her daily feeding of scores of street cats on a diet of chicken intestines she buys from a local market.
"We have the Nile's fresh air, the view of the river. Living beside the Nile gives me better health and makes me feel so relaxed," she says.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Located in the Cairo Nile-side suburb of Kit Kat, just north of the British Council in Agouza. The boats begin at May 15 Bridge and line the Nile northward toward Imbaba Bridge.
COST: Monthly rents vary, depending on the quality, but can start from $133 to $443.
FINDING A VACANCY: Easiest way is to knock on the door and ask. First catch a taxi to Kit Kat and start walking from the May 15 Bridge north along the corniche, the riverside avenue. Some vacancies are posted on signs; otherwise just ask the watchman, or bawwab, who can be found just inside the gates.
AMENITIES: Apart from Nile views and private gardens, all houseboats include the basics of running water, telephones and electricity. Depending on the boat, air conditioning, satellite TV and other plush amenities are available.