Jul 15

The man next to the governor: how a police state ruined a city


In June of 2013 a group of heritage activists, architects, and concerned citizens organized a protest outside the Cairo governorate regarding the speedy deterioration of historic Cairo. The historic city had been suffering for years but since 2011 the process of deterioration had increased to an unprecedented pace with new constructions rising in the small plots between registered buildings and with architectural details disappearing from buildings daily. A historic gate was demolished a month earlier after gaining official demolition permits. The situation was dire, and it continues to be, but there was no response from any of the concerned ministries or the governorate. A protest was urgently needed to bring attention to this pressing issue as the UNESCO status of the historic city could potentially be jeopardized and the historic urban fabric was, and continues to be, fragmented.

To our surprise, the governor came out of the building and interacted with the public. An invitation was extended for the organizers of the protest to return and meet with the governor in a roundtable discussion to communicate our concerns.

A few days later a group of around 10 visited the governorate. The fenced building overlooking Abdeen Square is highly guarded in such a way that makes it foreboding for the general public to approach let alone enter. This is the administrative institution that that is meant to run the city and manage its affairs. Yet the public is not invited to participate in this process of governance, is not able to elect the governor, and is not to have access to town hall meetings open to the public. Our visit to the governorate building must have been an unusual event. We were ushered to a waiting room then to a grand meeting hall and awaited the governor to arrive.

The governor at the time was Osama Kamal, who teaches civil engineering at Banha University. He was a decent man who seemed interested in our concerns. This could have potentially been one of the rare opportunities when Cairo residents sit around the same table with those managing municipal affairs.

Unfortunately, that potential was interrupted because the governor did not come into the meeting alone. To his left was another man, probably in his late sixties if not older, who didn’t introduce himself fully and for the rest of this blog will be referred to as Mr. Security. He spoke with confidence and defiance as if HE was the governor. Mr. Security was in charge of policing the part of the city we are concerned with, wasat district. He interrupted our conversation with the governor by showing a lengthy powerpoint presentation with images showing his men, the police, performing their duty in the historic city, inspecting streets, removing road blocks and arresting street vendors. None of these were our concerns during this meeting. Mr. Security then proceeded to explain that in order for the building law to be enforced and for the construction mafia to be stopped from building illegal buildings amid the historic city that lethal force will be needed. He argued that the mafia is armed and that the police can not show their force now because the security situation has been fragile since the revolution.



[Another historic house was demolished recently. There was no evidence of its poor structural condition. The house is in the heart of Darb al-Ahmar and was an integral part of the urban fabric surrounding it. There is a police station near by which didn’t prevent the destruction of heritage.]

At one point he argued that if an old house is nearing collapse that it would be in his interest, as a police man, to demolish it in order to avoid its collapse over its inhabitants. Mr. Security was sugar coating the destruction of the historic city as an act of protecting lives.

The governorate as an institution has no power to implement or enforce the law, it must always seek security clearances and to request ahead of time the need for a police force. However, in Egypt the police are utilized for political purposes, i.e they are more concerned with rounding up political activists and “trouble makers” than enforcing the law. What that means is, even if we are lucky and we have a governor who cares about a seemingly trivial issue, from the security state’s point of view, such as the protection of a thousand year old city and its buildings, he has no real power without the security apparatus fully supporting him. When it comes to saving two hundred year old house gates and three hundred year old houses, it is unlikely that the security apparatus will mobilize to enforce the law. In the meantime no proper investigations are carried out into who these construction mafias are and who provides them with materials and connects their real estate investments with utilities. For all we know the construction mafia could very well be closely connected with the “security mafia.”

While this meeting was meant to be about concerned citizens speaking to the governor, it turned into Mr. Security’s theatrics of how he is doing his best to control the situation. Every time a question is raised, Mr. Security would jump in to answer, and most of the time the governor was not able to provide more than his opinion on various matters since he is part of a chain of command and he relies on that chain to get information based on which he can sign off on a decision. But what became apparent is that these decisions are already determined by the information he receives from Mr. Security and his team. Even still, a gubernatorial decision will ultimately require approval again from the security apparatus. The governor then, in this structure, seemed to me like little more than a facade for the police state that actually runs the city.

When the “conversation” seemed hopeless in regards to the issue of heritage some of us raised other practical questions about specific problems that need immediate attention. I used this opportunity to bring attention to the pedestrian bridge over Azhar street that had been removed nearly a year earlier, making crossing one of Cairo’s busiest and most historically significant intersections nearly impossible. Not only was the bridge removed, but a fence was erected in the middle of the street diving the two directions of traffic, a physical obstacle for pedestrians crossing the street. I asked a simple question that to me seemed practical, why not place a traffic light and a cross path at this key location? Mr. Security laughed! To him Egyptians are like sheep, hordes, they won’t understand the concept of a crosswalk or a traffic light and that such things only work in “developed countries.” No need for a study to prove such claims, he knows best.

Mr. Security and the apparatus he belongs to seem to have fully embraced colonial mentality with all its racism and classicist outlook. He then said that there is a plan under consideration to erect new pedestrian bridges with escalators across the city in key locations. I was baffled by how such an expensive and unnecessary “solution” was considered when more obvious solutions were being dismissed as laughable. Who decides on the budget of these escalators and what urban study determined that this was the best solution to the problem? Furthermore, what is the bidding process, if there is one, that will determine the contractor who will carryout such a project? Pedestrian bridges are no laughing matter, in fact when they are built (in a city where the majority of inhabitants are pedestrians), they are inaugurated with great fanfare, even the prime minister, the housing minister and the Cairo governor all went last fall to inaugurate a pedestrian bridge, imagine that!


[The inauguration of a pedestrian bridge in December 2013.]

The meeting, which lasted over an hour, ended with no reached conclusions. A woman who runs the new, astonishingly new!, Cairo Heritage Preservation Unit, proposed future meetings. A week later the June 30 protests began, many of us joined, I did, naively thinking that things might change for the better. They didn’t. A new governor was appointed but most likely the man next to him who really holds the keys to running Cairo is still the same. 


[Hayat al-Nofus Palace in Malawy was incrementally destroyed. Its location adjacent to the city’s police headquarters did not protect it from destruction.]

I remembered this encounter today because of news that 20, out of a total of 28, new governors who will be appointed are officers, clones of Mr. Security. Millions of dollars go into the budgets of the security apparatus, which does little regarding the security of individuals, of society, or the security of heritage sites and national patrimony. In fact there have been a series of acts of destruction over the past two years in various cities and all of them were in sites directly adjacent to police headquarters with nothing done to prevent such acts nor to conduct proper investigation. For example a historic palace (pictured above) in the southern city of Malawy, adjacent to security headquarters, was incrementally destroyed. The museum of the same city was entirely looted. Another palace in Qena belonging to Makram Ebeid, a national figure, also adjacent to the security headquarters, was incrementally destroyed. And of course there is the bombing outside the police headquarters in Cairo that destroyed the Museum of Islamic Art across the street. In addition to the continued lack of security in many urban districts, these acts of destruction are either evidence of total incompetence or willful collaboration on the part of the security apparatus to erase national heritage, and to keep Cairo and Egypt’s cities comfortably cushioned in their position as third world cities, perpetually, forever.

There continues to be zero accountability. Despite the failures of the police state to perform any of its civic duties the budget of the interior ministry has been increased multiple times under the subsequent governments since 2011.

The first steps towards better cities are obvious: Participatory planning, accountability of public officials, elections of governors and local councils, transparent budgets, and rewarding competence over political loyalty.

These are already colossally difficult tasks. But with people like Mr. Security and his security machine intervening in how cities and spaces of everyday life for millions of Egyptians are shaped and how hundreds of years of historic heritage in cities are recorded and protected, such tasks are simply impossible.


[1949 Cartoon, a police man preventing a man from casting his vote. The police have a long history of political interference rather than civic service.]

Jul 12

Dispatch from Venice: 4 national participations worth a closer look


In June the 14th International Architecture Exhibition (Mostra Internazionale di Architettura) opened in Venice. Curated by Rem Koolhaas, this year’s exhibit is about “architecture not architects.” In the words of the president of the biennale, this is “a research-centered biennale,” in which the participating national pavilions explore the theme of “absorbing modernity 1914-2014.” I have reservations regarding the notion that modernity is “absorbed.” What does that really mean? If we are to accept the metaphor then who made this wet mess in the first place that was later “absorbed” by various nations? I’m not so convinced of the idea that nations are like pieces of toilet paper merely absorbing modernity produced by an unnamed source. Absorption is not an apt metaphor for capturing the last century of historical transformations that resulted in various, often uneven, forms of modernism. Together the sixty-six participating countries “present a portrait of a terrifying century in which almost every country was destroyed, divided, occupied, drained, and traumatized, yet survived,” Koolhaas writes in his introduction.

Nonetheless, the idea of a research-based exhibition reflecting on the history of architectural production over the past century in various national contexts produced some impressive results. Probably for the first time ever one can walk from one display to the next to learn about how various countries experienced this century of architecture. This might be the first true international comparative exhibition on architectural modernism. Some displays are much more impressive in terms of research than others, some missed the point completely, others fell short of really communicating a clear idea or narrative.

Here are snapshots of four of the participating countries and their “research-centered” contributions to the theme of “absorbing modernity.”




The Irish display is a good reminder that less is more. Rather than taking on too much, or everything that a century of modernism in a national context can offer, the curators of the Irish pavilion were smart to set their parameters. The Irish exhibition is titled “Infra-Eireann” and it “presents ten infrastructural episodes across a period of a hundred years. Placing architecture within a technological and cultural flow of national and international dimensions, it explores the operations of infrastructure in the making of modern Ireland at a range of scales from the detail design of objects to entire landscapes and other social and physical territories.” Whoever wrote that paragraph deserves an award for the most concise and clear concept and introduction to an exhibit.

With a variety of media (models, drawings, and photographs) the exhibit showcases 10 particular buildings or projects that the curators identified as key benchmarks in Ireland’s history of modernization. These ten projects fit under categories such as transportation, electricity, education, aviation, television and telecom. The selected buildings not only represent various technological and infrastructural milestones but they also span the century and therefore provide snapshots into what modernism looked like at particular moments in time. Selected projects include the Galway Regional Sanatorium designed by Norman White (1946), and RTE Television Center designed by Ronald Tallon of Scott Tallon Walker Architects (1962). Overall the exhibition wastes no words, space or time to deliver a direct and to the point view of a country’s history of modernism that is somewhat on the margins of the canonical histories of modern architecture. There are no polemics here, just good research. For more information, click here.

Dominican Republic



Speaking of countries on the margins of the history of modern architecture; the Dominican Republic is participating for the first time at the architecture biennale and it is an impressive first show. The exhibition titled “Fair Concrete: the promise of the ruin” takes one particular site constructed at a particular moment in the country’s history of modernism as site from which to reflect on the past future and the present of modernity. The Free World’s Fair of Peace and Confraternity, a mouthful of a title, took place in 1955 in Santo Domingo and it was organized by the country’s then dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina. In a year 70 buildings were erected to host the event in an area that came to be known as La Feria. The resulting buildings are impressive reflections of the dictator’s ambitions and they “afforded him the opportunity to tout his accomplishments and to reprise, for an international audience, his number one favorite role: that of the Savior in Chief.” Reading these words as an Egyptian ring a few bells.

The exhibit does multiple things at once: on the one hand it functions as a kind of partial archive with a collection of images, texts and archival materials that introduce visitors to an unfamiliar episode in the history of modernism. These items are beautifully arranged in a space constructed out of concrete blocks, translating the title of the exhibition into a material and spatial experience. The next space consists of a series of floating light boxes with archival images of buildings and monuments from the fair site when it was first constructed juxtaposed with its contemporary present life, how it fits half a century later into the city’s social life. In fact this is at the core of the exhibit, how these “ruins” of a past future modern are part of the present social life of the city. For more information, click here.




Still on the margins of the cannonical history of modernism is the Middle East. Titled “Fundamentalists and Other Arab Modernisms,” Bahrain’s third participation at the architecture biennale presents an impressive overview of the region’s experience with architectural production over the past century. In a bold move, the commissioner of the pavilion, Bahrain’s Ministry of Culture, does away with one of the main, and perhaps most problematic, organizing elements of the Venice biennale: the nation state as an organizational category. Instead, Bahrain commissioned the Beirut-based Arab Center for Architecture (ACA) to create a survey of a century of architecture across the entire region. The result is a publication edited by George Arbid, director of ACA, that brings together essays by sixteen scholars about the Arab Maghreb, Arab East Africa, Egypt, Iraq, Arab Levant, Arabian Peninsula and Bahrain. By doing so Bahrain placed itself and its modernism within a regional context. Arbid selected 100 buildings from across the region which are represented in the book with wonderfully reproduced archival photographs and drawings. This is not an easy feat in a region where public archives are nearly non-existent. This is the first such compilation of buildings and essays focusing on the past century of architectural modernism in the Middle East. The hefty tabloid-sized book, 40,000 copies, are generously provided for free.

The exhibition space, designed by Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury, creates a circular enclosure within the Arsenal building with the books as part of the structure. In a time when many of the region’s nation-states are disintegrating along with their histories of modernization and modernism and when archives and libraries are burned, looted and with them the forever loss of a century of the region’s history, Bahrain’s pavilion is an urgent attempt to recollect and archive the remaining fragments. For more information, click here.




Interestingly the Middle East as a region appears in another pavilion. The USA pavilion, with an exhibition titled “Office US”goes a step further by presenting a global history of a century of architectural modernism. The link between the various projects built around the world is that they are designed by American architectural firms. One thousand projects in total are available in an open library, each project with a folder consisting of information about it, its designer and additional context. “The forms, technologies, and production processes of US architectural offices have traveled the globe over the last hundred years,” reads the exhibition description. It continues, “from the 1920s European importation of US architectural ingenuity, through the 1950s Marshall Plan architecture and the 1970s oil-fueled projects in the Middle East, to the contemporary global proliferation of super-tall buildings and NGO-sponsored interventions. Individually and collectively, these projects tell multiple, imbricated stories of US firms, as well as a broader narrative of modernization and its global reach.” If Rem Koolhaas is asking national pavilions to explore how modernity was “absorbed” in their respective countries, the US pavilion is shamelessly suggesting that the United States has, through its architectural firms, produced modernity like a discharge for the world to absorb.

American involvement in world politics looms large as one goes from one project to the next. Some of the projects include Hilton hotels built throughout the Mediterranean in the 1950s as part of Cold War politics. There are American military cities in Saudi Arabia. And of course there are many tall glass structures built in Gulf cities, which have given many US architectural firms a new lease on life and an endless market for them to provide their services. This is a very rich contribution to the biennale that may not look like much at first but needs many hours to explore. The viewer here is invited to be a researcher. For more information, click here.

Jun 28

Resident Perspective: Salah Salem

Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods. Share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.


Where in Cairo do you live?

Obour Buildings, Salah Salem Street. Belongs to Heliopolis district.

List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.

Positive: a garden between every two buildings, good cleaning services (trash, sweeping floors), good transportation (buses, and 2 new metro stations are now nearby “Stadium & Book Fair”), garage for every building, safe, has a nearby long avenue for walking, running, cycling, etc.

Negative: Loud traffic, not enough services (almost all of them are shopping stores), hard to form close neighbors because of the many companies and mostly-elder population, no nearby hospital or clinic.

How do you move around Cairo (modes of transport) and what would you like to see different regarding the future of transport in the city?

Ordered by frequency: - Walking - Metro (after the new metro extension for the third line) - Public buses - Microbuses (unofficial buses)

How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?

Connected through transportation but isolated because it doesn’t provide services to Cairo. Maybe shopping stores and that’s it. So no need to really come over except if you work in an office here.

What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?

1- Traffic: I think we should stop encouraging owning cars by all the projects focused on them like expanding crossovers or widening streets by removing sidewalks. Instead we need to make it even harder for people to get to their destination so they know that this is not a city designed for cars, this is designed for humans. We need wider sidewalks, bike lanes in main avenues, more metro lines and public transportation and less solutions for how to make car the center of the city. Also startups related to traffic like bey2ollak, wasalny, and others concerned with Cairo should team up to offer a reliable and safe carpooling service.

2- Losing Heritage: We need smarter solutions to saving our heritage. Stop bearing poor people because they live close to a monument, and start embrace them and teach them to use the monument to boost their business.

3- Harassment This is becoming ridiculous. There’s no point of making a street better if I don’t feel safe walking in it. We pick streets and roads based on safety first then anything else. So harassment is making Cairo a lot smaller for us because many streets are not a choice.

What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.

1- Many historical places: You almost have a monument for every major historical event that happened in Egypt here in Cairo.

2- variety in services and unofficial markets.

Do you relate to the historic heritage of your district or of Cairo in general? Do you think you have a good sense of history of the city? Would you say you are have “civic pride” or are proud to live in Cairo?

Yes I do, please note that most people taking this survey will have a sense of responsibility toward the city to fill it. So don’t count on the percentage of “yes” you get from that survey as a representative of what citizens of Cairo really think.

Do you understand how the city is governed/managed? Do you think your community/district would be better or worst if residents from the community/district were involved in local government (محليات)?

No I don’t, I have no idea who is responsible for what and I have a hard time finding answers.

In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?

Public Space: No where.

Green Space/Parks: only ticket gardens, no gardens integrated with the streets.

Gated communities: Many, even if there’s no actual gate. and that’s in both expensive districts (new cities) and poor alleys where they consider those alleys part of their private homes.

Museums:  Egyptian Museum needs more labels on the monuments, no affordable guidebooks for Egyptians to buy and not enough security inside, monuments are kept in bad displays and can easily be sabotaged, cleaning staff are irresponsible. The Islamic Museum is always closed, the same with Agricultural Museum. The Coptic Museum is the best kept museum, nice displays, nice lighting, everything is labeled, the tour makes sense and organized chronologically, good staff. Abdeen Palace is good but security is strict and sometimes forbid access to rooms that are supposed to be among the tours. I wasn’t allowed to take photos of the palace from outside.

Unplanned districts: I think they should be embraced instead of being treated as ticking bombs.

Downtown: Been there only once, don’t feel safe going there because of Tahrir square tension.

If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?

I have no idea. The problem is that nice districts to live in don’t have enough services and maybe that’s the reason they’re still nice.

*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Jun 27

Egypt’s cities: governed by spectacle


In recent weeks there has been a series of media spectacles surrounding various figures in government demonstrating to the public that they are taking control of Egypt’s urban problems. The most notorious example is of course the president’s call for Egyptians to walk and use bicycles to travel around the city in order to decrease traffic congestion and to lower the government’s expenses on fuel subsidies. The announcement came during a morning event in which the president and members of the military academy took a ride in what amounts to an impressive photo op. The making of that photo op however entailed blocking streets and securing the area from bystanders. Behind the scenes of the cycling event was a traffic jam waiting for the event to end so that civilians in their cars and minibuses can have the road back to them.

While some cycling enthusiasts have embraced the gesture as pointing in the right direction, it should be noted that the president’s bike ride was not accompanied by a policy announcement or an actual government initiative to make Cairo and other Egyptian cities bike friendly, or pedestrian friendly for that matter. Once the cameras left the traffic returned and it was business as usual. The media spectacle was sufficient for some as it performed its palliative purpose without really creating real solutions nor proposing concrete steps towards making cycling or even walking a realistic mode of moving around the city for enough people in order for it to impact Cairo’s traffic, pollution or even obesity problems.

The spectacular approach to dealing with serious urban problems goes much further than issues of transport. Over the past several weeks there has been a series of reported cases of police and military forces using dynamite to destroy illegally constructed real estate across the country, from Cairo, Alexandria, Banha and other cities and towns.

As the video above shows these explosive acts of “applying the law” are insufficient to actually deal with the problem. Behind the collapsing building are many others like it. Egypt has hundreds of thousands, by the most conservative estimates, of these “illegal” structures, many of which were built during the past three years as a form of real estate speculation within the informal market. Furthermore, most of these buildings were in fact built “illegally” with the assistance of members of the state such as local government officials with ties to the National Democratic Party who profited by allowing such activities to take place while the country was experiencing political turmoil.

While using dynamite to destroy a few buildings sends a clear message that the very dysfunctional state that allowed these buildings to exist is now set to eliminate them, this is not a practical solution. Not to mention the million of Egyptian pounds wasted in this process of building and destroying and building again. There is no policy response created based on studies that provide long lasting solutions. Instead the state flexes its muscles, now that it chooses to communicate to the public that it is in control. This is happening while the state aims to build one million new housing units in a 40 billion dollar deal. What if a nationwide survey was conducted regarding these already constructed illegal buildings whereby criteria are set to allow for some constructions to remain and used as part of state’s affordable housing program?

Perhaps the winner of the prize for “most visible man in power” award is Alexandria’s governor. The official facebook page of the governor constantly updates Alexandrians about how the governor is literally taking matters into his own hands and is on the pavement daily dealing with issues such as trash collection, road construction and street vendors.

In the video above he is inspecting a site of where he will create a market for street vendors. The idea is simple, clear city squares of sidewalk vendors crowding the streets and give some of them an assigned space within an open air market place to allow them to make a living. Once more while this seems like a novel concept, but it is absolutely arbitrary and fails to tackle the problem within a policy framework. Instead there is an ad hock approach to the solution, as the governor himself is telling his army of assistants who should or shouldn’t have a space in the market. This is an unelected retired general with no experience or training in how to manage a city of four million residence and he is giving oral orders based on his personal judgement to solve a complex issue the is about economy, public space and social order.

These “solutions” might appear to work temporarily but they are fragile and have no solid foundations based on policies and laws that are applied consistently regardless of who is president or who is governor. These spectacular show stoppers are less about solving Egypt’s immense urban problems and are more about bloating the image of particular figures and the security establishments they belong to. Loyalties within the civilian ranks of the municipalities are to the general at the top first and foremost, if he is gone, the city falls apart. In other words, the lives of millions of Egyptians and their right to better managed cities is held hostage.


[Bulldozers used to destroy makeshift shops with their contents as part of Alexandria’s governor’s show of force]

In another video (above) the governor braves the streets of Alexandria, yelling at shopkeepers and giving them a “last warning” before he sends “forces” to shut their shops. Citizens are treated as children. The state enforces the law with nothing short of thuggery.

A few concluding points: Egypt’s cities have serious urban problems. Some of these problems are visible on a daily basis and make for great opportunities for those in power to show they are in charge. However, more serious problems such as daily power outages, contaminated drinking water and failing sewage systems won’t be the subject of any photo ops or spectacular videos by officials any time soon. These are problems that require real solutions, something the state with its current structure is incapable or perhaps unwilling to provide. In fact the Egyptian state, with its dysfunctional institutions, thrives on failure and the ongoing state of emergency. Real solutions would threaten the very existence of the many strongmen who claim they are barely keeping the country together from total collapse.

Egypt’s cities do not need strong men who walk the streets with sticks. If the governor needs to leave his office everyday to oversee road construction, relocate street vendors and demolish illegal buildings then what is the need for the tens of thousands of state employees who drain the state budget on salaries but do little more than push papers?

Enforcing the law means more than selective application using dynamite and bulldozers. It means real reform so that the law and the legal system that enforces it function consistently and continually with no loopholes. It means conducting serious surveys and studies of the current situation and putting experts to work to provide tailored solutions that are long lasting. It means drafting sound policy rather than governing Egypt’s cities with nothing more than ephemeral spectacles.

Jun 08

Port Said municipality’s war on trees


[In the name of development and modernization, Port Said’s sidewalks have been removed, trees cut, and streets damaged, making the already run-down city an even less hospitable urban environment to residents. Photo by Mohamed Kamal Mohamed. Click here for the full album.]

While cities around the world are working to improve walkability, create new public spaces, promote alternative transit such as biking, widening sidewalks and planting more trees, authorities in Egypt are doing exactly the opposite.

Last month residents in Suez Canal city of Port Said found their city under systematic attack by authorities. Without any public engagement over the planning and management of the city authorities began to remove century old trees that are as old as the streets they line. Not only trees but in many cases the sidewalks were also removed. Carrying out this task isn’t cheap nor easy, the obvious question then is: Why would the same authorities who fail to carryout minimum municipal management such as street cleaning, trash collection and maintenance of public buildings, why would these same authorities put so much effort into reducing the quality of life in a city already hit by economic stagnation and with its architectural and urban heritage disappearing everyday. Why put the effort to systematically undo the barely sufficient streetscape of the city?


[The “modernization” of Port Said streets as seen by authorities involves the removal of sidewalks in historic districts and cutting century old trees. Photo by Waleed Montasser.]image

Why are Egyptian authorities doing to an Egyptian city what Israeli authorities regularly do to Palestinian village: uproot trees and destroy infrastructure?

But this is not only happening in Port Said, cities across the county are confronting the same practices carried out by state authorities. Even in some of Cairo’s relatively affluent neighborhoods authorities have been systematically butchering trees with no warning or excuse. Sometimes, as is the case of Port Said, such acts of state-sanctioned vandalism are presented as part of “upgrading” or “modernizing” the city. In Port Said the official excuse for such acts of destruction was to widen the street, despite the relatively small number of cars in the city and the lack of any public demand to widen the street.

An important dimension in all of this is the issue of governance, which was discussed in Aaron Jakes’ article in the Egypt Independent in 2012. The article was instigated also by an act of tree cutting that took place on his street in Zamalek. Jakes writes: “For over a century, an arrangement designed to strangle political initiative at its roots has continued to shape the state institutions that often wield the most direct influence over people’s daily lives.” The residents of Port Said, Cairo, Damanhur or Alexandria have no say in whether authorities can just show up one day and butcher an entire street worth of trees, or show up one day and dismantle the tram system as happened in Heliopolis, or show up one day and destroy the entire sidewalk as an act of modernizing the street.



[The court building in Heliopolis, Cairo was fronted by a row of trees that disappeared over night. Photos by Michel Hanna.]


Members of the Port Said community complained and attempted to bring media attention to their ordeal but little was done to improve the situation. Below is a statement by two community initiatives concerned with Port Said’s heritage and urban future. The statement refers to the most recent constitution which protects the right to a a healthy environment and requires state institutions to protect natural resources (trees in this case) and to strive for sustainable development. Needless to be said, who cares what the constitution says if the structures of state institutions responsible for urban affairs do not allow for civilian oversight nor accountability let alone allow actual community participation in decision making.


As a side note, for the sake of context, it should be remembered that Port Said along with other Suez Canal cities are set for major urban transformations which have not been disclosed to the public. These transformations are part of the controversial Suez Canal development scheme financed by Gulf capital in partnership with the Egyptian military. Additionally, Port Said’s municipal authorities are always members of the security apparatus due to the city’s “strategic” position. This means that the governor and all those working for him are more concerned with whatever they perceive as “security” over the constitutional rights of residents to a tree and a sidewalk.

What kind of urban present and future could possibly come out of this stubborn, self-destructive, security-minded, authoritarian system that can no longer be called a municipal system?

image[Local residents can only document the damage. This is a typical image of butchered trees in Port Said, photographed by Waleed Montasser.]


[Another image taken by Michel Hanna who documents the continuous and relentless tree butchering process carried out by municipal authorities in his district of Heliopolis, Cairo. Here is an example of what authorities call “tree trimming,” otherwise known as urban beautification. Michel’s blog “Coal Swamps" is mostly dedicated to documenting these acts of tree-killing.]

Jun 07

Resident Perspective: Madinet Nasr

Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods. Share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Where in Cairo do you live?

Nasr City. Intended to be widely spaced, for the elite. Ended up being densely urbanized, full of cars, with barely any passages for pedestrian usage.

List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.

Positive: The urban fabric is easy to understand, thus you’re less likely to get lost. There are a lot of close-by services, so you don’t really need to get out much.

Negative: There are a lot of gardens, which are poorly maintained, all gated off from the community instead of embracing the community. The streets are too wide to provide space for cars, making the thermal environment rather hot in summer. Buildings were intended to be with basement garages, that ended up being workshops or cafeterias that bestow a wide range of noise at odd hours throughout the day and during weekends. Buildings are extremely ugly, with barely any rhythm in style or shape. Ceilings are low and do not offer decent ventilation for indoor spaces. Most buildings are higher than was initially planned, which results in a dense community of massive number of cars, and a skyline that is cramped with horrid architecture.

How do you move around Cairo (modes of transport) and what would you like to see different regarding the future of transport in the city?

I use a car. I would much rather use a bike to a close-by metro station that can help me move around the city and enjoy the weather and sun. Maybe during summer, i would more likely park my car to the metro station, but i would definitely want to drive a lot less and save time wasted in Cairo traffic.

How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?

My district is far but well connected within the city. I would like a stronger connection via metro lines and/or tram lines.

What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?

Traffic: we need decent public transportation, plus on a broader scale providing job opportunities outside of the capital (decentralization). Harassment: social awareness and strict laws set to allow women to move around safely. Noise: I have no idea what can solve this problem except general decency, but it’s killing me!

What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.

I like Muizz Street the most in Cairo and older Cairo spaces such as Darb 1718. I also love Nile cafeterias and spaces that provide seating in-front of the Nile, i would love it if it were public open spaces, not just private paid for spaces. (Club 33, leftbank-Zamalik & Platform-Maadi).

Do you relate to the historic heritage of your district or of Cairo in general? Do you think you have a good sense of history of the city? Would you say you are have “civic pride” or are proud to live in Cairo?

I am extremely proud to be living in Cairo, that’s why I want it to improve.

Do you understand how the city is governed/managed? Do you think your community/district would be better or worst if residents from the community/district were involved in local government (محليات)?

Yes, and I would believe people’s involvement can actually change a lot.

In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?

Public Space: Markets such as Ataba, or Boulak where people are free to use their space as they will and intersect with different lives from all over the city.

Green Space/Parks: Parks stranded away from the community with gates and tickets, like those of Nasr City.

Gated communities: An inevitable response for people who have the means to close off from the intolerable city.

Museums What comes to mind is the Egyptian museum with poorly maintained artifacts, with barely any description.

Unplanned districts: Places full of potential and capacity for improvement.

Downtown: A misguidedly-utilized district in Cairo, that can be maintained with much more respect in regards to its history.

If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?

I would move to a gated community such as; Rehab or Madinaty.


*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

May 30

Cairo’s Traveling Peep Show Boxes


By Manar Moursi

It’s late in the afternoon on Sunday in Manial. Spring has arrived and bubbles are blowing in the air from an ice-cream cart look-alike. Two Cookdoor (fast food chain) employees in identical orange uniforms are seen peeping through the holes of what appears to be a cart but is tinted with pastel colors with a faceted form. A performer’s voice rings clear over this untouched quiet stretch of a corniche in Cairo with the words of a mawwal of Sheikh Immam:

“Protect your candle from the wind

Whether you choose to love or not

The morning is light dear fish;

Love whom you wish”

The ice-cream cart lookalike is the Wonder Box or Sandook El Agab, a storytelling-public art and design project inspired in form and function by the ancient Sandook El Donya/raree that were in use from as far as China to Europe and the Middle East from the 15th century onward. Earlier this month, two seemingly familiar objects a giant disco ball with Islamic patterns and an ice cream cart lookalike, visited the neighborhoods of Heliopolis, Bayn El Sarayat, Shobra El Kheima, Manial, Moqattam, Zamalek, and Ezbet Khairallah to awe and inspire audiences.


The traditional Sandook El Donya often took the form of a simple wooden box with magnifying lenses and a set of prints inside, which along with the storytelling talents of the showmen that accompanied it were a medium through which the public was transported through a magical journey of stories and places they had never seen before.

Italian architect Leon Battista Alberti is credited for the design of the first raree/peep show boxes in 15th century Europe. Alberti’s innovation was a mechanism which allowed users to look at perspective views through a small hole in a wooden box. Once viewers set their eyes near the hole they entered a private space of wonder beyond the mundaneness of their daily life. The traditional Sandook El Donya traveled from Italy to Egypt and once here, was modified with a form particular to this region, with puppets and “aragozes” that personified stories relating to this context.

Mahatat, a collective which brings art to public spaces along with curator Aida El Kashef conceived the idea to revive the medium of the old Sandook El Donya with new forms and techniques in early 2013. A year later, after receiving a generous grant from the Swiss Cooperation in Cairo, they invited 9 artists from multiple disciplines including architects to storytellers and musicians to work collectively on the design, construction and animation of 2 boxes with contemporary forms and techniques. These two boxes would begin their journeys across Cairo traveling from Moqattam to Shobra El Kheima.



Storytellers Laila El Balouty and Ahmed Mostafa collected stories from taxi and microbus drivers, as they were seen as vehicles which contain and collect everyday stories and myths that circulate around the city. These stories were merged and augmented through fictional devices. El Balouty and Mostafa worked in close collaboration with musicians Shadi El Hosseiny and Abdallah AbouZekry who composed the musical backdrop to the stories. Meanwhile architects Manar Moursi (of Studio Meem) and Mohamed Hassan worked alongside the visual arts team (comprised of Maya Gowaily, Yasmin Elayat and Youssef Faltas) to coordinate and integrate their structural constraints in the design of the two boxes.

For the design aspect it was important to visit and see existing traditional sandooks here in Cairo which are currently housed at the Agricultural Museum in Dokki and the Geographical Society in Qasr El Ainy. Further research was done not only on historical forms and techniques but contemporary uses particularly in India where the tradition is still alive in small towns across the subcontinent.





The artists decided from early on that one sandook would integrate traditional techniques with cutouts and projection mapping inside it while looking more futuristic from the outside. In contrast, the other sandook would integrate more interactive techniques while appearing to be more traditional in its exterior. Both sandooks were designed for private immersive experiences for the 4 viewers that were able to look through the holes at a time. The idea was to have 3 stories per sandook and to select members of the audience who could peep through the holes per story. The stories would be repeated in each performance site in order to allow more people to enjoy the experience. An important design objective was therefore to create a strong visual statement with the outer form of the sandook that would still captivate the non-peeping audience as they listened to the storytellers.

For the design aspect of the first sandook, I was inspired by a recent visit to Mashhad in Iran and the mirrored Islamic patterns that seemed to have psychedelic transcendental impact on those who witnessed their interiors.  I found those patterns repeated in egg shops and maklas (nut and seed shops) that dot Cairo. Seeing that mirrors were also employed as animation tools in the praxinscope-like techniques used inside the traditional sandooks, it was decided that mirrors in an Islamic pattern would be projected on a geodesic sphere to reference in some way both the context and these traditional techniques.

The form of a sphere was employed because of its purity and the desire to connect visually to magic crystal and disco balls. The designers wanted Cairo to have it its own giant disco ball that would travel accompanied by two storytellers and fantastical animated illustrations inside. The end result looked futuristic, like a giant space ship had landed in Bayn el Sarayat and in front of the Bazeleek Church in Heliopolis. Traveling around the city in an open truck the mirrors reflected light in brilliant patterns along their path.


The sphere was built as two geodesic domes that fit perfectly onto each other and these domes were further broken into 2 types of triangles that were attached together by joints that could be connected and disconnected. The idea was to construct something that can be assembled and disassembled easily on-site and then stored in a compact form in Mahatat’s office for future use.

For the second sandook, the form was derived from the everyday ice cream carts that one sees regularly around the city. The ice cream cart fulfilled both functional (size of projection screen) and aesthetic requirements as it was meant to disarm the viewer who would be called at by its everyday familiar sight with a slightly different palette of colors and form only to discover a whole set of digital interactive wonders to be experienced by peeping through its holes. In this sandook, the peeps were in a two level, dual layered experience for the viewer to move through. The peeps themselves were meant to be somewhat immersive thus their inward facing facets that acted as beehives of sorts to draw the viewers in.

The two sandooks will be traveling to Germany this upcoming July to perform at a university there. Upon their return to Egypt, the goal is to travel with both through different towns and small cities along the Delta.

Once out on the streets, the sandooks acted as transporters through time and space and purveyors of both edification and pleasure. In one story on the loss of the legendary Simon Bolivar’s sword, a drive through the city takes viewers to visit statues of the downtown midans, which come to life to startle and delight the viewers with their personal histories and contemporary stories.


Where Life and Death Share a Space


[A cemetery dweller in front of her (home).]

by Zeina Elcheikh

“I want to move from here, after all it is a grave, and I did not die yet”. These words may sound morbid, or perhaps coming from the afterlife. Yet, they were those of Mona, a lady I met at a strange place in Cairo. A place overcrowded like the city itself, not only from above the ground, but also from beneath…

During a stay in Cairo, where studying informality in the city was the main focus, I went to learn more about an unconventional type of informal housing: the cemetery dwellers, or the City of the Dead. Perhaps when this area, now stretching for about 7km, was established in 640 A.D. for the dead, no one had thought that it would become later a city of its own. Even the dead, resting in peace underneath, could not have expected that the living would eventually compete with them over space, their “home.” However, life has apparently treated those alive in such a way that they did not have any other chances for finding shelter.

Mona lost her husband few years ago. She cannot pay the low rent in the nearby informal area, so she came here with her younger son. The tomb is owned by her late father, thus it provides her with an accommodation free of charge. The widow was also lucky enough to have the tomb located in a strategic spot: on a narrow street where cars pass by, so she started a small business: a little shop. Her older newly-wed son is coming to join her with his bride, as his very low income is not enough to pay even a very low rent.

With my knowledge about burial customs from where I come from (Syria), I could not imagine how a tomb could be a suitable place to host activities of daily life. An Egyptian colleague explained broadly the concept of underground chambers, where the Dead are interred. She also mentioned the two rooms above the ground where family members could stay overnight, when they come to visit their late relatives, especially during religious festivities. A torabi (tomb keeper) gave me more details on how the burial system is undertaken here. There are two underground rooms, or spaces, so the dead are divided according to gender. These spaces, are not completely sealed, so a new comer can easily be added. The sight of four jars on the corners in several burial plots, reminded me of the four canopic jars, largely influenced by Ancient Egyptian customs, as well as the burial system itself. However, the torabi told me that many people insist on being buried in a single-person tomb, the type which I am more familiar with in Islamic culture, and which is called lahd.

I met a doubtful man, in his forties, who followed my husband and I with questions: “Are you coming from any authority in Cairo? Do you belong to a local or international TV channel? Are you journalists?” With my non-Egyptian accent and my student card, the torabi was also doubtful of my intentions, but he was less suspicious. However, he did not say much. He told me that he said a lot to the journalist who made a documentary last month, and the government does not want to change the living conditions for people here. Another torabi was so kind to walk us to the burial plot of an Egyptian famous actor’s family. He opened the gate and we entered. The family is a descendant of pashas. And even here, where death supposedly makes all people equal, signs of wealth cannot be missed. And people are divided, yet again in Cairo, into (very) rich and (very) poor.

Apparently our presence was not completely welcome. People know each other very well in the city of the dead, and a stranger is immediately recognized as such. People were staring at us, and to avoid being considered as a foreigners, we had to raise right hand and say every now and then “Essalamu Alaykom” (peace be upon you), the typical salutation. And it partially worked out. My curiosity kept arousing to hear the stories coming from people who did not mind to share their thoughts.


[Tombs surrounded by aspects of daily life.]

He used to come frequently here yelling and threatening us that he will throw us out. His funeral was just few months ago. Now he is among us, silent forever”. This was how Amal spoke about the owner of the burial plot, where she lives with her husband and five daughters. Before entering and talking to her, I asked my husband not to enter. Her husband was not at home, and that would be socially unacceptable. But when I joined him outside after my short meeting with Amal, he seemed to be in shock. He told me: “These two little kids wanted to rob me. The girl even asked me if I was looking for a mozza (hot girl, sometimes a prostitute)”.

I was warned not to go alone to the City of the Dead, as I would be subject to many unwanted encounters. With actually being there, all these rumors were put to rest. Stories followed from grave keepers and dwellers were frightening: they included cases of illegal new-borns burial or even secret hiding of murdered bodies. That is why many grave keepers said that they insist on having a burial permission before digging, but others do not demand the paperwork as long as they are paid handsomely.

We kept walking, surrounded by the tombs and curious eyes. Then, I heard some voices coming from the left side. I asked my husband if he still has curio to explore this place like I do: he nodded in agreement. There, a lady and a man were sitting and reading few verses of Koran. They were visiting some of their relatives, the dead ones, and came to bring some food and money to the torabi in charge of the tomb. “If we do not do so (bringing goods and money to the torabi) the graves could be illegally sold, or we might have a stranger buried among our family members” said the lady. The man added “My family had in the past seven tombs and burial plots. Now we only have two. I am here to show the torabi that someone is still following up on the family’s belongings. At least I will be securing a place for myself when I pass away”.

Some people eventually move all together, others stay and commute to where they work. The families who remain are typically families of tomb keepers torabi or sabi torabi (assistant of the tomb keeper). But others like Mona, and they are many, have no other place to go to except a family-owned tomb. A tomb that keeps her away from wandering homeless on the streets. Tomb life is (literally) informal: water comes mostly from a public tap on the street, electricity through illegal connections, and septic tanks instead of sewage networks (in order not to damage the deceased).

The City of the Dead deserves a visit. While it cannot be seen as tourist attraction, the site will interest a particular kind of visitor. Among the many uncommon encounters in Cairo, my visit to the City of the Dead was particularly enlightening. It is a place with extreme contradictions. Whether it is a failure of housing policy, uncontrolled population growth, or just a search for a cheap (free) accommodation, living among the Dead has become a (sad) reality. I understood the state of being alive as more than breathing and having vital parts still functional. I was enlightened by experiencing a place that is far more than what it appears. City of the Dead made me aware of the intimacy of life and death, so much complexity in one meter above ground and another below. It is a place more controversial than Cairo itself. A place where life and death share intimate space.

Zeina Elcheikh is a Syrian architect, holds a M.Sc. from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria. In Egypt, she joined the UNESCO office as an intern, while writing her M.Sc. thesis on Nubian Culture and Tourism in Southern Egypt.

May 20

Scaring the Landscape in Sharm el Sheikh


By Karim Maged

Since late 2013 early 2014 the South Sinai Governorate began the first steps towards a redevelopment project of the Hadabat Um el Sid (a clifftop of centuries old dried coral reefs) in Sharm el Sheikh.

Recently, a series of geological studies and construction studies were undertaken by Ain Shams University, Cairo University Environmental studies center and the Building and Housing Research Center (المركز القومي لبحوث البناء و الاسكان). This was out of the belief that there were several dangerous cracks in this natural formation which threaten the collapse of the whole cliff, its residents, and hotels. Residents welcomed the project, which was handed over to the Arab Contractors, and was to be supervised by the هيئة المجتمعات العمرانية and have المجموعة المصرية للاستشارات الهندسية as the consultant. Renovation and stabilization work started away from the residents’ homes and the coastline. Up to this point the project plans were not made available to residents who believed the project was away from the coastline and their homes.

However, on April 28th 2014 bulldozers and diggers entered the vicinity of the coast line where the cliff is located in what is known as ard el mazad and began dangerous digging. This resulted in sand particles burying the reef under the cliff which is protected by decree 2035; delineating protected marine zones of Ras Muhammed, Abu Galom and Nabq. In this case the marine coastline off Hadabat Um el Sid falls under the jurisdiction of decree 2035/1996 in the Ras Muhammed zone.

On April 29th residents wrote power of attorney letters to Sinai Reef’s lawyer who filed a police complaint. The police complaint was later followed up (تم استيفاء المحضر). A cover up soon began and the police complaint was not transferred to the prosecution as late as May 5th 2014. A telegraph template to the prosecutor general was handed out and residents sent in several telegraphs demanding the complaint be transferred to the prosecution. Sinai Reef pressed ahead so that a written legal order would be issued to halt the project. Eventually the prosecution summoned us on May 10th and several residents who went ahead and gave their testimonies.


On April 30th Residents were mobilized and Dr Mamdouh Hamza began writing his report, which was to be presented to the prosecution. Not only was the project dangerous to the reefs but also it could potentially cause the cliff to collapse because it was structurally flawed. The LE80 million project will not stabilize the cliff but it would cause it to fall faster. The project will change the aesthetic landmark nature of the cliff by creating a stamp concrete facade. The project will also brush over the root of the problem (a leaky old sewage/water network), rather than fix it.

The governor came to the site with heavy police presence and threatened the protesting residents saying that their actions will result in consequences. He also stressed that residents and their lawyers do not have a right to have a copy of the Environmental Impact Assessment- EIA - (stark violation of law 4/1994; law 9/2009). This confrontation was captured on camera. Up to this point we received by our own efforts the EIA but no master plan of the project was provided. The EIA was a rubber stamped copy, which did not specify the exact areas under construction.

The governor verbally agreed to halt construction until the Prime Minister held a meeting to discuss; no written order out of the South Sinai Governorate was issued.


In the process a meeting with the prime minister took place on May 6th, the South Sinai governor, Minister of Environmental Affairs Laila Eskandar (who we lobbied for her to attend since all environmental paperwork was signed by the South Sinai Ministry of Environmental Affairs representative under orders from the governor), Dr Mamdouh Hamza  and ourselves (Sinai Reef). The PM agreed with Dr. Mamdouh and halted the project while a new coordinating committee be made up and all plans disclosed and a re-study of the project be done as per Dr. Mamdouh Hamza’s new recommendations: planting Cacti, using natural support techniques, and fixing the root of the problem—the sewage system. The South Sinai governor did not formalize his agreement to the outcomes of this meeting.

Earlier this year Sinai Reef filed paperwork for licensing and was studying a project to be executed with bedouin fishermen in cooperation with the Ministry of Environment, my co-founder in Sharm el Sheikh was even appointed in the South Sinai governorate environmental committee. The governorate would have financed part of our proposed project. Since the Um el Sid crisis and our success in halting construction the governor has pulled the paperwork. The two-month waiting period for licensing elapsed and according to law 84/2002 any objections, either from the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MOSS) should have already been communicated during that period. As it stands our sources confirm the paperwork is at the governor’s desk who asked for his legal council’s signature and sent it to the South Sinai Directorate of Security despite the paperwork already having the Cairo’s (central government/state security) approval. The MOSS representative in South Sinai (وكيل وزارة التضامن الاجتماعي) asked us not to send court warnings, needless to say we did and plan to litigate for our license.
For official statements, video testimonies of residents please see our Facebook page (the website didn’t happen because funding stopped when no paperwork was officiated)
And on twitter @sinaireef
The website under construction except for statements is
English Media coverage:

May 19

Resident Perspective: Maadi

Resident Perspective is a series of standardized interviews with Cairo residents to get their views on the city and their neighborhoods. Share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Where in Cairo do you live?

Maadi. A place full of teachers and oil workers. It is greener than other areas, but still full of traffic and noise.

List the most positive and the most negative aspects of living there.

Other areas are a lot more exciting - with more local life and areas to explore. Maadi is a very easy area to live in for an Ex-pat - everyone pretty much speaks English and it is easy to buy things that you would find in the West.

How do you move around Cairo (modes of transport) and what would you like to see different regarding the future of transport in the city?

Mostly taxis, sometimes the metro and as often as possible the Nile Taxi, however that gets expensive. I wish there was an easier, cheaper ferry access for the city. I know there is a ferry, but I have no idea how often it comes or where it stops etc.

How does your district fit within Cairo? What would you like to see changed in that relationship between your neighborhood and the city?

It is connected well with the metro and buses. I wish there were more ferry options.

What are your top complaints about Cairo and what would you suggest to solve those problems?

1. Traffic (just too many cars on the road). 2. Garbage (there is no system for picking it up or for where people should throw it. There is also not enough garbage cans (but with no one to empty them, what is the point?) 3. Pollution (see number 1 - too many cars, see number 2 burning garbage is not a solution).

What do you like the most about Cairo and what are your favorite places in the city.

What I like most about Cairo are the people, the adventures to be had, and all the corners to be explored, there is so much history! Favorite places: Downtown, Zamalek, Khan El Khalili.

Do you relate to the historic heritage of your district or of Cairo in general? Do you think you have a good sense of history of the city? Would you say you are have “civic pride” or are proud to live in Cairo?

I don’t know the history of my area, except that it was built with keeping it more green in mind. There are beautiful trees and plants in many spots. Spring is a beautiful time to be here. I am definitely proud to live in Cairo. I believe that some people just have no idea what Cairo is really like and I am spreading the word.

Do you understand how the city is governed/managed? Do you think your community/district would be better or worst if residents from the community/district were involved in local government (محليات)?

I don’t understand how it is managed. I think there are too many big problems happening for the government to be worried about things like traffic, garbage and pollution even though I believe these things are extremely important. The country needs some stability in order to work on these issues. It seems like having a community/district government could help bring these kinds of issues to the table.

In the context of Cairo, what comes to mind when you think of these keywords?

Public Space: Filled with people, crowded.

Green Space/Parks: NONE (I know there are some, but you really have to look and make a day out of it).

Gated communities: Too many

Museums CLOSED, The Museum, of Antiquities is alright, I wish it had better lighting and a better layout, but with a guide it is OK. But there are countless other museums to visit, however, so many are closed. Sad.

Downtown: Love it! Full of character, great places to go out for a drink or to a gallery, every time I go there are new places to discover.

If you could move to another district in Cairo where would you move to?

Zamalek, or on a houseboat! They are more central and seem to have a calmer, less crowded feel to them!


*If you would like to tell us about where you live and share your views on Cairo, fill the survey by clicking here.

Apr 22

Egypt’s Museum Websites: Out of “Site”, Out of Mind


So you want to visit Cairo? You heard that because tourist numbers are so low lately there are great deals to come to Egypt and you thought “I can’t go to Egypt without seeing the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, and walk around Historic Cairo, maybe explore a few museums.” Like most tourists in the twenty first century, the first thing you do to get yourself excited about the trip is you go online, do some “research” and Google some sites you might potentially want to visit. A search for the Egyptian Museum brings you to the site pictured above, “last updated May 2003.” There isn’t even an official website for the pyramids, the world’s top archeological attraction!


Museums are public institutions, they need an audience. Without an audience a museum is nothing but a glorified storage facility. In order for museums to build an audience, local and international, they need promotion. A museum’s website is perhaps its most important promotional tool but when that website is not updated for more than a decade it can have a reverse effect.

So what should the website of Egypt’s most important museum do? It should be informative and look good. A good museum website should include information such as the mission of the museum, collections, current exhibition (assuming that the museum even curates temporary exhibitions), as well as activities/events, amenities/services, and visitor information. For a major museum, the site should be multilingual, well designed and visually appealing.


Unfortunately the image above is a screenshot of the current museum website, which is a true reflection of the dysfunctional system of heritage management in Egypt and the total lack of any serious museology in the entire country. Not only is the site poorly organized and out of date, it is not informative and terribly designed. How can the Egyptian government be serious about increasing tourist numbers or increasing museum visitorship while retaining such dismal representation of this historic institution on the world wide web?


The website of the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, another one of Egypt’s most important collections and which has been closed for what feels like eternity, is also a terrible website. Of course in this case the main priority should be that the museum is open to the public before even thinking about creating a beautiful website for it. The same goes for tens of the country’s museums which have been closed for years sometimes a decade and which have fallen out of the tourist map but also out of the collective memory, like they never existed, partly because there is no online presence to these museums. Out of sight, out of mind.

Even the few sites which continue to be popular and are relatively well managed, such as the Coptic Museum, also has a terrible website. Again, this is one of Egypt’s most important museums yet its website resembles a personal page done in the 1990s by a high school student. Shameful!

The Egyptian Ministry of Culture, or whichever centralized institution responsible for managing Egypt’s public museums, continues to miss the point of museums: to attract as many visitors as possible who should leave satisfied wanting to come back. By the same token, the point of a good museum website is to attract increased web traffic which should translate into actual foot traffic. For example, check out the website for Cairo’s Museum of Modern Art, the museum that should have the region’s most important collection of modern art. Now that you’ve visited the website, are you inspired to go? No? Well good, because it has been closed anyway.


The Supreme Council of Antiquities, which had been turned into its own Ministry of Antiquities in 2011, centrally manages many of the country’s museums. Here is a list of the museums managed by that institution with some links to visitor information for a small selection of these museums. While this is an admirable improvement over the dismal web presence of Ministry of Culture managed museums, this is still a catastrophe.



In the meantime museums around the world are not only maintaining updated well-designed websites, they are growing their web presence with blogs, advertising, virtual tours, and downloadable apps and audio tours. Not to mention that most major museums have already been utilizing social networks for years now: the British Museum has a Twitter account, Qatar’s Mathaf (Arab Museum of Modern Art) is on Instagram and every museum big and small around the world has an active official Facebook page.  This is happening while the Egyptian Museum is still requiring visitors to leave their cameras at the door like it is 1991. Museum management seem unaware that a picture taken by a happy visitor and posted on social media is free advertisement for the museum that is far more effective than all the fake tourism TV adverts the Egyptian government has paid for in the past.

Museum websites are practically an industry by now with annual conferences and meetings dedicated to the topic. There are global standards that have been in place for some time now: notice for example how the websites of Mathaf, Tel Aviv Museum of Art and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (three vastly different museums in different locations) share the basic visual structure. An easy to access horizontal strip with links to visitor information, exhibitions, “about us”, contact, etc.


How many museums are there in total in Egypt? in Cairo? What about Historic Cairo, is there an informative well-designed website dedicated to that “open air museum” with information about the various monuments, events and with suggested walking tours, an up-to-date list of talks and lectures about the historic city, its architecture, culture, recent research? What could be the impact of creating a positive web presence for Egypt’s vast cultural and touristic sites?

Local talent to do the job is available but the vision and political will for those in charge is, as usual, lacking.

There are entire industries, obviously tourism and hospitality, which depend on the increased traffic to museums and other cultural sites; so perhaps private initiatives can take the lead and approach the government with a plan to create a network of websites for Egypt’s museums and historic sites. The government won’t take the lead, but then again officials aren’t losing their jobs for their incompetence or because museums are not attracting visitors. So this might be another situation where civil society needs to act sooner than later.

Apr 06

La Viennoise Hotel: Art From Sandouk El Dounia to DCAF is a media partner in this year’s D-CAF. During the festival several posts will appear on the blog covering some of its venues and events.


The building known as La Viennoise, standing at the corner of Mahmoud Bassiouny and Champollion Streets in downtown, has become a sort of an alternative art institution for over a decade. It is difficult to construct a complete history of the building, as for many others around the city, without access to municipal records and in the absence of a proper institution concerned with archiving and documenting the history of Cairo. Nonetheless there are bits and pieces of information that can begin to help us understand the origins of this property.

La Viennoise was built in the 1890s; a decade, which witnessed a construction boom in Cairo, particularly in what became today’s downtown area. According to the website of al-Ismaelia, the building’s current owner, it was commissioned by an Englishman. Based on the building’s design and façade details and on the fact that it was built during that particular period, it appears as though its architect was most likely French. Behind the eclectic neo-classical/neo-Renaissance façade of the corner building are three stories of high-ceiling apartments with generous spaces fit for high-end turn of the century downtown Cairo lifestyle. The building has two entrances, one on each of the streets it overlooks, each entrance leads to a stairwell with elevator and each floor is flanked by two apartments.

The layers of over a century of life are visible throughout this structure thick with memory and traces of its many lives, a true urban palimpsest.

La Viennoise is the host space to some of this year’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival’s events, namely Bill Cowie’s “Art of Movement,” video above, “a 30 minute dance work choreographed by Billy Cowie incorporating live and virtual 3d dancers.” The piece premiered at the Kyoto Experiment in September 2013. The building was also the location for a workshop by the Baladi Lab, part of their “Take a coffee with your heritage” series of meetings.

In addition to hosting art events as part of D-CAF, La Viennoise has been the site of other iconic art exhibitions and experiments in recent years, but how did it all start?

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

[Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, El Nitaq Festival, Cairo, Egypt. 2001. Copyright Lara Baladi]

The first art event in La Viennoise took place in 2001 as part of al-Nitaq Art Festival when artist Lara Baladi welcomed the pubic to view her photographic installations, which were shot and shown in La Viennoise.

Baladi’s family owned the building at the time, it was inherited by five sisters from their Lebanese-Egyptian businessman father, who purchased it in the 1940s. During the period of nationalization the Egyptian government confiscated the property. It was only during Sadat’s mandate that it was returned to them. After years of lawsuits, the five daughters, in their 80s then, were able to get back, amongst other parts of the building, an entire floor, until then occupied by a hotel, the Pension Viennoise. Some of the other apartments in the building, as well as the shops, were rented by the state to tenants from the time when it was confiscated. Further lawsuits were necessary to get those individual tenants out. By the early 90s many of the lawsuits were settled and most of the building, except for the shops, was in the hands of the five daughters of Abdallah Mirshak, Baladi’s great grandfather. Thus, her choice of the building as the site and object of her installation was not ad hock. When she searched for a location to execute her Sandouk El Dounia (the world in a box) “La Viennoise was not a priori ideal, although it turned out to be, but it was accessible.”

Baladi shot and exhibited her photographic project in La Viennoise. The artist asserts, “The ‘box’ was in fact La Viennoise. My work was both the space and in the space.” The main piece was a large-scale collage upon which the viewer would stumble after losing oneself and strolling about the corridors. The collage was installed in a green room that was once one of the bedrooms in the pension. Sandouk El Dounia intentionally blurred the boundary between the space, the artworks that were exhibited, the photographs that composed the collage and the art happening orchestrated by the artist in the space on the opening day. The space was transformed into a world of its own, a backstage of an archetypal city in which unfolded a theatrically staged morality tale. Baladi arranged a mise-en-scène that involved the visual artworks mixed with the characters photographed in the space walking around and performing the photographed characters, amid the spectators. While people ambulated through the spaces and bats were flying above their heads, a street seller, who Baladi had agreed with to participate to the opening, distributed inflatable pink plastic rabbits (one of the character’s accessory), offering them a trace of the world Baladi set up in the box of La Viennoise.

This artistic intervention initiated La Viennoise as a unique space for art and exhibition. La Viennoise was and remains everything the white cube gallery space is not.

Baladi’s family offered the Townhouse the space for more exhibitions. The Townhouse Gallery managed the space for eight years when it was used for various exhibitions such as those during the two Nitaq Festivals. Nitaq Festival opened the door for artists to explore downtown Cairo as a space for reflection and artistic creation. In that period of extensive art production in the Cairo art scene, the Townhouse played an bigger role than it had until then by encouraging increased artistic production and artistic collaboration.

About Nitaq, Negar Azimi wrote: “An initiative of three independent galleries (Karim Francis, Mashrabia and the Townhouse), the downtown arts festival was unprecedented in the degree of excitement it created in the city, and importantly, the view it provided as to the tendencies of a new generation of artists working within idioms that defied prevailing notions of contemporaneity. Engineered to start on the very day of the 2001 Cairo Biennale’s opening, the second Nitaq in particular served as an “off” version in every sense of the term. While the Biennale was characterized by a reliance on tradition both in concept and curation, Nitaq would prove most unconventional, shaking up stagnant conceptions surrounding the use of space, medium and the potential for dematerialization of the art object. Like true post-modernists, the preferred avenue of expression for the artists at Nitaq was multi-media installation executed with conceptualist tendencies. A number of the Nitaq artists, Lara Baladi, Amina Mansour, Hassan Khan, Wael Shawky and Mona Marzouk among them, have since gone on to exhibit widely internationally.”

Artistic interaction with particular downtown spaces such as Baladi’s Sandouk El Dounia opened the door for artists and galleries to investigate the potential of creating art with and about Cairo’s spaces, exploring different vocabularies and mediums in ways that actively engage with specific sites in the city.

In 2001 Karim Shafei rediscovered downtown Cairo because of the Nitaq festival. Lara Baladi’s show at La Viennoise drew Shafei’s attention to the building and the urban heritage it belongs to. The neglected, dusty and decaying condition of La Viennoise’s grand interiors inspired the conception of al-Ismaelia, a real estate venture aiming to dust off properties such as La Viennoise, many of them abandoned or underutilized with little or no impact on the local economy. Al-Ismaelia for Real Estate and Development acquired the building in 2008 and has since managed it. While the company envisions refurbishing the property in a way that preserves the architecture and interiors, the scale of the building and of its rooms limits possible options for adaptive reuse. Because La Viennoise is a listed heritage building its transformation must follow strict guidelines. Given the particular grandeur of this property it will most likely be reincarnated as a nostalgic boutique hotel. However, there are no concrete plans for such a renovation and in the meantime the company has continued to open the doors of La Viennoise as a space for alternative artistic adventures.

Since its acquisition by al-Ismaelia La Viennoise has hosted several acclaimed exhibitions such as the Cairo Documenta exhibitions in 2010 and 2012. More recently the building was the home of the exhibition Studio Viennoise, a “tribute to the history of studio photographic practice in Egypt” which ran from 14 November to 16 December 2012. And in 2013, a “Museum to the Revolution” was set up in La Viennoise as part of an exhibition titled “Horreya/Kharya,” a word play on “freedom” and “shit” which in Arabic are distinguished by a dot.

While these recent exhibitions and performances such as Bill Cowie’s “Art in Movement” keep La Viennoise an active artistic space, what’s next? What is to be learned from Cairo’s singular experiment with art in abandoned/decaying architecture? Cairo is awash with other similar structures in a variety of locations, from Helwan’s abandoned mansions, to Bulaq’s unused industrial warehouses. Rather than becoming laboratories for artistic production while they await their fate to be determined, by the market or other forces, these buildings remain empty and inaccessible. While many such structures are in private ownership, many others are state-owned. Could the Cairo municipality learn from the experiment at La Viennoise and develop a strategy to open abandoned and underutilized historic structures to artists to activate them and bring attention to them? On the other hand, have artists working in Cairo approached such structures as generative elements contributing to the artistic process rather than simply treat them as new venues to show the same art that would have been shown in a white-walled gallery? Is there another fate for decaying buildings in Cairo?

Note: Thanks to Lara Baladi for her generosity and for sharing her work on