Last month I featured Nabil Shawkat’s city walking group and the pleasures of exploring Cairo on foot. We pick up the pace this month with Cairo Runners who are gearing up for Cairo’s half marathon (22K) on May 10.
Last December Cairo Runners held their first run (4K) in Zamalek. Since then and until the recent hiatus in anticipation of the big event of the half marathon, organizers have maintained a weekly Friday morning run with the distance increasing bit by bit. The runs were also organized at different locations across the city from the heart of the capital to the desert cities at its periphery. It is safe to assume that most of the runners have not had a chance to cross such distances on foot in Cairo let alone to be doing it among a large group of fellow Cairenes.
During the revolution protesters walked en mass from across the city towards Tahrir Square. When else would have residents from Mohandeseen, for example, left their cars parked and walked across the river to downtown? In one way or another the revolution was about rediscovering the city on foot. Now Cairo Runners has ignited its own revolution that challenges the accepted norms and injects athletic life into Cairo’s streets on a regular basis. Until Cairo Runners it was rare that athletes would take to the streets for exercise, partly because of the crowdedness and pollution. But also because the city has not invested in creating pedestrian friendly routes that encourage jogging. Thus exercise was limited to the indoors and to those who can afford a gym membership.
Cairo Runners’ social media manager, Salma, answered Cairobserver’s questions and here is the interview.
Cairo Runners is not just about running, it is also about Cairo itself, could you explain why urban running and why now.
It’s not like we invented urban running, but I just thought it is another type revolution Egypt needs. Most people who work out already like to run, but they do it in gated areas or on a treadmill. What we wanted to do is spice things up by providing Cairens with a somewhat unconventional way to run.
You managed to have a large following in a record short time, why do you think running in the city in a big group turned out to be so popular?
I think it is because it is a fresh new idea. No one really thinks about running in the streets, but when people actually tried it out they found that the spirit of a group workout and the harmony it provides really goes a long way. It boosts your energy compared to when you go off for a solo run, and it becomes a social gathering, of the sort. Something us Egyptians love.
Each of your runs is in a different part of the city, could you explain the logic behind this and give us a specific example of one of the runs in a particular part of Cairo and tell us how it went.
The logic behind it is simple. We don’t want people to get bored. The whole idea behind Cairo Runners is escaping from a mundane routine workout. You go to the gym, look at the same wall for an hour straight, and leave. It’s too monotonous and bland for an activity so energetic and lively. If we were to run in the same area every week, people would probably get bored after a few times. We also really want people to discover Cairo. It is wonderful hearing people say things like “I’ve never been on this street before,” or “this is such a nice area,” etc. You’re not only on a run, you’re also discovering your own city, bit by bit. Our personal favorite area, is Zamalek: Lots of greenery, no pollution, great historic, culturally-traditonal atmosphere.
What were the major differences between the areas you ran in, were some areas more hospitable than others?
Yes, as much as it is breath-taking to run by the Nile, Giza area is always full of traffic, no matter what time of day it is. This can be very inconvenient to runners. Some other older areas may have more cracked roads. But overall we did not experience any major setbacks on any of our runs.
What do you think it will take to make Cairo a running friendly (or pedestrian friendly) city?
We really just need better roads. A lot of Cairo’s roads are cracked and uneven and this can affect people’s decisions to go back again. It will take a lot of time for Cairo to be running-friendly, but we’re giving it that boost and doing our part.
Have you had to deal with the authorities and do you think they may welcome or obstruct potentially organizing an official Cairo Marathon?
Definitely. Especially for the half marathon we had to take consent to close down streets and things of the sort, and we have also asked the government to provide security for that major day. But they have been pretty compliant till now, and have not given us much trouble.
What would be the ideal route for an annual Cairo Marathon?
Well. We’ve already chosen a route for the half marathon. We have a pretty good idea for what would be an ideal full marathon route, but we can not just give that away now. You’ll have to wait till we plan it.
How do you think the runs change the way residents/runners relate to the city? Is this an opportunity to rediscover Cairo on foot?
Definitely. As I said before, it’s a whole experience. It’s not just a run, but it is about doing it in an adventurous way, rediscovering Cairo, embracing the positivity and beaming energy that merits a group exercise. It is just a whole unique experience of it’s own.
Anything you’d like to add?
Over the weeks I’ve come to realize just how important CR is. People get lazy to workout on their own, everyone needs that extra push to get out and get fit, and that’s just part of the Cairo Runners experience. When you find out that 500-1000 people are out running on a Friday morning, chances are it’ll peak your interest, and you’ll go out just to see what the fuss is all about. It is also the small things like a 58 year old diabetic man randomly calling us to thank us for what we do in the community, and expressing how he loves to run with us. That is just a major indicator of the initiative’s significance. We have also had countless people tell us that because of Cairo Runners they have stopped smoking, or lost the weight they’ve been dreading. So, In a nutshell, to us a strong impact on just a handful of people can go a long way, and it truly shows that what we do is of great importance.
The half marathon takes place on May 10, click here for more info.
Mantiqti is a free newspaper issued by Egypt Media Development Program (EMDP) dedicated to the Borsa area of downtown Cairo. Publisher Tarek Atia moved his office to the area nine months ago and quickly he and his staff became an integral part of the community, the neighborhood. “For some Borsa is the financial district with the stock exchange the central bank and the headquarters of the national bank, for others it is the café district with 34 cafés all within an area delimited by three major streets,” says Attia in his publisher’s note in the inaugural issue.
Borsa is an area that falls within three streets, which are Sherif, Qasr el Nil and Sabry Abu Alam, forming the triangle of mostly pedestrian streets. Within this area are three major pedestrian streets: Elwy, Sherifeen and El-Qadi El-Fadel. EMDP presents a new perspective on community engagement which bridges the activities of the company with its local physical context, the neighborhood, producing a new kind of media product that hasn’t been experimented with in Egypt, the hyperlocal newspaper.
Within its 16 pages the paper includes a variety of content ranging from investigative reporting to editorials and opinions. Advertisements for local businesses such as the popular yet hidden hole in the wall restaurant fas7et somaya emphasize the hyperlocal focus of the paper. A calendar provides information for daily events throughout the month ranging from festival events part of Hal Badeel or D-Caf or events in near by venues such as theaters and galleries.
A map with landmarks in the area with historical anecdotes serves a double function, it highlights the historic quality of the area by providing brief but interesting factual information while providing an easy to read representation of the area too small to get this kind of detail in other conventional maps. The scale of the area of focus is the strength of this project. The stories that will emerge from these few blocks in the city center will have relevance in areas across the city, but the scale of investigation here will hopefully produce clearer more direct observations, questions and solutions that will help Cairenes think of issues such as trash collection, parking, street vendors among others in a fresh new way.
While Cairo deserves a city-focused free daily or weekly newspaper that makes the city the core focus of its journalistic endeavor, the neighborhood is another scale that is often neglected by existing national newspapers. Downtown, Zamalek, Imbaba, Sayyeda Zeynab, Maadi, Heliopolis, these are all parts of Cairo with their own sense of place and community despite the absence of the governance and media infrastructure needed to engender this sense of locality. In these and other neighborhoods a sense community and belonging continues to define individuals’ identity. We’ve seen this sense of local/neighborhood-based identity play out in other recent initiatives such as the Heliopolis community efforts to safeguard the area’s architectural heritage or in new initiatives such as Nassya. Cairo will only become a better city when these locally-rooted community initiatives become stronger and eventually infiltrate governance structures and local decision-making processes. One of the necessary steps to do this is creating a media sense of awareness of locality. Mantiqti could potentially pave the way towards helping other communities formulate their own locally-specific community-driven newspapers. Mantiqti is both a development project and a purely commercial enterprise at the same time positioned between the past and future of local media in Egypt.
Despite covering a small geographical area, Mantiqti faces a big challenge: its focus is a subpart of a neighborhood, a particular part of the larger downtown area is an area of complex relations dominated by passersby (the users of the cafés), rather than a stable residential core. Perhaps this explains why in the first issue of Mantiqti editor Alia Hamed wrote “Borsa Constitution,” a kind of proposal for a set of six points for all users of the area to abide by and agree upon, ultimately for the public good of the community (residents, passersby and shop owners alike). The Borsa constitution, a citizen’s charter, is an EMDP initiative signed by over 50 local business owners and residents.
The second issue of Mantiqti will be out in May, look for a copy when you’re in the Borsa area. Hopefully other hyperlocal newspapers will emerge across the city, building the sense of community and cohesion that has been missing for so long.
This post was updated on May 1, 2013.
Whose Monument: Participatory Design Project for Monument-Street Buffer Zones
A collaboration between the Ministry of Antiquities and the Danish Egyptian Dialogue Institute. The project is a series of workshops, debates and meetings to discuss the relationship between the monument and the surrounding neighborhood, the entities responsible for it and those with a vested interest in it or even those inconvenienced by it. We discuss who owns it, who protects it and improves it and who puts it at risk. The objective is to provide a environment of communication of the different points of view of the three main stakeholders: residents, government and civil society.
In participatory design all stakeholders are involved in the decision making process in all its details and stages. This is to narrow the gap between the monument and the community and allow it to assume ownership of the monument and to protect it through use.
This general issue is discussed through a specific case-study; the monument-street buffer zone and in a specific area; al-Khalifa Street between the mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun and the shrine of al-Sayyida Nafisa.
The project consists of five phases, to find out more details visit the project website.
Last May, The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) opened the first community driven storefront library in the district of Dar al Salam. Khatwa, meaning step in Arabic, is a public library open to the community. Occupying a storefront space in a street of mostly self-built communities and residential buildings, the library provides a much needed public service that the government has failed to make available. With limited resources, volunteers, and donated books, the library opens daily and provides children and adults with a place to read and study and it also allows the community to borrow books. Like all aspects of public institutions in Egypt and in Cairo, the public library system has failed to provide communities with the most basic services libraries are meant to provide. ANHRI along with the community of Dar al Salam worked together to create this community-built space independent from the failed government. The library is yet another example of how Cairo and Egypt manages to work in spite of its government not because of it.
Because of the limited space and in order to accommodate different age groups, the library opens its doors from 4-7pm to children, then from 7-10pm for adults. In addition the library provides a program of events, lessons, performances and workshops. The creators of the library aim to use it as a community space where talks can be held and community discussions can take place. Language and computer lessons are also among the aims of Khatwa.
Public libraries are nearly non-existent in Egypt, and those that exist have failed to provide the basic services of a public library. Cairo, theoretically, has at least three still functioning libraries, the National Library on the cournich in Bulaq, Great Cairo Library in Zamalek and the Maadi Public Library. This is a clear failure on the part of the state, particularly the ministries of education and culture. Khatwa presents us with the first step towards a new kind of public library that is community driven and built. There are both positive and negative aspects to this approach to building a network of public libraries.
A community built public library provides a much needed space and because it is community built and run it will have the benefit of being an integrated part of the local community, the stakeholders. This can be a very effective means of introducing libraries to communities which have been deprived from such an urban institution for a lifetime without the top-down alienation of a state imposed public library system. On the other hand there is a need for a public authority that manages such libraries to assure a certain level of coherence, a minimum level of quality and to establish a semi-standardized network across cities. Thus while Khatwa is a first step, the project could be expanded across cities where communities work together to create similar libraries under the supervision of a national or city-wide authority, NGO or potentially the state, which will assure these community-built spaces will maximize their potential and guarantee a certain level of unity. A bottom-up library system could be in the making.
One of the other advantages presented by Khatwa is its reuse of a commercial space for the purposes of a community space. Storefront spaces are available across the city and communities can begin to use such spaces to create community spaces that have been absent. This has already happened over the past several decades when small mosques popped up across the city occupying the first floor of residential buildings. Libraries are also sacred spaces of another kind which can follow that pattern as they mushroom across cities. The state, if good intentions and political will exist, can help by creating incentives for the establishment of such spaces and by providing logistical help to create a true network and cataloging system while allowing communities to run their own storefront libraries.
In 2009-10 a storefront library opened in Boston’s Chinatown. It provided the community with a library space, which it had been deprived from since 1956. The vacant commercial space was transformed for three months into a public library with books for children and adults, a children area, Internet access, newspapers and magazines in addition to other activities. In this case, the project was temporary and aimed to act as a community outreach program that highlighted the need for a branch library to serve the Chinatown community. Khatwa on the other hand is meant to be long term, the community participated in the process. Because there isn’t a Cairo library system for Khatwa to plug into, it acts instead as a catalyst for similar projects to emerge in various communities.
Zamalek residents can reclaim the library they already have and demand better service, books and organize to collect books from the community and volunteer to better manage the space. Less privileged areas such as Dar al Salam can also create their own community libraries as was the case with Khatwa. Areas such as downtown where residents from across the city converge should have a downtown library that responds to the unique aspects of downtown.
Khatwa in Dar al Salam is an inspiring step towards creating a new community driven library system. The absence of the state has not prevented this community with the help of ANHRI to fill this gap and their initiative should inspire other communities and other NGOs to take similar steps.
Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution. Directed by Davide Morandini and Fabio Lucchini. UK/Italy/Egypt, 2011.
“Bread, freedom, and social justice” has been one of the most memorable chants from Egypt’s year of mass protests. Although world and Egyptian media have been fixated on the symbolic Tahrir Square, little attention has been directed towards places where many Egyptians converging on the square actually live. Bulaq, only a few hundred meters north of Tahrir Square, is one such neighborhood. The residents of Bulaq represent the essence of why Egyptians erupted in mass protests last year. This is a community that has suffered for nearly forty years at the hands of the Sadat and Mubarak regimes, which aimed to erase the district from Cairo’s map. Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution is a short documentary film that shifts the focus from the square and into a community at the heart of the struggle for social justice.
The twenty-five minute film by Davide Morandini and Fabio Lucchini documents a deteriorating residential district where residents have faced police brutality and forced evictions for decades. Residents speak directly to the camera, sharing their ordeals and personal experiences. Although those voices speak for the specific case of Bulaq, they also reflect a wider struggle by an entire class of citizens the Egyptian government has long disregarded. As a recent Amnesty International report states, the government has used the longstanding Emergency Law to legitimize its repressive policy of forced evictions targeted at populations in areas such as Bulaq. The repeal of the Emergency Law and the demand for social justice, including housing rights, have been cornerstones of the Tahrir movement. Bulaq threads together these many strands, along with providing a rare look into the everyday lives in popular neighborhoods such as this one.
Nearly sixty percent of Cairo’s residents today live in so-called “informal areas.” These are areas that urbanized without the guidance of a government-approved urban plan. A more accurate description of those areas is “improvised urbanism,” as they continue a long tradition of improvised planning found in Cairo for centuries prior to the city’s relatively brief encounter with formal planning from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. From the 6th of October Bridge, Bulaq may appear to be another of Cairo’s informal communities; however, this is in fact one of Cairo’s oldest districts.
In the fifteenth century, Bulaq was Cairo’s main commercial port and was home to some of the city’s wealthy merchant families. The district was also home to the Egyptian Museum in 1858, and Muhammad Ali’s Bulaq Press was established in 1820. Throughout its history, the district developed organically as a middle and working class neighborhood with an interesting variety of domestic architecture. Despite this rich history, today the word Bulaq is synonymous with collapsed homes and desperate living conditions. It is a community under constant threat from the authorities.
Because of its central location, the district has been envisioned by various regimes as a clean slate for the implementation of new urban models. The film does not cover the trajectory of current state policy towards the district, which can be traced back to 1930, when a plan proposed the reconstruction of the district. Another 1950s plan proposed to “cleanse” Bulaq by replacing its rich fabric with massive modernist blocks surrounded by gardens. These earlier visions remained only on paper. In the 1970s, however, Sadat envisioned the area as a new business district to showcase Egypt’s economic realignment with global capitalism. An aggressive campaign of forced evictions and relocation was commenced. Residents were forced out of their homes and given flats in concrete blocs built on the desert fringes of Cairo. This campaign continued under the Mubarak regime. One of the residents filmed narrates her ordeal when she was evicted in 1982, only to return later.
The film portrays the intimacy and sense of community that Bulaq offers. It also highlights the sense of security provided by living within such a community. Despite the economic hardships and the deteriorating physical environment, the community is thriving socially. The filmmaker intercuts interviews with scenes of everyday life: a woman smoking outside her home, a butcher cutting meat, a child on a bicycle, and a man who is uncomfortable with the presence of a camera and demands to know what is being filmed. Because this has been an ongoing struggle for decades, it has become an intergenerational struggle where young adults echo the concerns of their older neighbors. The film succeeds in highlighting the fact that strong social ties and a community’s sense of ownership of place are far stronger than state plans and oppression. In light of this long struggle, as well as this last year’s unfolding upheaval, the film captures a sense of anxiety and uncertainty.
However, the film lacks historical perspective and context. Although it focuses on the present situation, particularly in light of the revolution, it could have benefited from a well-researched introduction. While the English translations are fairly accurate, the interviews fail to capture how the residents of this community fit within the larger context of Cairo. Also, it would be useful to link the experience of Bulaq to other communities in the city suffering from the same state-sanctioned brutality and eviction. Another shortcoming of the film is its one-sidedness. It would have made a stronger case against government policies if the audience had the chance to hear from officials directly how they view the issue of Bulaq. The multinational developers and hotel chains that also benefit from this government policy are also unheard. An interview with the management of the Hilton Hotel overlooking the district, for example, could have been interesting.
The film is well shot and provides a series of sharp images ranging from intimate close-ups to wide panorama shots. The filmmaker uses a combination of still frames for scenery along with moving shots where he follows some of the film’s characters as they traverse Bulaq’s streets. The sound quality and editing are well done.
The strongest aspect of the film is the residents’ direct address to the audience without the mediation of a third party. They are strong-willed. They know their rights and they demand justice regardless of the obstacles. “Those responsible for demolitions have to be tried,” says one man. “In neighborhoods like Bulaq we love each other and work together like one family,” says a woman. Another man confirms that “the owners of this place are the people living here; we own this place.”
Bulaq: Among the Ruins of an Unfinished Revolution provides a much-needed portrait of the real places where Egyptians live. Officials turn a blind eye to the community they were elected to serve. With Egypt’s centralized governance and lack of local authority, Bulaq residents continue to live under the threat of forced evictions and demolitions. Their right to the city is constantly under duress. Meanwhile, the government carries on with its Cairo2050 plan that aims to transform the area into a zone of glass towers and international hotels. Currently under construction is the St. Regis, a six star hotel along the Nile turning its back on Bulaq.
Egypt’s revolution is about the people of Bulaq and their rights. It is about ending crony capitalism that allows such a disregard for citizens while making concessions to international corporations that aim only to increase their profits rather than develop and rejuvenate communities. As was the case with many Egyptians, the eruption of the revolution gave hope to the people of Bulaq. However, over the course of the past year, little has been done to ensure that the violations of the past and state oppression will end. In this sense, Bulaq continues to wait among its ruins for the still unfinished revolution to deliver real change.
*First two images are screenshots from the film.
Excerpt from Al-Ahram Weekly:
Netherlands/Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC) and the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) convened a one-day Heritage Management Workshop on 22 November to review the current situation in Egypt and discuss a way forward. In her opening address Kim Duistermaat, director of the Netherlands Institute, which hosted the event, said: “Archaeology is no longer purely an academic discipline. Research and site protection are two sides of the same coin. Archaeology is a study of the past; site management relates to the present.”
The participants had this to say:
“Any project to save an historical or archaeological area is doomed to failure unless it takes into account that the monuments themselves form but an infinitesimal part of the social fabric of an area.”
“To revitalise and successfully conserve an area depends on understanding the forces that created it in the first place, the pattern of streets or waterways, domestic architecture, as well as commercial and manufacturing activities.”
“The further training of professionals is essential and so is community involvement.” “Something has to be done about the structure of politics and regulations.”
“The grassroots of society have to be taken into consideration because they are every bit as concerned about the country’s heritage as the policy-making segment of the community.”
“Education is vital.”
“Get more young students involved.”
“It is not possible to develop and implement long-term plans for conservation and to subsequently maintain sites, without qualified employees, and an educated populace.”
Read full report, here.
The necropolis east of historic Cairo and under Muqattam hills is about ten times bigger than Al Azhar Park just across Salah Salem highway. It has received some attention from architectural historians due to the exquisite funerary architecture. There are tombs, mosques, and schools. Although this is only one layer of this Qarafa, as it is known to Egyptians. Besides the historic layer there is a living community that lives among the historic buildings, mostly in buildings that look like self-built apartment houses elsewhere in the city. Contrary to popular belief, few actually live in the tombs. The population may have changed over the course of the last forty years and it may have been larger at some point but today those living in this part of the city are not many. But there are enough families to give this place a sense of community and keep it alive.
This large area is diverse with different conditions, density of residents, density of historic buildings, and varying levels of livability. Also important to note is that Cairo’s historic cemetery continues south of the city core where it is called the Southern Cemetery or Shafii Cemetery. The Southern Cemetery is about double the size of the northern one. While the northern is about the size of the island of Roda, the southern one is about the size of the island of Zamalek!
I’ve only walked around the Northern Cemetery so the rest of this post will focus on that experience.
Salah Salem creates a clear edge on the western side of the Qarafa. As soon as one crosses the pedestrian bridge over Salah Salem from Al Azhar Street and into the Qarafa, the highway humm dissipates and it feels very peaceful and almost secluded. It is easy to forget that you are in a city of 20 million while you’re here. Walking around the grid of walled tombs and funerary complexes, varying in size, age, and style, once in a while there is sign of life: a little girl playing with a ball, an old man spinning thread, a puppy with its mother. Considering how forgotten it feels, there is a sense of romanticism that is inseparable from the place.
An empty sofa at one of the corners is a reminder that this is a nice place to sit. Not only is walking around the regular pedestrian streets so pleasant but it is easy to imagine those streets paved, street furniture arranged in various formations perhaps facing each other to encourage conversation or facing a beautiful wall or door to allow for solitude and contemplation. Some parts of the Qarafa have old trees, others newer trees planted recently but most of it lacks landscaping or vegetation. But some well placed trees and flower boxes can transform the Qarafa into a green lung for the city and a unique network of public spaces.
Then there is the architecture: Galila El Kadi’s 2007 book by AUC Press, Architecture for the Dead focuses on the built heritage of the cemeteries. The publisher’s blurb is helpful here: “The great medieval necropolis of Cairo, comprising two main areas that together stretch twelve kilometers from north to south, constitutes a major feature of the city’s urban landscape. With monumental and smaller-scale mausolea dating from all eras since early medieval times, and boasting some of the finest examples of Mamluk architecture not just in the city but in the region, the necropolis is an unparalleled—and until now largely undocumented—architectural treasure trove.”
The buildings range from extravagant and large to beautiful simple humble mausolea that can be astonishingly modern(ist) in their simplicity (despite being 300-500 years old). In addition to tombs and mausolea, we visited an incredible mosque, Masjid al Sultan Barquq. For historic photos and architectural description of this outstanding building click here.
The porch depicted above is one of two identical ones at opposite sides of the front facade. It is one of the most comforting, well balanced spaces I have experienced and the view is stunning. This is the northern porch and it overlooks a particularly green part of the cemetery, dense with trees. Again it is easy to picture what the entire Qarafa would be like with the addition of trees in other parts. From the roof of this building, or from the minarets above, a panoramic view of the city is unlike any I’ve seen: the towers along the Nile are far west, the historic core in the foreground beyond the tree tops and to the north Heliopolis and the east the Muqattam hill.
Further south (still in the Northern Cemetery) and roughly in its center is a little community with shops and small houses, with some bigger apartment buildings in between. These are not tomb dwellers but if you insist on taking things literally, they do live in the middle of a cemetery. But if it isn’t clear by now, this cemetery isn’t like any other. There is what could be called a main street and even a square. It is quiet, no cars, air is fresh, people are friendly as ever and full of smiles.
There are too many details, some ancient others only months old but equally fascinating, to mention. The Qarafa is particularly interesting not because of the cliche of “city of the dead” but rather because it is in the middle of Cairo, and it is open (not gated or fenced for example), and it is open for outsiders such as myself to meander through. And although there is great diversity in what this zone offers, it still retains a sense of cohesiveness but it isn’t a neighborhood feel (although that is there in part), and it isn’t architectural uniformity, and it isn’t the product of an urban plan or a master plan, there is something else that creates a sense of cohesion.
There is so much potential for this part of the city to be a green lung punctuated with historic architecture and a thriving small community. And the people who live here will do the job, pave the street, water the trees and restore the buildings if they are taken into account and if a plan is put forth. People have always lived here who worked in maintaining the buildings and tombs. But with the collapse of the Waqf system and as families bury their dead elsewhere outside the historic cemetery, those whose livelihood depended on this place have been forgotten. When we were leaving, a family was sweeping the street in front of their house, hanging lights and preparing for a party “come back tonight,” we were invited to a wedding.
Gamal Mubarak & Co. had a plan for Qarafa, or at least parts of it: to raze the area and make an exclusive complex of office buildings.
*image at top of this post is a screenshot from Youssef Chahine’s Cairo.
Around turn of the century to the 19teens a new feature in Cairo’s urban life appeared: The Central Market. This is yet another important but forgotten element in modern Cairo’s urban history and so far as I know nothing has been written about this, yet.
My first introduction to these markets was at Bab el-Louq (a short 3 minute walk east of Tahrir Square). Bab el-Louq square is the long elliptical space midway between Abdeen Palace (Gomhoriyya Square) and Tahrir Square. In around 1870-73 when the palace and the Qasr el Nil Bridge were built; Ismail Street (now Tahrir Street) was to link the two together but the line had to bend in order to connect the bridge with the palace, that bend became Bab el-Louq square. The Square once had an important tram station until all the tram lines (almost all 124 kilometers of tram lines) were dismantled under Sadat in favor of cars. Today the Square is a parking lot.
Overlooking the square is a large turn of the century building with a large central arch. It was difficult to notice what this was at first because of the typical clamor of storefronts which fragment any once cohesive facade. The inscription above the central archway reads “Marche de Bab el Louq 1912” in French and “سوق باب اللوق ١٩١٢” in Arabic.
The interior is a beautiful, intact, original iron truss roof not unlike what you see in turn of the century train stations. The floor plan is a grid of shops selling (or that once sold) vegetables, meat, poultry, dairy, etc. I have a feeling these shops were once much more attractive as the market was once truly central to the community and was well frequented with shoppers. There is also a gallery on the second level that borders the perimeter with more shops. The gallery is reached by the original iron stairs and railing, although there has also been some modifications added. It seems as though some squatters have moved into the rooms on the upper floor which overlook the streets outside.
Today the market is in a sad state and is little frequented by shoppers who shop elsewhere. Many of the shops and shop spaces are either closed or vacant and only a few vendors are present but their livelihood depends on this place. I am not sure what went wrong here and why this place fell into disrepair but it seems like it could again become a viable commercial and food center for the community. Perhaps this is part of the problem, the community, is no longer the same as the one that was once served by this urban institution.
Once I discovered Bab el-Louq market, I continued to admire it every time I was in the area. I thought it was the only one until one day while in a taxi on the overpass above Attaba Square and over Azhar Street I had a glimpse of yet another massive market structure. And Indeed there is another central market near Attaba and it seems to be even bigger than the one above. I haven’t yet explored this building but it is there and as the image below shows it has a cross plan rather than Bab el-Louq’s more rectangular plan.
And to my surprise, while I was checking out the disaster of a renovation at Cairo’s train station, I walked out and decided to walk through Boulaq and reach the Nile. As I entered the area where the microbusses line up to pick up passengers outside the station, I noticed a dilapidated large classical facade. At closer inspection I found the faded letters that once read “Marche, سوق” and I couldn’t be happier to discover this place. This building too I haven’t explored in detail but the image below shows it too has a cross plan and it is sizable. I believe it said 1901 for its inauguration date, although I need to go back and check.
Together these three markets form a triangle around central Cairo. These were the main destinations for the urban bourgeois to shop for food around 1901 or 1912. It would be interesting if there are other central markets from this era that have also survived and are waiting to be brought back to life. Central Markets have been replaced by the corner stores “بقالة”, vegetable street markets or supermarkets such as Metro or hypermarkets such as Carrefour. A century after these were built and now when Cairo is in desperate need for urban regeneration, these Central Markets can be catalyst projects that have the potential to become again focal points for communities and provide commercial space for vendors. I think of Barcelona’s Mercat de Sant Josep every time I go to Bab el-Louq and I hope that somehow these markets will be revitalized and with them revitalize the communities around them.
بين ترعة الزمر و مترو المنيب
The final metro stop at Mounib on the west bank of the Nile south of Giza is the beginning of the Cairo Aswan Road. It is one of the many areas that witnessed an increase in informal development over the last decade. I don’t like the word “informal” because it comes from a perspective that assumes that its antithesis, formal, is superior.
Over %65 of Cairo’s inhabitants live in informal areas: “extralegal urban development processes that first appeared around 1950, and they exhibit complete lack of urban planning or building control.” That is the latest definition and it belongs to David Sims.
Anyhow, this is not a post about Informalities in general but rather about a very particular “neighborhood” sandwiched between the tracks of the Metro and one of Cairo’s old canals, al-Zumor. The neighborhood is all residential, the streets are not paved but there are hardly any cars which means it is very quiet and not polluted. However, like all informal areas, basic utilities were not installed here until 5-6 years after buildings were built and families moved in. The buildings are modest 4-6 story apartment blocks. As it is typical of informal areas, the buildings follow agricultural property lines and so there is a grid of streets that connects the little neighborhood’s two edges, the straight wall bordering the metro tracks on the east side and the Zumor canal on the west.
In the picture above you can see the parade of repeated “formal” housing towers on the other side of the track versus that much more communal, human-scaled, self-built “informal” housing to the left of the picture.
For me this is an example of a successful informal housing community, however I am not trying to romanticize the situation, there are some problems that need state/city government intervention:
waste management and utilities: Egyptians can self organize and build their own concrete and brick houses but somethings such as utilities and sewage simply cannot be self-organized. And the state drags its feet on these matters. There is no proper waste management or trash collection system (like most of Cairo), but so much of the waste ends up in the Zumor canal.
Zumor Canal: one of the many old canals that brought Nile water to agricultural land. The canal has lost its purpose since most of the land it used to supply has been urbanized. The government already began filling the canal and paving a road in its place with a grassy area in the middle. However this process has only been done further north where the urban fabric is more formal and the canal remains uncovered and stagnant once it enters dense “informal” areas. This is a clear act of favoritism and demonstrates that not all Cairenes were ever treated as equal. Filling the canal is a relatively cheap project that will help these dense popular neighborhoods tremendously. currently the canal is more of an open sewer which is unsightly, and unhealthy. When I asked residents what would they like to see done first in their neighborhood, the answer was unanimously asking for the canal to be treated or filled.
Here you can clearly see the massive amount of trash that is collected in the canal in a spot where a street crosses. This scene is repeated at every street crossing which have blocked the flow of water, this has transformed the canal into a series of cesspools. Two hundred years ago, in Muhammad Ali’s Cairo, this would not have been acceptable, yet it is an accepted norm today. The locals don’t have alternatives, the government ignores, and the educated elite happily look the other way and choose to block such sites from their mental map of the city.
At the center of this image (the straight wide north-south avenue) is the very same canal further north as it passes through a formal area. The Canal was the western-most edge of the planned districts of Giza, Dokki and Muhandeseen. The government has filled in parts of the canal, pumped the water and created a wide street with a grassy spine down the center. The portion of the canal passing exclusively through informal areas is left uncovered.
Back to the sliver of a community sandwiched between an old canal and metro tracks: above is a typical street. This quiet, peaceful community has managed to exist in spite of lack of planning and it attempts to flourish today despite of continuing ill-informed state policies. Walking around is perfectly safe even though not a single police man is anywhere near here, an instant reminder that the police in Egypt isn’t what creates the sense of security but usually the opposite. The residents here, like in most popular neighborhoods, self-police just like they self-build.
There is a nice combination of village and city life. People seem to know each other. Women sit on the stoops and have conversations. Men sit at a coffee shop ahwa under the shade of trees. This is a nice place, not because of its brick (stones) but because of its people.
The residents are typically friendly and full of smiles and they have done so much on their own but now the state or other agencies have an opportunity to extend a helping hand to make this community even a little better by: providing basic services and opening schools near by, by paving streets and planting trees (although residents have already tried to create green spaces, create workshops or a vocational school where residents can learn a skill and make a living without having to go far from home, work with the community to develop methods of urban agriculture to build on the area’s agricultural origin and allow the community to provide itself with some of its food needs, create open and green spaces, and most importantly confront the canal and waste situation.
The community around Mounib provides a great opportunity to show in post-revolution Egypt that informal areas are not always the nightmares that the Mubarak gang made them out to be (in favor of mass relocation programs and property speculation), and that some informal communities can act as models for other areas.