Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Features Special Focus Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters The story of 6 October is that of both a bridge and a city, writes Tarek Atia. Every day, by the thousands, and perhaps millions, we soar over Cairo on a vast highway, half way up to the sky. An exaggeration, perhaps; for actually, we are often just stuck there, sometimes for hours, with the fifth floors of buildings to our left and right, surrounded by all the other commuters, spending half of our lives on the road
The final bridge
Nobody said giving birth was easy, especially if the newborn is eight kilometres long, and weighs a whopping 83,350 tons. Those are some of the numbers for the ninth and final phase of 6 October Bridge, set to open in late June. To complete this task on time, 2,000 workers have been toiling 24 hours a day for the past nine months.
6 October Bridge has been called the "spinal cord" of Cairo. The city itself has been compared to a room, constantly needing to accommodate more children. Thus the buildings and bridges continue to rise, infinite bunk beds in a finite space.
Traffic is, in the biological sense, the father of the bridge. The city is its mother, tolerating the pain to give birth to the child.
IT'S BEEN A ROUGH NINE MONTHS: This is especially evident during a massive traffic jam not 100m from the Arab Contractors' office in Abbasiya. The drivers of all the cars gridlocked at this traffic light for the past half hour or more are all resigned to their fate. No one is that angry. On the other hand, perhaps many are optimistic, for around us is evidence that someone up there is very concerned with our dilemma. The concrete superstructure going up all around us certainly looks gigantic and impressive enough to be hailed as the solution to all our problems. The huge skeleton of a circular off ramp looks like an immense scaffolded shrimp, and everywhere else concrete slabs block out the sun. Hey, look on the bright side -- at least it's making this traffic jam shady and just a little bit more bearable. Meet me here in a couple of months when we're all zooming by, oblivious, flying through the air on Cairo's second floor.
The bridges we take become part of our days, and we become attached to them. We've memorised every curve and every bump, associated every exit with some billboard or destination. More often than we care to realise, we base our moods on how smooth the bridge ride was or will be.
It's mid-April, and the epicentre of operations is near the intersection of the Ramses Street extension and Salah Salem, next to the Abbasiya Sinai Bus Station. This, along with the Arab Contractors' warehouse-factory in Shubra, is where the process is controlled, and right now, it also happens to be the place where one of the toughest parts of the massive construction job is taking place. Since the crew can't close down this important intersection to lay down foundation pillars, a longer steel foundation support will have to be finessed onto the bed of the bridge over the intersection using a battery of 100- and 200-ton winches.
The operation, set to take place late on Thursday and Friday night, involves three giant beams, each one 47m long and made up of 70 tons of steel. It's a big job, but Abdel-Mohsen Mahmoud is used to it. He is the controller of all the equipment being used to build the 6 October extension, and his experience includes the removal of the Abul-Ela Bridge that used to connect Zamalek to Bulaq. For that task, Abdel-Mohsen used both water and land-based winches, also of the 200 ton-plus variety, to transport pieces of Abul-Ela that were up to 50m long. "The bridge is sitting in a warehouse in Rod Al-Farag," he says, ready to be re-assembled when the orders are given.
Once 6 October's set of three beams are up, Abdel-Mohsen will set his sights on the fourth and last of these major lifting operations set to take place on the bridge, this one even tougher, involving the second set of three giant support beams that will complete the bridge's flight over the Orouba Street intersection. These are even bigger, measuring 52m long and weighing 110 tons each. That is scheduled for this weekend. Abdel-Mohsen's team alone comprises 50 men. With a smile, he says they haven't been going home much these days.
THE WAY HOME: Fifty per cent of Cairo's traffic gets on 6 October Bridge every day. It would be difficult to gauge the exact number of vehicles that use the bridge, but the most common figure cited estimates 40,000 cars per hour.
But 6 October Bridge is more than just a part of the daily routine. Even with the traffic jams, it helps us get from one side of the city to the other with minimal hassle, crossing rivers and "flying over" narrow streets crammed with pedestrians and slow-moving buses.
It is part of Cairo's subconscious. Building the bridge has taken no less than 30 years, and that is not a typo. From the modest, 130m-long phase 1, which merely connected the "smaller" branch of the Nile from Gezira to Agouza (and took from May 1969 to August 1972 to build), to the ninth phase, which is in progress today, the building of 6 October has been a national infrastructure project of epic proportions. Some 20km in length, running all the way from the Agricultural Museum in Dokki to the Autostrade in Nasr City, it has become a permanent part of the look of the city: the huge slabs of concrete above and around us everywhere we go. The majestically curling exit ramps. The thousands of brake lights flashing red in unison to cushion the ascent towards the maze of fifth-floor Galaa Street. The bridge's sudden left exit to Ramses, where a sub-bridge will tunnel you downtown in the shade.
Archive shots of Abdel-Moneim Riyad Square and Galaa Street during the bridge's construction
"It's the only thing in the country that works," said a taxi driver, who preferred not to reveal his name.
The bridge is the clearest reminder of the equation time = money. Economics, geography, politics, all play a part in this equation, and it changes so quickly that no one can keep up. In blunter terms, bridges are an investment from which, it is hoped, large gains will result in efficiency and production.
In 1977, the money gained by extending 6 October was calculated at LE1 million per year. Today, we're talking billions of pounds annually in increased revenue, or at least decreased waste -- certainly worth the LE200 million or so in costs.
Bridges are meant to help us get to where we're going in less time, and a glance at newspaper reports over the past 30 years reveals a recurring motif in the life history of the bridge: "The extension of 6 October will shorten the journey from Midan Al-Galaa to Midan Kamaleddin Salah from 13 to five minutes" boasted Al-Akhbar in 1977. In 1998, the newspapers reported: "The extension from Ramses Square to Port Said Street has shortened the journey from 25 to five minutes".
Like ultimate symbols of progress and modernisation at a time when speed is the defining factor in life, every extension of the bridge has been hailed as the saviour, the final link in a well-orchestrated plan to solve the traffic problem forever.
NOT NECESSARILY: As head of the entire 6 October extension operation, Mohamed Gamal gets a wood-panelled and faux parquet office, complete with air conditioner, telephone and buffet service, located right under the bridge he is in the process of building. Usually, though, he doesn't get to enjoy his office that much, shuttling as he does between the meeting room next door and the different sites around the city where the bridge is being simultaneously completed.
"We're really pressing Shubra," he says to an engineer who comes in to say he needs more men. The carpentry section alone employs over 835 carpenters, all dedicated to the bridge.
Gamal's task is to build this bridge somehow without disrupting the normal flow of traffic and life, even though this isn't a wasteland he's working in. He's not clearing new territory in the forest -- this is all on 100 per cent occupied land: houses, shops, roads, train tracks, electricity poles, telephone lines, sewage systems and, of course, the never-ending traffic. It's a logistical nightmare. He has an order to finish this thing by 30 June 1999. The entire nation is counting on him.
Gamal speaks extremely quickly, so fast that sometimes it's hard to keep track of what he's saying. Basically, there's only one thing he has time to talk about: how to finish the bridge on time. He is constantly in meetings, trying to coordinate, so that the traffic will stop being at a standstill on 6 October Bridge.
But Mohamed Gamal knows that, even when the bridge is finished, there will still be traffic problems. There will always be drivers who wait until the last second before the exit to decide they want to take it, even if they're way over on the other side of the bridge. There will still be the traffic lights at the intersections of the street the ramp pumps traffic onto and, with the faster traffic coming off the bridge, you never know, the situation might even be worse.
But for Gamal and his colleagues, working on the bridge is not just about solving the traffic problem. It's their raison d'être, the place they go to each day.
"I BUILT THIS BRIDGE": Ashraf Rizq is the man responsible for negotiating with the different agencies in charge of electricity and sewage, etc, whenever the bridge ends up needing to move something or other under the ground (which it often does, since each foundation pillar uses a bore that goes some 20m under the ground -- "You're sure to hit something, going that deep," Rizq says). He was our tour guide the day we went up to see exactly how the bridge was being built.
He took us up to the exit ramp being built via a narrow gangplank that rose up some 50m at a 40-degree angle, a rather dangerous-looking climb. "The key is not to be scared," Rizq says.
Up top, there were 200 or 300 workers laying down steel rods and finishing up the woodwork. Since most of the negotiating work is now complete, Rizq spends his time checking up on the electricity on the bridge, which he is also in charge of, and taking journalists and TV people on tours of the bridge site. It's been busy, with more and more people interested in finding out whether or not the project will be finished on schedule.
Rizq is friendly, the perfect guy for public relations, since he knows what he's talking about, and seems to get along well with all the workers.
Most of the manual workforce is from outside of Cairo. A lot of them actually live in shacks right here next to the site for the duration of the project. "When we go back to our homes or villages," says safety officer Ihab Abdel-Wahab from Menoufiya, "if the bridge shows up on TV or in a newspaper, we'll say, 'That's the bridge that I built'." The day the TV cameras or journalists show up to take pictures, everybody wants to be in the picture, hammering a nail or carrying a dozen steel rods. They all want to take magazines and newspapers with articles about the bridge back home to show their relatives and friends.
The bridge tends to inspire that same pride on a national level. For many, 6 October, like the war it was named after, raised Egypt's head higher with each phase of its completion, proving, as one article put it, "that the Egyptian labourer, if given any means at all, is able to compete with the best in the world." Ali Hamdi El-Gammal, in a March 1979 article in Al-Ahram, even went so far as to call the bridge "the link between Ancient Egyptian civilisation and modern Egypt's future".
Twenty years later, going underground looks like the real future of transportation in Cairo's modern world. Even Mohamed Gamal thinks that bridges may be in a down phase. "Tunnels are far nicer. You don't have to ruin the landscape. They're dug deep enough to avoid hitting the utilities. They cost more, but now Egypt is starting to build them. In the past, when 6 October began, we could only afford to build bridges to solve our traffic problems. Now a lot of people are saying they don't like the way bridges look in the city."
Perhaps that's why 6 October is beginning to feel like a swan song, the last big inner city bridge of our time.
6AM, 6 OCTOBER: Not only is the bridge a permanent part of the city's look and feel, it has changed how the city acts as well. According to Ismail Sabri Abdallah, former minister of planning, "the bridge has helped shift the city's centres of economic power to the suburbs. Nobody opens a shop downtown anymore. It's all in the suburbs like Mohandessin and Nasr City." Downtown, meanwhile, where it crosses the Nile, the bridge has always been a prime photo spot for couples getting married, with the TV Building looking like a gigantic wedding cake in the background. Sixth of October is also the route most frequented by those attempting to avoid surprise police checkpoints at 2.00am; it's the one bridge where there's very little chance of one.
And the bridge really is quite beautiful at night, especially when there's no traffic. The way the lights curve up and around towards the blue and yellow patterns on the Ramses Bus Station, and then like a slithering snake through the tall buildings downtown.
Now, there is also a stunning suspension element to 6 October, one already captured in a video clip by Ihab Tawfik, who was being interviewed for TV on that very same suspension span a couple of weeks ago. Tawfik's fantasy video clip world made the 6.00am fog on the bridge look truly magical.
It's short, as suspensions go (only 141m), but sturdy. The Arab Contractors were forced to build it since there was no room on the ground for enough pillars for a normal bridge, or even the enforced steel foundation trick used in the intersections. So just two giant pillars were built, and now the bridge dangles between them, held up by reinforced steel cables 14cm in diameter, and between 14 and 70m long.
"There's always a solution with bridges," Gamal says, "and it was the first time this type of bridge was built in Egypt. It was a chance for us to learn something new."
A bit further down the soon-to-be-opened extension, where it towers over Ishaq Tawfik Street on its way to Salah Salem, many families are also learning something new: how to handle having a bridge in their balcony.
While some people wake up one day to find the bridge on their balcony, other people spend all night on the bridge, treating it as if it really was a balcony
Nawal Hussein has lived here for 40 years. There are train tracks nearby, so it's not the extra noise that bothers her. "I live alone, and I'm afraid a thief will jump into the balcony from the bridge," which is about a metre away. She wants a barrier, a steel fence perhaps, to be built between the bridge and her balcony. She hasn't pursued the matter, and the Arab Contractors are still studying the possibility.
FROM THE AIRPORT TO THE PYRAMIDS?: The Arab Contractors promised President Mubarak that the 6 October extension would be done by the end of June. And so it will be, at least all the way to Salah Salem. The final stretch that reaches the Autostrade, along with an exit ramp onto Teraat Al-Gabal, are expected to be done by October. When they are, an era will be over.
Mohamed Gamal seems almost glad that this is as far as 6 October is going to go. The rumours about the bridge eventually making it from the airport to the Pyramids are only half true, he says. First, it must be made clear that, in his eyes, 6 October isn't really a bridge -- it's more of a highway. "And when people say from the Pyramids to the airport, maybe what they really mean is that it will be a path with no intersections between those two points."
While the link he's building now is taking us one step closer to that formidable goal, many Cairenes who regularly take 6 October back and forth from Heliopolis or Dokki to downtown, think the money being spent on the bridge is a waste, since the exact same traffic jams coming off the bridge at Ghamra, for instance, will just transfer themselves a few kilometres down the line, to Salah Salem. Going home to Heliopolis will still be a pain. "They should build smaller bridges over Salah Salem that would eliminate the intersections. It would be cheaper and more effective," one Heliopolis resident says.
When 6 October was commissioned, argues Ismail Sabri Abdallah, "Cairo's traffic politics went against global trends. How? Because it only helped those who have cars. And cars are the worst pollutants." Abdallah has always pushed for more efficient public transport systems, like the metro, as the only real solution to the city's jams.
What seems to be unanimously agreed upon is summed up by Khaled Balboul, an accountant, who says with a laugh and a strange acceptance of fate: "Cairo's traffic seems to have truly reached a point of no return."
Of course, those who remember how bad the traffic really was before the bridge was built, might disagree. "It used to take from an hour to an hour and a half just to get from Bab Al-Hadid to Abbasiya," says Abdel-Hamid Fahim, who has braved both pre- and post-bridge congestion on a daily basis for four decades. "It was such a big decision in those days to go downtown by car."
Now, on a good day, he's able to take 6 October from Dokki to Abbasiya in less than 20 minutes.
It's the bad days, however, when the trip takes no less than an hour and a half, that sometimes seem more frequent, or at least more memorable.
"Every day, there are more people and more cars, and it seems we may never catch up," Fahim says.
Perhaps that's why the best option may be to just stay where you are. The bridge will eventually come to you.