Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 December 2005
Issue No. 773
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cigarettes, cards and laughter

Serene Assir finds downtown Cairo to be a breath of fresh air for women in an increasingly conservative capital

Click to view caption
Students at play in a downtown café

"Funny how the centre manages to resist the norms set by all that surrounds it," says one regular downtown-goer as we walk through Talaat Harb Street, on our way to one of Cairo's more popular baladi cafés.

Indeed, as we enter a backstreet, home to a café frequented by artists and idlers, businessmen and misfits, we witness living proof of this. A cigarette-touting 20-year-old who wears the hijab, Yasmin, is looking down at her cards. Concentrating, she throws down the winning set, celebrating her victory over three men.

Meanwhile her husband Ahmed, who also frequents downtown cafés, is chatting away with his friends; he shows no sign whatsoever of being disturbed or shocked by his wife's behaviour. "Of course it's fine by me that Yasmin enjoys herself," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "It's only in this area that people understand normal behaviour. Anywhere else, people will be shocked, assuming the worst."

"For me," Yasmin explained, once her card game was over, "downtown Cairo is an addiction. I live in Giza, but I keep returning to the cafés here. All my friends are here, and only here can my interaction with them be truly free. Anywhere else, as a woman, I feel misunderstood -- my movements have to be guarded, I must watch my voice and how hard I laugh."

While female freedom of expression outside the confines of the home or, as it were, the limits of "trusted" territory is gradually becoming a rarity, many feel that central Cairo is different. "It's not just about cigarettes, cards or laughter," Yasmin went on. "For me, it's the way people here understand a woman's right to be as she is at home, or as she is with her close friends and family, that this does not contradict her being a good, decent human being."

Follow traditional descriptions of the city, the huge area encompassed by central Cairo includes all that lies between the Hussein and Tahrir Square. Within these neighbourhoods is what has come to form the most integral components of the capital's history -- from Fatimid mosques to Mamluk architecture, from relics of the British protectorate to post-Revolution buildings.

Central Cairo will also continue to house -- if probably not for long -- all that constitutes the power of the state, ranging from ministries to that huge beacon of Egyptian bureaucracy, the mugamma. Accompanying such features are all the state regulars, including plain-clothes policemen and, it is rumoured, informers paid to listen in on political conversations in backstreet cafés.

It is interesting, yet not surprising, that only under pressure of history and the state do men and women alike choose to be at their freest. For this area is older, and fuller in character, proud to be the truest urban heart of the country -- something no other part of the city can boast.

"This café may be run-down," Yasmin says as she takes another drag on her cigarette. "But try going to a café in Mohandessin or Zamalek, and you'll instantly notice the way people interact with you -- it will be just smeared by their warped perception of how a woman should or should not behave in public."

The secret to this may be that, in a way, downtown Cairo belongs to nobody. "You'll notice that nobody who comes to these cafés is actually from here," Yasmine's friend Shirine elaborates. "It is precisely this mix of people that makes the centre so attractive. We choose to hang out here not because it's near our homes, or because of its familiarity. We come because everyone is accepted, and though we may sometimes have problems, on the whole people are very accepting of others."

Similarly, Yasmine says, "I'm surprised to have met so many people from so many walks of life, all in one place. I may not agree with what some of them say about politics and religion, but at least open debate is allowed among us."

Indeed, central Cairo seems to accommodate the homeless more effectively than mainstream Egyptian society. "You should see Maysoun," Yasmine says. "She's a little girl -- she can't be any older than 15. It's such a shame she lives the way she does, on the streets, and God knows how she manages to earn her next meal. Downtown Cairo is also her home, for better or for worse."

Shirine regrets having to put up with the down-and-outs of the capital within the space she occupies. "I find it disturbing that prostitutes hang out in the same places as I do," she says. "They make it possible for the men of the area to judge me in a bad light too, although I don't consider any of what I do or say wrong. I simply come here to be with my friends."

But in spite of this fear, Shirine will keep coming back. "Even if sometimes I get very frustrated and annoyed with this area, simply because of what it represents to me and the problems it can bring to the surface," she attests, "I can only return. It's funny that I should say this, but I feel that central Cairo is my home. It's in my nature to be here."

"It may not be pleasant sometimes," Yasmine chimes along, "but in the end I feel that only in the centre do people shed their conservatism and embrace the city for what it really is, for better or for worse, and with all its variety."

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