Back to square one
An international competition to redevelop Ramses Square has raised many questions about the real needs of the city and the people, Dena Rashed
finds out there are many other demands screaming to be met
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Clockwise from top: gatekeepers control the pedestrians' movement in Ramses Square; street vendors scatter their products around the square; couples hanging out on the pedestrians' bridge
In Sinbad Funfair, there is a place whose name roughly translates into the House of Horrors. It is very tacky, but when the park was the only one of its kind in Cairo, this was no doubt the favourite for many visiting children. To put you in the picture, you ride in a small bumper car, in the dark circles of a maze, you hear noises, people jump around you and at various points a silly crew member hits you on the head with something. It's so dark that you can't figure out quite what's happened, and even if you could see him you simply can't go after him. The same underpaid idiot in charge of gently slapping kids into fear takes charge of making sure the youngest visitors don't leave without their dose of screams and shouts.
As far as I can remember, we all knew that the House of Horrors was sillier than it was scary. In a strange sort of way, the same goes for the old yet recently renovated Ramses Square, in the heart of the capital. Whether you are a pedestrian or driver, you feel your passage through Ramses somehow serves to remind you of the bizarre experiences the House of Horrors gave you when you were a child. The roads are not straight, the obstacles are annoying and as you finally manage to escape the square's mazes, you are both exhausted and irritated. Considering that the square hosts Egypt's central Railway Station, a major Metro station, Fateh Mosque and a bridge flying over it, pedestrians, shops and cars, bus and microbus stops, the place is crying for help.
In September 2006, the red granite statue of Ramses II was moved from the square it had inhabited since 1954, to the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, which is still under construction. The move was expected to ease the traffic flow, while allowing for more room for pedestrians and more greenery amid the concrete. As soon as the statue of the Pharaonic king left, some areas were indeed planted, some streets surrounding the square were closed off, while some others were redirected.
However, that set-up didn't work too well either, so again, a new plan was needed. This time the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH) launched an international planning and architectural competition for the urban design of the square, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. The aim, as NOUH officials put it, is to bring the best schools of architecture and urban design to Egypt as part of the development plan of Fatimid and Khedive Cairo.
Ramses Square dates back to the epoch of Mohamed Ali, who developed it into a large park in 1844. In 1856, during the rule of Abbas Pasha, the first part of the Railway Station was built, while in 1858 the second part was completed. However after the British invasion, an explosion of an ammunition store led to the demolition of the station 1882. The new station was finally established, using an Islamic style in 1893 by architect Edwin Pans. While the history of the square is rich, its current status is not.
To cross the square from railway side, people have to practice a marathon, complete with obstacles as though to make life just a little more exciting than it already is. They have proved to be real irritants for the elderly, as have the Metro tunnels on the other side of the street. People insist on crossing the street at any cost. In fact pedestrians' bridges are more romantic gatherings for couples who are looking for a way to spend some time away from the din of the streets.
Among the pedestrians, it seems that young males are the best off, since they are the only ones who can perform the jump across fences without falling or exposing themselves. As for women and the elderly, they are forced to walk and walk till they find a gap in the fences permitting them to cross the street. While efforts to redesign the square mean the microbus stops have been moved away, Cairo's most dangerous vehicles still drop passengers off wherever they like.
In all, trying to cross Ramses Street is like getting from one side of a river to the other -- without the aid of a boat. Traffic policemen hold the metal gates that they close and open with each traffic lights. Crossing has to be fast and with no stopping, because if you do, you inevitably get caught in the middle of the hurricane of traffic. If the gatekeepers decide to close, it could be on you, if you are not swift enough to jump onto the pavement. "The gates are horrible. I have to wait for 15 minutes to cross over the main street many times a day to get products for my shop," said Maher Nawar, owner of a juice shop on the square.
Nawar has been working here for the past 40 years and believes that the constant development of the square has not in actual fact led to any real improvements. His opinion is very similar to that of many others living or working in Ramses Square. No doubt many of these people may not have the details of the competition, but they do for the most part know that it is open to international designers, to improve the square once again. "I believe only the Egyptians can solve our problems. Foreigners may have great aptitudes for design, but their taste is not the same as ours," Nawar told Al-Ahram Weekly.
At the other end of the square, right in front of the mosque, tens of street vendors are working as usual, right in front of the Metro station. One young vendor who sells DVDs and magazines believes that although there is a serious problem in the square, there is no need for international competition. "It is just a square after all," said the 22-year-old, requesting his name be withheld. "Our real problem lies in the lack of a permanent plan for development. Every governor comes in with a different plan and forgets his predecessor's," he said. The vendor then added: "The place is choking. They shifted the microbus stops to minimise congestion, yet that only made matters worse by taking traffic to other areas. And while it looks nice no doubt, even the greenery they planted is an irritant. What are we supposed to do with it when we can't find a proper way to cross our streets? Plus, there isn't a single trash can anywhere in the area -- so much for environmentalism!"
Called Bab Al-Hadid before the statue of the king was shifted here in the 1950s, Ramses Square was the starting point for all migrants arriving from the Egyptian countryside to the city. Making their way out of the train station, many would try their luck in the square itself, starting by putting goods of all kinds on sale. Beneath the famous tall building in the heart of the square, informal vendors shout at the top of their lungs, trying to sell their cheap watches, socks and other items you would never have imagined could be sold on the street. All that is visible are the heads of the hundreds of people, with each vendor striving to get a customer to buy something from him, and at the same time anticipating a crisis. After all, the number one fear for the informal vendors is the police, who regularly confiscate their goods and detain them. On the other hand, the vendors believe they have the right to be on the street because this is the only job they have. However, for the people who live and work in the area, they are the main source of noise and irritation.
For a shop owner in the landmark building, life only gets worse by the day. He has been living and working in the Ramses area for the past 45 years. "If my young daughters want to come to the shop from our house nearby, I have to walk them through to let them pass safely, away from the street vendors," he told the Weekly. "Not to mention that they spread their goods in front of our shops obstructing our way, and their cursing that we have to hear constantly."
Still this vendor prefers to play it safe, and refrains from reporting annoyances to the police. "I prefer to talk to people on a friendly basis. At the end of the day it is a situation that won't change in the near future. After all the place is controlled by power groups," he said. Part of the problem, as he sees it, is the effects the latest redesign of the square has had on the people and businesses of the area. The small street that led from the station to Ramses Street was closed; this has been a major problem for the inhabitants of the area because it turned into a little market where almost everything is on offer.
Further, while the shop owner is annoyed on a daily basis, the vendors too have their share of troubles. El-Ders Attia, 29, has been selling goods on the street since he was nine years old. So the area is home to him too. Standing in front of his board full of fake Ray Ban glasses, Attia maintains a great sense of humour despite the hardships he faces. "I have six brothers and this is our major source of income. If they redevelop the place and move us we will still come back because this is where our job is," Attia told the Weekly.
Meanwhile, the glasses vendor wonders how many millions have been spent on moving Ramses II's statue. "It must have cost a fortune, but what about us? I am a good person and I am doing nothing wrong and don't think we should be spending that much time in police stations because of what we do," he argued. An old lady, who sells lighters right behind him in the street, is feeding her street cats and calls Attia to come and eat with his brothers. While they joke and poke fun at each other, Attia becomes serious again and asks, "Do you think you could ask in your article that they take us into consideration when they are re-planning the square? Perhaps they could set up little booths for us? Do you think it is possible that if you write this request down, someone would actually read it and make it come true?"
The answer to that question is, it appears, debatable. It is not just about who will read this story, but also about who would implement new measures. As the average Egyptian on the streets knows, city planning is consistently disrupted by new governments or the arrival of new governors, who may choose whether or not to continue ongoing projects, regardless of the money spent. It is difficult to envision a true planning strategy. Ramses Square itself was witness to an operation characterised by massive amounts of waste, of both time and money, in 2007, as the government decided to build a garage right in front of the Railway Station to ease the parking problem. The garage, which cost almost LE32 million drawn from the Railway Authority budget, was torn down and the reasons remain unclear till now. What is certain is that no one has yet been held responsible for the waste of public money.
The drama does not end there. The square's history and current situation are chief among the reasons the planned competition for the re-development of the square was not met with applause from different parties. If it is a competition for redeveloping the square, then there are two purposes, said Mohamed Abbas El-Zaafrani, former head of the Urban Planning Association, and that is traffic and the final outlook. "When it comes to the square it is simply going to be a very expensive, temporary process," El-Zaafrani said. He also pointed out that the square, one of the busiest and oldest in the city, is flooded by the flow of people and cars. "The main problem lies in the city itself. If the square is redesigned, then what would happen to the rest of the space surrounding it and leading to it? There are two other main squares, Tahrir and Ataba, that are linked to it, and in turn they will need redevelopment and planning too. Cairo has had enough of re- patching and re-touching. It is time to look for bigger solutions," he explained.
Renowned Egyptian architect Mamdouh Hamza, whose firm has worked on mega-projects such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Toshka, also believes that "the premise is not right. We can't solve a part without solving the whole problem," Hamza told the Weekly. He argued that before talking exclusively about Ramses Square, we need to address the roots of the problem. He sees traffic as Cairo's chronic disease. "The problem is that traffic is handled and planned by policemen who studied law, with all my respect, there are many engineers who are specialised in traffic and can plan better," Hamza said.
As such, Hamza believes an international competition is not the answer. "We can't get foreigners to plan Ramses Square for us. They would not be aware of our culture and tradition. Besides with half a jury of foreigners, Egyptians won't make it, just like what happened with the competition of the Egyptian Grand Museum," he said.
For their part, more optimistic officials at NOUH look like they are not expecting harsh criticism from architects or from the media. "We should be happy that we are interacting at an international level. It would be offensive if the competition allowed only foreigners to participate. Besides, the designs of the Grand Museum and the Bibliotheca were open also for an international competition," one said.
For El-Zaafrani, the issue should not be taken too seriously. "As long as we benefit in the end, then there is no problem with the competition. I hope Egyptians win. Either way, we will be the ones implementing the designs because we know our own people better. At the same time we have worked side by side with the French in planning phases in the city, and currently the Japanese are working with us too," he said.
Yet architects and urban planners are split on the comprehensive solution for the city. It is true that the design for Ramses Square could well turn out to be great with all the international competition. But what next? Will there be other competitions for every congested area in the city? Hamza believes that this competition is like taking a chronic cancer patient to a plastic surgeon. The body might end up looking great, but it would still suffer from the inside. "Planning the city involves everyone, from thinkers to architects to planners. This is what we call urban planning," Hamza said.
El-Zaafrani for his part is an avid supporter of the new capital project, which has been the talk of urban planners for decades. "The city is done. Once again, there is a need to discuss the project of moving the political and administrative capital away from Cairo, to New Minya, which is a perfect place for such project. It is on the Nile and has all the transportation facilities that would make for a better capital," he said. He believes that the city's over-crowdedness has become unbearable, so a drastic measure has to be taken.
On the other hand, Hamza opposes these plans. "Cairo has always been the capital and it would be a historical crime to move it. What we could do is move the ministries away from the centre of town, but the capital definitely must remain in Cairo," he said.
Despite the differences, there remains one common point of agreement. People who are street-smart know it, while architects and urban planners know it just as well: the city has been through major surgeries costing millions of pounds and no one is happy -- neither the drivers, nor the pedestrians. The results for the competition are set to be announced in August 2009. Meanwhile, implementation would take no less than a year or two. The redevelopment might get a great design out, but will it solve the persistent problems? Professionals say no, but most of us today can do nothing but wait for yet another doubtful plan. Until then street vendors will still complain of being chased, pedestrians will continue to jump and run, drivers will continue their grown-up House of Horrors experience and inhabitants will pray for a safer and calmer neighbourhood.
Until change happens the simple people will likely keep on asking simple questions, like the taxi driver who gave us a ride through Ramses Street: "Why did they remove Ramses II from the square? He looked good there. Maybe he got upset and asked to leave, and that is why the square has been in chaos since then."