Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 February - 1 March 2006
Issue No. 783
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Yunan Labib Rizk

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (630)

Cairene concerns

Cairo has been given numerous names -- mother of the world, the protected and city of a thousand minarets. Yet none of these attractive names did anything to clean the city up, writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk

Click to view caption
Cairo has forever been a busy and loud capital

Numerous governments have made many attempts to treat Cairo's problems. These have included expanding the limits of the old city, which has become nothing but a limited area within the greater capital today. Other attempts have included establishing new cities some thought would offer a happy solution to the city's ancient woes but which instead encroached upon it and swallowed it, digesting its precedents. The malady of "centralisation", which has made Cairo a dinosaur of a capital, has continued to make it the destination of anyone and everyone seeking to make a living or fulfil an ambition.

Over the expanse of the city's history filled with wonders, its populace has grown accustomed to the nature of life within it. Its visitors have been surprised by its crowds of humanity, which a Moroccan traveller described in the following terms: "In sum, it is the mother of countries east and west... for the types of people one finds within it. Whatever type you seek, you will find more than you could imagine... It is as though the people were crammed in and no one thinks to ask about anyone else; everyone is seeking what they think will be their salvation." Despite all this, there have been times when the cries of Cairo and its populace have risen.

Al-Ahram expressed such pain in the late 1930s. The occasion was presented by ponderings over the celebration of Cairo's imminent 1,000th year, which opened the door wide to discussions of the great city's problems.

The first manifestation of suffering Al-Ahram monitored was the "clamour of the streets". In the second and third decades of the 20th century, streets in Egypt's cities were subject to a massive influx of cars, particularly in Cairo. With crowded roads and "drivers straying from the path and prepared to make mistakes, and the deafness and intense neglect of pedestrians", the electronic horn was excessively used as a substitute for traditional ones.

Officials took action and notices were issued banning the use of horns in Cairo. At first it seemed as though they had brought results after accidents noticeably decreased, but then, as Al-Ahram noted, this decrease was countered by an actual increase of accidents and injuries. According to Al-Ahram, the banning of the use of horns must be "preceded by the creation of strict orders for the crossing of streets. For traffic police to commence with the second step without taking the first surpasses the bounds of reasonable logic and places people's lives in danger that makes the importance of the noticeable decrease of the clamour of cars pale in comparison."

Al-Ahram offered a compromise solution via the use of horns with leather pumps, although it warned that this kind of horn often failed to produce a sound in moments of greatest need. The author of the article suggested that another solution might be sought, although he did not offer one himself.

Another problem was "beggars and their likes", who Al-Ahram described as a vast and abominable army. It dedicated a large expanse of its front page of the 15 December 1937 issue to them with an article written by one of its editors. He called himself Khaldoun, and demonstrated an eloquent flair in his writing.

He began his article by placing the characteristic of "beggar" on "those who roam the streets with nothing in their hand other than a lottery ticket or those who rival the heavens although they merely sell a few pencils! Not far removed from beggars are shoe shiners, razor vendors, cigarette-butt collectors, palm readers, strolling musicians, and those crying out to those sitting in cafés, asking them to feed them for they are hungry, dress them for they are ragged, or assist them in travelling to their hometowns, all of which are lies."

In addition to those who beg in roundabout ways, Khaldoun wrote of those who "plunged headfirst" into beggary -- the old sheikh who greets you in humility and dejection, asking you to give him some change, the fallen woman who leaves hungry children behind at home, the sick person who reveals his ailments and bares his disfigurements, the blind man who feels his way through the streets, the cripple whose glance shoots fiery flames at the healthy.

Khaldoun had travelled to Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Greece, and had traversed Europe from north to south. But he declared that having roamed east and west, he had never witnessed the sights he saw in Egypt, leading him to lay the blame for this phenomenon on social chaos and governments leaving groups of people to live off of despicable means. He reproached them for their inability to treat the problem systematically, and although nearly 70 years have passed since his article was published, it still remains untreated. In fact, it has grown more serious, to the point that beggars form a proportion of the pilgrims to Mecca every year and have gained extensive experience in begging at holy sites, conducting money transfers and so on.

By reading Al-Ahram, we discover that at that time, so long ago, a problem later termed "unplanned housing districts" was already present in more than one location. At the far end of Al-Dirasa neighbourhood between the cemeteries and the hills, near Borg Al-Zafar, Al-Gharib and Al-Atouf, was a feral settlement that would have had no connection to life as we know it except for a police unit that had occupied an area there, a few recently constructed factories and a circle of homes in the shade of the towering hills. All of these homes were constructed of old, worn tin, and the settlement was called "tin hamlet".

Al-Ahram described this hamlet in the following terms: "A single household consists of one or two rooms no larger than two metres by one and a half. It has a low ceiling and no outlet other than the door. No light or sunshine enters it. As for its inhabitants, they are labourers who extract fertiliser from the hills, where they spend the entire day under the burning sun and then take refuge at the end of the day in these homes where their wives, children and animals await them. They sleep on the ground with animal dung all around them."

Al-Ahram then left tin hamlet for "the Upper Egyptians' hamlet" near Barqouq Mosque. All of its inhabitants were from Upper Egypt, and it consisted of stone homes with tiny, filthy rooms in which "a worker sleeps with his wife and their five or six children and where they cook and clean although each room is no larger than two metres by two."

In addition to this depressing atmosphere, Al-Ahram 's reporter who visited the area recounted a curious aspect of social life there called the "war of bricks". There were two towering hills facing each other and split by an unpaved road. "The neighbourhood thugs [of Al-Atouf], if they argued with the neighbourhood thugs [of Al-Gharib], declared war against them. These two hills became a battleground as each group climbed up them and the war began without any weapons other than stones. Some of them are wounded with serious injuries."

The reporter of Al-Ahram sent to visit these "haphazard" neighbourhoods then moved on from Al-Dirasa and the surrounding heritage areas to Al-Abbasiya and Queen Nazli Street (now Ramses) near Al-Demerdash Hospital. There he noticed a wall no higher than three metres separating "Al-Mohamedi wooden shacks" from the main street. He crossed the wall to find the Arab Al-Mohamedi neighbourhood extending all the way to the Al-Matariya railway line, and offered an incredibly miserable description of this neighbourhood:

"You see homes built of wood, mud brick and tin. At their doorways sit filthy women who have painted their faces red and look repugnant, as though they were devils. You see sluggish, unemployed men who have hurled their frail, sick bodies on the ground before the homes. These are the husbands of those women, and that it her son, and that her friend."

"Anyone who walks in this neighbourhood suffers numerous types of irritations. The nastiest of smells exude from these homes into which neither the sun nor the air reach and waft to the nose. Drug dealers have found this area a place to hide in, and others have taken to selling arms in order to make a living. In addition, there is another group of beggars, ex- convicts and thieves. They leave their dens at night and commit their crimes in the city and then hide their stolen goods in this neighbourhood... As for the fallen women, they are spread among its alleys and centre in a frightening manner. You see them everywhere you go, among the homes of workers, children and merchants, and next to the female workers who are the wives of the labourers."

From Al-Abbasiya, Al-Ahram 's reporter moved on to Al-Assal neighbourhood in the middle of Boulaq Canal Street in Shubra. It consisted of a number of alleys, none of which exceeded three metres, crowded with adjoining houses some of which had collapsed and others of which were approaching collapse. The reporter was intent on visiting one of the area's homes, which he found it meagre and built of mud brick. "Its rooms were built with Baghdadi wood weighed down by its inhabitants. It leaned to the right a bit, as though it were the Eiffel Tower. Living in it was an old man of about 70 who was a water bearer until old age retired him, his son who works for the railway, and a daughter 21 years old. The son is married and has four children, and this family lives on little money and eats paltry food. The faces of the children are tinged with despair, suffering and misery."

Al-Ahram 's reporter also noticed that a great number of drummers, coachmen and itinerant merchants who were either Delta peasants or from Upper Egypt lived in this neighbourhood. Most residents were labourers and craftsmen, however, although "the police never stopped raiding the neighbourhood, arresting groups of addicts and drug dealers."

It appears that Al-Ahram 's editor pitied its readers for all the depression portrayed to them from Al-Assal, for he included a curious story about one of this neighbourhood's residents called El-Grangly who had lived his life in hiding from the police until he was recently arrested. He had hidden in his home large amounts of clothing thieves had stolen and sold to him. "Among the strange coincidences was that the police arrested the man in the afternoon and that same evening his house collapsed. If the thief had stayed a few more hours, this accident would have cost him his life." The life of a scoundrel is long.

WITH INCREASING CAMPAIGNS being made against the city's conditions, officials in the Egyptian capital persistently resorted to one of two approaches, either topical treatments whose effects soon wore off, or the promotion of challenging projects they knew better than anyone else that their budgets could not commit to.

The most famed of the topical treatments during that period was that which Cairo's governor, Abdel-Salam El-Shazli Pasha, presented to Egyptians in mid-April 1937. Al-Ahram introduced it under broad headlines: "New projects to organise Cairo -- change of the traffic system and car regulations -- new tax on bicycles -- expansion of roads and guidance of the masses in a traffic system."

Within the news item was information about the formation of a committee led by the governor and consisting of the head of the car club, the inspector of the Tourism Department, the Cairo chief of police, and the director of the department regulating the reform of the city's traffic system. This took place "after the means of transportation have increased drastically and the number of vehicles in the city has reached tens of thousands and continues to increase day after day." This committee held its first meetings and made efforts to reach quick decisions "to improve the situation wherever possible and create new draft regulations for traffic".

Among these decisions was to widen some of the important streets by narrowing the sidewalks on each side by at least a metre and a half. Traffic on main streets was also made one- way. In addition, a branch committee was formed to formulate a new draft to amend the decades-old vehicle regulations. Yet another committee was formed to place signs on major roads to guide the masses on their path. One hundred signs were initially put in place in order to test them out. It was also decided to establish new parking lots on some of the major streets and to step up the ban on using horns within the city.

Other decisions included a halt to issuing new permits for horse-drawn carriages and conducting inspections every other year of the existent carriages and cancelling the permit of those that should be cancelled. These carriages were barred from driving on major streets. Taxes were also place on bicycles -- 20 piastres for two-wheelers and 40 piastres for three-wheelers.

Finally, decisions were made concerning itinerant merchants and beggars. Merchants were barred from a number of important roads -- Ibrahim Street from the Cairo train station to Ibrahim Square, Fouad the First Street to Al-Isaaf, Suleiman Pasha Street, the tanneries, Qasr Al-Nil, and Queen Nazli Street from the Cairo train station to Al-Isaaf, and Qasr Al-Aini Street to Al-Mubtadiyan, in addition to the streets downtown. As for beggars, strict instructions were issued for the police to enforce the law banning beggary. More than 300 were arrested, some of whom were sent to trial and sentenced. Others were sent to refuges. Juveniles were handed over to their parents and orphans were sent to orphanages.

Although the speech of Abdel-Salam El-Shazli Pasha indicated that Cairo was on its way to being rid of some of its maladies, the results of these measures were in fact temporary. The clamour of vehicles continued to intensify as their numbers increased and new drivers entered the arena. Indifferent pedestrians also continued to increase, as did the numbers of itinerant merchants as long as migration from the provinces to Cairo took place, especially from Upper Egypt. And the police were only able arrest an insignificant number of the thousands of beggars.

Another placatory treatment was a call to remove Zeinhum Hill. After the cabinet issued a resolution on 10 February 1938 to seize ownership of the property required to build a square at the intersection of the School of Medicine, Al-Khalig Al-Misri, and Al-Sed Al-Barrani streets, calls to remove this hill raised their timbre "in order to purify the neighbourhood from the foul odours that exude from it."

In keeping with such policies, officials saw no harm in applying cosmetics to the face of the haggardly city, and Al-Ahram published numerous news items concerning such measures. The Ministry of Transportation announced that, given the establishment of a large industrial area in Zahir, a suburb of Shubra, it was striving to improve the internal roads of the area and those connecting it to Cairo in order to facilitate the movement of the factory vehicles.

Another news item concerned the improvement of the train station square, a mission the Ministry of Public Works decided to undertake. This ministry also saw it necessary to remove the Ezbekiya police station and the adjacent central court and build a park in their place. Other news concerned activities undertaken by the regulations department by request of the Tourism Department to beautify the city. Kiosks were set up to sell newspapers in some of the city's squares, and flower boxes were placed on the electricity poles on Suleiman Pasha and Qasr Al-Nile Streets. A fuel station for cars was built on Queen Nazli Street in the direction of Al-Waili police station, and Al-Fawala Alley was widened behind Misr Bank. Qasr Al-Aini Hospital at Rhoda Island was renovated, and part of Al-Qalaa Street in Heliopolis was removed.

The curbs of small traffic islands and park areas that were raised from the level of the street were often the cause of crashes. The regulations department thus decided to paint them black and white "so that they can be easily distinguished at night. That is what is done in European countries, and this measure will lend the squares and streets a beautiful splendour."

A final news item related to appearances concerned naming a number of streets after great individuals who were deceased. It was planned to change the name of Abdeen Mosque Street to Hassan Pasha Abdel-Razeq, as he lived there for nearly 40 years. Khairat Street was to become Mustafa Kamel Pasha, Al-Talambat Street in Garden City was to become Adli Yakan Pasha, Ibn Shihab Street was to become Hussein Rushdi Pasha, and Al-Kahkiyin Street was to become Sheikh Abdel-Rahman Al-Gabarti Street. Some of these changes were made and others not, at least not as they were planned.

As for the promotion of challenging projects, or what might be described as "daydreams", they began with an attempt to employ the role of the ancient city to affirm its future in tourism. This involved wide-scale construction projects that affected all aspects of life in the city.

On the front page of Al-Ahram 's 11 September 1937 issue was a long article under the headline "City of museums". The article included an interview with "the prominent antiquities expert Atienne Dritone, director of the Egyptian Antiquities Department". The most significant part of the article was a call to establish a museum city within the Egyptian capital that would include a museum of art history, a museum of antiquities, the palace of Tutankhamen, and a tomb for mummies.

The argument of the prominent French antiquarian was that the museum at that time had become piled up with antiquities, causing them to lose their splendour and glory. This occurred because the original design had not taken into consideration the success excavations would have. Not a year passed without the museum acquiring new treasures, and the department grew perplexed as to whether to exhibit or store them. When the latter choice was taken, "some treacherous hands reached out and stole."

Dritone described his recommendation as sound thinking, particularly given what was expected to follow the 1936 Treaty in terms of the eviction of British forces from the Qasr Al-Nile barracks. Assuming control of them would provide an expansive area next to the museum that would be sufficient for the construction of the three museums suggested. "If something prevents that for some unknown reason, then at the least an independent museum of the Tutankhamen era should be built while the current museum can be continued to be used for art history and another site can be selected for the two museums specific to antiquities and mummies."

Al-Ahram treated the recommendation in light of what it would offer Cairo in terms of possibilities for tourism. It viewed that it would make it possible for tourists, most of who are interested but are not experts, to visit the museum "and this is in fact the system that was applied to the Louvre Museum, whose success has been enormous." Al-Ahram also saw that its influence would spread to Egyptians and that "raising the level of thought and taste among the people via the masters of arts and crafts is considered one of the primary duties of the state. In fact, it is one of the forms of national edification."

In this important article, Al-Ahram concluded that the establishment of a museum city would not be considered a luxury in a country "like Egypt that depends to a large degree on its antiquities to promote tourism. Establishment of a museum such as the Tutankhamen Pavilion alone is sufficient to draw a large number of visitors every year because it will include the most comprehensive and beautiful collection of Egyptian antiquities in the world and will represent one of the most glorious epochs of Egyptian history. There, visitors to this splendid collection will see evidence of Egyptian taste that, were it alone, would still serve as conclusive proof that Egypt is the mother of all civilisations."

This article tempted someone who signed his name as "the wandering journalist" to participate by sharing his opinion as to what could be done to beautify Cairo, which he held had remained young despite advancing in years. "I wonder when this aged child will reach maturity and take responsibility for her own affairs, and when a municipality will be established to take up such matters." The journalist had several specific views on the beautification of this "aged child." One of the most significant was the imposition of permanent regulations, or rather a law, to make it incumbent upon homeowners to construct their homes on a single street in an orderly and aesthetic manner. "This is what one of the ministers previously called for -- Mohamed Alouba Pasha, when he was the minister of information."

Another significant suggestion the contributor made was what he called "untying the cord hobbling" Ezbekiya Gardens by demolishing the ugly fence surrounding it and "freeing the masses to enjoy it. At such time, areas can be allocated for children and restaurants and small cafés can be built within it. Fouad I Street [now 26th of July] can be extended to traverse it until it meets Farouk Street [now Al-Gaysh]. Then the tram can take a straight path to Green Ataba rather than making convoluted turns and placing pedestrians in danger."

Yet the journalist didn't know what time would bring to everything he dreamt of. Jungles of cement filled the areas where he asked for well-ordered homes. Nothing is left now of Ezbekiya Gardens other than a few old relics that have been swallowed up by government buildings and facilities. The tram has disappeared, and the "aged child" has grown older still.

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