Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A Shubra epic of solidarity

Revisiting the Cairo district of Shubra in Ramadan, Khaled Hanafi meets a cosmopolitan neighbourhood struggling to retain its legacy of solidarity

Grand boulevard de Choubrah

Unmistakable marks of sadness feature on the face of William, a vegetable vendor in Shubra, on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. Egyptians had hardly celebrated the advent of the holy month when a terror attack occurred on its eve, killing 29 Christians and wounding dozens in Egypt’s southern governorate of Minya.
The terror attack immediately overshadowed traditional festivities nationwide, and an impending sense of grief prevailed. But that mood cannot be more felt than in Shubra, a neighbourhood not only hosting a large Coptic Christian community, but also one that has been historically famous for its strong social fabric binding its Muslim and Christian inhabitants together.

As a former resident of Shubra myself, I can safely say that revisiting the neighbourhood in Ramadan was different this year. A deep sense of grief seemed to be lurking in every corner. But that mood has not stopped many Coptic residents like William from extending the usual Ramadan greetings to Muslim neighbours and customers.
Yet, his grief, albeit deep and silent, was soon felt by his Muslim customers who insisted on sending messages of condolence and solidarity, sometimes in the form of cursing terrorists “who have no religion or morals” or declaring flatly that the inhabitants of Shubra will “retain their brotherly ties and will never split, no matter what”.

Vocal expressions of solidarity and compassion with Copts seemed to resonate in every alleyway in the district on the first days of Ramadan. You could hear them in pharmacies, in shops and at Ramadan’s famous charity iftar tables, known as mawa’id al-rahman, which are sometimes sponsored by Shubra’s Christian inhabitants, again to show feelings of fraternity with their Muslim neighbours.
That picture of solidarity stands against a backdrop of a social legacy of exceptional neighbourhood ties and a common culture that has managed to join the district’s Christian and Muslim inhabitants in times of happiness and adversity and create a sense of fraternity that perhaps only the residents of Shubra, or the Shubrawiya, as they like to call themselves, can understand.

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that Shubra’s legacy of social cohesion has eroded over the past two decades, due to a set of reasons related to the change in the moral and demographic structure of the district and in the nature of its economic and social relations. But the neighbourhood, which is still a centre for Cairo’s Coptic residents, is struggling to retain its character and the minimum level of solidarity and tolerance that is generally found in the Egyptian environment.
The neighbourhood still enjoys a level of cultural understanding and forms of solidarity that have managed to go far beyond religious intolerance. Thanks to the strong national spirit that still characterises Shubra, its residents have been able to survive many times of adversity and sectarian strife as well as national crises over the past decades.

St Tereza church

GEOGRAPHICAL INTERCONNECTIONS: One cannot understand the demographic characteristics of Shubra and its unique sense of tolerance without taking a look at its geography and location.

Shubra is sometimes nicknamed as Shubra Masr (Shubra Egypt) because of its unique location that distinguishes it even from its sister neighbourhood of Shubra Al-Kheima on the opposite side of the Ismailiya Canal in the governorate of Al-Qaliubiya.

Shubra Masr, which includes three main districts on the governorate’s administrative maps, including Al-Sahel, Rod Al-Farag and Shubra, is considered to be a gateway and a strategic point uniting Cairo with the Delta towns to the north. That strategic location has perhaps made Shubra a melting pot for different cultures.

Al-Khazindar Mosque

Parallel to Ahmed Helmi Street, for instance, stands Egypt’s historic Ramses Station, where the sounds of trains carrying passengers to and from Alexandria pierce the day’s traffic. Those embarking on shorter trips to Downtown Cairo can also take in the main streets of Shubra, including Ahmed Helmi and Corniche Al-Nil, on trips in cars coming from the Delta and heading to the microbus stop in Aboud, or via the underground metro that was built in Shubra Street in 2000, replacing the older tramway.
It’s important to note, however, that the recent demographic and architectural changes that have occurred in Shubra over time have not effaced the historic value of the neighbourhood, which was built more than two centuries ago in the era of Mohamed Ali Pasha. Mosques and churches remain adjacent to each other in Shubra, and only a 100-metre distance separates the historic St Theresa Church from the historic Al-Khazindar Mosque, while the area’s famous churches of Mar Guirguis and Mar Morqos are similarly located near mosques like Omar Ibn Al-Khattab, Al-Fath and others.

Neighbouring places of worship have perhaps been seen as a symbol of tolerance uniting residents of both faiths together. It was therefore not strange to see Ramadan lanterns dangling at the entrance of residential blocks belonging to Copts and to find many Muslim inhabitants sharing Coptic celebrations and feasts. It was common in the district that simple women would seek the blessings of the Virgin Mary, referred to as Om Al-Nour (mother of light) in Egypt’s folklore.
Furthermore, sharing community services and common interests have further managed to break religious barriers in the neighbourhood. The inhabitants of Shubra have always shared school desks and health clinics attached to mosques and churches. And it remains a common sight to see a Coptic girl student sharing the same desk with a Muslim classmate in famous convent schools like Sacré Coeur near Shubra Square.
When it comes to business, religion is irrelevant in Shubra. The neighbourhood’s Muslim residents have no grudges in shopping at shops and supermarkets owned by Copts. They still consider Coptic retailer Amm Shawki the best in the district, and they still flock to the pharmacy of Dr Peter, who provides medical advice to both Muslims and Copts alike.

Omar Tosson Palace

Shubra has a history of cosmopolitan culture that can still be seen in the remaining historical landmarks of the two-century-old neighbourhood. It was a haven for Egypt’s aristocracy in the era of Mohamed Ali, when it hosted a number of legendary palaces and villas where the descendants of the Mohamed Ali family lived. Foreign immigrants, including Italians, Greeks, Armenians and those from Sham (the Levant), soon flocked to the old neighbourhood, together with Egyptian rural emigrants, especially following the establishment of the Shubra tram service in 1902 that introduced the neighbourhood to a new era of modernity.
Shubra then turned into a cosmopolitan district where residents from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds merged and lived in an exceptional spirit of peace. Historian Mohamed Afifi has attempted to portray that cosmopolitan community and friendly ambience in his book Shubra: A Small Alexandria. He paints a lively picture of a community of coexistence where, for instance, it was not strange for a Coptic figure like Abla (teacher) Nadia to sponsor a kuttab (classes for teaching the Holy Quran) in the neighbourhood.
The book also portrays such landmark streets as Khamarwiya (located in Al-Teraa Al-Boulaqiya) where the late singer Dalida, who was born in Egypt to Italian parents, lived. Readers are similarly introduced to other famous characters who once lived in the neighbourhood, like film director Henri Barakat, who moved from his homeland in the Levant to take up residence in Shubra, and Father Sergios who joined forces with Muslim protesters in the anti-British 1919 Revolution in Egypt and was known for delivering speeches in support of national unity in churches and mosques alike.
Although the foreign residents gradually trickled out of Shubra following the 1952 Revolution, Shubra retained much of its cosmopolitan character, at least in the architecture of its historic edifices. A few landmarks remain, including the French convent school of Notre Dame with its aura of French architecture, and the Dom Bosco School in Rod Al-Farag with its Italian style.
Many of Shubra’s older residents even insist on using the original name of the government hospital in Shubra, which was named after British war minister Lord Kitchener in World War I.

The picturesque gardens of Shubra in the era of Mohamed Ali

SHUBRA’S MIDDLE CLASSES: Shubra retained much of its cosmopolitan culture even after the 1952 Revolution, particularly during the Nasserist era in the 1950s and 1960s.
The old neighbourhood remained host to an array of ancient schools like Al-Tawfiqiya and Shubra Al-Thanawiya (the secondary school of Shubra) and a residential area for government employees and independent tradesmen alike. The latter mainly lived in Al-Sahel and Rod Al-Farag Streets, which hosted a centre for the construction business as well as a famous fruit and vegetable market that was later relocated to Al-Obour in the 1990s.

The hegemony of the middle class in Shubra helped to create a moral system which condoned social coexistence and stability and ruled out any manifestations of religious discrimination. Occasional sparks of a sectarian rift here and there, which could be started by a simple fight between a Muslim and a Coptic child and were sometimes laced with sectarian phrases of “us and them,” would soon abate in the light of that system. The security forces may have interfered to settle disputes, but mostly they did so in order to achieve reconciliation between fighting families or older residents of the neighbourhood who would jump into the fray to bridge gaps.  
A strong legacy of peaceful neighbourhood relations and fraternity between Muslims and Christians helped ease disputes and left them to sink into oblivion. After all, as the consensus among inhabitants goes, “we Muslims and Christians have been living together for centuries.”

Religious festivities such as Ramadan have been occasions for boosting such ideas. It is no wonder, then, to see Ashraf, a Coptic resident of Shubra, dressing up as a traditional mesahharati (the man who calls out the times of the fast in Ramadan) and walking down the neighbourhood’s alleyways with a drum before dawn to wake up devout Muslims to have their sohour meals before dawn. Or for his nephew Rami to be seen collecting money from residents to bring in Ramadan decorations before the holy month starts as a show of solidarity with his Muslim neighbours.

The gradual erosion of Egypt’s middle class, however, which started in the 1990s with the withdrawal of the role of the state and the introduction of economic reforms, has created an environment where modernity mixed with a lack of planning has allowing imported values to seep into society, threatening its culture of tolerance. Shops, commercial markets and residential blocks have risen everywhere in Shubra’s streets, changing much of its historic character, while an Islamic Salafi wave has rolled over the neighbourhood, changing much of its identity and promoting a culture of segregation and of “the other”.
Those who lived in Shubra in the 1990s can attest to that change in the identity and culture of the neighbourhood, which was clearly manifested in the loud sounds of the prayers shop-owners were keen to play, perhaps in an attempt to impose a public religious identity that was largely alien to the neighbourhood decades ago and restricted to places of worship.
The Salafi trend further spread in Shubra when Salafi sheikh Abdel-Maqsoud, who used to preach in the Mosque of Nasr Al-Islam in Victoria Square in Al-Tiraa Al-Boulaqiya Street, gained popularity. That same square was later the centre of a dispute when it was named after an Islamic NGO that was serving the community there. Coptic lawyer and activist Naguib Gabriel filed a lawsuit in protest at the move, insisting that it “would threaten the cultural identity of Shubra”.

This sectarian rhetoric, which has spread nationwide over the past two decades, seems to have also been reflected in families’ choices of children’s names. In the past, it was hard to know whether residents carrying names like Youssef, Mariam, Hani and Emad were Muslim or Christian without digging into their family histories. But this has largely changed, since a wave of religiosity has swept Egypt, and families have grown keener on choosing names for their children that reflect their religious identity. Muslims prefer such traditional Islamic names as Hamza, Gaafar and Abu Bakr, while Christians tend to choose names like Michael, Monica and Angela.
Name selection can be seen as one manifestation of a growing trend to define identity according to religious affiliation rather than nationalism as people have grown more attached to mosques and churches rather than to national governments. However, this trend is not exclusive to Shubra or Egypt, but has been global as globalisation tends to foster cross-cultural ties at the expense of nationalism.

This change in the cultural identity of Shubra has also been portrayed in drama, particularly in Ramadan TV series like Bint min Shubra (A Girl from Shubra), in which an Italian immigrant married to a Muslim resident of Shubra in the 1930s ends up having an extremist grandson who joins an Islamist militant group.

Late singer Dalida in her Shubra residence

RETAINING SOLIDARITY: Such changes in Shubra’s cultural identity have included the rise of religious waves that have coincided with an ebbing middle class and the onslaught of cement blocks, malls and markets over the neighbourhood’s architectural heritage, such as the demolition of Shubra’s historic cinema Al-Amir and the establishment of the Kholoussi Mall on its site.
They have been factors forcing many of the neighbourhood’s original residents to migrate to the new towns on the outskirts of the capital. Most of those belonging to the middle class who could afford a residence in Cairo’s satellite cities have sought a new life in the suburban residential areas of 6 October, Al-Tagammu and Sheikh Zayed in quest of a more peaceful and less chaotic life.
Nevertheless, the threatened demise of tolerance in the community of Shubra still immediately disappears when there is a religious event or at times of national crisis and adversity. People then once again forget all about religious identity and line up in national solidarity. Such was the case during the 25 January Revolution in 2011 that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak and then the 30 June Revolution that ended the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013.
It was particularly on 28 January 2011, the so-called Day of Rage, that people united in an exceptional show of solidarity when chaos spread after the withdrawal of the police from the streets. Shubra residents can still conjure up images of when all Muslim and Christian residents joined forces to defend shops, churches and mosques together against any acts of sabotage. Later, many Muslim residents of Shubra joined the 30 June Revolution in 2013 in support of their Coptic neighbours who had shown particular anxiety towards the rule of the Brotherhood in 2012.
These scenes of solidarity conjure up the exceptional passion Shubra residents have for their neighbourhood, as a popular song by singer Moharram Fouad attempts to depict. Shubrawiya can still reiterate the song’s passionate rhymes saying, “I love you Shubra. I truly love you. You are a folk song and an opera; you are a dialect and classical Arabic; you’re the one joining Mohamed and Abdel-Messih on the same bench. I truly love you.”
Unfortunately, however, successive governments have not attempted to develop this sense of solidarity or tried to design plans to develop the area as a national model of solidarity. Plans to develop the neighbourhood have focussed on its strategic location as an important artery connecting Cairo to the Delta, and plans have been designed to upgrade infrastructure to ease traffic in the area.
Some plans have focussed on developing Shubra’s shanty towns like those of Geges and Assal. But no one has thought of designing a plan to create more public spaces joining Muslims and Christians in sports and cultural activities together that could promote the area’s legacy of solidarity and tolerance.
 It is unfortunate to see how malls, commercial markets and microbus stops have crawled over important public spaces, leaving Shubra residents with no other alternative but to gather in mosques and churches. Cultural and social activities are now performed in places of worship instead of public areas, and this has promoted a culture of segregation. In the absence of any government plans to protect Shubra’s legacy of national sentiment, crises perhaps remain the only driving force for the neighbourhood’s sense of national solidarity. The recent terrorist attacks on Egypt’s Copts and the advent of holy month of Ramadan have been occasions for Muslims and Christians living in Shubra together to show their solidarity.
“All faces look sad in the neighbourhood,” Mohamed Hassan, a Shubra resident who has been living there for more than 40 years, said following the recent Minya terror attacks. “Even traditional street decorations and lights that Muslims and Christians put up together to celebrate Ramadan no longer seem to give a sense of delight in the light of the prevailing grief over those killed in Minya,” he said.
Regarding the prospects for Shubra, however, Hassan describes a promising outlook. “These sad days will end soon, and the strength of solidarity binding the Shubrawiya will have the upper hand,” he concluded.

The writer is a researcher with Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya, a quarterly magazine published by Al-Ahram.

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