Life on the ambiguous edge of Cairo

It is almost four in the afternoon, and I follow the signs towards the 26th July Corridor Road, known as the ‘Mehwar.’ I drive past the boutiques and foreign banks in Mohandessin, and then take the ramp and watch as Mohandessin thins out, giving way to the popular district of Ard el-Liwa. I begin to see the Ring Road intersection, with various flyovers connecting highways together. Finally, this concrete mess gives way to an elevated highway with green pastures on either side. This order of transition, from downtown to peripheral slum to open countryside, all gives a strong sense that I am ‘leaving’ the city of Cairo. Except that I am not leaving the city. Just a few minutes away begins Sheikh Zayed City where I live.

Locating Sheikh Zayed

The naming of Sheikh Zayed City indicates the economic and political links, perhaps even dependency, between Egypt and Arab Gulf countries. Sheikh Zayed City, commonly considered part of 6th October City although technically a separate entity, is a satellite city that was first developed in the 1990s through a grant given by the government of the United Arab Emirates. When I first visited Sheikh Zayed City in 1998 to see our new home under construction, it was in the middle of nowhere. I was struck by the sense of distance, and the vast emptiness of the surroundings. Today, Sheikh Zayed City is a much busier place. Empty desert has given way to chic shopping spaces and villas. Once empty streets are now congested with vehicular traffic on a daily basis. This transformation, which occurred in a few, short years, has been nothing short of spectacular.

A statue of United Arab Emirates Sheikh Zayed adorns one of the city’s main squares. Credit: Cairobserver.

Sheikh Zayed is divided up between compounds, gated communities, freestanding apartment blocks, and individual plots of lands designated as residential, which are then sold to individuals who develop them independently. The city also includes a Cairo University satellite campus. The urban status of Sheikh Zayed is ambiguous; it is at once a city, and a peripheral suburb, yet it is also an integral part of Greater Cairo. It was envisioned and planned as a city. However, due to its distance from central Cairo it evolved as a peripheral suburb. Furthermore, it is integral to Greater Cairo because of the sheer number of commuters who travel between central Cairo and Sheikh Zayed in both directions on a daily basis.

The first landmark encountered upon arrival to Sheikh Zayed is Hyper One, a large hypermarket that caters to the shopping needs of the relatively affluent residents of Sheikh Zayed/6th October areas and beyond. Hyper One also acts as a useful point of reference, and the surrounding square is a transportation depot where people arrive on government-run coaches, or microbuses, to transfer to smaller serfis cars shared taxis) that operate exclusively within Zayed. In addition to Hyper One, there are several markets in Sheikh Zayed, which would typically feature fruit and vegetable sellers, bakeries, supermarkets, and a few other shops, which may be of convenience to local residents.

The houses and the residents

There are several affordable-housing areas consisting of drab apartment blocks. Although initially designated for lower-income residents, their re-sale values continue to climb up. The current occupants of these apartments vary significantly. There are middle-class occupants in some units, while laborers renting bed-space with as many as a dozen people sharing a single apartment occupy other units. In addition, there are significant contingents of Syrians who moved to Egypt after the start of the war in 2011.

Perpetually incomplete residential buildings dominate the urban landscape. Credit: Cairobserver.

The building activities on plots of land zoned for residential use vary significantly. As property owners build on their own initiative in the absence of an overall municipal system or vision, they build at their own rate and as they wish. The result is the antithesis of a neighborhood where there are only a few finished occupied homes surrounded with empty lands or houses perpetually under construction. Empty lands and homes under construction are usually occupied by a ghafir who acts as a guard to deter squatters. The ghafir will usually move in with his wife and family, who may then engage in various forms of casual labor in the area to generate additional income separate from the flat salary the landowners pay the ghafirs. The ghafir and his family typically live in the house itself or perhaps a makeshift shack constructed on the land. Although ghafirs constitute a significant part of the local population and serve an important function, they are not imagined as ‘residents’, nor do they register as such in the area, making it difficult for them to send their children to school. They are at best posited as interim residents whose relations with the area are marginal and ambiguous.

Gated communities are an integral part of Sheikh Zayed City. They are in many ways self-governing entities, with their own security apparatus, in lieu of state police, and their own rules and regulations, which are instrumental to maintaining control and order. Gated communities consist of villas, townhouses, and apartment blocks. Depending on size, price, and the level of amenities on offer, there is an economic hierarchy amongst compounds. In addition to compounds there are stand-alone villas, arranged in clusters, solely for residential use. Owners design and build on their own initiative. Given the high price of land, many property owners have opted to maximize the built-up area at the expense of including a garden on their plots. While new satellite cities are associated with open and green spaces, many homeowners cannot afford to reduce the size of their home for the sake of a garden. As a result, many stand-alone homes are equivalent in size to small apartment buildings, as many owners incorporate in their design several apartment units spread over several floors for their offspring, ensuring that the traditional structure of the extended family can be perpetuated in the desert. Finally, there are stand-alone apartment blocks in areas, which were initially designed for low-income families and young shabab. Due to market mechanisms, property values of many units in such areas are now beyond the means of low-income families or the newly married.

The social world of Al-Rabwa compound

Al-Rabwa is a gated community, and access is permitted only for owners and their guests. It was developed in the 1990s, making it one of the earliest compounds in the area. The compound (like other developments, such as Mayfair and El Rehab) was marketed in Gulf countries to white-collar Egyptian expatriates for whom compounds were a familiar concept. I recall the early promotional literature promising an international school, a mall, a health club, a golf course, all situated within an idyllic green setting. The school never materialized, and a mall was built but never utilized, but the developer lived up to their promise of large swathes of green spaces between the homes. Many of the buyers who purchased homes in the 1990s believed that they were buying an investment ‘for the children’, or perhaps a home to use as a weekend getaway.

Like most compounds, Al-Rabwa is highly secured. There are several dozen security guards who man the entry points and conduct patrols. They are, in a sense, the bawabs of satellite cities. Maintaining security is an explicit dimension of the guards’ job requirements. Unlike bawabs they do not act as moral guardians who keep residents in check. They are working-class men who come in on a company bus, and work in rotating eight-hour shifts. The guards are anonymous fixtures in this suburban setting. For example, while there is always a security guard in the kiosk near my house, the guards are always changing, thus preventing the possibility of becoming familiar with them.

Al-Rabwa has a club which functions as a social hub of sorts, although with the advent of other spaces for recreation nearby, its popularity has declined in recent years. In recent years residents prefer to drive out of the compound for nearby privatized social spaces and shopping destinations. Women (stay-at-home housewives) maintain active social agendas, and hold coffee mornings, and lunches for each other. Although the majority of residents are clubhouse members, not enough residents frequent the club on a regular basis to at least ‘recognize’ each other. Many residents go to the mosque on Friday to pray, but at most will talk for a few minutes after prayers are over.

Religious lessons are also very popular among residents of the area. There are several weekly religious meetings, or lessons, at which a popular preacher is invited to talk. The venue is rotated each week amongst households to volunteer to host the lesson. These lessons are also spaces for people to socialize and renew old friendships. Residents of Rabwa, and indeed, of other gated communities, engage in local politics by attending annual meetings held to discuss and decide on matters of concern to the community. For the most part, these meetings do not usually go well; there are always accusations of graft, incompetence, and nothing substantial is ever achieved. There is a Facebook group where residents can share information and raise matters that they believe are of importance to other residents on the compound.

Transport and mobility

Most households in Al-Rabwa have at least one car. It is simply impossible to function without a car, as not only are there great distances to travel, but the only alternative would be to walk all the way to the compound gate, then try to flag down a microbus or a serfis. Flagging down a taxi on these roads is not an option, as you would have to go outside the compound walls and the taxis are rare here. Given the relative isolation of the compound, it is unlikely that there would be empty taxis available for hire driving around. For this reason it is very important to ‘know’ several taxi drivers to call them in advance in case of an emergency. Within the compound (where you can find significant distances), residents usually drive. Only workers, and maids and drivers walk. The only exception is when residents take a walk for recreational purposes or for exercise.

Major roads and highways surround Sheikh Zayed City. The 26th July Axis (the Mehwar) is to the south and the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road to the east and the north. The Mehwar is roughly 20 kilometers long stretching from central Cairo before intersecting with the Ring Road on the edge of Mohandessin, followed by the long stretch towards Sheikh Zayed/6th October City. The Mehwar is the most important road providing access to those two satellite cities, and is subject to significant congestion at peak hours. There is no metro link and very few public transport buses; everyone must use private transportation or semi-public transportation (microbuses). Within the area, residents, particularly those in compounds, must rely on private means of transport. The city is laid out in such a way that getting from one compound to the next can be a hassle. An inconvenient layout of parts connected by shoddy roads is very characteristic. Roads get properly paved only after the occupancy rates rise in their surrounding area. Because construction deadlines either do not exist or are not enforced, some areas have very high numbers of unfinished homes, which often means that surrounding roads will remain in poor conditions for the foreseeable future. There are vague plans to link the Cairo Metro to Haram Street, but in practice this is too far to be of any real convenience to Zayed residents. The government also announced recently that an over-ground metro from Lebanon Square in Mohandessin to 6th October would be inaugurated in 2017. These plans however remain as pronouncements in the press with no real information or timelines made public. Part of the transport problem is alleviated where people from Sheikh Zayed park their cars around several meeting points and take a special bus to their place of work or study, as I have been doing since 2010 using the American University in Cairo’s bus system.

Commuting is one of the most difficult aspects of living in Sheikh Zayed. Our access to the rest of the city is regulated by the Mehwar, which becomes congested at regular intervals throughout the day. Thousands of workers commute from other areas of Greater Cairo to the Sixth October City Industrial Zone. Motorists do not adhere to safety protocols and as a result, accidents are very common, creating hold-ups several kilometers long. On days I need to go into the city center, I make sure I am on the Mehwar by three in the afternoon at the latest to avoid ‘rush hour’ which in reality rarely subsides before eight in the evening. The majority of the events and outings I attend are in Zamalek, Downtown, or Mohandessin. Trips to places such as Nasr City or Heliopolis are rare, as I would have to contend with at least another hour of traffic inside the city center. The unpredictability of the commute due to unanticipated delays means always leaving home hours ahead of a scheduled meeting or appointment. Now in my sixth year as a student at AUC in New Cairo, I have come up with many coping mechanisms throughout the years to balance my class schedule, a bus service which has steadily deteriorated over the years, and to make enough time to study, socialize, and rest.

As a freshman enrolled at the American University in Cairo, I was assigned a schedule that saw me finish at 4.45pm two days a week, and at 12.45pm on another two days. On days in which I had to take the 5.15pm bus, I would arrive home at around 8pm. Mid-way through the R13 bus ride, as our route was called, I would take a look at the people around me, and find them sleeping in uncomfortable positions, using their bags for support. Some would have blankets or pillows for neck support. One could easily mistake us for passengers on some red-eye flight over the Atlantic. But no, the Ring Road was our Atlantic Ocean, and instead of traveling between two continents the bus would begin and end its journey in the same city. Because of the distances involved in getting from one area to the next in Cairo, I also made a decision to be friends with people who either lived in my area or were in Mohandessin or Zamalek as seeing them would otherwise be a hassle. Knowledge of traffic conditions is mediated through my use of Bey2ollak, a smartphone app that allows me to see which roads are congested and which are clear. Checking Bey2ollak before I go anywhere is as essential as wearing my seatbelt. I am so acclimatized to using the app that even when I am not in Cairo I sometimes find myself absent-mindedly checking traffic conditions. Planning my life around traffic is essential to my existence.

Spaces of consumption

Conceptions of public space differ greatly in this desert extension of Cairo. Being in public here means being in privately owned spaces of consumption. No description of Sheikh Zayed City can be complete without discussing Hyper One, a large hypermarket situated at the first entrance into the city, on the 26th July Mehwar highway. Opened in 2005, Hyper One was the first major development of its kind to open in Sheikh Zayed. Prior to 2005, Sheikh Zayed had no major supermarket and very few cafes, and population levels were still very low. Hyper One, a two-level supermarket, sells everything, from electric appliances to furniture to fish. It is an adaptation of the American supermarket, and can be likened to Wal-Mart, the large American chain known for its affordable value-for-money products, with a large appeal for ‘middle-America.’ Whereas previously Egyptian shoppers did their purchases at specialized vendors or shops embedded in the urban landscape, the hypermarket, when it first appeared in Egypt, allowed shoppers to combine several trips into a one destination shopping experience. At Hyper One, not only can shoppers buy meat, vegetables, and fish, but also televisions, jeans, and DVDs. The shopping experience is very much geared to Egyptian, Arabic-speaking customers. Most advertisement and price tags are in Arabic. Multiple banners, hanging from the ceiling in the hypermarket, proudly advertise Hyper One as being ‘100% Egyptian.’ A section selling ready-made hot food is very popular, offering grilled meats, pasta casseroles, Egyptian vegetable stews, as well as other options. The food is familiar, unpretentious, and to the typical Egyptian palate, very satisfying.

Buyers include anyone from a working mother buying food for her family on a weeknight to young men looking for a relatively affordable hot meal on the go. Small populist touches, such as servers giving waiting customers small bites of food as they wait in line, can be read as ploys to simply keep customers happy, and can also be read as ways in which Hyper One presents itself as an authentic, Egyptian-friendly experience. Access to the food section is regulated by printing out a token, the number of which will then be displayed on an electronic board over the food counter. This fusion of a decidedly Western practice of regulating and controlling customers in the context of an Egyptian food counter is yet another indicator of how the global has been adapted to the local.

Hyper One, with its bright lights, small ice-cream stands, and excess of consumerism on display, is also a space for socialization and recreation. Entire families, from the grandmother to toddlers, go together not only to do the family shopping, but also to be exposed to new products, sights, and sensations.

Another reason behind Hyper One’s popularity is the presence of a mosque on the parking lot grounds. Friday mornings and early afternoon, previously quiet time at the shopping destination, have been re-constructed as times to socialize, shop, and perform household errands following Friday prayers in the parking lot. Across various societies, urban life has been organized around the nexus of the market, and the place of worship. Whether it is a church and market fair in a small European town, or a temple surrounded by a bustling bazaar in Thailand, there is a strong correlation between religiosity and shopping. In this context, the mosque in the parking lot of Hyper One is only one manifestation of this familiar and global nexus.

In most Egyptian cities, the larger mosques are usually adjacent to a market or a busy commercial area, and form what can be termed a ‘mosque-market complex.’ In Cairo, this is certainly true of the major mosques, which are usually adjacent to a market or busy commercial area. In Sheikh Zayed City, the traditional and familiar mosque-market has been re-organized into a hypermarket with a large mosque attached to it. Whereas in the traditional mosque-market, the former was always the centerpiece and the latter organized around it, Hyper One has inverted this model and is the centerpiece, serving as one of the most visible and distinguishing landmarks of Sheikh Zayed City.

Hyper One was also instrumental in transforming the opposite square into a busy transportation hub. Located on the first entrance/exit into Sheikh Zayed City, Hyper One benefits from excellent access and visibility. Over the years, increasing traffic to, from, and between Sheikh Zayed City, 6th October City, and central Cairo has resulted in a significant increase of traffic. Whereas at first traffic was organized in a spontaneous manner, the local municipal authorities have created a dedicated space for microbuses to load and unload passengers in an effort to de-congest the square itself. The square underwent a re-design process that lasted several months; at the end of this period, the square was remodeled and decorated with palm trees decked out in brilliant lights, and an elevated black platform was constructed, bearing the name ‘Hyper One Square.’

Over the last few years, there have been a number of new recreational spaces in the area. Moving away from the set-up of the traditional street, Sheikh Zayed has a number of what can be described as ‘open malls’, or essentially stand-alone buildings usually with an open-air inner plaza with a number of restaurants, boutiques, banks, clinics, and even art galleries.

Americana Plaza is one such integrated recreational-commercial complex, featuring an IMAX cinema and a multi-screen Cineplex, perhaps a dozen restaurants, a gym as well as a number of boutiques, is a very popular hangout for teenagers and young adults. Situated right across from a row of bland-looking affordable housing apartment blocks, Americana Plaza mainly caters to customers who will probably spend north of LE 100 on dinner and a movie. Strictly speaking, it is not a mall, but rather an enclosed pedestrian area. Access into Americana Plaza is through a number of checkpoints, meaning that in practice, visitors are vetted and can be denied entry by security staff and management. Americana Plaza, which opened in 2012, was an instant hit with multiple demographics. Pre-teens and teenagers attending private international schools in Cairo West make up a large part of the visiting clientele, particularly on weekends. Americana Plaza is popular not only due to the various amusements on offer, but because it is a semi-public space, it affords visitors, as well as the families whose children visit on their own, a secured space to be in ‘public’.

Arkan is another space nearby, which boasts several restaurants and even a licensed bar, which is more popular with trendy young and middle-aged professionals. The popularity and success of these venues has attracted residents from other parts of Greater Cairo, a trend which would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.  The newly opened Galleria 40, with it’s Starbucks, bespoke gilded interior reminiscent of First Mall, and art gallery venue, signals an attempt to appeal to an even more affluent market segment.

Dwarfing all these shopping and leisure spaces is the Mall of Arabia, which has more variety in terms of shops and dining options, and therefore has wider appeal. Everything, from small Egyptian stores to big chains of H&M and Zara are present. In the large central food court, diners can choose between dine-in sushi and takeaway Chinese. A large Spinney’s supermarket is located at one end of the mall. The mall’s proximity to both Sheikh Zayed and Sixth October City, as well as it’s proximity to the highway, makes it possible for teenagers, young adults and residents with no car to access it. The abundance of options for recreation and leisure in Sheikh Zayed means that today, it is no longer a dull, peripheral suburb, but a vibrant and popular area, for those who can afford its lifestyles, capable of holding its own against that other ‘new’ city, New Cairo. There is something of a friendly rivalry between Zayed/6th October residents living west of central Cairo and the New Cairenes living to the east of central Cairo. Each side takes pride in believing their ‘side’ of Greater Cairo is better or has a livelier recreational scene.

As for me? I’ll take Sheikh Zayed any day of the week.

Article originally published at Cairobserver.

This article is part of a short series written by AUC students studying with Professor Mona Abaza, reflecting on their neighborhoods and the city they live in. For a brief introduction of the series click here.

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply