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L. Ryzova, Strolling in Enemy Territory

OIS 3 (2015) – Divercities: Competing Narratives and Urban Practices in Beirut, Cairo and Tehran

Lucie Ryzova

Strolling in Enemy Territory: Downtown Cairo, its Publics, and Urban Heterotopias


Downtown Cairo means many things to many people. To most middle-class Egyptians it is a dirty and dangerous place, associated with chaos and pollution. They extol its past glory, but rarely go there. Downtown's elegant Italianate buildings, once the heart of a colonial metropolis, betray the déclassé glamour of a central business district that has seen better times. Taxi drivers often shun taking you there, anticipating traffic jams despite the wide boulevards designed on a grid-like pattern. Walking on foot, one can hardly navigate a path between street vendors who push pedestrians onto the road. Long abandoned by its elite inhabitants – foreign and Egyptian alike – in successive waves of centrifugal urbanization, Downtown remains a business district of sorts, but for a very different clientele. Its run-down B-movie theatres maintain their popularity by offering cheap seats in the face of competition from high-end theatres in Cairo's many new malls in nearby suburbs; its wide boulevards are lined with cut-price (if not the cheapest) clothing stores with gaudy shop-windows, where lower-middle-class families come to buy their Sunday best. Downtown's streets are a magnet for young low-income males who come here in the evening to hang out, to loiter. More recently, cheap Chinese motorcycles have become popular among this crowd, adding a layer of petty crime, perpetrated by mounted purse-snatchers, to the threat of sexual harassment with which Downtown after dark has become increasingly associated over the past two decades.1


This, however, is hardly all there is to Cairo's city centre. Downtown's patina of former glory attracts its own publics. It is well known today as the epicentre of Egypt's January 25 Revolution (hereafter referred to as the revolution), the favoured meeting-place of activists and a site of spectacular graffiti (http://www.perspectivia.net/content/publikationen/orient-institut-studies/2-2013/abaza_satire). This is not a new phenomenon. Downtown's history as the centre of Cairene bohemia and political dissent is decades old. Many of its restaurants, bars and street cafes (ahwa/ahawi), such as the Greek Club, Café Riche, Estoril, Le Grillion, Odeon, Horeyya, Bustan, Nadwa Thaqafiyya and Suq al-Hamidiyya, among others, represent de facto cultural institutions, patronized by generations of Cairene literati, artists and activists. Art spaces proliferate, as do cultural festivals big and small – though importantly, their publics may not always overlap. There is no one cultural scene in Downtown, just as its cafes and bars don't represent a single culture of dissent, but many such cultures. When it comes to Downtown Cairo, the whole is considerably larger than the sum of its parts.


More recently (but well before the revolution), Downtown has been the focus of more tangible claims, backed by state legislation and private capital. Gentrification plans are under way, led notably by the Al Ismaelia for Real Estate company.2 In line with gentrification strategies globally, Al Ismaelia's urban regeneration aims to exploit the artistic vibe of Downtown. The company is a major mover behind some of the significant cultural spaces and events that currently take place in Downtown. In a parallel move, Egyptian government agencies have been contemplating the cultural rehabilitation of core parts of Downtown (see map below), although so far these efforts have been largely cosmetic.3 This newfound interest in Downtown Cairo, perceptible not just in its valorization through law or capital, but also in the wave of public nostalgia, stems from a wider process of neoliberal reframing of Egypt's modern history.4 The nostalgia represents a radical departure from earlier, post-independence models of a national historical imagery in which Downtown – the site and embodiment of colonial power and privilege – had no place. In this older narrative, the founding of the district by Khedive Ismail was a violent act of power, imposing on a subjugated country a colonial, elitist vision of what "modern" Cairo, and by extension, modern Egyptian society, should look like. The impressive Italianate buildings, which housed banks and foreign businesses, stood as silent reminders of foreign domination over Egypt's economy and the plundering of its resources. In the new recasting of Egypt's modern history, however, the same boulevards represent a "paradise lost" and the epitome of Egypt's once-held modernity; of a belle époque whose prosperity, political liberalism and cosmopolitanism have since disappeared under the combined weight of authoritarian nationalism and religious parochialism. Public nostalgia for Downtown and the growing interest in the area on the part of both government and capital should be understood within the broader framework of neoliberalism, as well as in relation to the simultaneous urban flight by Egypt's middle and upper-middle classes to newly built desert cities and gated communities.5In this spatial logic, Cairo's Downtown emerges as the symbolic monument – an open-air museum – to Egypt's glorious colonial past.

Figure 1:
Midan Sulaiman Pasha (today Tal'at Harb Square), early 20thcentury postcard by Lehnert & Landrock, courtesy of Norbert Schiller, Photorientalism.com


Clearly, Downtown Cairo appears as an overloaded signifier. It is a place with many competing meanings and a site of multiple claims: social, cultural, political and economic. These already contested meanings gained new resonance with the January 25th Revolution and the long-running revolutionary process. While the epicentre may have been Tahrir Square, the whole surrounding area – especially the southern edge of Downtown around Bab al-Luq Square and the streets leading to the Ministry of Interior – was a crucial site of protests and battles with police. Here, urban battles took place, the most significant among them being the battle of Muhammad Mahmoud Street in November 2011. This iconic moment, which some perceive as heroism and others as vandalism, is yet another example of how competing claims about social order play themselves out over a piece of public space.6 This struggle continues, although the forces of revolutionary change are now on the defensive. In the winter of 2014/15, several episodes of "cleansing" Downtown of undesirable elements served to demonstrate the new regime's attempts to impose its own order. These actions targeted two demographics that, from the normative perspective, are most associated with "polluting" Cairo's city centre: street vendors and revolutionary activists.7 The "clean-up campaign" involved closing down cafés that over the past few years had become known as the stomping ground of activists and revolutionary youth – although they really served a much larger clientele of youth from all over Cairo coming to hang out in Downtown. This campaign included the infamous closure of "the atheist's café" (on which more below) and the proud announcement of a number of initiatives aimed at eradicating "atheism" in Egypt.8All these acts of "cleaning" were aimed at eradicating the non-hegemonic and socially porous space of Downtown, its essential liminality and heterotopic quality, which is the subject of this essay.


Heterotopia, a concept proposed by Michel Foucault and elaborated on by scholars of urban studies and human geography, describes spaces that function in non-hegemonic ways. Heterotopic space is a space "in-between", a space of otherness, simultaneously both physical and mental. It has many competing layers of meaning, and can only be understood in relation to other spaces outside of itself, to normative spaces and social roles as they exist elsewhere.9 I am using the concept of heterotopia interchangeably with that of liminality, which is an in-between space (or time, or behaviour) as defined by anthropologists.10 Both liminality and heterotopia share certain characteristics: social porousness, flexible boundaries of class and gender; celebratory and/or carnivalesque qualities. These characteristics appear to some as danger and pollution, or "matter out of place",11 especially when seen from the outside, while to others they conjure up feelings of greater freedom and liberation from normative social roles. I argue that Cairo's Downtown has been a liminal, or heterotopic space par excellence. It is a heterogeneous urban space, a space where everyone is a stranger de passage. This social porousness invites non-hegemonic forms of behaviour and is in turn constructed by them. It is also a symbolic location that is crucial – first by its absence and then by its presence – to Egyptian national imagery, and thus the site of competing claims on social order that extend well beyond its spatial boundaries.


In this essay, I am not interested merely in suggesting that Cairo's Downtown ought to be understood as urban heterotopia; but rather, in seeing how such heterotopic (or liminal) space has been produced and reproduced on the ground. Capital investment and government legislation aside, I will focus instead on the diverse publics that use this space, and how their spatial practices (their ways of claiming and practising the city) construct Downtown Cairo as heterotopic – practices that are, in turn, contested by others as non-desirable because they are non-hegemonic. These groups include: subsequent generations of Cairo's artistic bohemians, from the 1970s through the 2000s; revolutionary youths hanging in and around Huda Sha'rawi Street; young, macho, low-income males who come to Downtown to gawk and loiter.


I am equally interested in what history (as well as time) can add to the notion of urban heterotopia (or liminality), in at least two ways. Firstly, Downtown's heterotopia is also produced historically – it is made more salient by the particular historical legacies, which different social actors interpret differently. Competing imageries become increasingly contested in particular historical moments: during the neoliberal turn, or at the time of revolution. Secondly, heterotopia (or liminality) has a temporal dimension: liminal behaviour happens (or becomes more salient, and even contagious) at particular times: most conventionally this would be at night, but other forms of temporality play a role here: the dates of the 'Eid religious festivals or the days of revolutionary battles. Both are, in turn, spatialized: they are enabled, encouraged, or amplified in particular urban spaces. The nexus of liminal time and liminal space is crucial to the ways in which the three publics discussed here claim and practice this particular urban location.

Downtown's History of Heterotopia


Much has been written by urban and architectural historians about the early history of the Ismailiyya quarter – the heart of colonial Downtown.12 It was conceived, in the 1860s, by Khedive Ismail on almost virgin land west of the then existing city, which was also undergoing rapid change. The Khedive's vision was to turn Egypt into "part of Europe," a showpiece of Egypt's progress on the road to civilization, inspired by his visit to Haussmann's Paris.13 Through a complex process of representation and urban planning policies, this new city came to stand for "modern" Cairo, defined against its nemesis, the older city, which came to stand for "medieval" or "Islamic" Cairo, with all the associations of backwardness and stagnation propagated in colonial imagery.14 More recently, this "dual city" model of Cairo's urban history has been problematized. Historians have described the self-fulfilling technopolitics of modernity, whereby state strategies of urban modernization directed disproportionately towards new elite neighbourhoods produced one part of the city as "modern." Others have focused on the previously suppressed role of Egyptians in this process, whether as financiers, dwellers, or consumers.15


Through the first half of the twentieth century, this new city – called Ismailiyya after its founder – and the surrounding areas of Tawfiqiyya and Ezbekiyya became the heart of the colonial metropolis. This is where the elites, both national and foreign,16 lived and where modern businesses, services and institutions were located. It was an area of upscale shopping and leisure establishments. While in many ways exclusive, Downtown was also always heterogeneous and predicated on drawing in publics from all over the city, even if temporarily. Middle-income Egyptians flocked there to partake of the many pleasures it had to offer. Downtown's grand magasins catered equally to solvent outsiders, and middle-income families otherwise labelled as "traditional" came here for their seasonal shopping.17Cabarets and cinemas along Emad El-Din Street, the city's prime entertainment district, catered to a variety of audiences, including provincial youth visiting the brothels on its fringes; and of course many a middling youth, efendi student from near or far, came here simply to wander, window shop and check out the next movie on lobby cards.

Figure 2 (a and b): Strolling in Downtown Cairo, photographs by ambulant street photographers, 1930s and 40s. Author's collection.


While historical debates about the Golden Age of Cairo's city centre in the colonial period have revolved around debunking the dual city model and "writing Egyptians back in", so to speak (whether through investment, habitat, or diverse forms of contingent consumption), much less attention has been paid to Downtown's history after the Golden Age ended, through the second half of the twentieth century. It is common knowledge that Downtown Cairo experienced a steady "decline" throughout this period, which intensified in the 1970s. It was gradually abandoned as the site of upper-middle-class residences, business, shopping and leisure, and assumed the shabby appearance it has today. Conventionally, in the public discourse of the late-Mubarak era, this decline and abandonment was attributed to Nasser's expulsion of foreign minorities from Egypt following the 1956 Suez war and his nationalization policies of the 1960s. This interpretation is historically wrong, reflecting instead a number of agendas – neoliberal nostalgia for pre-1952 Egypt, its public bashing of the post-Independence years being one of them.18 Foreign minorities had been gradually leaving Egypt long before Nasser assumed power for diverse reasons, including demographic decline and shrinking opportunities during the 1930s global economic crisis; international economic "pull" factors drawing populations (particularly relatively mobile non-Egyptian communities) to other parts of the world; 1947 (pre-Nasser) Egyptianization laws affecting work opportunities for foreign nationals; and the involvement of particular communities (and/or their national governments) in wars against Egypt.19 Despite the many separate reasons behind the dwindling numbers of foreigners in Egypt, the fact remains that their departure affected Downtown Cairo more than any other part of the city, given the concentration of foreign elites in this area.20


The neoliberal narrative of Nasser-as-source-of-all evil, and more particularly as Nasser being single-handedly responsible for the decline of Downtown, significantly leaves out the takeover of this area by Egyptian elites between the 1930s and 1950s. As Egypt's foreign population was diminishing, upper-middle-class Egyptians, especially prosperous professionals – who had always been part of the Downtown population, if at first as a minority – had been gradually taking over this upscale urban space during the middle decades of the century, and increasing their share of it both in habitat and business.21 While many elite Egyptians lived in Downtown, others lived in Zamalik, Garden City, or the bourgeoning neighbourhoods of Duqqi and Heliopolis, but their offices or clinics, not to mention their public social life, their leisure and shopping, were often located in Downtown. Added to this were the new, upwardly mobile technocrats of the post-1952 years, who sealed their social and political ascendancy by moving to elite neighbourhoods, including Downtown.22


This Egyptianization of Downtown was as demographic as it was symbolic. By the late 1940s, Downtown's grand boulevards had been fully appropriated and recast in Egyptian popular culture as the site of high Egyptian modernism. Here, architectural wonders such as the Immobilia building (completed in 1940, Egypt's most spectacular and architecturally innovative skyscraper of its time) symbolized late-colonial nationalism and postcolonial pride and optimism alike. Financed by the Egyptian capitalist 'Abbud Pasha and designed by Italian architects,23 Immobilia was home to Egypt's foremost cinema stars and the obligatory headquarters of the entertainment industry. It was routinely deployed as background in movies and advertising of the 1940s and 1950s to conjure up images of urban glamour and national modernity.24 While unusually photogenic, Immobilia was only one among many daring modernist buildings erected by Egyptian architects during these two decades.25 This part of Downtown's history – its status as the site of high Egyptian national modernism – is less salient in public memory today than the Downtown of the colonial era. It remains known to a few aficionados, although it recently started gaining some much deserved academic attention.26