Downtown and Down-trodden

Downtown Cairo. If you’ve watched a news station in the past year, than you’re familiar with what constitutes as Cairo’s center or downtown area: Tahrir Square was long considered Cairo’s focal point before the 25 January Revolution ever occured, perhaps because it held several government buildings including the shunned National Democratic Party’s (NDP) headquarters as well as the British-founded Egyptian Museum.

Downtown Cairo, along with Zamalek, a leafy island in the middle of the Nile, were the areas of choice for the French, and then British, colonizers. Their legacy is witnessed still in the architecture of the buildings; the Starbucks I visited last night was housed in an attractive white building with balconies and the typical brown-slatted shutters. Although rich people still live in Zamalek, the area has taken on a faded glamour: after the British (and most of the international scene) up-and-left Cairo more than half a century ago, poor people moved into downtown and took over the once-classy establishments of Zamalek.

An example of a more old-fashioned building in Zamalek. Those curtains, most likely once a vibrant red, are so faded that they look as though they have been hanging there for more than half a century! Buildings like this often have fixed rent, where the families only pay 10 pounds rent a month! Unfortunately, moving in is impossible since no family wants to give up such a cheap flat in downtown.

This little shop, sitting next to a “Vienna Cafe” (that’s the little cafe tucked into the corner right there), would probably be described as a “junk shop” but i think that “antique shop” would be more appropriate! On a closer inspection of the photo, you can see a figurine of a ukulele, a “Choo Choo train” set, an old keyboard and fake-mustache costumes. What an odd hodgepodge of old-fashioned items!

The above sign advertised a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. At first, it appears to be a scene from days past, when Cairo’s men still wore turbans, but on closer inspection, the man in the bottom-right corner appears to be putting a pizza into an open-air oven!

Shops like the one at right in the above photo are common throughout Cairo, not just in downtown. Those brightly-coloured bins in the front are piled high with different types of nuts (pistachio are popular here), and there’s always a ice box selling Pepsi (more popular here than Coca Cola, although the both do coexist).

Despite it’s faded glory, I would still trade living in the Soviet-style tasteless block apartments of Nasr City to the squalid and in dire need of refurbishment colonial buildings of downtown. Nasr City may be safer, but (and I know it’s probably politically incorrect of me to say) I am forever fascinated by the colonial eras in Africa and South America, and especially the architecture. The downtrodden downtown of Old Cairo, while a regrettable indication of Colonial Europe’s prejudice and pompous pride, is nevertheless a part of Cairo which I would urge any tourist to visit, as the streets of Cairo, in my opinion, are just as important to see as the pyramids.


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