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Cairo Divided: A Megacity Turns Itself Inside Out

by Jack Shenker, Jason Larkin

Award-winning journalist Jack Shenker and photographer Jason Larkin teamed up for two years to produce this unique text and photo essay highlighting the transformation of Cairo’s urban landscape in recent decades. Cairo Divided was initially published in November 2011.

The excerpt featured here explores the exodus of Cairo’s middle and upper classes to high-end suburbs and gated communities in search of an escape from the city’s chaos and pollution.

“Welcome to the future of Cairo,
where life is more complete.”

“A first-time traveler could be forgiven for asking
himself what anybody could possibly be driving towards out here.”

To get under the skin of modern Cairo, a megacity too big for its borders, you need to climb above it.

The best place to start is on the traffic-swamped 26th of July flyover that wends its way into the sky from downtown before sweeping westwards across the Nile. Passing motorists can see a range of the ancient capital’s many faces angled up towards them from here: a discordant clatter of the genteel and kitsch on Zamalek Island; faded Technicolor splashed over the state circus on the Corniche; the sound of brash motorbikes and franchised coffee outlets gurgling up from the new-build suburb of Mohandiseen.

But it’s beyond all of this, out near the ring road, that today’s Cairo really begins parking itself at the roadside for inspection. Here the greys of the old city fall away to be replaced by mile upon mile of soaring redbrick apartment blocks, close enough for passing motorists to peer right into each family living room. These buildings jostle for space on impossibly thin parcels of what was once agricultural land, all permanently half-finished and with clumps of steel rebars sprouting precariously from their rooftops, ready to shoulder the next illegally-constructed storey.

There are few exits on this section of the highway; most of those who live in the informal settlements below—known as ʿashwa’iyat, an Arabic word which means random or haphazard—don’t have cars, and the Egyptians who do drive would rarely have cause to visit them. This road has another destination in mind and for a few moments, when the flyover veers slightly to the left and the four-thousand-year-old pyramids of Giza suddenly appear gloriously on the horizon, it seems as if the nation’s Pharaonic past might just be it. But the road quickly changes course again, plowing through acres of barren desert and leaving old Cairo far behind. A first-time traveler could be forgiven for asking himself what anybody could possibly be driving towards out here, where addresses can only be expressed in motorway distance markers and the monotony of sand is broken up by nothing more than an occasional pile of rubble.

The answer lies scrawled on the advertising billboards above. “Welcome to the future of Cairo,” they read, “where life is more complete.”

This is a story about a city so large that it had to turn itself inside out, transforming its periphery into its core whilst condemning the previous center to a life on the margins. It’s a process that began long before this year’s revolution and is continuing well beyond it, ripping apart old social and political fabrics and giving birth to a web of contradictions where the advance of private capital is marshaled by an aggressively retreating state, gated compounds for the elites are reimagined as inclusive national projects, isolation gets marketed as community, and plush green golf courses can rise miraculously from some of the most arid land on earth.

Perhaps most significantly of all, it’s a process which has burst the historical banks of a metropolis that for fourteen centuries grew only within a pair of stubbornly persistent natural confines: the Moqattam cliff tops to the east and the Saharan desert, the threshold of which is guarded by the Sphinx, to the west. A population explosion straitjacketed by geography has given rise to one of the densest urban areas in the world; today Cairo—the biggest city in Africa and the Middle East—creaks under the weight of up to twenty million people, more than the entire populations of Libya, Lebanon, and Jordan combined. But now the contours of the city, both spatial and psychological, are changing. Way beyond its former limits, new developments are materializing faster than you can count them; gilt-edged satellite cities that aim to one day become the nucleus of the city itself and offer not just a new piece of property but a whole new way of life—for those who can afford it.

Supporters of the satellite cities project—and they can count the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak among their number, as well as numerous big-name international investors and hundreds of thousands of Cairo’s richest residents—see the desert as a chance to rebuild the iconic city from scratch, free from the congestion, crime, and chaos which they believe has blighted the capital beyond repair. Yet others fear that as Cairo is reshaped, many will be left behind, planted on the wrong side of an urban perimeter that weaves to the beat of foreign finance, opulent villas and sentry towers watching over increasingly-higher walls. For many, the grassroots uprising that began in January 2011 is far from over, and the satellite cities concept stands squarely in opposition to a revolution still struggling for economic and social justice. Suffocated by poverty and unemployment, and divided by political uncertainty, this city often feels as if it is teetering on the brink of implosion.

Since Mubarak’s, fall a wave of new legal challenges to the elite desert development program has landed some of its orchestrators in jail and thrown a multitude of Egypt’s top real estate companies into turmoil. Yet more and more advertising billboards offering snatched glimpses of paradise keep getting hauled up onto the 26th of July flyover, thrusting those driving below ceaselessly into the future. “You may call them satellite cities, but they’re not satellites anymore,” claimed a former government minister responsible for the corporate-branded transformation of Egypt’s urban soul. “Now they’ve become the planets themselves.”

It’s a hot dusty day in late April 2010, and Ahmed Seif is breaking out in a sweat as he tries to maneuver a full-sized speedboat through a single pair of doors. His eight exhausted assistants have been unsuccessfully experimenting with different angles for thirty minutes now, and look dangerously close to mutiny. “Right, let’s try one more time with the boat on its side,” demands Ahmed, ignoring the contemptuous looks being thrown in his direction by the hired muscle. After some fairly frantic shouting and a painful scraping of metal the boat is finally propelled inside and almost immediately knocks over an artfully designed pyramid of salmon canapés. Ahmed shakes his head disbelievingly. “Let’s get this over and done with,” he sighs.

The boat is part of a sales stand for the Wadi Degla Real Estate Company, one of over forty development firms that have set up shop at the annual “Next Move” conference, the biggest property expo in Egypt. Competition here is fierce and most companies are spending the opening morning sprucing up their stands with something a little bit special in the hope of attracting the attention of visitors, twenty-seven thousand of whom will pass through the conference center over the next three days. Palm Hills has created a lavishly landscaped fake lawn replete with a built-in Starbucks; further along, the Porto Cairo display is being attended to by a full travelling circus comprising a juggler, two trumpeters, and one furry mascot of unidentified origin that may or may not be a rat. Not content with offering a speedboat for visitors to admire as they leaf through the company’s glossy brochures, Wadi Degla has also ordered in a genuine Ferrari to sit next to it. Next door a rival set of staff at La Vista are throwing envious looks towards the Ferrari and grimacing at their own marketing ruse—a somewhat lackluster classical string quartet.

Cellists, cars, and complimentary coffees don’t come cheap, but for the companies involved in Next Move the cost of such gimmicks is a small price to pay when set alongside the prize at hand: a share of the mammoth Egyptian real estate market, which currently accounts for $14 billion of the country’s GDP and has clocked up yearly growth rates of up to twenty-two percent in the past half-decade. To see where that growth is coming from you need only glance at the center spread of the conference brochure, which consists of a map detailing the physical location of all the construction projects being undertaken by companies at Next Move. Three of them are in Cairo; sixty-four others lie deep in the desert sand beyond. Some of these developments feature the names of internationally renowned architects like Zaha Hadid; others are colossal enough to be considered fully-fledged metropolises in their own right, like the $3 billion Madinaty complex which will eventually boast eighty thousand new villas and townhouses as well as hotels, hospitals, and schools.

Within the next five years, the two biggest hubs of desert development—6th of October City to the west and New Cairo to the east—are set to house up to five million people each, creating an urban center double the size of Paris on either side of the old capital. By 2030, when Greater Cairo’s population is predicted to top thirty million, government estimates suggest that half of those residents will live not in Cairo itself, but in a satellite city. No matter which direction you look out on to Cairo’s sandy fringes, the pace of construction is breathtaking. “If you leave the area for two months and then come back, the whole place is unrecognizable,” says one project manager employed at a major New Cairo development. “This is probably the fastest-growing urban area you’ll ever see in your life.”

It’s all a far cry from the early 1990s when “New Cairo” consisted of little more than a ragtag settlement at Katameya, inhabited only by a handful of Egyptians haphazardly relocated there by the government after their homes were lost in the devastating 1992 earthquake. That was when Khaled and Tarek Abu Talib bought 250 acres of remote desert land and announced plans to build an eighteen-hole golf course and residential complex on the site. Most people thought they were mad. Today, their private gated compound is one of the most exclusive in the country, and the pool terrace and cigar-scented clubhouse look out over an ocean of busily twitching cranes. The name “Katameya Heights,” like other cartoon-titled compounds that sprung up around the same time— Beverly Hills, Dreamland, Utopia—is now synonymous with the ultimate in Egyptian upper-class luxury living; the Arab world’s largest country sees forty-four percent of its citizenry living on less than $2 a day, but you wouldn’t know it from the toy-town driveways in Katameya where clubhouse membership packages start at $22,000 and the in-house magazine features Nina Ricci dresses and Bulgari jewelry on its front page.

The drift of the Cairene elite towards the sand dunes has been going on for the best part of two decades, but in the past few years the speed at which new desert developments are being built and occupied has accelerated sharply. Whereas older developments like Katameya Heights were strictly for the extravagantly wealthy, today’s crop of construction projects are targeted at a wider, if still exclusive, band of Egyptians, many of whom need little persuasion when it comes to the merits of vacating the city center. Ask any of the Next Move conference attendees why they want to relocate outside of the city, and you’ll hear the same word used time and again: zahma, meaning “traffic” or “crowds.” It was Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policy of handing out an acre of agricultural land to each nuclear family in the aftermath of his coup against British rule in 1952 that helped sow the seeds of Cairo’s demographic explosion; as rural families grew bigger and ever-dwindling land supplies got spliced up between children, waves of migration from the countryside began washing over the capital, swelling its already saturated streets to unimaginable levels—more cars, more buildings, more people.

Much of the new construction that took place within the city limits to accommodate newcomers was informal; without a parallel upgrade in infrastructure from Egypt’s stagnant powers-that-be, pressure on public services has been at a critical stage for years. Traffic levels have escalated to the extent that it can take over an hour to cross the Nile in early evening; green space is in such short supply that picnicking families have nowhere to gather but the threadbare grassy verges propped sadly beside the city’s main highways. “Years ago my home was a nice place, but now I barely recognize it,” says Anton Girgis, a telecoms engineer currently living in Giza who has come to the conference to find a new property out beyond the ring road. “The whole city has been transformed into one big shantytown.”

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