MADA MASR

Cairo Is Urban Trauma, Postcard From A City Planner

This dearth of urban planning in the Egyptian capital dates back half a century. But it reached a new peak starting in 2019, when one of its last livable districts saw its old ways demolished.

A traffic jam along al-Azhar street in Cairo.
A traffic jam along al-Azhar street in Cairo.
Mohamed Elshahed*

CAIRO — Inhabiting a city is an emotional and a psychological experience. For the past decade, I have lived in Cairo, a city I found to be exciting and full of potential from the perspective of an urbanist who studies cities, architecture and is concerned with heritage. I lived in Heliopolis, which I thought was one of the last sections of the Egyptian capital that, despite poor urban management for the past several decades, retained qualities that made it a livable place. It had trees, ample sidewalks, interesting architecture, and a neighborhood feel within its many subsections. It was a district with a relatively high quality of life compared to other parts of the city. There were also the remains of an extensive public transport system — the tram — which despite being dysfunctional, at least allowed residents to dream of its restoration one day under the right leadership.

Urban governance has been nonexistent since the military coup of 1952, when the Free Officers received support from the CIA through a covert program known as Project Fat Fucker to oust King Farouk, seen as uncooperative in the post-World War II era. It was an era shaped by postcolonial politics or, to be more precise, when formal colonialism was morphing into a new system that maintained colonial control, with access to assets, markets, raw material and labor under the guise of independence — a distracting form of political theater built on the emotions and desires of the masses in former colonies.

This dearth of urban planning was strikingly manifest in the summer of 2019, when over the course of several months, all the features that made Heliopolis among Cairo's more livable districts were swiftly removed. The residents had no say in the matter. Century-old trees were uprooted, public transport infrastructure was removed, and sidewalks were made smaller. Such actions are not only counter-intuitive to standard urban management logic but also have a severe impact on the value of private property in the area and, more importantly, on the psychology of residents. This is urban trauma.

Cairo today, and for much of the past decade, is an unstable city. When protests erupted in 2011 in the capital and across the country, occupying urban space was central to dissent. Conversely, urban infrastructure, particularly road systems, proved essential tools for authorities to assert urban control, such as the rapid deployment of security vehicles to the streets in an effort to impose curfews. Other examples include the cutting of electricity and the internet. In addition, there were many insidious forms of control that worked to destabilize the urban environment and make it less hospitable to potential protesters as well as to create a constant state of anxiety, even inside the home.

Over the past decade, Cairo has transformed immensely, with slogans such as "development" and "progress' operating as smoke screens for a violent remaking of the city for other ends. Counterrevolutionary forces argued that stability was more important than political change, but on the neighborhood level across the country there has been no stability whatsoever. Space is disfigured on a daily basis, trees are removed, buildings are demolished and heritage collapses. Within a matter of days, weeks or months, residents have lost their orientation around neighborhoods in which they have lived their entire lives. What kind of stability is this? And for whom?

Urban planners understand the psychological potential of cities.

Since the 1950s, urban planners, mostly in the United States and Europe, have understood the psychological potential of cities. Town planning can engender a sense of belonging, strengthen local communities, and bolster neighborhood ties. Conversely, it can also enforce a sense of individualism, manipulate residents into becoming consumers and intensify feelings of loneliness, alienation, anxiety and fear.

When the United States began its "shock and awe" campaign in Baghdad in 2003, the intention, as the name suggests, was to induce psychological shock, to overwhelm and control the population of an entire capital in a mere instant. In today's urban environment, psychology is always at work: in the hyper-surveillance of Dubai or Beijing, in the advertising-saturated Times Square in New York or London's Piccadilly Circus; or in the presence of military camps within Egyptian cities, with conscripts placed in watchtowers, their rifles pointed outward at the city around them. In all these examples, and many more, urban environments impact human psychology, intentionally or not, where technologies, spaces and tactics are weaponized by those in power to control populations.

Despite the apparent availability of funds to build an entirely new capital or attract investments for superfluous additions to the city — such as mimicking the London Eye on the Nile — Egypt's more mundane, yet crucial, urban needs have not been met. In a political environment orchestrated around the notion of megaprojects touted by those in power as evidence of their rule, fixing sidewalks, planting trees and improving public transport do not add up to iconic achievements. Instead, Egyptians have been increasingly gaslit since the 1990s into believing that their cities are irreparable and nothing more than reflections of the Egyptian psyche: chaotic and unordered.

Through psychological manipulation that serves undemocratic rule and uncontrolled capital, it has become common to hear that something is fundamentally wrong with Egyptians themselves and that only money can buy them a ticket out of their urban misery. Promotions abound for privately-built gated developments, with names meant to evoke life in Marseille or other far afield spaces such as "Dreamland" or even "Future City," which feels all too much like the dreary present.

Over the last several years, Cairo has been the laboratory for some of the most aggressive urban interventions in its entire history. From highways that negate the existence of residential buildings within arm's reach, to the demolition of hundreds of mausolea containing the remains of the city's dead, including many of its most important public figures, these projects seem to negate the very existence of the city's inhabitants.

In the current political climate, where any form of opposition is immediately branded as a threat to the nation and its security, such projects bulldoze through the urban fabric under a plethora of flags and nationalistic slogans such as "we build for you." At the crux of the matter is a form of state paternalism that echoes statements made by officials during the legendary eighteen days of the revolution: "Egyptians are not ready for democracy" — which in urban affairs translates into "Egyptians don't know what is good for their city."

Cairo has been transformed into a place without memory.

For many inhabitants of the city there is a sense of being held hostage, of feeling helpless and having no control over the environment they occupy and inhabit. The numerous interventions happening at once are disorienting, they create chaos and disperse any effort to record what is happening. Alongside these processes, and in the absence of robust institutions that maintain the memory and history of modern and contemporary society, Cairo has been transformed into a place without memory, perpetually stuck in a disorienting present. These are tactics of psychological control and many Cairenes may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, caused not only by the instability of the city, but by the increasing sense of anxiety that comes with pervasive insecurity and predatory surveillance.

In the aftermath of 2011 Cairo saw an immense increase in surveillance cameras mounted in public spaces. This was followed by a law that forced private businesses to install cameras outside their premises. Trees may provide shade and clean the air, but in a security state they also hinder surveillance. So trees must be removed. Occasionally, to counter criticism of tree removal, imported palm trees are planted as decorative replacements whilst lining the pockets of importers. The imported palms do not survive well in Cairo's harsh environment and often die shortly after planting. This seems counterintuitive: Why import palm trees from vast distances to a country rich in its own local varieties of palms? Such questions can best be answered by adjusting the expectations or refocusing the purposes of the urban interventions taking place.

Cairo street scene in 2005. Not much has changed since. — Photo: JJ Jester

Such interventions are driven by multiple interests; not the interests of the masses, but rather those of the security apparatus looking to open up spaces for observation and control and for those who receive direct, no-bid contracts and are only looking to maximize profit. Regardless of the form they take, these interventions are in fact fulfilling exactly what they are designed for; the public does not figure into the state's considerations.

In 1948, in the aftermath of World War II, and following the exit of British troops from Egyptian cities, architect Sayed Karim consulted Al-Musawwar magazine on producing a series of spreads that illustrate key urban challenges facing Cairo in order to get the public on board for the necessary changes. One of the spreads titled "Cairo is suffocating, let her breathe!" was centered on the issue of green space. The spread was mainly visual accompanied by a short text. It included an aerial view of the capital with a graph below visualizing the amount of green space in various parts of the city as measured by the ratio of population density to public parks. It presented both a bleak picture and a call to arms, arguing that the city was dangerously lacking in green space which correlates directly with higher rates of infant mortality, disease and social ills.

At the time, only one percent of the city's total area was dedicated to parks, while it needed about ten percent for healthy levels. Six districts, such as Bulaq, Shubra and historic Cairo, which were collectively populated by over 1.1 million residents, did not have access to any green space. The text concludes with a call to establish a municipality to govern Cairo and manage its affairs, including the lack of green space. "Enough of the politics of improvisation which have cost the state and the people immense losses," the architect concluded.

Karim was an ambitious and vocal architect and urbanist and his daring message reflected the widespread revolutionary fervor and public criticism sweeping Egypt after 1948. Others joined his calls for a municipality and the demand began to materialize in 1949. However, the heavy-handed policies of the new military regime which co-opted the revolution in 1952 led to the cancellation of the short-lived municipality. The building erected for the municipality was then used as the headquarters of Nasser's Arab Socialist Union and subsequently the National Democratic Party.

In this new era, Egypt's heads of state did what they saw fit with the city and its people, there was no room for a politics of participation such as a democratic municipality. Ever since, the city has been a site for projects decreed from above and designed to improve the image of leaders rather than provide its residents with needed services. As for voices such as Sayed Karim, who looked to galvanize public opinion with urban critique, his career was cut short, his offices were shut by the state and he was placed under house arrest in 1965. Cairo today continues to live in the shadow of this traumatic moment.


*Mohamed Elshahed is a curator, critic and architectural historian focusing on modernism in Egypt and the Arab World.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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