Searching for a quiet public space in Cairo sets you up against unscrupulous police and leering neighbors, oppressive moral codes and an eternal maze of streets. One woman's failed hunt for tranquility in the Egyptian capital.
CAIRO — Kamal al-Tawil Street is dimly lit and overlooks the Nile from the island of Zamalek. It is the refreshing opposite of the adjacent and popular Aboul Feda Street, which buzzes with cafes and cars.
The street offers a long sidewalk with a sublime uninterrupted view of the Nile decorated with colorfully lit feluccas and framed by the Imbaba Bridge.
The discovery was enchanting, but that didn't last.
As I was parked one day on Kamal al-Tawil Street with a friend, I turned around to find myself facing an officer's head. He didn't knock on the window or peek from outside. Instead, he ducked and poked his head inside my car.
Thankfully, the pizza that we were eating, which was placed between my friend and me, eliminated any suspicion of indecent behavior. The officer, who was dressed in civilian clothes, removed his head and went on his way without uttering a word.
He then proceeded to just as subtly sneak up on young men standing by the fence, snatching cigarettes out of their hands, giving them one expert sniff, then dragging them by their shirts to a microbus nearby with a tourism company logo and no plate numbers.
The street seemed less pleasant after these two scenes, and we left.
I eventually learned that the frequent police street patrols — and the awkward looks that my friends gave me when I mentioned my trips to Kamal al-Tawil — are because of its reputation as a spot for making out and smoking hash.
But I didn't give up. Not just then.
Another Kamal al-Tawil misadventure awaited. It involved being escorted from a little area next to the Nile by a protective owner who claimed the land belonged to him. A previous time, kinder owners allowed me and my friends 20 minutes in the spot, which made for one of the most beautiful, if rushed, picnics I've had in Cairo.
It was time to identify a different spot, a public space, to sit, read and simply be. Cairo is in essence streets, bridges, squares and the Nile. How difficult can it be to find a spot and sit? Well, as it turns out, very.
Instead of finding the ideal location, I ended up enumerating the multiple challenges of finding a public space — truly public in the sense of open access and available to people.
The police are everywhere
You will always feel watched, as though a public spot is not your temporary property, as it should be.
An increased police presence in several areas has been implemented in an attempt to step up security measures.
It also comes amid plans to restore police stature after three years of instability in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. The streets have been a convenient site for this image restoration.
On several occasions, friends sitting in public were approached by officers who would inexplicably ask them to leave or inquire about why they were there.
The streets of downtown have become studded with military tanks and plain-clothes officers, creating a noticeably tense atmosphere in what used to be a pleasant destination for idling.
The state has traditionally assigned itself the role of policing morality, a task executed by security forces in the streets. Being approached by an officer for suspicion of indecent behavior, or even for a routine check, has been commonplace.
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Policemen on patrol in Cairo — Photo: momo
A friend was recently beaten up by plain-clothes officers with the aid of citizens in downtown Cairo after an accident led to a search of his car, where a bottle of whiskey was found.
Although alcohol is sold legally in Egypt, police officers often use their power to impose their own moral standards, with increased liberties given to them by the state amid the current political climate.
Recently, a picture of police forces surrounding a couple on the Nile Cornish, presumably after their behavior was judged unacceptable, went viral.
The public eye
And if it's not the watchful eyes of the police judging the morality of citizen behavior, random passersby often do it instead. A particular hostility towards women permeates Egyptian public spaces, making it difficult for us to enjoy these spaces unaccompanied.
On the days when I hang out in my spot in Zamalek, I'm the only woman there alone. On a good day, I get looks from every passerby, filled with bewilderment and sometimes annoyance at my unwelcome presence in a space usually reserved for male groups or couples. Some of these looks are not unlike the ones women sometimes get when sitting in traditional cafes, which have long been reserved for men. On a bad day, verbal harassment will cause my love of Cairo's outdoors to lapse quickly.
And some claim it's theirs
Many public spaces have been informally privatized. Many public gardens are inexplicably gated and locked, and some of the best spots have already been taken over by vendors who found a way to capitalize financially on them.
I tried Qasr al-Nile Bridge, one of the pleasant walks by the Nile that has also been dubbed the "lovers bridge." The street has recently been taken over by tea vendors who set up their tables, chairs and fridges. To sit on a chair, you pay five Egyptian pounds. To drink tea, you pay another five Egyptian pounds.
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Cairo's Tahrir Square in 1958 — Photo: The Egyptian Liberal
All of this happens while much of Cairo's official public spots decay from neglect.
While some state-owned gardens with affordable entry fees can be an alternative for the quasi-absent public space in the city, their miserable states often render them undesirable.
With the exception of Al-Azhar Park, which is maintained through a private-public partnership, most of these gardens are poorly maintained. They serve as evidence that providing spaces for leisure is not necessarily on the state's agenda.
The Orman Gardens in Giza and the Fish Garden in Zamalek are two of several ambitious garden projects from the past that have decayed into ruins.
I tried out Orman for a test. After you pay the one-pound entry fee, you walk into vast and ungroomed gardens lined with broken benches. But I discovered that you can actually avoid paying the fee because the gate has a big hole in it that people use to walk in and out. Some climb their way in along the walls of the garden. When the guard saw me inside close to the 4 p.m. closing time, he was furious, obviously fatigued by the impossible task he has of policing a garden with a broken gate and easily climbable walls.
"How did you get in?" he asked. "Through the gate or the opening in the gate?"
"And what do you call a person who enters a place through an opening in a locked gate?" he asked, leering.
I answered with the suggestion that either the gate be fixed or that a guard be stationed next to it. Neither option, he said, was affordable for the garden's management.
At any rate, the garden is primarily used by conscripts on duty around the nearby Cairo University.
In these politically stifling times, something about cruising the streets of Cairo and not finding a place to land feels like one more form of oppression. Every failed attempt to occupy a space in the street highlights another difficulty in trying to enjoy Cairo, rather than just live in it.
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View from Cairo Tower — Photo: Raduasandei
But there is a tidbit of hope.
A few places remain accessible to the public for free with nice seating arrangements. Examples include the Garden City Corniche, lined with benches, the newly renovated Mostafa Kamel Square in Maadi, as well as spots in Old Cairo.
Less equipped for public use but equally accessible are public gardens lining streets around the capital. There are also little spots all over the city that make for nice hangouts. My personal favorite is the sidewalk in front of the popular Om Kalthoum hotel in Zamalek. Part of the concrete fence by the Nile functions as a bench directly overlooking the Nile, with a view of the boat houses on the other side. Despite the strong smell of garbage dumped near the spot daily, it's a favorite, especially for some reading time.
And the search continues.