Searching for public space
 
 
Courtesy: www.shutterstock.com
 

My favorite hangout for a brief couple of weeks was a street, a simple street in a Cairo neighborhood.

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 has been buzzing with cafes and cars.

The street offers a long sidewalk with an uninterrupted sublime view of the Nile decorated with the colorfully lit feluccas and framed by the Imbaba Bridge.

The discovery was enchanting. But the enchantment didn’t last.

As I was parked one day in Kamal al-Tawil street with a friend, I turned around to find an officer’s head. He didn’t knock on the window or peek from outside. Instead, he ducked and inserted his head inside my car.

Thankfully, the pizza that we were eating, which was placed between my friend and I, eliminated any suspicion of indecent behavior. The officer, who was dressed in civilian clothes, retracted 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 patrols in the street -–and the awkward looks that my friends gave me when I mentioned my trips to Kamal al-Tawil – are caused by its reputation as a spot for making out and smoking hash.

But I didn’t give up. Well, until…

Another Kamal al-Tawil misadventure occurred. It involved being escorted out of the little piece of land directly by the Nile by a protective owner who claimed the land belonged to him. A previous time, a kinder owners allowed me and my friends 20 minutes in the spot, which made for one of the most beautiful, yet hurried, 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, that is, well, truly public in the sense of open access and availability to the 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 presence of police forces in several areas has been implemented as 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 street has 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 flaneurs.

And they are here to ensure you are a moral citizen

The state has traditionally assigned itself the role of policing morality, a task executed by security forces in the street. Being approached by an officer for suspicion of indecent behavior, or even for a routine check, has been a common occurrence.

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 within 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 is not the police’s watchful eyes judging the morality of your behavior, random passersby can do the job. A particular hostility towards women permeates the Egyptian public space and makes it difficult for us to enjoy these spaces unaccompanied.

Most days that I hang out in my spot in Zamalek, I’m the only female 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, the verbal harassment will take every bit of peace away from the visit, prompting the desire to brave Cairo’s outdoors to lapse quickly and end unpleasantly.

And some claim it’s theirs

Many public spaces have been informally privatized. Many public gardens are inexplicably gated and locked, and a lot 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.” Recently, the street has been taken over by tea vendors who set up their tables, chairs and fridges. To sit on a chair, you pay LE5. To drink tea, you pay another LE5.

And the state is not there

All of this happens while much of Cairo’s official public spots decay out of neglect.

While some state-owned gardens with affordable entry tickets can be an alternative for the quasi-absent public space in the city, their miserable state often renders them undesirable.

With the exception of Al-Azhar Park, which is maintained through a private-public partnership, most of these gardens are severely unmaintained. 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 un-groomed gardens lined with broken benches. However, 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 he saw me inside close to the 4 pm closing time of the garden, the guard was furious, obviously fatigued by the impossible task he has of policing the entry of people into a garden with a broken gate and easily climbable walls.

“How did you get in? Through the gate or the opening in the gate?” he asked.

“The opening.”

“And what do you call a person who enters a place through an opening in a locked gate?” he leered.

I answered with a suggestion to either fix the gate or station a guard on it. Both options, he said, were unaffordable for the garden’s management.

At any rate, the garden is currently mostly used by conscripts on duty around the nearby Cairo University.

Hope?

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.

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 up 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. 

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