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In Defense of Downtown

The spirit of downtown is not lost, despite the flight of many Cairenes to distant neighborhoods
By  Dominika Maslikowski


“I’ve been here 20 years,” an Egyptian lawyer recently told me as he stepped out of his office onto the noisy street of Talaat Harb, dodging a car and squinting in the sun that beat off the pavement. “I would never live anywhere else.”


The noisy and traffic-clogged streets of Downtown are a nightmare to many who try to avoid the area altogether. Others who grew up in Downtown or previously lived here often find it hard to imagine living in any other neighborhood.


Downtown is full of memories for Cairo’s older generations, who might not have ever lived here but remember the 1960s and 70s when it was the place to hang out, meet friends, go to the cinema or take in the atmosphere. In those times, friends who lived in different districts would often meet Downtown. Even if they were neighbors, they still preferred to head to Wust el Balad for its lively nightlife rather than sit at their local cafes.


It holds a certain flair for expats, too, who want to live in the city’s center or experience the “real Cairo” atmosphere, despite the run-down parts that have lost their former cosmopolitan glory.


These days, with the capital’s sharp growth and population boom, it has become increasingly difficult to get around Cairo. For those who live in the satellite cities, coming Downtown isn’t much fun as an evening out as it becomes a frustrating half-day journey. These days, those who live in Heliopolis often spend their Friday nights in Roxy, while Maadi residents head to Road 9. Fewer can be bothered to fight the traffic or metro crowds to meet up Downtown, and they don’t want to bother. There are now cinemas, trendy cafes and good shopping centers in nearly all of Cairo’s neighborhoods, and many of my friends often prefer to hang out close to home rather than fight the traffic to come Downtown.


I’ve seen groups of friends form that consist of people who live in the same area, and I’ve seen other friendships fall apart when one person moved and neither had the time or energy to head across town for coffee. “I lost so many friends when I moved to Dokki,” one expat who had previously lived in Maadi recently told me. “Nobody wants to come all the way out here, and I can’t be going to meet them over there all the time.”


When it comes to expats, there’s now an online group for women living in Nasr City, while other groups have formed and meet up regularly for coffee in their respective districts. Outsiders, or those who live far away, can’t often make the meetings because it takes too long to get there. And for what? It’s easier to just meet up with local friends for a drink at a nearby cafe.


All this is natural, and nobody can be faulted for wanting to make their lives easier or for forming attachments to the people and places closest to their home. But in the case of Downtown, the expats or Egyptians reluctant to come here are missing out on an atmosphere and liveliness that can’t be found anywhere else, and that can be hard to capture.


Downtown is crowded and often frustrating, especially in the summer heat. Those new to Cairo or those who haven’t spent much time Downtown should explore it slowly, and take time to leisurely wander the streets or sit in cafes. The spirit of Downtown isn’t in its tourist landmarks or its busiest thoroughfares, but in the districts and side streets that take hours to explore.


Downtown, these days, is experiencing a revival. Aside from the Townhouse Gallery and the Borsa Cafe, long-standing hipster hangouts, there’s also the recently opened artsy coffeehouse Kafein in Abdeen. The annual Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF), held back in March and April, aims to revive the area with “all the art and culture that once defined it,” and did well this year in bringing neglected venues back on the map. Old standards like Cafe Riche on Talaat Harb Street, where protesters hid during the 1919 uprising, are still atmospheric and lively gathering places for the old generation of artists and intellectuals, not to mention the scores of baladi cafes, including the famous Horreya.


These days, more and more of the event invites I get on Facebook are happening in Downtown. The most recent of invites was an ongoing exhibit on Gawad Hosney Street where graffiti is used to help promote the street vendors who have recently been targets of police crackdowns. “The painting of their portraits at the places where they work will serve as a tool for self-promotion and contribute heavily to their economic self-sufficiency,” organizers say.


These days, Downtown may no longer be the Paris of the Middle East, but there’s a lot going on here and it’s not quite like anywhere else. If you do it right, it’s well worth a long taxi ride.

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