Ask anyone and they will tell you, this is consistently one of Egypt’s worst attributes. It cripples the economy beyond comprehension where as much as $8 billion is lost in productivity, delays and excess fuel consumption, according to the World Bank. On days where the political scene is less dramatic than Ghada Abdelrazek, Cairo’s traffic congestion trumps most topics in frequency and effect on our collective emotional state. Egypt is the only country where the evolution of traffic has led to a honking language. Yes, a honking language, where you can use your swear word of choice depending on the honking pattern.
While every aspect of the problem has been discussed and exhausted between friends, we have come to realize that feasible and theoretical solutions should take center stage. But does Cairo’s traffic really have a solution? And can we do anything about it without waiting for the government?
Finding a Solution
The good news is yes, there is a solution. In fact there are many solutions, the difficulty lies in picking the right one. We will introduce a part of one solution in this blog. But before we do, we must quickly eliminate one very wide misconception.
This will come as a surprise to many, but widening roads has almost no effect on solving the congestion problem. While congestion will be decreased on the short run, traffic naturally prefers the path of least resistance, consequently, when analyzing the city’s overall network it is revealed that drivers have the tendency to pick detours through newly widened roads. Equilibrium gets maintained and streets feel just as congested once again. Below is a photo depicting the result of continuous unsuccessful widening.
Regardless of whether this concept makes sense to you or not, the general idea is, investments and improvements for cars will only attract more and more cars to the streets. Several people have simply explained it as follows, “Widening roads to relieve congestion is like loosening your belt to relieve obesity.” So here’s where we are; we need cars to get to work but, the more cars on the road the more furious it becomes to drive to work. So we widen roads and build highways but that encourages more cars on the road and we are left with a persistent problem, until we look at public transportation.
Well managed public transportation successfully lowers the number of cars on the road and with that, congestion is decreased especially when paired with other means such as congestion pricing. The picture below offers a powerful visual representation of the same number of people using different modes of transportation.
You can view this as a gif here.
The vast number of benefits from public transportation has convinced a tremendous amount of leaders in both developed and developing countries that even if the system is not profitable, it is still worth subsidizing. Several developing countries with similar infrastructure to Cairo have already begun revitalizing their transportation with signature projects like Columbia’s BRT system.
How to implement the solution
If changing the world doesn’t happen in one day, neither will solving Cairo’s traffic problem. Working on some of Canada’s most complex construction projects has confirmed the difficulty in making Cairo move, but not the impossibility of it. Over time, I began discovering small steps that could be taken in Cairo to make those changes today. Implementing solutions to Cairo’s traffic through public transportation allows for two main options:
#1: The introduction of a new system and deciding what type of system it will be (i.e. a new subway line, a Nile ferry or a bus system) which is followed by creating the system itself.
#2: Increasing the ridership of an existing system. This would entail making this transport option more appealing either through cost, comfort or time saved. This is the option I have been advocating.
The proposal I submitted to Cairo from Below’s Our Urban Futures Ideas Competition discussed the “Living Bus Stop”, which is a sustainable design of a canopy comprised of four trunks of a Bougainvillea tree (جهنمية) with its branches rising and meeting to create shelter above riders. A seated and shaded canopy would make waiting for a bus more convenient and increase the current low ridership of buses.
Many factors combined, create a perfect public transportation system. Solving all at once may not be feasible at a given point in time, so one must strive to solve what they can with what they have. The proposal I have submitted is simple but effective. It sets the groundwork for a better transportation network that can be used by both the private and public bus systems.
A detailed proposal on the project was submitted and fortunately very well received by the judges. I was later contacted by some of the judges that wished to implement the system on The American University in Cairo (AUC’)s current bus system in a controlled environment before launching city-wide. Since then, we have discussed several aspects during Skype video conferences to implement the Living Bus Stop on AUC’s bus system. Meetings with Marc Rauch (Sustainibility Coordinator), Ashraf Salloum (University Architect) and Sherif Maged (Director of Transportation) are getting us closer to implementing the system. With 60 bus stop locations along 16 different routes in Cairo, AUC creates a perfect initial step for this sustainable future. Once this step is launched, phase two would begin.
Phase two of the project will entail installing a solar panel on each canopy to keep stations lit throughout the night for both convenience and safety. This initiative would extend the usage time of each canopy and make the battle against congestion continuous throughout the day and night.
I hope to see those colorful tree canopies around the city, at every intersection, on main bus routes to increase ridership from the levels they are at today. At the very least, they would paint the city streets with more beautiful colors and clean the polluted air we breathe every day.
The beauty of the Living Bus Stop is that even if it doesn’t increase ridership substantially, the project is simple, cheap and leads to more trees being planted around Cairo. The closer Cairo gets to a transit friendly city, the closer we will be to minimizing congestion. I will try to keep progress updates shared frequently as this project progresses so I could hear what you think! Do you think bus shelters would have an effect on increasing today’s numbers of bus riders? Would you be more likely to take a bus if the wait was more convenient? If you think you can help out with this initiative in any way, and have more ideas to share, please contact me and let’s get this city moving! e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hossam Targam left Egypt in 2006 to complete his Civil Engineering degree at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada. Over the last few years he has worked for consulting and contracting companies on several transportation construction projects around Ontario. He is currently a Project Coordinator with EllisDon Corporation working on the $1.4B vivaNext Project, which is part of the master plan, to transform the York Region’s transportation network.
If you would like to share your vision for Cairo, please write to us at CairoFromBelow@gmail.com so that we can feature your idea on the CfB site.
The short video, Mafto7 – Public Space in Cairo, was an introduction to the idea of how to improve public spaces in Cairo without waiting for the government, which might take years or may not even happen. The full length of Mafto7 – Public Space in Cairo introduces more examples of transformations of public spaces in Cairo and how citizens cope with the poor maintenance of these spaces.
Public spaces in Cairo are diminishing, closed with fences and are becoming more and more politicised. Therefore this film deals with the role of politics in public spaces. The experts, May al-Ibrashy (conservation architect, Megawra), Omar Nagati (architect& urban planner, CLUSTER), Ahmed Zaazaa (architect, MAAD), and Mazin Abdulkarim (architect, ZAWIA) talk about the relationship between public spaces and the revolution. This includes its impact on citizens and how public spaces were controlled before the revolution. Since the January 2011 Revolution, arts and culture have become tools to claim spaces. Many groups have implemented interventions in public spaces in Cairo such as Mahatat, Rasheed 22, etc. A group of independent artists, intellectuals and cultural institutions organized a successful festival, El-Fan Medan, two months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Oneof the experts spoke about El-Fan Medan and its goal and success. In addition, one of the students discusses his experience of an event in the creative arts in opera.
Despite the work being done, the citizens I have interviewed in public spaces such as Midan al-Opra, Qasr al-Nile, Midan Abdeen and Genena al-Maza explained to me how the lack of green spaces have had an impact on their lives. One of the students in Megawra says: “Most believe that the poor don’t go out. Some of the rich or middle-class people believe that the poor have double jobs, and don’t have time to spend their time in public spaces and aren’t even interested in using public spaces”. This is one of the big issues about social classes. The popularization of shopping malls, along with the deterioration of quality of public spaces have contributed to a divide among the upper and lower classes and how they use their free time. There is very little interaction or relationship between the poor and the rich, as the poor tend not to frequent the shopping malls. With improvement in the quality of public spaces, there will be more interest in utilizing them, therefore, bringing people together from all classes. Importantly, we must better understand how people spend their time in public spaces and why they are important to groups and individuals.
Most of the citizens I have interviewed have told me of only one place that they go to use their free time, and that is Azhar Park. The poor people are somehow forced to spend their time in Azhar Park and pay the fees for them and for their children due to a lack of playgrounds in the public spaces of Cairo. With this lack of suitable public space in Cairo there is a lack of public meeting places, large amounts of both noise and other environmental pollution, and most importantly, open and clean spaces for people living in Cairo to enjoy together.
In cities around the world, many activists and citizens have occupied spaces and converted undesirable public spaces into places for such activities as gardening and dancing. For example, City Repair from Portland painted street intersections in bright colours and patterns. They involved neighbours to help in converting them into neighbourhood gathering places. In Taiwan, citizens frustrated with expensive housing costs staged a “sleep-in” in the streets of the most expensive district in the city to protest the government inaction. In Great Britain, Space Hijackers, a group of self-proclaimed “anarchitects,” has performed numerous acts of “space hijacking,” from “Guerrilla Benching” (installing benches in empty public space) to the “Circle Line Party” in London’s Underground.
The end of the film details the project I, with the help of my family, have worked on in three public spaces in Cairo. In order to break apart from the politicisation in public spaces, encouraging change of the use of public spaces is needed. This politicisation of public spaces alienates people from the public spaces they might otherwise frequent near their homes. The government of Egypt and citizens of Cairo will soon lend their attention to public spaces as the way they are used evolves. According to Don Mitchell, a distinguished professor of geography: “[The idea of public space] has never been guaranteed. It has only been won through concerted struggle”. Mitchell further argues that struggle “Is the only way that the right to public space can be maintained and only way that social justice can be advanced.” According to Mitchell, it is through the actions and purposeful occupation of a space that it becomes public.
Sara Hassan is an architecture student at Technical University in Vienna. She is currently writing her master thesis, Mafto7 – Public Space in Cairo“ as well as is making a short film. She is also an activist at Amnesty International in Vienna. She hopes to reside in Cairo after her graduation this summer and to continue projects in public spaces in Egypt.
Cairo from Below is pleased to introduce the first post by Cairo from Below member Marouh Hussein a first year graduate student at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. Through this post Marouh is hoping to kick off a conversation on food and health in the Cairo both for the benefit of readers here and for her own studies on the subject at graduate school. We encourage you to join the conversation in the comments section below, on twitter or our Facebook page.
Growing up in New York City, I’ve always been familiar with the urban form. The massive crowds, the loud traffic, the odorous air (is that a subway car or trash can?) and the wild concrete jungle are all things I have grown to love and manage. Yet there is still one aspect of urban living I still have not quite learned to deal with: food insecurity. Looking around NYC there are vast disparities between the foods available in different neighborhoods and especially among different income levels; only a 3-block radius will reveal grand inequalities in the food security and nutrition of NYC’s residents. My family emigrated from Egypt almost 25 years ago and although the last time I was in Cairo I barely had any teeth, I often find myself thinking of how urbanization is affecting the residents of Cairo and all of Egypt. Both of my parents have diabetes, as well as several extended family members. While diabetes is on the rise in New York City, my parents’ diabetes can be traced back to their time in Egypt.
Egypt currently has the eighth highest diabetes rate in the world and has been experiencing a staggering increase in recent years. Non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, are often linked to lifestyle changes that occur as a result of urbanization, such as less physical activity and greater consumption of processed foods. As Cairo continues to urbanize, how can we use smart urban planning to keep its residents healthy? What are the options for using urban agriculture (also here is a link to a socioeconomic study on urban agriculture), green space and local markets to promote healthy food for urban dwellers? Are there any nutritional disparities being observed between different income levels in Cairo? These are all questions and issues I am interested in researching and hopefully finding answers to.
As I start my graduate career at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, the link between food security and urbanization is something I will continue to study. Over the next two years I’m interested in exploring the issues of food security in Egypt and look forward to exploring these issues using one of the most important urban tools of our time, social media!
But I need your help! What sort of links between urban planning and health can you see in Cairo? Send Cairo from Below a comment below, tweet or message us on Facebook about the nexus of Cairo’s health, food and urbanization. If you see a cool urban garden popping up in Cairo, share it. Do you know of a lot that would be the ideal space for one? Send us a picture! Know of an organization that is working on food security issues in Cairo? Send us link to their website! I’ll be sharing my own insight on these topics but would love to hear and share what other people are reading/hearing/thinking/seeing about these topics as well. Starting a conversation is the first step towards building solutions together, so start tweeting and posting! I look forward to hearing your insights! I’ll suggest we use #HealthyCairo to keep the conversation going.
The Nile Delta is a very challenging area, with very dense housing, growing pressure on the agricultural land, high water demands and high population growth. Villages of the Nile Delta are now served with water supply, but few of them already benefit from proper wastewater collection and treatment. There is a clear demand to properly dispose of wastewater in small communities, with some of them building “informal” or “groundwater lowering” sewer systems. Otherwise, people rely on on‐site sanitation. In both cases, wastewater and sludge are dumped in the nearest water body (drain or, often and illegally, canal) or directly on agricultural fields. At the same time, the situation is worsening due to rising water tables caused by perennial irrigation and increased provision of drinking water, often leading to the malfunctioning of existing on‐site treatment facilities. So far, there is no viable small‐scale system (including viable financial and management schemes) available for replication in Egypt. Most small‐scale initiatives in Egypt did not stand the test of time or remained at a pilot stage.
The process of disposal of wastewater in Egyptian villages represents a dangerous challenge to environment and public health. In spite of the fact that at least 85% of rural residential buildings have some type of sanitary facility, a limited percentage of villages have recent facilities for safe collection, conveyance, and treatment of wastewater. Water pollution in canals and drains still represents the greatest threat to public health. Currently, wastewater is finally discharged (with or without treatment) to agricultural drains and sometimes to canals, where its use becomes unsafe. Also increased subsurface water level within boundaries of human settlements in villages makes many septic tanks (house vaults) a useless (not effective) mean, in addition to damages they cause to the houses. The challenge imposed by sanitation problem in rural Egypt was developed from wastewater collection only to how to safely dispose of wastewater, and the domain of the problem was enlarged from the house level to the irrigation system level.
Up to now, very little has been done for sanitation in small and mid‐sized settlements in the Delta. People rely on on‐site sanitation or informal sewer systems, with the wastewater and sludge being dumped in the nearest water body or directly on agricultural fields. At the same time, the situation is worsening due to rising water tables caused by perennial irrigation and increased provision of drinking water, often leading to the malfunctioning of existing on‐site treatment facilities. As a consequence, water in the drains and groundwater are heavily contaminated (Abdel‐Shafy and Aly 2007; EcoConServ 2007; HCWW 2008). As mentioned by Prof. Ahmed Gaber, Nile Delta villages are getting more and more “vulnerable”. It is expected that at least 15‐20 years will be needed to cover the backlog in rural sanitation coverage. Many people are now blaming decentralisation and so‐called “decentralised” systems. However thousands of villages and ezbas are not connectable to large sewer networks in the short and middle‐term. What is the alternative? If no alternative is provided, people will continue “business as usual”: discharging raw wastewater and sludge in drains and canals, injecting wastewater into the ground, or resorting to mitigation measures such as raising the level of their houses, as has already been seen in Kafr El Sheikh Governorate. So far, there are no viable small‐scale systems (including viable financial and management schemes) available for replication in Egypt. Most small‐scale initiatives in Egypt did not stand the test of time or remained at a pilot stage. It is high‐time to draw lessons learnt, in order to move forward.
Conventionally, sanitation is measured by the possibility of connecting houses to systems constructed for wastewater collection and transfer to a site far from the house or public activity zones, or transferring wastewater outside human settlement boundaries 1. Official data indicates that 85% of rural residential buildings in rural governorates had some type of sanitary facility in 2002. Nearly 10% of buildings were sewered; the other 75% had some type of on-site storage (Septic tanks or house vaults). Coverage levels have improved steadily, and data obtained from the ORDEV Information Centre show that in 2003, the percentage of rural households without any type of sanitation latrines had decreased to between 2% and 6%.
These data indicate that sanitation coverage did not usually keep pace with water supply coverage. 1996 census results showed that 84% of rural households in rural governorates had access to water supply in the home; 40% house connections, 17% yard or building top, 27% hand pump. But in spite of this, Egyptian villagers remain at risk of water- and excreta-borne diseases. Visible manifestations of unsanitary conditions include heavily polluted waterways, street damp and occasional wastewater ponding, and solid waste accumulations in settled areas and waterways. In the absence of wastewater treatment and safe disposal, wastewater returns to the human environment through a number of pathways. Solid waste accumulations can pollute groundwater or surface water through leaching of contaminants or pollutants, and they attract insects and vermin, which may transmit disease. Increasing population densities and rising water tables in the Nile Valley and Delta allow for the increased movement of pollutants between groundwater and surface water bodies.
The first root cause of the problem of pollution and hygienic and environmental hazards in rural Egypt is the discharge of most rural wastewater to the environment with little or no treatment. The number of rural wastewater treatment plants in operation may not exceed 500, while the total number of villages exceeds 5,500. The number of village sewer systems is far greater than the number of village wastewater treatment plants. Many State-funded village sewer systems were constructed without treatment facilities in order to solve urgent problems of widespread septage ponding in streets and house collapse. Moreover, an undetermined number of villages, especially villages in areas of high water table, which are prone to these types of wastewater up flow, have used self-help to resolve their problem by installing “informal” sewers on a household, neighborhood, or village scale. The public sewer systems discharge to agricultural drains, but the informal systems may discharge to drains or canals.
The second root cause of the contemporary rural sanitation problem in Egypt is that population growth, water scarcity, and above all increasing poverty level in last three years especially in pre urban and rural areas alongside, expanded residential area are bringing wastewater disposal points into closer proximity with water abstraction points. The nexus of factors associated with this root cause is complex: Population growth has led to an expansion of settlements over the waterways. The possibility to dump wastes into a waterway has been increased than before. Water tables are rising as a consequence of perennial irrigation and increased provision of drinking water. These factors lead to the failure of on-site sanitation systems and to the increased exchange of pollutants between surface water and groundwater.
Water demands are increasing, resulting in increased need to reuse drain water for irrigation, particularly by tail-end farmers who suffer increasingly from shortages as water scarcity grows. Drain water reuse is not a marginal or deviant phenomenon in Egypt. With growing water scarcity, drain water reuse is now a central GOE strategy for increasing Egypt’s water efficiency, and MWRI expects drain water to supply 10-15% of Egypt’s water requirements by the year 2017. Drain water pollution is a threat to this goal.
Ayman Ramadan Mohamed Ayad is an engineer and Water Resources Advisor at National Water Resources Plan (NWRP-CP), and has been involved in the future vision for Alexandria integrated water urban development. He also teaches applied hydraulics at Alexandria Universities, and serves as the Egyptian Coordinator for NAYD (Network of African Youth for Development).
Our colleague at Cairobserver, an incredible writer and academic on architecture, urbanism and culture in Cairo, has an excellent form of feedback on his site. What he calls “Resident Perspective” is an opportunity for readers (you!) to discuss their views of the place they live, and the spaces they spend most of their time. The product of these Resident Perspectives, is a series of stories from Cairenes from all neighbourhoods about their link to their habitat, their praise of it along with their frustrations; it is a vibrant collection of the voice of Cairo residents. Read the most recent Resident Perspective here. Offer your own to Cairobserver here.
Cairo from Below readers and enthusiasts, we are excited to begin bringing you something a little different that we hope offers a nuanced view of urban planning in Cairo. We will begin to post in-depth interviews with urban planning experts, academics, and activists. This will be something we will do along with our existing format of informational posts, opinion pieces, analysis and relevant event announcements.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Marwa H. Ghazali, a Ph.D. Student in Medical Anthropology and Graduate Instructor in Humanities & Western Civilizations at the University of Kansas. We discussed her research on the City of the Dead. Located below the Mokattam Hills in southeastern Cairo, this 4-mile (north-south) dense grid of tombs and mausoleum structures (also called the Cairo Necropolis), is a cemetery where some Cairenes live and work.
Below is a transcript of CfB’s Dana Kardoush’s interview with Graduate Instructor Marwa Ghazali about her anthropological research in the City of the Dead. We hope that these different perspectives, coming from an anthropological stance, will complement the existing research and work on the CfB website.
What was it that drew you to explore the City of the Dead?
On a drive to catch a flight to Egypt for an internship with the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2007, my father, an Egyptian native, began to talk about an interesting phenomenon which he had noted: attachment to place as a defining feature of what it means to be an “Egyptian.” He explained to me how he has noticed a general tendency among Egyptians to hang on to their apartments and other places of habitation, even when they go uninhabited.
He went on to reveal the conundrum of the people who live in cemeteries, a situation which I had previously been unfamiliar with. How do these people understand their “Egyptian-ness” in the absence of this important attachment? What has caused the habitation and conversion of sacred spaces (such as cemeteries) into social spaces where people get married, have sex, bear children, have weddings, and socialize? In a predominantly Muslim society, how have the edicts regarding the sanctity of cemeteries become so transformed?
These questions led me into an exploration into the City of the Dead. However, in a conversation with my supervisor from the WHO, I was told that I should not concern myself with this population as “most of them now have access to running water and electricity.” I found this attitude alarming to say the least. I decided that I had to understand, and to shed light, on the process by which people fall into such devastating states of poverty that they come to inhabit spaces of death. I returned the following year and began my fieldwork in the City of the Dead.
When did individuals and communities begin inhabiting this area?
It is difficult to date because there is such a diversity of timelines and an ongoing influx of people. Several families migrated during the war in 1967. My father’s family was among those who migrated from Sinai to Cairo, but were lucky enough to find an apartment. Those who came later or those who could not afford formal housing, began squatting in the cemeteries informally. There are others who, for generations, have lived in the cemeteries as professional caretakers or turaby.
Another major reason for the habitation of cemeteries is the overwhelming influx of rural-urban migrants who are unable to support their families with the heavy crop quotas instituted by Mubarak or who are unable to produce crop yields that are profitable. As more people migrate to these areas due to poverty and the inability to find affordable housing, the job security of the turaby is challenged. Families who own the graves are now able to enter into negotiations with squatters, in which they allow the family to live in the tomb, and pay them only a fraction of what they pay a professional turaby to care for the tomb and deceased, as well as to oversee burial procedures of newly deceased relatives.
There are families today who are moving into the cemeteries due to the inability to pay rent, medical bills, or because of family feuds, etc. The diversity reveals the ongoing problems that Egypt faces even in the 21st century.
Have you spoken with residents in the City of the Dead?
I spent the summer engaging in what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has called “deep hanging out” where I conversed with people living in this community, met children and families and vendors who sell leftover/damaged produce at lower rates, and spent the day engaging in participant-observation of every day life. I collected several “narratives of suffering” from various individuals as to the reasons that brought them to their current living arrangement. Below are two examples. *
In 2008, Manal, her husband, and their two children had been living in the cemeteries for seven years. Prior to that, they lived in a government subsidized housing unit. However, Manal soon fell ill and was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. She and her family sold their apartment and all of their belongings in order to pay for treatment. They moved in with her in-laws temporarily. However, this living arrangement, about 10 people living in a two-bedroom apartment, grew to be unbearable. Manal discussed the verbal and emotional abuse she suffered as a result. Leaving this arrangement in an effort to salvage what was left of their kinship relations, her family soon found themselves on the street. They made their way to the cemetery intending to spend one night and, as she explained, this is where they have lived ever since. The tomb she inhabits now however was not the first she had lived in. Her family squatted in a different tomb until the owning family discovered that the sanctity of their family tomb was “violated”, as Manal put it, and kicked them out. Manal and her family then moved to the tomb they now live in and entered into an agreement with the family which allowed them to stay in exchange for tending to the cleanliness and upkeep of the area, and making constant prayers for the deceased relatives. Since her move to the cemeteries, Manal has never returned for another round of treatment. The treatment itself is too expensive, and the cost of transportation further complicates her ability to access treatment.
Heba, another woman I met in the graveyards, demonstrates how cultural norms and gender inequalities can lead to a diminished quality of life. She came from an affluent family, the daughter of a military man. This family background allowed her to complete her education through high school and offered her many prospects. However, after her father passed, her brothers became her legal guardians in accordance with the Islamic practice known as walii. Heba soon fell in love with a man from a lower socioeconomic class than her own, who happened to be illiterate, or, basmagy. Her brothers, opposed to the cross-class marriage, and to their sister’s “modern” attempt at finding love outside of her brother’s guidance, threatened to kick her out and deny her inheritance if she married this man. Heba stood by her decision and was kicked out without any material belongings. She said, “my husband and I were homeless and we didn’t know where we would go. Suddenly, I put my hand in my pocket and I found the key to my family’s tomb. It was a mercy from God and a sign that I made the right choice. We came here and we have been living here since then.”
Does the government provide services to this area?
The government has attempted to provide services, though minimally, to popular areas like these as more attention was given to the situation of informal settlements. However, rather than relying on government aid, the inhabitants of these areas often unite and find creative ways to overcome the hurdles they face. For example, in several of the tombs, the residents were able to “steal” electricity from nearby stores and share that electricity between them.
Other modes of aid come from independent Islamic organizations, which recently installed a water fountain in one of these areas, for example. When I was there in 2008, the residents were extremely hesitant to criticize the efforts, or lack thereof, of Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak. I believe that when I return, this will not be the case.
What is the perception of most Cairenes of the City of the Dead?
In 2008, Cairenes generally were aware that there was habitation of the cemeteries, however, they were extremely detached from the practice. Despite their general lack of awareness, they often blamed these inhabitants for their “lazy” and “irresponsible” lifestyles. Though this tendency to blame the poor and to emphasize work ethic and individual responsibility is not uncommon in the dynamics between the urban rich and poor, during the revolution the narrative about the inhabitants of the City of the Dead began to change.
During the revolution, the City of the Dead, and those who live there, became a national symbol of the dire level to which Mubarak’s regime had sunk. It provided Cairenes with the legitimacy to argue that Mubarak was a tyrant that needed to be taken out of commission. “He allows people to live in graveyards, that’s how bad he is” was the general attitude during this time. I wonder now if the narrative will has changed or remained the same.
You suggest that anthropology can be one solution to misunderstandings and misconceptions surrounding the City of the Dead. Could you please explain your thoughts?
I believe that anthropology, and its insistence on ethnography, will help add the specificity, particularity, and context needed to better uncover the layers upon layers of structures, meanings, practices, and beliefs which have aided in the current situation in the City of the Dead, as well as providing us with phenomenological understandings of the experiences that come to be inscribed on the body-selves of these individuals and groups.
Currently, anthropologists are beginning to leave behind the idea that we can be neutral outside observers. Instead, we recognize that our very presence influences and changes the environment, so why not change it for the better? Cultural relativism must have limits that are defined by the contexts in which anthropologists find themselves.
That being said, overcoming blind relativism allows us to better see that living in graveyards is not a cultural, mystical, or spiritual practice. It is a product of structurally violent policies that have woven themselves into the social fabric of life in Egypt. Though these structures are difficult to discern, their identification is necessary in rebuilding a better Egypt after the revolution.
*Note: the names of the individuals mentioned have been changed to protect their privacy.
You can reach Ghazali at: email@example.com if you would like to gain access to her recent Ph.D thesis presentation or information on her MA thesis which examined the rhetoric of overpopulation in Egypt that led to attempts to control fertility and reproduction and how this served as justification for the state’s failure to deal with the problem of dislocation of millions of people..
Dana Kardoush is Cairo from Below’s Communications Coordinator. Kardoush is an alumnus of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). While at SIPA, along with fellow classmates and colleagues in Cairo, she contributed to forming Cairo from Below. Kardoush’s interest lies in civil society mobilization and community-led development in the Middle East, and as a Palestinian-American, she hopes to return to live and work in Palestine in the future.
Below is a post by Heba ElGawish, a finalist in Cairo From Below’s Our Urban Futures Ideas Competition. Here she explains her vision for Cairo’s urban future. If you would like to share your vision for Cairo, please write to us at CairoFromBelow@gmail.com so that we can feature your idea on the CfB site.
The bicycle has been part of the Egyptian culture for generations, both as transport and a means of living (bicycles pushing vegetables and milk carts?). Our infrastructure is not able to support the ever increasing congested traffic anymore. It’s faster now to walk to places rather than take a cab or bus. Then why not bicycle there? It’s cheap (in the light of rising gas prices), it’s fast, and it brings people together through a community that strives for sustainability.
As much as this idea sounds challenging for a city known for its ferocious traffic, by using the right implementation and outreach strategies it can actually be successful. Given Cairo’s flat terrain, biking from one place to another is not very demanding either.
Cycling and running have already become popular in Cairo. Over the past two years, the Cairo Runners and Cairo Chapter of GBI (Global Biking Initiative) have grown to include thousands of active members. People are taking control of their personal health and well-being and reclaiming their streets and public space.
Mostafa Ahmed, A GBI Team member, said “I take the bike because it’s faster, healthier, and on top of that, you do something you love”. He also added that, “When the leaders of our GBI team started to go to their work by bikes, the next thing was other people bought bikes and started to cycle to work too, or leave their bikes at the Smart village, where their work lies, and cycle after work or early before work”.
Cairenes are striving to embrace a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. A bike share program in Cairo will facilitate these individual initiatives while promoting public health awareness.
The bike share system is a convenient and affordable alternative to motorized transport for both residents and tourists to get around the city. Workers use it to commute to and from work, residents can run their errands, and it’s also a great way for tourists to explore the city. The bikes can be taken from any conveniently located station by swiping a smart card, or punching in a code, then returned to any station at the end of the trip. The smart card also acts as a way to track the bike and prevent theft.
The bike share program also solves the first and last mile connection problem, especially where transferring from a metro station to a bus can be time consuming (e.g. reaching Heliopolis neighborhood to/from Saraya El-Qobba or Helmeyet el-Zaitoun metro stations). Another opportunity would be to connect Cairo’s East side to El-Zamalek and over to the West side without battling the highly congested traffic on the three bridges, 6th of October, El Tahrir, and 26th of July, that can consume over an hour to cross a 2 km stretch.
The program has proven successful in many urban cities around the world. In Barcelona, bike commuting has increased from 0.75% in 2005, to 1.76% in 2007, while Paris has shown an increase from 1% in 2001 to 2.5% in 2007, the year the bike share program Vélib was launched (DeMaio 2009). Washington, D.C. which has recently been named number one in traffic congestion in the Unites States has the largest and most successful bike share program in the nation. According to the 2010 Census, 3.1% reported using bicycling as their primary form of commuting in Washington, D.C.
The idea of a bike sharing system is not only a matter of commuting from point A to point B. The appealing aspect of this program to me is its sociological and societal impact on users and the city as a whole.
Positive impact on traffic and infrastructure
- Help formulate some traffic regulations where none exist
- Alleviate pressure on public transportation: As intensive and multi-modal as the public transportation in Cairo is, it still remains very much congested with no uniform schedule to rely on. Introducing a bike share program will supplement and improve citizens’ ability to get around.
- Opportunity to improve an otherwise deteriorating infrastructure: By incorporating bike lanes, and making streets more accessible to bikers, the city would have to revisit a lot of the traffic laws as well as improve road and street conditions which have been neglected for a long time.
- Traffic calming strategy: Sharing the roads with bikers and pedestrians forces drivers to become more aware of their surroundings, slow their speeds down, and use signals to alert their intention.
Positive Impact on Communities
- Encourage physical activity
- Create closer knit communities through a common interest
- Inclusion of all social classes
- Environmental and public health awareness
The successful bike share programs mentioned above provide guides and templates for new systems to be built upon.
- Determine sponsorship and means of funding for the system (government, private, non-profit or public-private partnership)
- Intensive marketing campaigns, awareness and educational assemblies about the bike share program, as well as establishing a cycling safety program before launch
- Mass launching of the system in order for it to be functional and interconnected
- Complement existing public transportation network by placement of bike stations at each metro station
- Connectivity between different modes of transportation as well as last mile connectivity
- Survey of neighborhoods, especially those within 1 to 2 mile radius of subway stations for likelihood of usage
- Provide room for expansion in the program
Annual memberships can be made available for daily commuters while a daily or weekly membership is offered for occasional bikers and tourists. Acquisition of membership needs to be accessible to lower income users, especially in light of the fact that the majority of this group might not have access to bank accounts and credit cards. Membership cards can be verified through national ID number and home address and can be purchased through special vendors.
Ways to increase ridership
- Provide bicycle parking and showers at work places
- Implementing strict parking regulations to discourage driving
- Increase of on-street bicycle lanes for rider safety
- Locate bike stations at convenient and high pedestrian traffic locations, such as metro stations and central bus stations. This can encourage riders to opt for biking instead of using the highly congested public transportation system.
- Offer cyclist education sessions for bicyclists and drivers alike to increase awareness and proper safety measures
- Safety of riders
- Redeveloping streets to include bike lanes
- Cultural acceptance
Means of Funding
- Government (e.g. Capital Bikeshare, Washington, D.C.)
- NGO/ Non-Profit (e.g. Denver B-Cycle, Denver, Colorado)
- Private sponsorship (e.g. Citi Bike, New York City)
Bike share programs can be regarded as a form of salutogenic design in urban planning, where the relationship between the public space, bodies, and minds come together through cycling, to create a healthy, sustainable city.
Heba ElGawish has, for the past 6 years, been working in Washington D.C. as a project designer for a structural engineering firm. She has volunteered on urban revitalization projects with Architecture for Humanity in both DC and NYC, as well as with PAO Architecture Summercamp in l’Aquila, Italy. In the fall of 2013, she will be starting a Master of Architecture program in Urban and Regional Design at the New York Institute of Technology. Her goal is to one day work on urban development projects in Egypt to create healthy, sustainable and equitable communities.