Monday, June 19, 2017

In Love with the Ugly Face of Alexandria

(This is the beginning of an article I'm preparing for publication that is called "Where is Alexandria: Myths of the City and the Anti-City in Alexandria after Cosmopolitanism. This excerpt was published by Cairobserver in February 2017: http://cairobserver.com/post/157608069564/in-love-with-the-ugly-face-of-alexandria. A first version of the full article is already published online in Arabic by Taralbahr: أين تقع الإسكندرية؟ أساطير المدينة والمدينة النقيض بعد المرحلة الكوزموبوليتانية.

In March 2015, on one of my many journeys between Berlin and Alexandria, I landed in Borg El Arab airport west of Alexandria late at night. The airport is 50 kilometres away from the city centre, but close to many thriving industrial areas, holiday villages, and up-market suburbs that have been built west of the city and along the North Coast in the past two decades. At the airport I was picked up by my friend Mustafa who moved some years ago from his native village to the district of Agami at the western edge of Alexandria. Agami is known among the Egyptian bourgeoisie as a pleasant beach resort. Mustafa, however, lives three kilometres away from the coast in an informal neighborhood on a small hill right behind the Chinese Housing (al-Masakin al-Siniya), an area of large public housing blocks. The Chinese blocks were built in the 1980’s as company housing of public sector companies by an Egyptian-Chinese joint venture. For decades, the Chinese Housing has been an area where poor and marginalised people would live, people who lack the means to build a house of their own in an informal settlement. It has a bad reputation as a place marked by gangs and crime, but the reality is much calmer. Mustafa and I moved in the area with no sense of risk even late at night. He quite likes it there. Two years earlier, an Egyptian employee at a foreign research institute in Alexandria had been shocked to hear that I frequented the Chinese Housing. She said that she was surprised that I was still alive. For her it was a no-go area, definitely not a part of her Alexandria.

Next evening, I continued my journey on a minibus to the opposite end of the city, the neighborhood of Mandara where I usually live in Alexandria as a guest of the novelist Mukhtar Shehata. The distance from Agami to Mandara is 35 kilometres on the direct route through the city centre. To avoid congestion, the minibus takes a longer but faster detour via the International Road south of the city. The International Road crosses Lake Marioutiyya on a landfill bridge where the nauseating smell from pollution occasionally compels passengers to hold their noses. The road passes poor informal areas in inland Agami, the up-market suburb of King Mariout, vast chemical and cement factory complexes, and the up-market City Center shopping mall (far from the historical centre of the city). Finally, the minibus enters the city again along the 45 Street in what is known as “the East of the City” (Sharq al-Madina). Approaching the end of the line, the minibus turns to smaller streets, passes the Faculty of Islamic Studies of the al-Azhar University (one of the main sites of learning for foreign Muslim students who come to Egypt), and finally enters the busy Mallaha Street surrounded by shops, market stands, and congested by private cars, taxis, minibuses and toktoks.

Eastern Alexandria is symbolically divided class-wise by the Abu Qir suburban train line, the seaside being relatively well off, and the inland often poorer. I live almost exactly at the class border, next to the railway line. On the wealthy side of the railway are the Montazah Gardens, the Fathallah shopping mall, the Sheraton Hotel, and the beach. On the poor side begins a concrete jungle of both poor and middle-income areas, informally built in the 1990’s and in perpetual construction, where 15-floor towers are now replacing older five-floor apartment buildings.

In Mukhtar’s words, this is “the ugly face of Alexandria.” And it would be difficult indeed to find the Chinese Blocks, the International Road, or inland Mandara beautiful in any conventional sense. However, It is not simply the poor face of the city. The suburban crescent that surrounds the old coastal core of Alexandria is made up of poor, middle-income and upmarket districts alike. Millions live and work in the suburban crescent and only enter the iconic sites of the city on the seafront and the old centre on weekend and holiday outings. The ugly face of the city has little on offer for a romantic weekend, but those who want to understand what kind of city Alexandria is today and what it may become, should not miss it.

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