Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
Prior to my arrival in Cairo this summer, it had been three years since my last visit to this beautifully frenzied city of 22 million people. A lot (a lot) had taken place in those three years and I was eager to see if I could pinpoint changes on the day-to-day level. My host family, whom I’ve known for nine years, lives in Cairo’s Maadi section and Maadi, with its tree-lined streets, gardened roundabouts, and relatively diverse inhabitants has truly come to feel like my second home. Maadi is considered one of Cairo’s most affluent districts. Cairo’s American school, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, and the residences of most foreign ambassadors in Egypt are all in Maadi. Maadi also has extremely poor sections – areas that might be considered slums. Holding to the idiom, there is truly a “right” and “wrong” side of the tracks in Maadi, with the poorest residents occupying the streets behind the train line that cuts through the city. Maadi is quite a large district and is comprised of many sub-neighborhoods – Degla, New Maadi, Maadi Gardens – each containing unique architectural characteristics and socioeconomic signals. Degla, for example, is viewed as one of the most favorable, wealthy sections of Maadi. It has tall trees, colonial villas, and is the area of choice for much of Cairo’s expat population.
Though they spend a lot of their time in Degla (going to the country club, the gym, their children’s school, restaurants, etc.), my host family lives in a more middle class section of Maadi right along the Nile. This part of Maadi is packed with tall condominium buildings and while not unusual to see a foreigner, it’s a far less frequent occurrence than in Degla. I’m told by many of the folks I talk to that “Maadi people” are known – that they have a common air about them and that they love Maadi to such a degree that they don’t like going to other parts of the city.
What strikes me about Maadi – and Cairo in general, is the way people from various backgrounds and social classes so closely occupy physical spaces while maintaining vast socio-cultural-economic divides. Streets are shared by cars, horse-drawn carts, and rickshaws. Men and women in very expensive suits and dresses walk beside peasants and produce carts. In middle and upper class neighborhoods every residential property has a doorman or bowab. Doormen are almost always from agricultural villages and travel to the city for employment. Residential buildings normally contain basic living quarters for the doorman and his immediate family. These doormen form communities and live in the same affluent neighborhoods (though worlds apart) as the families they work for. My host family likes their doorman very much, but maintain a noticeable distance and professionalism in their interactions with him. The extremely close physical proximity of Cairo’s wealthiest and poorest residents is fascinating and quite unlike the USA, where socioeconomic segregation is more pronounced.
The matter of class proximity in Cairo is likely related to Egypt’s remarkable rate of population growth. With an astonishing population explosion from 20 million in 1950 to approximately 83 million in 2014, Egypt has the largest population in the Middle East and is the third largest African nation, behind Nigeria and Ethiopia. The overwhelming majority of Egyptians live in one of three places – Cairo, Alexandria, or in the Nile Delta. Cairo and Alexandria are more crowded than ever and many middle and upper class Egyptians are opting to leave the city for new developments on the cities’ desert outskirts. Three years ago there was some indication that these developments or “suburbs” were catching people’s attention, but now their popularity is overwhelming. It seems like every middle or upper class Cairene I talk to has plans to move to a settlement outside the city. This very noticeable migration and the many sprawling sites of new construction that line the highways leading in and out of Cairo proves to be one of the most marked changes since my last visit to Egypt.
From where I sit, looking out upon a peaceful, tree-lined street in Maadi, change and tradition are so intricately interwoven that it’s difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. At this very moment a man sits on a wooden produce cart with his legs dangling over the edge, barefoot. His skinny horse clip clops along, passing the BMWs, Peugeots and Hyundai’s flanking the street. The piercing sounds of jackhammers and power saws compete in the distance, as yet another condominium tower races to the sky. Though at a lower volume than in years past, the mid-day call to prayer cuts through the chaotic tranquility that is Maadi and, for a moment, synchronizes all these moving, migrating parts.