White Nights on Sharia Talaat Harb

Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg / VascoPlanet

It’s two in the morning on Talaat Harb Street, the heart of downtown Cairo, and the sidewalks are sclerotic. People shuffle slowly past shop windows exploding with merchandise. An intense white light beams across the thoroughfare. Avoiding hawkers thrusting t-shirts in their faces, trying to lure them to clothes and sneakers piled in tables approximately every ten feet along the way, the throngs spill out onto the street, taking control most of the roadway, permitting only a lane or two for a line of taxis to proceed.

The scene doesn’t suggest it, but suburban flight is no stranger to Cairo. Its well-to-do are increasingly leaving the city center for suburban villas in the desert to the east, may now prefer to shop in tonier Heliopolis, or the cavernous (and, crucially, air-conditioned) City Stars Mall. Even a seemingly more entrenched presence, the American University, has largely decamped to a vast new McCampus on the city’s outskirts.

None of this seems to have affected the density of the crowd along Talaat Harb.

Many of the people on the mobbed street are poorer families making an outing downtown. Late night, which, during summer months, offers blissful respite from the heat, is the best time. Young adults tend to sneak off elsewhere — to a wind-cooled bridge over the Nile, perhaps — for a rendezvous with their future spouse. That makes the window shoppers on Talaat Harb the younger and older members of the family, small children (whose bedtimes would be the envy of their North American peers) and all. After a minute, one realizes that most of the people who have left the sidewalk for the roadway were, in fact, sorting themselves into an express lane, shooting past the waddling gaggles on their way to who-knows-where.

Because the window-shoppers are more deliberate, it’s easier to take stock of their scene. Here are street vendors pushing the latest Puma sneaker to men in gellabiyas and sandals. Women — more often in headscarves than not, and mostly sticking to the national fashion of bright and form-fitting clothing — pass stores whose fleets of mannequins model both black niqabs and rainbow-colored lingerie.

The street’s sumptuous, 19th century architecture gets mentions in tour guides, and it’s home to a few old backpackers’ hostels, but tourists, if they venture out of their coaches at all, prefer the city’s other center of mercantile activity: the medieval, labyrinthine Khan el-Khalili bazaar. Perhaps it’s for the better; the contrasts of Talaat Harb would otherwise be swept up into far too many “East-meets-West” narratives, rather than being seen for what they are: manifestations of modern Cairo.

Nude mannequins on Qasr al-Nil Street, near Talaat Harb

Talaat Harb’s nocturnal pulsation suggests similarities with another city where the light and verve of day continue well into the morning: St. Petersburg, whose wild White Nights bring licentiousness under the midnight sun. But religion ensures Talaat Harb’s amusements are (the frequent lingerie stores, perhaps, aside) entirely wholesome — the side streets are crammed with shisha cafes, the Middle East’s watering holes of choice, and possibly the most popular nightlife destination in all of Cairo is not a bar, but Talaat Harb’s El Abd pastry shop. And the Egyptian government makes sure its sidewalks do, at some point, roll up. There is a bedtime, after all.

The government has a somewhat understandable wariness of crowds. In the last several years, it’s been necessary to pass out food to stem hunger in some Cairo neighborhoods, and the government has feared the political consequences of rowdy bread lines ever since. This year, riots swept the city after losses to soccer arch-rival Algeria.

Still, Cairo, with some 16 million people, can be a crowded place by necessity — sometimes even to the government’s advantage. A night out on Talaat Harb — shopping, frequenting landmarks like the Metro Cinema or El Abd — is a constant source of cheap entertainment. It’s exciting to many for being so active. But for the government, it’s also safe; it never ceases to be the same. The amusements of Talaat Harb are a form of routine distraction. They offer a diversionary safety valve with no risk of becoming an unprecedented interruption in the fabric of what is permitted, or possible, in society. Because the crowd is there, night after night, and because it remains nothing more than an anonymous mass, tempted by such a variety of diversions, it will remain what Siegfried Kracauer called a “mass ornament”; it has not and perhaps won’t ever achieve a purpose, with the consciousness of a movement.

But it’s an old Orientalist trope to declare a place static, to say that change is or can’t possibly take place there. It certainly seems superficial to say so about Cairo, even if the presence of so much neon and hand-me-down Soviet Ladas serving as taxis seem to transport one to the Nasser era. And such a characterization certainly would not explain the way that summer nights draw to a close on Talaat Harb. There is a point when the families start to ebb away. The sidewalks are still active, but there seem to be a disproportionate number of young men. The transition seems to create a new reality and open new possibilities. The confusion and cover of darkness are unfriendly to panoptic authority. The Berlin Wall fell in the middle of the night.

At 2AM, the strength of the shop windows’ lights on Talaat Harb, Qasr al-Nil, and the other once elegant but now somewhat shabby avenues in the city’s core still cast them in a glow that approximates daylight. But within no less than half an hour, the shops will roll down their gates, the sidewalk table merchants will shoo away their last customers with only somewhat less enthusiasm than they enticed them to begin with. One by one, the bright lights beamed across Talaat Harb shut off: an artificial sunset.

The only presence left on Talaat Harb will be an overabundance of policemen, most standing around in groups near street corners, and the occasional whoosh of a car hoisting national flags and soccer scarves, probably celebrating an overtime victory for Zamalek SC. It breaks out in a flurry of honks — in Cairo, honking is practically a language unto itself — but its drivers know it must stay mobile; it could not stop, or let anyone gather around. A dangerous crowd is a crowd that has formed unexpectedly, one that exists for a purpose. At this time of night, the masses have dispersed, on their appointed schedule, anyway. The car disappears down Talaat Harb and into the swirl of Midan Tahrir, passing the policemen quickly.

This entry was written by Christopher Szabla , posted on Sunday February 21 2010at 02:02 am , filed under Africa and Middle East, Politics, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “White Nights on Sharia Talaat Harb”

  • Though it doesn’t really relate to your point about the politics of mass congregation, there’s a neighbourhood in Bangkok nicknamed “Soi Arab” that is the centre of the city’s large population of Middle Eastern expatriates and tourists. While Bangkok is generally quite lively into the night, Soi Arab is especially so, and in fact its shawarma stands and shisha bars seem especially busy after midnight.