September 18th, 2012

Revisiting the Fortress Embassy

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Architecture, Books, Europe, Politics by Christopher Szabla

Security forces intervene during the protests at US Embassy Cairo. Photo by Gigi Ibrahim.

There are probably at least a few in your city, hiding on the upper floods of office buildings, secluded in elegant townhouses, tucked somewhere behind high fences out of view. Nearby cars’ license plates are sometimes their only identifiable feature. Whether embassies in capital cities, consulates elsewhere, most diplomatic offices articulate an architecture that often seems as if it’s striving to be as discreet as the professionals practicing statecraft inside.

The foreign bases of diplomatic heavyweights are another story. In New York, small island states’ representatives to the UN often share the same small office suites, but the Chinese consulate occupies looming concrete monolith along the Hudson River. France’s massive embassy in Berlin is situated right next to the Brandenburg Gate on a square named, appropriately, Pariser Platz (Parisian Square).

US Embassy Abu Dhabi. Photo by Ryan Lackey.

Few of these countries lay claim to more conspicuous diplomatic real estate than the US. Ottawa’s American mission stretches the width of a neighborhood. In London, the US Embassy has long been considered a blunt statement of the most disfigured principles of American foreign policy. And perhaps no diplomatic complex in the world is as infamous as the Green Zone, Saddam Hussein’s palace-cum-fortress from which Iraq’s long, bloody occupation was run; the current US compound in Baghdad is as large as Vatican City.

For all its recent stumbles and whispers about its relative decline, the US remains the world’s sole superpower. The size of its embassies reflect that fact — and so do measures taken to protect them. Walking through Cairo’s Garden City, home to some of Egypt’s largest foreign delegations, it was always impossible for me to avoid feeling intimidated — even as a US citizen — by the American Embassy’s fortresslike ramparts, its deep setback, and the security forces who manned roadblocks at either end of the street that ran between it and Britain’s also very fortified (if more elegant) facility. That lasting impression left me all the more shocked when, last week, protesters breached the compound’s walls; in Egypt, only military bases had ever seemed less vulnerable.


March 29th, 2011

Cairo’s Taxi Revolution

Photos by Peter Morgan (top), and MatHelium (bottom)

Hop in any cab in any city of the world and you’re likely to be treated to lively political commentary. That’s especially true in autocratic regimes, where the availability of other spaces in which random strangers can meet and speak openly has often been severely curtailed. Cairo’s sprawling cityscape, for example — segregated swathes of sumptuous subdivisions and mudbrick shantytowns each stretching out into the desert — rendered such common ground rare.

Despite the vastness of Egypt’s capital, car ownership is a relative extravagance, and the growing but incomplete mass transit system barely reaches even a fraction of the population, making taxis among the most vital forms of transport. At any given moment, the city’s classic, black-and-white cabs form a huge percentage of the vehicles trapped in Cairo’s notorious traffic. According to Greater Cairo’s General Transportation Authority, over 50,000 were registered in the city in 2005. Unofficially, the number is around 80,000 (for comparison’s sake, New York and London have around 15k each).

Most are third-hand Yugos, Ladas, or other now-obscure brands imported decades ago from the Eastern Bloc, their drivers often chasing down, often to the exclusion of keeping their eyes on the road, any potential fare they can find. And yet, despite their general reputation for unpredictability, Cairo taxis’ regimented color scheme is also what grants the capital’s sometimes chaotic streets any sense of uniformity and order. But it wasn’t until I was leaving the country that I pieced together their deeper political significance — with the help of Khaled al-Khamissi’s then newly-translated book, Taxi.

Enroute out of Egypt, at 35,000 feet, I became absorbed in al-Khamissi’s chronicle of taxicab confessions — the book is a compilation of the thoughts he’d gathered from the drivers who plied the streets down on the ground that was receding far behind and beneath me. Many began to replay in my mind when Egypt’s historic protests began in January. For all the debate over how and whether social media stimulated the Egyptian Revolution, much less attention has been paid to the urban social networks that reached many more Egyptians than Facebook. Like honeybees, Cairo’s taxis didn’t just collect the fares that were their drivers’ sustenance; they also cross-pollinate ideas — helping to gather and spread political dissent.


March 18th, 2011

Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, Hiding in Plain Sight

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Politics, Society and Culture by Christopher Szabla

Photo by Sarah Carr

I couldn’t quite glimpse Hosni Mubarak from my balcony in Garden City, but simply knowing that his portrait was nearby made me unable to shake the sensation of being watched. Not exactly towering over, but nudged by its rooftop mechanicals above the rooflines of the neighborhood’s decadently decomposing 19th century apartment houses was its home, the khaki hulk of the Ministry of Social Solidarity — more Orwellian in name than purpose. Mounted on its façade, the multistory banner depicting the longtime Egyptian president — slumping, casually, in shades — was what really gave the place its authority. I never encountered a more affirming symbol of Mubarak’s power than his pose on that photo: the longstanding ruler was so calm, collected, comfortable.

Dictators survive by avoiding blame and instilling awe. Both served Mubarak well. Russian peasants were said to have hated the czar’s officials — who constantly interfered in their daily lives — but to have loved the distant czar, whom they imagined, were he in touch, would ultimately set their lives right. Perhaps that’s why it was relatively hard to find, in Cairo, many more of the trappings — monuments, murals, political paraphanelia — that mark personally invested, ideologically rigid, and, hence, vulnerable regimes. It’s possible that, walking through Bolshevik Petrograd or late Maoist Beijing, you could have somehow put the omnipresent slogans and statues out of your mind, but in Cairo there seemed to be far less need.

True, Mubarak’s visage still gazed out from many posters, murals, and portraits, but their relatively low degree of frequency reflected the fact that his regime was more of a shadowy, bandit kleptocracy than a mass-murderous personality cult. Every classroom in Egypt apparently had an image of the president mounted on its wall, but they must have only made the president appear as a fixed, unresponsive certainty of daily life, or else an image that would recede in memories as quickly as algebra and playground fights. Many of the old posters were already fading by themselves. The bridges, streets, and stations named after the former president made him seem like a figure from distant history rather than someone who could be held to the consent of the governed.

By refraining from stuffing itself into Egyptians’ fields of vision, the regime also ensured it did not become a default excuse for the sometimes crumbling condition of the country or its inhabitants’ stagnant fortunes. That few, casual images of Mubarak produced — such as the one that hung from the ministry — spoke volumes about his removal from the people. As the revolution that broke out in January helped attest, they made the old ruler seem out of touch. Their isolation, for the longest time, made him seem untouchable.


February 21st, 2010

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.


April 19th, 2009

Three Stops on the Cairo Metro

Posted in Africa and Middle East, Transportation by Christopher Szabla

Mar Girgis

Saad Zaghloul


Pending the completion of Johannesburg’s Gautrain, the Cairo Metro is the only rapid transit system in Africa. And for all the rot and deterioration that characterizes much of Cairo’s city center, it’s surprisingly clean and efficient, with stations that possess a maintenance level and design savvy that would be the envy some far wealthier cities, like New York.


January 24th, 2007

Morning Coffee: Cafés in Old Cairo


El Fishawy is the best known café in Cairo
and a favourite of Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz

Mention Cairo, and the first things that come to mind are the pyramids. Why do I consider this unfortunate? Because the pyramids are a remnant of a dead civilization, and Cairo today is a living city of 16 million people. Let me suggest a better symbol: the cafés of Khan-el-Khalili, a living microcosm of Egypt’s metropolis.

Cairo’s cafés are many things at once. Sometimes, they have the social buzz of a nightclub or pub. You can often count on the Egyptian smoking a shisha next to you to strike up a conversation. I even saw some French tourists at a nearby table who seemed to be flirting with two Egyptian women in conservative Muslim headgear. Somewhere beyond the shisha haze was a family in party hats celebrating their kid’s birthday surrounded by golden trays crammed with large frothy milkshakes. A café isn’t a café without, well, introspective café types: reading, quietly sipping their dark mint tea, or scribbling away.

Cafés are habitually doorless and windowless. The interiors spill out onto the streets and the suq spills into the cafés. Cairo’s most famous café, the Fishawy, is a series of mirrors and ornate doorframes crammed into a through street. The street is used by shopkeepers, trinket vendors, and pedestrians, who brush against the tables. Sometimes the people-watching seems a little too intimate but this is Cairo: dense, chaotic, and wonderful.