An upmarket residential neighbourhood in Cairo
and, I guess, my home for the moment.
Short of history, is Zamalek
Compared to the rest of Egypt, Zamalek is young. Situated on the northern part of the Gezira island on the Nile, between Bulaq on the east and Mohandeseen/Agouza on the west bank, Zamalek was still uninhabited by the mid-19th century, when the center of Cairo was situated several kilometres east of the current Downtown area, in what is these days called the Islamic Cairo. In 1863, the French-educated khedive Ismail launched an ambitious building program, designed to create a new, modern city centre north from the existing one. This is essentially the modern Cairo city centre area, although Ismail's original city plan - modelled after Hausmann's Paris - has largely been lost to rapid development and buried under heaps of concrete.
One part of his building project was to construct a khedivial hunting lodge with huge adjoining gardens on the Gezira. A short while later, he added a luxurious neo-Islamic palace to serve as accommodations for the French Empress Eugenie, who was visiting Cairo in 1868 for the opening of the Suez Canal. After Ismail's death and increasingly during Gamal Abdel Nasser's reign, a land development boom turned Zamalek and Gezira into residential neighbourhoods for Cairo's more affluent families and expatriates. Khedive Ismail's former hunting gardens became the exclusive Gezira Sporting Club, where rich kids go to play football in the weekends, and Empress Eugenie's palace was turned into the five-star Cairo Marriott hotel.
These days Zamalek houses a large number of hip young expatriates (the ones with families tend to live further away in the westernized suburbs like Maadi or Heliopolis) as well as the largest concentration of embassies in Cairo. Its reputation as a relatively well to do area has resulted in more parks and leafy avenues than anywhere else in central Cairo, and there are several beautiful old buildings dating back to the colonial times.
Signal to noise
Many people claim that Zamalek is quieter than the rest of Cairo. While I'm ready to admit that it probably is more peaceful than Downtown - which sounds like one big construction yard from hell 24/7 - it is by no means serene. The traffic doesn't slow down until 4am, and during the day most major roads are gridlocked for hours. This wouldn't be so bad if the drivers didn't have a habit of honking their horns repeatedly until they get moving again, but they do. And then some. I've witnessed two Fiats getting stuck face to face on a narrow road, both drivers apparently deciding not to budge an inch, and then spending the next twenty minutes or so honking at each other at their leisure.
In addition to the traffic, there are the gas bottle salesmen, who go around with donkey carts and beat the bottles (and occasionally, the donkey) with a metal rod to alert whole neighbourhoods at once to their presence, and the muezzins screaming from various minaret towers in mosques. It is my rather subjective opinion that the Zamalek muezzins are worse than those in Islamic Cairo or Downtown, and there is one near my house who performs the morning prayer call (at about 4.30am) with such an awful slow drawl that he often manages to yell for more than five minutes, the sadist.
Finally, as street noise goes, there's football. While not quite on the English scale, Cairo's football fans are both numerous and noisy, fanatically voicing their support for one of the two Cairene teams, Ahly or Zamalek. Whenever they play against each other, normally well-behaved young guys suddenly start roaming around shouting club slogans, people drive around honking their horns and kids seem to go around ringing people's doorbells for no other reason I can think of except that they take us to be supporters of the losing team. Actually, last time Zamalek won a match I thought there was a violent demonstration going on outside.
Good eating and reasonable shopping
The best reason to live in Zamalek is the food. Most of Cairo's best restaurants are here, and all of them seem to serve alcohol and quite a few have pork dishes for the unbelievers. The ones most favoured by Cairo's in-crowd are Abu al-Sid, which deserves all the praise it gets, and La Bodega, which does not. Both of them are on the same street (26 of July) and both of them have an impressive décor, but La Bodega serves uninspired, overpriced cross-kitchen food with really bad service, whereas Abu al-Sid's modern take on traditional Egyptian food is a real winner. Even their molokhiyya, often called the most revolting dish in the world, is delicious.
Apart from the restaurants, Zamalek is also famous for its western-style coffee shops, each of which seems to have a special shortcoming of its own. Beano's on Sheikh Marsafy is a nice modern glass aquarium that serves the best frappucino in Egypt but seems to be chronically out of both stock and waiters, since at any given time they are only able to produce about half of the items on the menu and the service is painfully slow. Trendy, expat-frequented Cilantro is situated on 26 of July and serves delicious but pitifully small brownies - I've seen one wrapped in cellophane, with a price tag bigger than the brownie! Finally, Simond's on the same street has the best cappuccino in town, but their cakes are dry, savouries taste the same as the sweet stuff, and the croissants don't taste like anything at all. One of the bakeries on Brazil Street serves much better fare with half the price.
As shopping goes, there are some things that Cairo does well: antiques, traditional crafts and kitsch, and with the exception of the latter, for which you should head to the Khan al-Khalili souq in Islamic Cairo, Zamalek is the place to shop. Antiquarian home furnishing stores abound, the best ones being Loft in Sayyed al-Bakry street and the wonderful four-storey Beit al-Sherif in Ismail Mohammed, both of which look like they should be on the cover of Wallpaper magazine. Nostalgia on Zakaria Rizk is good for really weird home accessories such as old telephones and minaret tops. There are plenty more, but I wouldn't recommend Khan Attar on 26th of July Street - the owner is my landlord as well as an old pervert who fancies himself some kind of Egyptian Casanova with a penchant for blond girls.
Craft shops are also more interesting in Zamalek than elsewhere. Instead of endless papyrus workshops and alabaster factories, there are some genuine non-profit organizations selling authentic Bedouin handicrafts, and the Tukul Craft shop inside the All Saints Cathedral has lovely fabric and bags made by the extremely poor Sudanese refugees.
Why should you go?
Well, unless you're already in Egypt, you shouldn't. It is true that for the common pyramid-gazing, Hurghada-bound tourist there is nothing in Zamalek at all, maybe apart from a visit to the Anglo-American hospital in case of an emergency or a quick bite in Cairo's only vegetarian restaurant, L'Aubergine. But if for any reason one has to stay in Cairo for a longer period of time (shock horror), there really is no better place to go to unwind while still staying in the vicinity of the city centre. There is somehow less of everything that makes Cairo so unbearable at times: there still is some pollution, but at least you don't feel like you've just smoked a pack of cigarettes after a 2km taxi ride. There is still hassle, but at least no one is trying to seize your handbag or grope your bottom. There is less concrete, less congestion, less tourists even. Instead, you get art galleries that nobody has visited for days, quiet shady alleyways, a variety of bars and impressive neo-Islamic villas, not to mention a colonial atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of the Cairo scenes in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. Not a bad place to live, eh?
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