Art travelling: Life in Maadi, Cairo

I have found myself spending the winter in  Egypt in a suburb of Cairo, called Maadi, and I wanted to write something about this place. I did not really pick Maadi to live in; I was offered a place to stay here and I accepted. But – together with my travels around the city and the country – being in Maadi offers an insight into contemporary Egypt.

It’s a suburban area about 12 kilometres south of from downtown Cairo, not far from the Nile. As you may already know, Cairo is an enormous city, and it spreads for many kilometres on either side of the great River. Maadi is one of several wells to do suburbs that offer a respite from the megalopolis’s frenetic pace, while retaining an urban charm all its own.

Compared to the newly-built districts of New Cairo City, Sheikh Zayed City and the 6th of October City, Maadi is older and more established, as you can see by the myriad old-growth trees that fill the landscape. The town was planned out in 1905 by Alexander J. Adams, a Canadian former officer. Adams created the wide boulevards and large villas that you can still see in the older parts of Maadi today, though most of the residences are blocks of flats. These are lovely apartments, attractively placed in the streets with lots of plants and trees. In the older part, the town planning is organized around roundabouts, and there are a lot of small gardens between streets.

Of course, Cairo is vast, and Maadi is pretty big too, and I have not seen all of it and probably will not. There are some immense highways and a lot of traffic in places. You will see juxtapositions like tuktuks racing along next to donkey carts and frantic minibuses, and you’ll have to dodge them all to try and cross the road. No crosswalks here! You have to get used to it. Watch the dogs cross the road, nonchalantly, and copy them.

The area I am staying in is Degla, which is beautiful. I go everywhere in the neighbourhood, enjoying the coffee shops – which are great to write in, or to while away an hour or two making notes and thinking. There are plenty of good restaurants and great shopping in the local stores – especially the bookshops. It’s calm and peaceful and very green, with explosions of beautiful flowers and the tinkle of birdsong.

One nice aspect of Maadi is that the street animals are well cared for. One of the notable things in Egypt, like many countries, is feral dogs and cats that live in the street. In Maadi, the dogs are tagged and monitored. The local people feed both the cats and dogs. One pet store on the high street has dispensers that are always filled with pet food. Every day, people come with bags of food and feed the animals. When we have leftovers, we save them and take them out in the evening for the dogs. It is fantastic to see whole families of cats, each with their little pyramid of food, tucking in at feeding time. As a result, the street animals are healthy and some even a little chunky. Happy animals contribute to a sense of well-being here.

I love to take a morning walk, and I often see dogs and cats sunning themselves on top of parked cars. If I am lucky enough to catch the call to prayer,  I frequently witness the dogs’ joining in; it is impressive.

Maadi is popular with expats and has a number of embassies. It’s pretty diverse and in the building I am staying there are other Canadians and Americans, though the only people I actually know in Egypt are Egyptians. I am reminded, not least by my Egyptian friends, that the “real Egypt” is elsewhere, by which they mean the most populated country in the Arab world and the third most populous on the African continent. There are over 95 million inhabitants (2017) and many are either peasants or the urban poor. I have seen the life of the countryside from the window of the train or car as I have been going around. It looks hard, I cannot deny it. Likewise the poor districts in Cairo, which are not romantic and ;authentic.’ However I have seen more street homelessness in London, and more abject drug addiction in Vancouver, than I have in Cairo’s urban districts.

One of the things that people often like to do when they travel is go and see the “real” of someplace, and take photos of it. But I don’t really like to do that as a mission. I like to just live in a place and see what happens. So for me, Maadi is as much the “real” Egypt as anything.

all photos, as usual ©theartraveller/Gillian McIver