by RB Smith, Williams College Class of 2020
When people think of the city of Cairo, a lot of images probably come to mind. Some may see the busy streets of Tahrir Square where revolutionaries made headlines in 2011. Others may imagine the maze-like souqs and monumental medieval architecture stereotypical of Arab cities, which can still be seen around the Citadel of Old Cairo. Still others may envision the world-famous pyramids, which are technically across the river in Giza but have been absorbed by Greater Cairo as the ninth-largest metropolitan area in the world devours the surrounding desert.
Before coming here three weeks ago, I had an idea of what to expect from these famous landmarks and historic districts. What I never imagined, though, was the place I would end up staying. I’m living in off-campus dorms (repurposed faculty housing) in a region called the Fifth Settlement, a short walk from the University. About an hour’s drive east of Cairo proper, the neighborhood is part of New Cairo, a city founded in 2000 meant to relieve some of the notorious downtown congestion. New Cairo features shopping malls, office complexes and residential communities, all tied together by a web of what are essentially eight-lane highways (if roads in Egypt had distinct lanes). A huge proportion of the city, however, is still under some stage of construction, giving some areas a half-finished sense that contrasts starkly with the lushness and luxury of the complexes scattered around.
In the Fifth Settlement, one of Cairo’s most affluent districts, this effect is on prominent display. The suite where I live is a deluxe 2-bedroom 2-bath, with a full kitchen, a living room, an office and two balconies. The courtyard of my building features a petite fountain, with green grass on the lawn outside (a rare luxury in the Egyptian desert). This little paradise, however, is enclosed by a high wall, with two ID-activated gates, a metal detector and X-ray machine (airport style) and 24-hour guard staff. Outside the final gate, the road is dusty and unpaved, flanked by small dunes of litter that bake in the desert sun. Immediately surrounding the complex are hulking concrete husks of buildings, which occasionally attract small teams of workmen to lay bricks and mortar, but more often than not seem to be populated by rubble, stray dogs, and the occasional intrepid band of sheep. On my way to school I walk along a path of asphalt and gravel, with the soaring walls of another luxury compound to my right and another row of ghostly concrete shells to my left.
At the end of my lane, I walk by a massive shopping mall (also featuring metal-detector security) and cross a wide thoroughfare to the gates of the University. Knowing that a stoplight or crosswalk would be next to useless, the University has installed the two huge speed bumps to slow traffic and allow students to cross (although the occasional motorcycle or minibus gives off some serious air). From there it’s only two more ID checks, a metal detector and an X-ray machine, until I’m back among the idyllic promenades of the University campus, with all the gurgling fountains and lush gardens typical of Fifth Settlement billboards.
I’ll be the first to admit: When I first encountered the Fifth Settlement, it struck me as unsettling and bleak. After talking with some Egyptian students, though, it seems that the current situation won’t be around for long. During the revolution in 2011, construction came to a veritable halt as Cairo’s government, which is responsible for granting building permits, was uncertain and rapidly changing. As Egypt has gotten back on its feet, though, construction has been steadily picking up, and in five or ten years the Fifth Settlement is set to look more finished, cohesive and true to the advertisements, much like the nearby, slightly older district of El Rihab. For the time being, though, the overwhelming atmosphere of two adjacent worlds remains, and I’ve yet to get used to it.