Downtown Cairo means many things to many people. To some, its large avenues lined with neoclassical buildings stand as symbols of colonial domination; to others, they represent a bygone era of a cosmopolitan Paradise Lost, a Belle Époque that has long disappeared under the heavy hand of authoritarian nationalism and religious parochialism. To many brought up in a succession of new neighbourhoods, Downtown is a dirty and dangerous place. The sense of danger is epitomized in the phenomenon of Eid harassment, as well as through urban battles following the January Revolution, of which especially the battle of Muhammad Mahmoud stands as an example of how competing claims on social order play out in public space. Most recently, Downtown Cairo has been the object of interest from two important power actors: government agencies’ efforts to ‘heritize’ the area, and private developers keen on gentrifying it. This paper will present a historical analysis of the many diverse functions, usages, and meanings of Downtown Cairo through the 20th century. It will also focus on one particular spatial practice most associated with the area: loitering, formerly known as ‘strolling’. It will present Downtown Cairo as a heterogenous space predicated on drawing in audiences from all over the city, a zone of contingent autonomy where the boundaries of both class and gender are porous and elastic.
Lucie Ryzova is a social and cultural historian of modern Egypt, based at the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford. Her current research includes the social history of photography and visual practices in modern Egypt.