Living among the locals

This is what it was like growing up in Cairo during the 90’s

Yasmin Helal

The 1990’s were a pivotal era in Egypt’s modern history. It was the decade that witnessed a changing social climate, with an influx of migrants flooding from the rural areas to the capital, Cairo. 

A significant portion of the population was pushed below the poverty line, and substantially, fewer mini-skirts were seen in the streets of urban centers.

It was a time when Egyptians were not as proud of their national identity as they were in the 1980’s but held fewer grudges against their government than in the early 2000’s.

Back in those days, growing up in the streets of Orouba, behind Qa’et Sayed Darwish, we could see a brighter side of life.

The narrow street, which was once considered middle class, but is now on its way to becoming a slum, joined between the main Haram Street with the low-income area of Omraniya in the west and the even-lower-income street of Talatiny to the south.

Residents of the street came from all walks of life. They had probably moved there during the less bleak but equally traumatic period of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s under Egypt’s third President, Anwar Sadat.

We lived in a tiny 2-bedroom apartment on the 4th floor. We paid a rent of 17 L.E. and slept just across the hall from government employees.

In the early years of my childhood, our bedroom window overlooked a large empty piece of land with the pyramids clear in the horizon, until another building went up and blocked the view.

In front of our building was a notoriously inquisitive owner of a grocery store who had a rooster that woke everyone up at dawn and hens that used to get slaughtered in front of his shop for food. 

Down the street, there was a photographer who captured our passport sized photos. For many of us, this was the only photographic evidence of that era.

On a rare occasion, when we ordered pizza delivery, everyone stuck their heads out of the windows and balconies to see who had ordered what.

My mother was viewed as a big spender, but only by their standards. My only toy was a single Barbie doll, for which my mother had to work overtime to be able to buy it. 

When a 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit Cairo in 1992, mothers grabbed their children and ran to the streets in their nightgowns. 

The tremor killed 545, injured over 6,000 people and left some 50,000 individuals displaced. 

Our school holidays were extended and the oldest boy in the building shouted out the announcement to balconies of cheering kids and tea-drinking mothers.

On normal days, that same kid would lead balcony riots calling for an end to the power cuts. The rest of us were right behind him in unison shouting, “We want water. We want water. We want light. We want light.”

Once the power cuts were over, melodies of Ehab Tawfiq, Amr Diab, and Mohamed Mounir could be heard from every window in the neighborhood.

Little girls could also be seen gathering behind closed doors to belly dance.

One day, the government sent tractors to our unpaved street, which stayed for what seemed like an eternity.

Initially, the road was paved and then it was dug up again and trenches were made, making it accessible only to the most agile. 

Our building, similar to other decaying structures of the city, is now a haunted house with just one occupied apartment. 

We left for the GCC while others went to Europe. Some also died, but the vast majority moved to Cairo’s newer areas. Those who had moved, however, didn’t let go of their old flats for their cheap rent.

Our landlord’s surviving son spent his last days in the mosque that occupied part of the building’s ground floor. Crippled, and deserted by his wife, he lived off the charity of the remaining neighbors.

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About Yasmin Helal

Having lived in the GCC, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran, Yasmin is a journalist who enjoys writing travel and culture features.

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