Zamalek – Cairo’s island of tranquility

Many in the posh area 3 km. from Tahrir Square sympathize with Mubarak’s economic and social policies.

Zamalek 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Zamalek 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
CAIRO – “You think these people go to the protest? Look at them, they all just drink lattes and sit around.”
“Omar,” a 26-year-old from a neighborhood near Cairo’s international airport, was sitting at the Pottery Cafe in the city’s posh Zamalek district on Thursday, drinking coffee and lazily watching the world go by. The cafe is only about 3 kilometers northwest of Tahrir Square and the running clashes between opposition demonstrators and Mubarak supporters, but feels worlds apart from the chaos.
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At each table, fashionably dressed well-to-do Egyptians wearing designer shades chatted and smoked nargilas, eating paninis and Mexican food. The entire scene, including the prices on the menu, was reminiscent of any cafe in central Tel Aviv, and gave no indication that just minutes away a peaceful revolution was being crushed by government supporters running wild in the streets.
Walking down the leafy, tranquil streets of Zamalek on Thursday, you could be forgiven for feeling like you were in an Egypt’s Ramat Aviv and that the January 25th revolution never happened, or that if it had, it was never violently put down, but just faded off into the night, the sing-song chanting in the square merely a fevered dream long past.
Omar laughed off any suggestions that the clashes would reach over the river into Zamalek, saying “The violence won’t spread here, Zamalek people live in a bubble, an island both figuratively and literally.
“Not only that, but many of the people in Zamalek sympathize with Mubarak’s economic and social policies, which have helped make some of them rich.”
Omar’s camera phone was stolen as he stood on a bridge near Tahrir Square on Thursday morning, and moments later he saw a man get shot in the leg but didn’t see where the bullet came from.
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
Click here for full Jpost coverage of unrest in Egypt
“I went this morning just to see for myself what’s going on. It was so peaceful in Tahrir on Tuesday night I wanted to see what happened and who these people are, if they’re hired thugs or not,” he said.
Omar spoke about Cairo and Egypt with a mix of fondness and malaise, saying “Egypt is beautiful, a really nice place to hang out, just the only people who get to enjoy it are the rich or foreigners.”
Like the rest of those at the cafe who spoke to The Jerusalem Post, Omar had perfect English, the product of a private school education.
Zamalek lies on the Gezira Island in the Nile river and is connected to the rest of the city through three bridges each on the east and west sides of the island, including the Qasr al-Nil Bridge and 6th of October Bridge. It is one of Cairo’s wealthiest districts, along with Maadi, Heliopolis and Garden City.
A few tables away from Omar sat “Mansur,” a 27- year-old Cairene who wouldn’t turn heads in Herzliya Pituah.
Mansur was also not a resident of Zamalek but has been coming there to hang out in the mornings over the past week “to chill out, feel like I’m still human.”
Mansur’s real estate business has been shut down for over a week due to the turmoil, and he’s stayed up all night each night since, manning a vigilante checkpoint in his neighborhood with a small caliber rifle. At first the roadblock duty was frightening, he said, but now its become so routine that it’s only boring, cold and exhausting.
He also related how during the first nights they would go house to house searching for looters squatting in the abandoned villas, and kicking them out of the area.
Like Omar, Mansur said all of his family and friends are safe, but are dealing with extreme stress, aggravated by the loss of sleep and an absolute uncertainty about what may happen at any moment.
“Nothing is normal at night now, not even Zamalek. But in the morning, people come here to remember how their lives were before this. That’s what I come for, to sit, drink coffee and get a glimpse of what my life was like,” he said.
“After the sequence of events yesterday, we can’t analyze anything, all of our expectations have been dashed. Every time we get a glimpse of hope it has been dashed. It just doesn’t make sense that Egyptians would do this to each other.”
Andreas Haugland, a 24- year-old Norwegian enrolled in Arabic studies at the American University of Cairo, came to the city on January 15, a week before his studies were to begin, only to see the semester put on hold, leaving him and his three fellow students at the table in limbo.
Since then, they’ve spent their days hanging out at Tahrir Square and lounging around the Pottery.
“It was all very nice in Tahrir until yesterday, very kumbaya, almost like New Year’s Eve,” Haugland said, though he did describe getting tear-gased by police during the beginning of the protest.
“I feel very safe here, I felt safe downtown, too, until yesterday. We were coming back from Tahrir and we narrowly escaped a beating. This has been my first unpleasant experience since being here.”
He said he enjoys Zamalek, but that “out here you really see the inequalities of Egyptian life.”
Haugland and his friends plan on leaving town for a while, maybe taking a vacation in “more peaceful” cities like Beirut, Damascus or Jerusalem, until things quiet down.
At the same time, he said he had no regrets about coming to Cairo for his studies.
“I’m a Middle East History major, so this is like field studies for me.”