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Exploring Cairo: The central upscale island of Zamalek

From street cafes to rooftop bars, to a stroll in a fish garden or by the Nile, Zamalek is the perfect island to explore in the middle of busy Cairo

Mahmoud Zayda , Sunday 11 Sep 2016
Fish Garden (Mai Shaheen)
Fish Garden (Mai Shaheen)
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Of all of Egypt’s affluent neighbourhoods, Zamalek is likely the first to come to mind when thinking about the country’s upper-class areas.

With its uncharacteristically green and quiet streets, Zamalek is a prime choice for those looking to take a stroll in otherwise hectic central Cairo.

The island of Zamalek, formerly known as El-Gezira and situated in the Nile at the very centre of Greater Cairo, first saw significant modern use during the British occupation in the late 1800s, and was the site of an early British military camp.

Zamalek is often seen by some of its residents as somewhat separate from the rest of the city. Given that it is a literal island, some see Zamalek as a refuge from the crowded and often dirty Cairo streets, while others, to be honest, see it as a refuge from the lower-class masses that make up the majority of Egyptians.

Although those who have this outlook may not realise it, this attitude is more appropriate to the history of the island than one might think.

When Zamalek was initially being populated in the early 20th century, it was mostly inhabited by Europeans and, for lack of a better term, Egyptian nobility.

The Gezira Sporting Club, the equivalent of what Americans would call a “country club,” was initially set up by the British, and it had one outstanding feature: no Egyptians allowed.

Today, membership in Gezira Club is often seen as a status symbol, and its members enjoy a park-like environment that is an oasis in a city that is often bereft of greenery.

In what some may consider yet another chapter in the island’s class-based history, many of Zamalek’s residents recently expressed concern over the government’s plan to build a new metro station on the island.

While some argue that this would disrupt the serene nature of the island, others feel the station would negatively impact Zamalek’s somewhat insular community by giving “outsiders” easy access to the neighbourhood.

When the island was initially being built up, it hosted mostly villas housing pashas and foreign dignitaries. Although most of these villas have been demolished and replaced with apartment buildings, the ones that are still standing today are almost exclusively home to foreign embassies or ambassadors.

Spots to visit

Zamalek has been seeing a shift towards more and more commercialisation over the years. Given the neighbourhood’s numerous strategic advantages for prospective businessmen, cafes have been multiplying in recent years all over the island.

Walking down 26 July Street, Brazil Street, or the surrounding area, one can find a seemingly endless choice of both indoor and street cafes.

Zamalek

One cafe in particular stands out, however, and it is not as easy to spot as the rest. The Rooftop cafe, as the name suggests, is situated on the roof of a hotel at the spot where Brazil Street ends and Mohamed Mazhar Street begins.

What makes this cafe/bar interesting, other than its prime location, is that it is somewhat of a mix between an Eastern cafe and a Western bar. The spot is convenient if you are looking for what Egyptian cafes traditionally offer – coffee, tea, and most importantly, shisha – or if you want to have an alcoholic beverage.

Rooftop is an ideal choice for a mixed group of Egyptians and Westerners, as it can accommodate locals who cannot do without their shisha and Turkish coffee, as well as Westerners who prefer to have a beer at hand at their choice of hangout.

A little beyond Rooftop one can find another spot of interest for those seeking a good view. If you continue walking past the hotel where Rooftop is located and take the first right after the Hilton Hotel, you will find Montaza Street — a nice spot to sit and enjoy a view of the Nile from the corniche.

Those who grew up in Zamalek may remember Montaza as a prime choice for young couples looking for a quiet, out-of-the-way spot where they can be alone. Although the location is still a main choice for lovebirds who want to enjoy the corniche, in recent years it has also become a gathering spot for groups of young men looking for a quiet spot to park their cars, play some music, and maybe smoke a bit of hashish away from police scrutiny.

Montaza also recently became host to the popular new venue Riverside; a Western-style nightclub for those looking to dance the night away.

On the other hand, if you wish for an even quieter spot on the island to take a stroll, you may want to venture into the southern side of Zamalek, close to where Gezira Club and the Marriot Hotel are situated.

Adjacent to Gezira Police Station lies one of Zamalek’s oldest and most well-known landmarks: Geneinat El-Asmak (The Fish Garden).

Zamalek
A street cafe on Zamalek's busy 26 July Street (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Initially built in the late 1800s as a private garden for Khedive Ismail, the Fish Garden is now open to the public for a modest entrance fee. The park takes its name from the fish aquariums that were once its main attraction. However, the fish are sadly gone today after the park suffered neglect in the 1980s and 90s.

The park, which has trees, grass, stone hills, artificial caves and a children’s playground, is also adjacent to the building were music and cinema legend Abdel-Halim Hafez used to live.

Abdel-Halim, whose family still lives in the same home, immortalised the Fish Garden on the silver screen when it was chosen as a filming location for a number of his films.

Today, the Association of Zamalek Residents holds charity fundraising events at the park, including hosting a bazaar for those who wish sell homemade products and food, as well as live music performances.

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