'A Little Alexandria in Cairo': Historian Mohamed Afifi traces the history of Cairo's Shubra

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Saturday 25 Feb 2017

Book cover

Shubra… Iskandariyya Saghira fi Al-Qahira (Shubra: A Little Alexandria in Cairo) by Mohamed Afifi, General Egyptian Book Organization, Cairo 2016. 251 pages.

Historian Mohamed Afifi's lengthy investigation into the changing face of Cairo's Shubra district is a different kind of read—an attempt cultural change in one of Cairo's oldest neighbourhoods, brought on by sweeping changes in Egyptian politics and society, beginning in the 1950s. In a survey of Shubra's history, the author laments a loss of multiculturalism, and especially a peaceful co-existence between Muslims and Copts that defined the area in its golden age.

It is well known that what happened to Alexandria, since the emergence of what is called the “Islamic Awakening” in the 1970s is a civilisation catastrophe by all accounts. This can be seen in the ugliness of tall buildings that obstruct sea views and the destruction of historic villas and old palaces.

Moreover, it is visible in the city's shift from a cosmopolitan landmark that once embraced dozens of nationalities, religions and cultures, to a largely homogenous society impacted by Islamist ideas and outlook, especially those of the Salafist Call. It can be seen in the denial and exclusion of the other.

The Shubra district shares this and other commonalities with Alexandria. Both areas were heavily impacted by the departure of foreigners from Egypt, starting in the fifties.

This migration coincided with a loss of tolerance in both places, and the onset of a grimmer time marked by over-crowding, street squalor, and the sad growth of a simmering resentment between the Muslim and Coptic Christian populations. It is well known that Copts are concentrated in Shubra where they once coexisted with fellow Muslims for hundreds of years, shaded by real endearment and mutual goodwill.    

Shubra is also, as the author describes it, a district for the sons of immigrants coming from the Mediterranean, Upper Egypt and the Delta. It is the district where the famous Italian singer Dalida lived and won a beauty pageant in her youth, alongside great scholars from Al-Azhar, such as Sheikh Mohammed Abu-Zahra and Sheikh Abd-Al-Wahhab Khallaf, and the young Nazeer Gayed who later became Pope Shenouda III.

Afifi's history is written with nostalgia for that time — the author himself was born and bred there, his family home a few metres from that of Dalida.

One facet of his account is the expansion Shubra witnessed after the 19th century's Mohamed Ali Pasha chose Shubra El-Kheima village – an extension of the area – to build a towering palace. Ali was followed by a number of princes such as Said Pasha, Tusun Pasha and others. Soon Shubra became a resort for the Egyptian aristocracy.

Shubra’s unique location played a role in its rapid urban development. It lies in close proximity to Egypt’s main railway station, which welcomes trains from the Delta and Upper Egypt.

The area also borders the rural governorates of Menoufiya, Qalioubiya and others, and has drawn many migrants from these areas over the years. Moreover, Shubra became a chosen residence for foreigners and Copts due to its air of tolerance and intermingling. When the tramway lines were extended to Shubra in 1902, it witnessed a huge urban leap.

Eventually, new factors emerged that led to what the author calls the “ruralisation’ of Shubra, beginning with the departure of foreigners in the 50s. The neighbourhood lost its Mediterranean character, witnessing waves of rural migration, accompanied by a change in customs, traditions and values. This prompted Coptic — especially wealthy families — to leave the area.

Afifi takes an in-depth look at the cultural points that defined Shubra's golden age, including the area's selection as a setting for novels by Fathy Ghanem and Naim Sabri, as well as films. The area housed some of Cairo's first cinemas and cinema studios, built in the early years of the last century. He explores the social roles of the district's St. Theresa Church and schools such as Al-Tawfiqyia, the Shubra secondary schools and nun schools.

Afifi devotes a good deal of space to the political currents that characterised the area, which was peopled by activists, artists and journalists. It’s in this context, he finds, that Shubra became the living embodiment of national unity between Muslims and Copts.

On the "ruralisation" process, the author quotes whole pages from American journalist Mary Anne Weaver's “A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey through the World of Militant Islam.” Afifi concludes his book with a number of diverse testimonies from Shubra’s residents — both Coptic and Muslim — as well as from contemporary artists and writers who were shaped by the district.


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