Eclecticism in Heliopolis

Dina Ezzat and Sherif Sonbol, Tuesday 4 May 2021

Ramadan rhythms in the Cairo district of Heliopolis fall softly against a backdrop of lively tearooms and food markets, writes Dina Ezzat and photographer Sherif Sonbol

Midan Al-Gamei
Midan Al-Gamei

The relaxed chatter coming from ground-floor balconies, the joyful music of late Ramadan songs, and the quietness of practically deserted churches give Heliopolis a particular soundscape in Ramadan.

This eastern Cairo neighbourhood has lost a deal of the diversity that for a long time was one of its definite features. Now, the many churches that used to be full of the followers of the different churches of the Catholic faith are almost empty on Easter weekend.

The St Cyril Greek Melkite Church at the intersection of Baghdad and Thawra streets at the heart of the old quarter of the neighbourhood still has a reasonable attendance, but even so only in the few dozens.

In the gardens of tearooms on Baghdad Street a group of Christians meet for a pre-Easter lunch at a gathering shared by a group of Muslims observing the fast in Ramadan.

“I cannot think of any other place except Heliopolis where I would be asking a group of clients around a table of 20 who is observing Ramadan, who is observing the last day of Lent, and who is just having a regular meal,” said Mina, a waiter at one of the older tea rooms in the neighbourhood.

On Easter weekend, Mina is expecting a very busy day. Following the lunches, there will be Iftars to be served for two big reservations and then a late evening reservation for an end of Lent dinner.  

Outside the tearoom, Baghdad Street, probably the most famous in the entire neighbourhood, is having an animated morning. All the tearooms and cafés with open-air spaces are busy, the flower shops are attending to a considerable number of clients, and stores selling Ramadan pastries have long queues.

“Baghdad Street is almost always animated. I am not sure that it ever falls into a deep tranquility — I don’t think any of the main roads in Heliopolis ever get really quiet, unlike the side streets. The contrast is often striking,” said Marwan Fawzi, a professor of musicology at Helwan University.

“In every neighbourhood the side streets are always quieter than the main roads, but here it is not just the quiet that strikes one — it is the immediate transition from noise to quiet,” he said.

Sultana Malak
Sultana Malak’s palace which turned into a school

He added that the shift was not just in the volume, but also in the nature of the sounds. “I think that this is a function of the way Heliopolis was designed — to almost fully separate the commercial zones from the residential zones. Clearly, this has changed significantly during the past couple of decades, when commercial activities have been crawling into residential areas.”

Some 15 years ago, Fawzi strolled through Heliopolis streets for the best part of two nights and a day when he was waiting for his only daughter to be born in a Heliopolis hospital not far from Baghdad Street to be allowed out of her incubator.

“While waiting for Carma to come home, I was immersed in the streets of the neighbourhood, and it was then that I noted this shift. I don’t think it has changed significantly since then,” he said.

There is another “definitive sound mark of the older quarters of the neighbourhood” in the echo of the speaking voice as one walks along the arcaded pavements.

From Ibrahim Street, where traditional cafés and fast-food restaurants are having a quiet Ramadan morning, to the Al-Massala side street, Fawzi notes a higher than average degree of quiet.

This is the street of the firmly secured Vitali Madjar Synagogue. Like neighbouring Ibrahim Street, Al-Massala Street is ornamented with Ramadan decorations. The only sounds that can be heard are those of clients buying bottles of juice from a juice bar or bottles of water or soft drinks from a cigarette and soda kiosk.

“This street has always been quiet, but it is now much quieter, given that most of the houses and buildings are inhabited by older people, with many empty apartments,” said Ammar, the owner of the kiosk.

St Cyril Greek Melkite Church
St Cyril Greek Melkite Church

CHANGES: Working at this kiosk for over six decades since he first joined his father who used to sell soda, beer, and ice at this same spot, Ammar recalls that the street has been quiet since the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Some people emigrated, some people moved out as the neighbourhood started to lose its style, and some people just passed away. The synagogue has been closed since the early 1970s and the attached residence was sold off and became the house of a rich family,” Ammar said.

Heliopolis is a place where lots of buildings have changed function. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was common to see palaces and villas being turned into schools and health centres. In the 1990s, it became normal to see ground-floor apartments being turned into cafés, restaurants, or stores.

On Sherif Street off Al-Massala Street, there are still a few ground-floor apartments. The soft chatter of older people sitting on their balconies can be heard.

“Ramadan mornings and evenings were never particularly busy in the side streets. They get busy on Baghdad Street with the cafés and on Al-Ahram Street with the stores, but not on these small streets,” Ammar said.

The Ramadan sounds that come onto the small streets are echoes of the activities on the main ones. They are mostly the recitation of the Quran  that leads to the call to prayer and the end of the fast.

For Ammar, the most-important Ramadan moment happens in the evenings of the last days of the holy Muslim month, when many people start frequenting the nearby stores for Eid shopping and stop over for soft drinks and juice.

On Al-Ahram Street, Fawzi says he is hit by the disturbing noise of public buses. “This is one of the sounds that are typical of Cairo: public transport buses. They should not go so fast; they should drive at a speed compatible with the residential nature of the neighbourhood,” he said.

He added that in other developing countries it is perfectly possible to hear the grinding noise of buses that should be out of service, “but not speedy or in some cases even racing public buses”.

The fact that the Heliopolis tram, which for a century was a hallmark of the neighbourhood, was removed three years ago, supposedly to make the streets wider, has allowed for the speed of some bus drivers. Today, there is nothing left of the tram except one of its old carriages on display at the recently renovated palace of the founder of Heliopolis, the Belgian industrialist Edouard Empain.

“The removal of the tram denied Heliopolis one of its most compelling sound characteristics,” Fawzi said. Less than a decade ago, he added, it would have been impossible to do a documentary on the neighbourhood or to shoot a film in Heliopolis without featuring the tram.

Today, Fawzi added, there is a new sound that has “invaded” the neighbourhood, however — that of cars driving on the flyovers that have taken over Heliopolis over the past couple of years and the noise of their brakes as they suddenly reduce speed.

Esh Al-Bolbol
Esh Al-Bolbol shop


Despite the heat wave and fasting season, on the eve of Easter and close to the beginning of the last week of Ramadan, Al-Ahram Street is busy with shoppers picking up new clothes for the holidays in keeping with the traditions of the middle classes that are now the main residents of the neighbourhood.

Crossing the street, the shoppers and speedy drivers have to be mindful of each other. “It is the sound of chaos now,” Fawzi said.

“During this month of Ramadan, we have been seeing aggressive commercial campaigns for the new residential compounds that are being built on the outskirts of the city. But what these compounds are offering to the well-off are things that should be granted to every residential area — greenery, open-air public spaces, safe streets, and noise-free residential quarters. Heliopolis was always supposed to be this way,” he said.

The almost parallel Maronite St Joseph’s Church and the Latin Catholic Cathedral of Notre Dame are two landmarks of this upper middle-class part of the old quarter of Heliopolis.

“This is the part of the city where one would always hear church bells on Sundays like at Christmas and Easter,” Fawzi said.

Moving from Al-Ahram Street to Nazih Khalifa Street, Fawzi follows the noise of the streets. The suburbs, he said, no matter the season, do not ever get as noisy as the heart of the city. Given that is a long weekend of a relegated Sinai Day, Labour Day, Easter and Sham Al-Nessim that extends from Thursday to Monday, some people have escaped to the beaches.

However, once he delves into the commercial zone of Midan Al-Gamei, the streets present a different soundscape. This commercial spot that merges a few streets where one can buy anything from expensive jewellery to fuul and taamiya sandwiches, takes its name after the Gamal Al-Afghani Mosque, one of the oldest in the neighbourhood.

On this street, the Ramadan rhythms are playing in all their elements. The call to prayer is coming from the Mosque in a soft voice, something that is quite rare now that mosques have been taken over by untrained voices. The Quranic recitation is loud in its Khaliji version and soft in its Egyptian version, the vegetable and fruit sellers are constantly busy, poultry stores are displaying chickens, pigeons and turkeys for clients who refrain from frozen options, and the street sellers are offering a wide range of typical Ramadan drinks.

However, according to Hamed, a seller at the seven-decade old Esh Al-Bolbol fuul and taamiya shop, “this is still a Ramadan day, and things are much quieter than they would be on any other.”

Hamed has been preparing his sandwiches since the morning. “Usually, Ramadan is not a very busy season for our business, but it has become busier than before given that many people now opt for an inexpensive meal at least twice a week even during this festive month,” Hamed said.

He added that the fact that this year Ramadan coincided with Lent had made the business a lot more happening, especially given the significance of the Christian community in the neighbourhood.

But because of the schedule of masses in most of the churches in the neighbourhood, Hamed does not start grinding the fava beans for his fried patties before late afternoon. The last day of Lent is certainly a good business day, because people would traditionally attend church in the morning and then stop over for a quick last Lent lunch before going to the Easter mass in the evening. Then they would come back to a big festive dinner close to midnight.

Two hours before sunset, all the food stores in the market are packed with people preparing for their Iftar or Easter dinner. There are queues next to the repair stores that mend old clothes and shoes. Hassan, who works in one of these stores, notes that with both Easter and Eid Al-Fitr coming one after the other with 10 days apart, it has been quite a busy weekend.

“More and more people tend to upgrade their outfits for the holidays to spare themselves the pressure of buying new items,” he said.

“All in all, this is exactly the sound of a busy market place at the festive and holiday seasons. It is different from any other time, with people rushing to get things done before a certain time, and, of course, with the sound of festive songs in many stores,” Fawzi said.

It is the beginning of the end of Ramadan, and most stores are playing the traditional songs that lament the closing of the holy month and welcome the advent of the feast.

In the streets around Midan Al-Gamei, pastry stores are putting feast cookies in mountainous shapes and shoppers are trying to be heard in crowded stores that seem to have put aside any concern over the pandemic.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 May, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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