Running against the current on Cairo's hectic streets

Amr Kotb, Thursday 18 Sep 2014

Running in Cairo's public spaces isn't exactly easy or popular - but that doesn’t mean it's impossible

Cairo Runners
A young woman joins Cairo Runners for a run in Cairo's Heliopolis (Photo: Courtesy of Cairo Runners Facebook page)

Cairo is one of the most overpopulated, overcrowded and polluted cities in the world.

Its streets shriek with bus horns, its air reeks of car exhaust and sometimes a short walk to work can seem like an eternal struggle.

Why, then, would anyone willingly choose to run through Egypt's capital?

But they run anyway

Running in Cairo's public spaces may be uncommon but it has grown in popularity in recent years, with running troupes such as Cairo Runners and Maadi Runners evolving from small groups to large organisations.

Cairo Runners began in 2012 as a series of runs through areas in central Cairo and surrounding suburbs. At first, only 60 runners showed up, but this has since ballooned to over 3,000. This February, the group organised Egypt's first half-marathon which included over 4,000 registered runners.

Maadi Runners, formed in 1999, is a group that meets for runs every Friday morning between 5 and 6am. After their weekly runs, they gather for a pot luck breakfast.

Sophie, a 45-year-old mother of three and a member of Maadi Runners, says the group’s membership has been on the rise.

"Our group has grown quite a bit," she says, adding that she "is seeing more and more young people coming out into the streets" and that her kids are starting to join her for runs.

Against the current

Despite growing popularity, Cairo is still a city that poses great challenges to its runners.

A run down the corniche can include taunts from passersby, dodging both speeding buses and stray dogs and keeping your head above pollution. The streets themselves are also in poor condition.

"The city just doesn’t lend itself to running," says 27-year-old marathoner Ali Kassem, adding that most other cities include public parks, rivers and paved roads.

But Kassem believes that runners are also pushing against cultural norms, pointing out several instances where he’s been "made fun of."

Indeed, regular exercise is not part of the average Egyptian's daily routine. The vast majority of Cairenes who do exercise go to private sports clubs, giving the impression that exercise requires a certain level of wealth. As a result, running in public is seen as taboo, leaving many runners to be playfully mocked as passersby pretend to cheer them on or compliment their outfits.

"I'll be wearing orange shorts and people will be staring at my legs," Kassem says with a chuckle. "One time a guy even made fun of me with an Egyptian phrase typically used to harass women."

Because running isn't widespread, Sophie views mockery as harmless, explaining that it is people's way of being inquisitive.

Beyond curiosity, though, is sexual harassment. If men draw attention, then the sight of a woman running can often make a scene.

Randa, 24, says she has experienced sexual harassment twice on early morning runs through her neighborhood in the south suburb of Maadi.

"Usually I don’t have any problems, but on two occasions me and another female runner saw a man masturbating as we ran by him," Randa says, adding that she is now more likely to ask a male friend to come along on her runs.

Sophie describes a lone incident in Sakkara where a man "grabbed at her body" as she passed him. She takes precautions to address sexual harassment by always running in groups, like Maadi Runners, and dressing appropriately – no shorts or tank tops, and sometimes with an extra shirt tied around her waist.

In addition to running in groups and dressing appropriately, Sophie and Randa both run in the mornings to beat pollution and traffic. Kassem, on the other hand, has retreated to his sports club for most of his training, citing a recent experience in Zamalek where "there was too much staring."

Why do this to yourself?

So, with the urban chaos, taunting and sexual harassment, why are some runners still hitting the streets? For Sophie, a reflective run along the Nile in the early morning is what allows her to get in touch with her city.

"Running is not just about the physical act itself – it's also a journey through your surroundings. It's about what you feel, encounter and overcome as you sincerely experience and explore a city."

"And that’s something I could never accomplish on a treadmill."

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