Zamalek: Social history of an island

Ziad A Akl
Saturday 8 Feb 2020

Cairo’s Zamalek is not just an upscale neighbourhood. It is a mirror of the social and political transformations Egypt underwent in the last 100 years

Zamalek — the neighbourhood not the football club — is one of Cairo’s posh, fancy and historic locales. Zamalek is an island on the extreme western borders of Cairo. A thin thread of the River Nile separates it from Giza. There are plenty of reasons that give Zamalek a specific cultural and historical significance in comparison to other neighbourhoods in Cairo. This is mainly because Zamalek as a geographical location reflected many social changes Egyptian society underwent, and out of those reflections developed its own identity, which in return was altered and even tarnished by more social changes and transformations with the passage of time. Thus, there are plenty of socio-historical meanings intertwined with the neighbourhood.

I don’t want to delve into the details of the historical trajectory of the neighbourhood, but perhaps a quick brief will not hurt. Zamalek was originally built in the 19th century as a place close to the King or Khedive or Wali’s headquarters in Abdeen Palace in Downtown Cairo, where those who worked for the palace could find cheap accommodation proximate to their occupations. At that time, the price of land in Zamalek was cheap compared to other regions in Cairo. Many of the Abdeen Palace service staff bought land in Zamalek. Most of them were from upper Egypt. It appears that Zamalek was an expatriate island from many years ago.

As time went by, and the influence of the palace dwindled due to British colonisation and the mobility within Egyptian politics and society at the time, the owners of land in Zamalek started to sell their estates in the neighbourhood. As the political context started changing, the ownership and the composition of residents in Zamalek started to change, which in turn created a class-based alteration within the chemistry of the neighbourhood. By the beginning of the 20th century, ownership in the island of Zamalek was transferred from the original residents to new political and social elites. A new style of architecture took over the neighbourhood, after the random construction that once existed. With the passage of time, Zamalek turned into a fancy neighbourhood where political leadership, artists and public figures lived, and day by day it started to present itself as an exclusive neighbourhood within the heart of Cairo.

In 1952, lots of social realities were changed in Egypt. Elites, whether social or political, were transformed. A new discourse was brought about within Egyptian politics, one more Arab, nationalist and post-colonial oriented. By that time, Zamalek was built as a neighbourhood on European standards due to the foreign influence that took hold during the British colonial era. However, the decisions taken by the new political leadership after July 1952 had lots of reflections on the island. Many of the foreigners who lived in Zamalek left Egypt in a period of political unrest, leaving space for more Egyptians to inhabit the island.

The island kept attracting more rising social and political elites at a time when Egyptian society was going through a phase of social mobility among its different classes. Meanwhile, Nasser’s nationalisation policies confiscated many of the estates that former residents owned, and put them at the service of the state. Many of the palaces that existed in Zamalek were turned into public schools, which remain in operation until now. Zamalek during the 1950s and 1960s became Cairo’s most recognisable neighbourhood, one that had an identity and residents that were quite socially significant within Egyptian society. It was indeed an “upper class” neighbourhood, with European architecture, rich history and a matching combination of social and political elites. However, with the social changes Egyptian society witnessed in the 1970s, the composition of residents started to change in part as a result of state policies that enforced such changes on the island, as well as other places.

A shift within the mapping of classes took place during the 1970s in Egypt. A number of state policies, mainly the open-door policy, had an effect on the hierarchical arrangement of social classes in Egypt. The mechanical social elevation policies that the Nasser administration adopted were all broken by Sadat’s liberal progressive regime during the 1970s. Many of the old social elites could no longer bear inflation and the change in the process of making money in Egypt. While new elites from lower classes arose in society with cash and liquidity, in turn Zamalek was bought by new economic elites from the old ones that owned estate in the neighbourhood. Many of the owners sold their estates to the new business elite, which brought the houses down and built huge buildings instead, at a time where investing in the construction and real estate sector was a profitable proposition.

With this phenomenon ongoing, another class-based transformation took place in the neighbourhood. Dividing the land that was secured for one house into apartments and buildings that can be inclusive of numerous families, the middle class or more precisely the upper middle class, found its way into Zamalek. The neighbourhood is divided between a northern part and a southern part. The southern part is the one that still carries the signature of Zamalek’s old elites, and the northern part is where a new strata of the social classes entered the neighbourhood. However, between expatriates, wealthy Egyptians, class transformations and a collective sense of maintaining a historic identity, Zamalek remains a neighbourhood with much character.

Zamalek is not just a fancy neighbourhood in Cairo. It is a reflection of Egypt’s social history over the past century. Architecture, culture, a sense of public space, long up-held traditions and an accepting attitude from its residents is what makes Zamalek a place with a remarkable significance. Similar remarks could be made about other neighbourhoods in Cairo, but Zamalek will remain the place where politics and social history intersected to leave a mark on the neighbourhood and its residents.

*The writer is director of the Programme for the Mediterranean and North Africa Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.


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