By Farah Shimy
Heliopolis is a historical, mystical zone. When I was young, Heliopolis symbolized school-life for me. I used to pass by Midan Al-Gamea, Korba, the Basilique, Baron Palace and Roxy every morning on my way to school. I did not know my way around Heliopolis, but I could find my way to school out of habit after having taken the same road for more than 10 years. I also came to know the people of Heliopolis, the residents of Korba and the workers who open up their shops every morning in Midan Al-Gamea. Every place has its people, like a signature of the spatial zone they occupy. Heliopolis residents and passers-by have a flavor of simplicity and authenticity in their behavior. They greet you when you pass by, they offer help for the lost, they invite you to their shops and you will always see them sharing food and chai
Heliopolis, or Masr El Gedida (New Cairo), was originally built on the outskirts of Cairo in 1905; however, with the passing of time and expansion of Cairo, Heliopolis became a district within Cairo. Midan Al-Gamea is one of many significant places in Heliopolis, which include the Baron Palace, the Basilique, Korba and Roxy among others.
I knew Korba as a popular place where luxurious cappuccino cafes like Starbucks coexist with public foul
outlets like Arabiata. If one goes further into this area and visits Midan Al-Gamea (the mosque’s square) they will discover a wide flea market that sells everything and anything, from car tires to home furniture. The market is chaotic, noisy, dusty and full of sweaty people running around.
It is an interesting mix of people, and one can sense the authentic roots of this place; however, I was never able to mingle with the mixture of backgrounds and cultures. This place was linked to school in my head, and on my way to school, it was the mystical place I saw through the car’s windows. After my graduation, my perception of the area changed gradually.
I frequent the area occasionally to accommodate my needs. On this occasion, I visited Midan Al-Gamea to print an advertising project. Midan Al-Gamea is a very crowded area with street vendors displaying their products along the streets. They are sweaty, smelly and loud — calling out for people to pass by their displays and buy something all day long. The noise is disturbing, yet it is an essential cultural aspect of Heliopolis.
I had visited the print shop once before. To find my way back to the place, I wandered around in my car asking people how to get there. People were nice and very helpful, and they all explained different directions. Whenever I get lost in Heliopolis, Korba or Midan Al-Gamea I don’t panic. This is because I feel that Heliopolis is my home, and one cannot simply be lost when they are home. The people on the streets and the policemen down the road will help guide you; the community is very integrated and respectable. It is one of those places where you can still feel the old Egyptian spirit of helpfulness and decency.
The beauty of Midan Al-Gamea is that it is always full of movement and action: The vendors are nagging the walkers to have a look at their products, the walkers eventually give in and check their Kiosks and when they like something they start bargaining about the price and the cafes are always full. In the morning, elderly people are sitting along the streets talking loudly while smoking their shishas and sipping from their chai; and at night the youngsters replace them with the same pattern of shisha, chai and loud conversations.
Finally, I arrived at the shop and miraculously found an empty parking slot right in front of it. Midan Al-Gamea’s streets are so narrow to the extent that parking is more difficult than finding the place and it takes an “Egyptian” driver to know the tricks of how to squeeze the car into the slot.
My favorite visit to Heliopolis is Roxy. Roxy is a huge flea market on the other end of Korba and Midan Al-Gamea. Shop-owners take the inner side of the pavement to extend their shop spaces, whereas the street vendors take the outer side of the pavement to display their goods. The passers-by is bombarded with flashy colors and huge price signs from both sides.
The historical and geographical evolutions of Heliopolis render the place far more interesting than how it appears on the surface, adding depth and value to the corners you cross and to the shops you pass by. For example, Midan Al-Gamea came about with the building of a mosque that became the center of a huge flea market. New, aristocratic residential buildings increased as people moved from downtown to Heliopolis to build a new community, and shops opened in the same area to satisfy the demands of the residents. With time, the originally aristocratic residential area turned into a middle-class residency. Consequently, the number of shops and quality of the products decreased, making Midan Al-Gamea a chaotic yet refreshingly vibrant zone in Heliopolis. Heliopolis is still one of the upper class districts in Egypt; however, like any other place in Egypt, some areas in Heliopolis are deteriorating due to redistribution of the population and economic turbulence in Egypt.
It is not just Midan Al-Gamea that has aristocratic roots; it is the whole of Heliopolis as it was originally built as an escape for the rich. Heliopolis is both visually and culturally appealing to both its residents and visitors. I always believed that Heliopolis’ aesthetic chef d’oeuvre was the Baron Palace. Elites were looking for a new haven of serenity and elegance, so the construction and architecture of the palace — as the first building in Heliopolis — is top notch in order to match the taste and social status of its owner, the Belgian Baron Édouard Louis Joseph. The Belgian royal settled in Cairo in the early 1900’s and fell in love with Yvette Boghdadli, one of Cairo’s most beautiful socialites. He decided to build the palace and develop Heliopolis for her.
The way passion, love and history are integrated into every construction of Heliopolis romanticizes the place and forces you to communicate to it as a spatial beauty rather than a blunt district in Cairo. It is this elegance and sophisticated history that differentiates Heliopolis from other places in Cairo and Egypt. I, as a resident of Heliopolis, am a part of a bigger historical context.
To vote for this entry in the travel competition, click here and like the entry’s screenshot on Facebook.