Shorouk resident Farah Shimy views Heliopolis as her heart’s home
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, 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 (tea).
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 knew Korba as a popular place where luxurious cappuccino cafes like Starbucks coexist with public fuul outlets like Arabiata. If one goes further into this area, behind the Basilique, and visits Midan Al-Gamea (the mosque’s square) they discover a wide street market that sells everything and anything from car tires to home furniture. It is an interesting mix of people, and one can sense the authentic roots of this place.
Nowadays, I frequent this area to accommodate my needs. On one occasion, I visited Midan Al-Gamea to print an advertising project. Midan Al-Gamea is a very crowded chaotic, noisy, dusty area with street vendors displaying their products along the streets. They are sweaty, smelly and loud — all day long calling out for people to pass by their displays and buy something. The noise is disturbing yet an essential cultural aspect of Heliopolis.
The beauty of Midan Al-Gamea is that it is always full of movement and action: The vendors are nagging the pedestrians to have a look at their products and the walkers eventually give in and check their kiosks. When they like something they start bargaining about the price. And the cafes are always full: In the morning, elderly people sit along the streets talking loudly while smoking their shishas and sipping from their chai, while at night the youngsters replace them with the same pattern of shisha, chai and loud conversations.
I had visited the print shop only 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. But 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 and policemen on the streets 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.
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 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 place to visit in Heliopolis is Roxy, a huge street 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, while street vendors take the outer side of the pavement to display their goods. The passers-by are bombarded with flashy colors and huge signs from both sides.
The historical and geographical evolution of Heliopolis renders the place far more interesting than it appears on the surface, adding depth and value to the corners you cross and to the shops you pass. Heliopolis, or Masr El Gedida (New Cairo), was originally built on the outskirts of Cairo in 1905 as an escape for the rich. Its founder, Belgian Baron Édouard Louis Joseph Empain, settled in Cairo in the early 1900s and fell in love with Yvette Boghdadli, one of Cairo’s most beautiful socialites. He decided to build a palace and develop Heliopolis for her.
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 the Belgian royal who owned it.
With the passing of time and expansion of Cairo, Heliopolis became a district within Cairo, and like many other places in Egypt, some areas in this once-elite neighborhood are deteriorating due to redistribution of the population and economic turbulence in Egypt.
For example, Midan Al-Gamea came about with the building of a mosque that became the center of a huge market area. In the beginning, aristocratic residential buildings increased as people moved from downtown to Heliopolis to build a new community, and shops opened to satisfy the demands of the residents. With time, the originally aristocratic area turned into a middle-class residence. Consequently, the number of shops and quality of the products decreased, making Midan Al-Gamea a chaotic yet refreshingly vibrant zone in Heliopolis.
Even still, Heliopolis remains one of the upper-class districts in Egypt, and the way passion, love and history are integrated into every construction here romanticizes the place and forces you to communicate with 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. et
Farah Shimy won the Reader’s Choice Award in Egypt Today’s online travel writing competition, with her story receiving the most ‘likes’ on the Facebook page Egypt Today Magazine. To see all the entries, visit egypttoday.com or our Facebook Page.