Themes & Working Groups II: Mobility

Felix Blaß, Philipp Wetzel, Noel David Nicolaus, Yiannis Pappas, Salma Sherif, Ahmed Borham

The focus of our emerging work in Cairo surprisingly overlapped with the issues we were concerned with at the end of the first workshop in Hamburg, albeit under completely different conditions. An article published just after the workshop in Cairo on a blog entitled ‘Cairo from below’ highlights an everyday fact that surprised German participants: ‘Commerce is a legitimate and vital use of the street, as is transport.’ At first incomprehensible to someone from a European country with their strict regulations of public spaces, traffic and commerce, the physical shape as well as the usage of street spaces is subject to constant change and negotiation in Cairo’s historical quarter Al Darb Al Ahmar. In order to get a better understanding of these everyday practices and relations, the group engaged in some intense and enduring observations, interviewed a number of people and undertook a small experiment. The first observations produced a number of topics, which made it necessary to focus on a more specific research question and to change the scale. We had to get as close as possible to the everyday practices and practically explore the issue at hand, so we defined the problem to be explored by the different participants of the group: How do negotiation and appropriation take place on the street?

Setting up a stall
Situation at a street corner

Observations and a small experiment shed light on the practices shaping the street spaces in question. In contrast to European cities, authorities or communities do not physically divide the space between two houses. Rather, the entire space is available for traffic and claimed by passers-by and trespassers by adopting a set of practices. These include sounds such as the horn of a car or scooter or simple shouting, visual signals such as waving one’s hands or staring at people to move out of one’s path or just claiming space by driving a vehicle at high speed or standing in a spot as a pedestrian without giving attention to the highly mobile surroundings. To illustrate the latter, we conducted an experiment by moving step for step into the street, thereby creating a ‘safe’ space behind us, which was quickly used by other pedestrians. This worked up to a distance of about two metres from the side of the road, but from then on other traffic participants started to contest our pedestrian usage of the street (see figure 1). In order to create such safe spaces of a more permanent nature, rocks, goods and furniture are used by the residents to block certain parts of the street (see figure 2). Favourable locations for these practices are the blind spots behind bends and turns in the street or gaps in the walls lining the street (see figure 3).

  • figure 1
    Example of appropriation: experiment of disturbing traffic

  • figure 2
    Example of appropriation: blocking traffic to create safe spots

  • figure 3
    Example of appropriation: priorisation

Larger obstacles like parked cars can create larger safe spots. We observed that the apparently random car parking is strictly regulated and employed as a means of creating and protecting pedestrian or sitting spaces. Interviews revealed a concept of the Arabic law which allows the owner of a property the usage of the courtyard and the space immediately adjacent to the outside of a property wall. This concept is believed by some to have shaped form and usage of streets in the Islamic City for centuries (although the notion of the existence of a ‘uniform’ Islamic City is contested among scholars).


I Junction

Between Saad Allah and Abou Harbaya
Coming from the main road of Al Darb Al Ahmar, I pass under an ancient archway in search of an island of peace where I can find some rest. I seemingly find it immediately afterwards, when I reach a fork in the road that somehow reminds me of a small square. I stop at a shop on the right hand side to buy some crisps and something to drink, probably unconsciously attracted by the stacked boxes of salty fried potatoes that greet me as I enter this cosy corner of the neighbourhood. While the street life of this little world I just discovered unfolds all around me, I feel like the lucky spectator of a show put in place in my honour: a basket is dropped from a window in front of me, a shop owner readily awaiting it to fill it with goods; schoolgirls with their books and women with their shopping bags strolling through the streets, eagerly chatting; a shopkeeper watering the space in front of his business with a hose to get some relief from the omnipresent dust and, as if to emulate him, another shopkeeper hastily sweeping a small heap of rubbish into the street, just before a wave of traffic erupts from all directions filling the space with motorbikes, minivans, vespas and carriages of all kinds, crowding it to the point of almost bringing it to a halt. Soon the whole neighbourhood is volunteering to unravel the gargantuan chaos of voice and horns ensuing.
Right at the tip of the fork, above the pavement, a jovial man is chatting with the driver of a small pickup parked in front of him. The man is sitting on a chair and seemingly enjoying his position like a rough captain on the bow of a ship in stormy waters. Their voices are soon dominated by the pious chants of the muezzin, calling people to pray in the small, modern mosque located right between the fork of the road. Quite a few people follow his invitation, causing a thin, slow but steady flow from the surrounding homes and shops to the small one-storey building. While I slowly leave this little corner of the huge megalopolis that is Cairo, I stop by a blue plastic water bucket to get rid of the salty aftertaste of the crisps, and I can’t help but smile when the lights turn on one after the other, colourful garlands adorning the street and spreading a festive air.

  • Elements set out to appropriate street space in the morning

  • Elements set out to appropriate street space in the evening

II Street Market

Between Kobri Al-Azhar (Bridge) & Bab Zuweila (Historical gate)
Coming from the main road of Al Darb Al Ahmar and heading north, I pass the gate of Bab Zuweila, with its two towering minarets, just to be immediately absorbed by the busy activity of the bazar. Not much has changed since my last visit 2 years ago, at least concerning the street: it is still in a condition of disrepair, with sewage pipes running all along it, but the vendors have apparently adapted themselves well with the situation, with small wooden steps constructed across the pipes to the entrances to their shops. I like this time of the day, just around sunset, when many of the shopkeepers start to move their goods inside, leaving more space for pedestrians like me and for the many girls and women walking around on the streets at this time. The reddish light penetrates between the sunshades, illuminating the clothes on display throughout the bazar in warm, soft colours. I soon reach the large Al Azhar Road, marking the northern border of Al Darb Al Ahmar, and I stop a while to take a look at the frantic activities going on around me. Improvised vendors of all kinds usually guard this area as their territory, and today is no exception: many different goods, more or less useful and tasteful, are offered here, mostly clothing and cheap plastic gadgets of all shapes and colours. My attention is grasped by a man whose formal appearance and tired looks make me think of an office worker who just finished his shift, an impression reinforced by the pronounced uncertainty and inexperience he shows while taking down his stall. He somehow manages to finish his job.
I wouldn’t mind now walking towards the Khan El Kalili, but since the pedestrian bridge burned down a few months ago, the massive flow of vehicles on Al Azhar Road has become an insurmountable barrier even for Cairo’s standards, and I don’t feel like walking all the way up to the passage further north. So I decide to head left, towards the textile wholesale market and it unbelievably narrow alleys. Here I will get a chance to get lost along mountains of fabric of all varieties, packed one upon the other so tightly that only small hand carriages can find their way through them, cushioning the deep soundscape created by Cairo’s incessant flow of traffic: the endless metabolism of this restless metropolis.

III Prison at Darb Saeeda

At the intersection between Ahmed Maher and Port Said
My mouth feels dry and slurred while I dive through the intense, restless flow of traffic running along Port Said Road, shouting, waving and running to fight my way through the river of steel, animals and humans. The fading heat of the day is still reflected by the reddish clouds of dusk and smog hovering over the large building marking the entrance to my destination, Al Darb Al Ahmar. In front of me is the prison, clearly recognisable by its windowless walls topped by barbed wire and watchtowers, whose shabby appearance shouldn’t deceive. As always, some big, bulky police trucks are parked in front of the entrance reclaiming a whole lane of the road for their vehicles and the state authority they represent. Not that the state would be content with that: both sides of the street are lined with carcasses of cars seized by the police for who knows what reasons, left there to rot under the sun. I prefer to choose the sidewalk on the right side of Ahmed Maher Road, not just because it’s opposite of the prison, but also because it’s lined with cafes, shops and stores where I know I’ll be able to find some food. I rapidly find what I’m looking for: the owner of a bakery has put up his stall on the boardwalk, under a large, white tent spanning from the front of his shop to a couple of poles he has arranged on the road. I thankfully stop in the shade to buy some bread, starting to eat it right away while I find a comfortable seat on a concrete block right next to the stall. Just now I realise that while all along the street the car carcasses are parked perpendicularly to the road, here the cars have been arranged parallel to it, creating an island of calm amongst the chaotic street life, whose invisible borders are marked by three concrete blocks, one of which I’m sitting on. Curious and fascinated, I ask the baker if he has anything to do with this interesting arrangement and he enthusiastically confirms my presumption, telling me about how he negotiated with the police so as to be able to move the cars in a way that wouldn’t disturb his stall and business. While I reflect upon this little anecdote, my attention is drawn to the increasing noise across the street. I cross the heavy but almost still-standing traffic, composed of mostly cars, vespas and minivans, dodging some bikes, the heads of their riders crowned by huge pyramids of freshly baked bread, to read the opposite sidewalk, just next to the entrance of the prison. A large group of people, mostly women dressed in black Galabeyas, are trembling with anticipation, expecting the delivery of a prisoner. Some of them are holding packets of cigarettes, which they will try to hand over to him while he is transferred from the police truck to the prison. In a climax of shouting voices, ringing horns and confused bodies, I witness in disbelief how the seemingly impossible happens: in the distance between the prison and the truck, the prisoner is swallowed by the mass of people and pushed towards freedom: when the police officers start chasing him, he has already disappeared in Darb Saeeda, the ‘road to happiness’, where day after day other, less lucky women shout their words of despair over the blind walls to their imprisoned relatives, while around them the many carpenters of Al Darb Al Ahmar are incessantly absorbed by their work.

Field notes: streets and spaces around the prison area
During daytime rush hour (12pm-3pm) the two streets that follow the prison from Boursaid Street into the neighbourhood of Al Darb Al Ahmar seem to be in use as follows:
Ahmed Maher Street functions as an exit for the vehicles and the carriages and Al Estenal Street as an entrance into the neighbourhood. In the afternoon (3pm-7pm) both ways are in use for both directions – to get into and to leave the neighbourhood. After seven o’ clock it seems that people mostly use Ahmed Maher Street.
Along the prison’s wall on Ahmed Maher Street (about 68m) there are six palm trees, 5 metres apart from one another up to the main entrance of the Department of Investigation. There is an array of ruined cars collected by the police in front of the palm trees. The whole pathway on this side is completely appropriated by the authority as a storage area for confiscated cars, reducing the 10 metres width of this street to six metres.
Opposite the prison on Share’a Ahmed Maher Pacha Street, space is also appropriated by the authority for the same purpose in front of the twenty-three entrances to shops and buildings occupying about four metres of the street. Thus the publicly free space of the street remaining is just about four metres wide. After a while all the ruined cars are used as garbage dumps. In the in-between spaces of these cars, people negotiate their everyday practices: parking their own vehicles, offering or storing their goods around them, but people also sit on them while they are waiting and waiters use the cars as surfaces to temporarily hold the plateswhile they are serving customers.
Two big trash bins are placed in a distance of four metres by the wall beneath the main entrance of the Department of Investigation, which always remains free of parking cars, and between the small entrances of the prison. They demarcate the border of the rubbish dump by the ruined cars up to the entrance/exit for prisoners.
Three big trucks delivering goods for mini markets and kiosks around the neighbourhood usually park opposite the five shops on Al Estenal Street. A small kiosk has extended its stall with product stands and a polycarbonate sheet as an awning protecting its two copy machines, the fridges and food from the sun. Two rows of coffee shop tables and chairs line the street up to where a permanent shop run by a vegetable seller without built structures offers goods from cartons, baskets and colourful textiles.
In the evenings, this place is transformed into a parking space. On El Saada Street or the ‘happiness road’, there is a special way of negotiation with high volume private conversations between the prisoners and their families taking place every evening. The wall with its watchtowers and numerous guards tolerate this communication as a ‘minimum of freedom’ for the prisoners.
Two coffee shops are constantly busy serving relatives of the prisoners. The relatives sit around movable tables that are located across the sidewalk into a small street and between the parked cars. There’s also the more or less ironic image of high ladders on daily display in front of the prison’s wall: these products are presented by the carpenters who take up most of the length of the wall on both sides of the street.

  • Appropriation of space on Ahmed Maher Street – south of the remand center (prison).

  • Appropriation of space on Al Estenal Street – north of the remand center (prison).

A few findings
Concluding remarks and open questions after two international and interdisciplinary workshops
‘With the right strategy, transport and commerce can co-exist in the streets of Cairo. Both are essential to a thriving economy and a vigorous urban environment, which benefits all Cairenes. Care must be taken not to undermine one success in the pursuit of another’ (Cairo from below 05/10/2012).
This conclusion of the blog article sums up the findings from Cairo and sheds light on the failed strategies of banning street vendors in some parts of Cairo as well as creating purely pedestrian zones and thereby severely damaging retail structures in European cities.
Interestingly, the close connection of retail success and passing traffic had already been identified as a core issue emerging during the ten days of research on the Veddel. The findings from both workshops hint at the importance of mobility at different scales and speeds and its impact on local economic structures which in turn reflect a neighbourhood’s capability to provide different functions for its residents.
The adaptability and resilience of the built environment as well as social structures can be improved by changing patterns of responsibility. According to Akbar (Akbar 1988), patterns of responsibility are the main difference between the structure of the traditional and contemporary built environments. The traditional built environment shows a higher percentage of property ownership than in contemporary centralised cities where large parts of the population neither own nor control property.
The loss of control – Lefebvre refers to this as the shift of responsibility impact – goes beyond the immediate residential scale to affect neighbourhood and city in their structures and shapes. As a consequence of the extension of residents’ responsibility for their outdoor spaces, most urban spaces were marked by signs that denoted a sense of territoriality for individuals as well as groups. This ensured protection from outsiders and increased social interaction among residents. The strong social networks resulting from the continuous process of interaction and negotiation among stakeholders ideally increased the agents’ autonomy and freedom of action. It was also seen to have helped establish stronger social networks among agents, resulting in more resilient communities.
Jane Jacobs (1961) argued that we should trust the self-organising vitality of cities rather than traditional ideas as to how they should look like. Beyond this short set of conclusions, there are many more questions and unresolved issues that emerged throughout the two workshops and could not be fully be explored in depth, although they certainly contributed to the working group’s thinking processes.

Space is the physical support of the way people live in time. Real world time, the space-and-time to which people are accustomed, is the ‘space of places’, which is unlike the ‘space of flows’ because it lacks the three elements of
(i) the proper flow medium
(ii) the proper items composing the flow traversing through it
(iii) the organisational nodes through which these flows circulate.

The concept of the ‘space of flows’ comprehends human action and interaction occurring dynamically and at a distance – effected via telecommunications technology containing continuous flows of time-sensitive communications and the nodes of global computer systems. These information flows connect people to a continuous, real-time cybernetic community that differs from the ‘global village’ because the group’s position in time becomes more important than their place (Stalder 2003).
Lefebvre’s claim for a ‘Right to the City’ involves two main aspects: participation and appropriation. Participation is the right of the citizens to play a central role in the decision making process that contributes to the production of urban space. Appropriation describes the inhabitants’ activities to fully use and even occupy the urban space, but it is also the right to reproduce urban space so that it meets the inhabitants’ needs (Purcell 2002).
There are four major elements creating the characteristic texture of cities in the traditional Muslim built environment: finaa’, dead-end streets, and public spaces such as streets and squares. Finaa’ is defined as the space on the street abutting a property, used exclusively by the residents inhabiting that property. The claims enjoyed by the parties of the finaa’ differ according to its location – whether it is located on a wide, a narrow or a dead end street – and whether or not it is demarcated by the owners (Akbar 1988).

Urban Scenes
We used narration as a means for the empirical description of complex urban environments. Due to the highly complex and heterogeneous nature of the Cairene urban environment as well as the tight time constraints we worked under, we encountered a certain difficulty in presenting our findings in an organic and clear way. We decided to bypass these problems by adopting narration as a device for representing the manifold impressions we collected during our field observations. As a result, we sketched the following three urban scenes, recreating the subjective experience of an urban drift through the streets of Al Darb Al Ahmar.

Emerging new questions