While most people know the Ibn Tulun mosque with its uncommon swirly dome, little attention is paid to the neighbourhood surrounding it. I was recently invited by a friend to come and help renovate an old apartment her family has in the neighbourhood that they hope to make into a cultural salon. The street in which the apartment lies is next to the aged mosque, and by right next to it I mean we could have gotten a ladder easily jumped onto the mosque’s grounds.
The street ends up on a steep hill and is aptly called Al Dahdoura, which means a straight street. The road is not paved but is a bumpy dirt road. The entrance of the street is tiny, and at first I was afraid that the car would not fit, but then the road starts widening will going up. At the end, there is a very wide street.
Unfortunately it is covered with garbage, and it appears that there recently had been a sewage problem. The sewage had mixed with the dirt of the road to form a smelly kind of clay. All of this is right next to the mosque, but as a visitor to Ibn Tulun you would not notice any of this since the road is at the back of the mosque. Sitting in the middle of the garbage pile was a band of sorry-looking cats, who seem more like a dirty cat mafia family, the kind of cats that have stopped trying to clean themselves, considering the filth in which they dwell.
Beside the cats, there is a kiosk and a mechanic, who fixes everything in the street, providing background noise for the people living there. Apartment buildings are randomly built and not up to code. People keep animals on rooftops including dogs, chickens and pigeons.
The sorry state of the neighbourhood is apparent, but as soon as you go up in one of those buildings and see the view, the stress of the trip is vindicated. From one of those simple apartments you can view the Ibn Tulun mosque, the Citadel, Moqattam and the Refay mosque. The amount of serenity you experience is indescribable, realising that by not looking around how often one fails to experience Egypt’s greatness.
The clean and organised bubbles where most of us live deny us the pleasure of living within close reach of history and exploring an Egypt that once stood against and vanquished foreign invaders. My friend informed me that her father and a group of friends intended to renovate the neighbourhood, but their plans failed for some reason. It is easy to see the potential of such a neighbourhood, and how lovely it could become with some effort.
As the day dwindled and weariness took its toll on us, we decided to leave. We came into the area in small groups, but left as one big one. Our numbers invited people in the street to stare. We were obvious strangers, being surveyed and looked upon as intruders. Our sense of alienation increased as more people stood in their windows to watch the show. We were foreigners in our own city, and it felt sad. My friend’s brother commented that the perspective of the people would shift if we can get them invested in the project.
It is true the gap between Egyptians has widened and we no longer understand each other, marking anyone different as a “hostile” intruder. However, things can change if some effort is exerted. All it needs is someone to collect the garbage, pave the streets and apply a coat of paint on the surrounding buildings. Someone who can also try and get people involved in their own destinies and help them realise that they can change their reality. Just like the rest of Egypt, Al-Dahdoura has great potential, but so far no one really cares.