Driving east or west out of Cairo, one used to observe endless desert, broken only by a few sleepy settlements and austere power lines. But in the past few decades, endless stretches of apartments and mini-palaces have sprung up, sometimes seemingly overnight, to cover vast swaths in patchy layers of brick, steel and asphalt.
“Cairo Divided” is a new publication by Jack Shenker, The Guardian’s Cairo correspondent, and photojournalist Jason Larkin that investigates these new “satellite cities” and their role in the unprecedented and rapid urban development that now surrounds Cairo.
According to Shenker, developments ranging from the major hubs of New Cairo and Sixth of October City to smaller, posh areas like Cairo Festival City and Palm Hills are “reshaping the political and psychological contours” of Egypt’s capital.
“This is a story about a city so large,” he writes, “that it had to turn itself inside out, transforming its periphery into a core whilst condemning the previous center to a life on the margins.”
Available in London last month, “Cairo Divided” was launched in Cairo last week with a panel discussion that packed the small, white gallery of Downtown’s Contemporary Image Collective. Over a three-hour marathon, Larkin’s images were projected as Shenker and commentators including Wafaa Nadim, Ahmed Zaazaa, Ursula Lindsey and Mohamed Elshahed, discussed the proliferation of satellite developments in the arid desert around Cairo, some of which sit empty under speculative limbo while others cater to the very richest of Egypt’s stratified populace.
Their tone was harsh. “This is much closer to colonial urban expansion,” Elshahed, a doctoral student, suggested. “This is the state’s failure at achieving social justice.”
On a table nearby sat “Cairo Divided,” a sleek newsprint publication that balances the permanent, grand statement represented by a book with the transience of print journalism.
By using newsprint, a form usually meant to be discarded quickly, Larkin and Shenker mirror the ephemeral, haphazard nature of their subject, cities that seem to float without a clear future in outer Cairo’s desolate expanses of desert. The nature of Cairo’s urban space is changing quickly, Shenker writes, aided by Larkin’s visual suggestions, and to tackle more than a moment in its development would be impossible.
Larkin’s images are breathtaking and wisely chosen: vast landscapes of half-constructed edifices, brick-strewn wastelands, dusty, lonesome construction workers and unfinished roadside announcements that seem to advertise to nobody. Each image shows either a lonely object surrounded by desolation, or else buildings, signs and golf courses so big and so grand that they themselves become eerily beautiful mirages. Larkin’s real achievement is in making very young constructions look like timeless ghost towns. “You have to wonder,” Shenker questioned on Wednesday, “where is the demand for this?”
His prose is thick with visual detail as it takes the reader on a critical, historically aware tour of the contradictions, at once ideological, economic, and social, that he has witnessed throughout his journey.
His observations suggest a collusion with the reader, a cynicism achieved by not confronting any of the developers of the satellite cities with the socially toxic aspects of their work, and then writing, “it’s hard to conceive of any developers being willing to engage in a discussion about the wider social ramifications of their projects.”
While Shenker finds plenty of developers in “painfully trendy” offices to talk to him, he does not interview any of the people who have moved out to these cities and might have thoughtful, positive things to their alleviation of Cairo’s crowded density.
This approach begs the question of who, other than other expatriates and Egyptian experts on urban development, Shenker’s audience is, especially considering the Arabic text that accompanies the English. I suspect that the many Egyptians for whom moving to the satellite cities represents a dream come true will not find his harsh, sometimes snarky tone persuasive.
But then again, perhaps a set of fresh and purposefully naive eyes by an outsider is what is needed to challenge the socially nefarious consequences of a haphazard development that is threatening to undermine Cairo’s future as an inclusive, thoughtfully planned urban space.
Shenker knows that he is approaching divisively political questions, so he approaches them from a side door, seeking the thoughts of Ahmed Okasha, a renowned professor of psychiatry who tells him that the satellite cities for the super rich lead to a “breakdown in social cohesion,” where “any sense of attachment to the Egyptian nation at large is being eroded.” A political implication is slipped in through a psychiatrist’s clinical observations.
Towards the end of his essay, however, Shenker cites writer Ursula Lindsey’s contention that the quick popular mobilization of January and February uprisings could not have occurred without the dense tangle of Cairo’s urban life, which allowed protesters to call people down from their flats to swell their numbers. Here, the most striking worry of Shenker’s analysis is voiced: politics in Egypt is connected to space and the satellite cities will lead to a political isolation — his word is “detachment”— as physical as it is intellectual.
Ending his essay with images of “a world of sterile artifice,” Shenker sees a “devotion to detachment” that may become the “downfall” of the satellite cities. And yet, Shenker’s strength is in a kind of description only possible for the confidently detached outsider, the floating observer of people, places, and things that looks for an uneasy relationship between the beauty of images and the tragedy of their implications.
“With a few buildings to pierce them, the skies out here always look so disconcertingly epic,” he writes, “at times it feels like you’ve arrived at the end of the world.” That kind of statement is deeply personal, and its unique, forward-looking metaphor of apocalypse, is extreme and yet casual, is perhaps Shenker’s most political statement of all.
Larkin’s real achievement is in making very young constructions look like timeless ghost towns.