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Cool to be from Cairo

One man’s crusade to raise awareness of Cairo’s architectural heritage

Photograph of Soliman Pasha street taken in the early 20th century  Archimaps
Photograph of Soliman Pasha street taken in the early 20th century

By Michael Fox

Mohamed Elshahed sees beauty and promise where others see chaos and clutter and it’s his mission to share his perspective.

The PhD candidate in Middle Eastern studies is the brains behind the increasingly-popular Cairobserver blog and the man seeking recognition for a city which has a storied history but is plagued by problems and a poor reputation today.

“There are things in this city that I find to be fantastic, unique, worth saving, unmatched in other places,” he says.

“Having that perspective made me realise how special this place is and how amazing it could be.”

Cairobserver bills itself as “the start of a conversation about Cairo’s architecture and building, urban fabric and city life” including everything from buildings and streets to storefronts and postcards.

Started in May 2011, popular blog posts now attract as many as 10,000 readers each, covering everything from the city’s public parks and arts scene to social issues such as transport and waste management.

It also recently released a hard-copy magazine with a grant from the British Council in an effort to bring the site and its ideas to a wider audience and involve more people in the conversation.

Elshahed, who holds a masters degree in architecture studies, has visited more than 50 countries and found many had great PR campaigns but little to show for the hype, unlike the place he now calls home.

He sees things he thinks others should and hopes that by opening their eyes he can help build a sense of “civic pride”; that instead of people grizzling about the rubbish and traffic, they will see that it’s cool to be from Cairo.

“A lot of people seem to not be able to see the potential that the place has… they just need to see it differently.”

Cairenes take their city for granted and suffer from the entrenched belief that because things are chaotic and dilapidated and left to rot now, that it will always be that way. Instead, he wants people to recognise the thousand year old landmarks and the many cultures and people that came before.

Elshahed says that if he can tell people a story about certain buildings or squares or landmarks, that he can show them how things once were and that they can be that way again.

“Most people don’t know what the background is of where they live [and] there aren’t enough incentives that help people imagine Cairo differently from the way it is.”

For example, he believes that more people should understand the way the city has grown over the past 1000 years. Unlike many places, Cairo was not created by one ruler or one dynasty or political movement, he says.

“This isn’t your typical imperial city or your typical royal city… There’s something very organic about the way this city developed which I think is to its advantage.”

Instead, the city is the legacy of many different eras, rulers, cultures and people. You can walk into some houses still standing in historic quarters today and see evidence of this, he says.

He also wants to encourage the sharing of views on the city and encourage residents to get involved in helping to combat some of its problems, rather than just complaining.

El Shahed is pleased with the reception of his brainchild, believing the blog has a big future, and once he has finished his academic study he plans to expand it.

In the meantime, starting Friday when the city is at its quietest, he wants people to go for a walk, anywhere in the city, and look for things for themselves. Try and see what he sees.

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