“Modern” is the way in which Cairo’s city administration would like to portray the Egyptian capital — a Singapore-style, business metropolis stretching along the banks of the Nile, clean, rich and air-conditioned. In its latest campaign to create such an image, the city’s administration has identified unlicensed street vendors as its newest enemy. With no money to upgrade the living standards of the impoverished city population, the solution to this “un-modern” aspect of life in Cairo lies once again in the deployment of the police force, which has recently declared open war against the countless street vendors in the Duqqi area as well as the downtown and business districts. The city administration’s enemies are everywhere: Umm ‘Abdu, who sells lettuce displayed on yesterday’s al-Ahram newspaper, or Hagg Ashraf, whose wooden cart has nearly every imaginable household item, from whisk brooms to toilet brushes, or the elderly woman who carefully stacks her oranges in the shape of a miniature pyramid every morning. These street vendors struggle for survival without official license to do so. Police officers and city officials have shut down Umm Hasan’s vegetable stand several times. Her seven-member family pitched their tent at the beginning of the street by the Nile bridge 40 years ago. “When they came, they took away all our vegetables,” says a daughter recounting the last police raid. Once they even discovered the family’s private vegetable stash and confiscated everything including the children’s clothes.
A kilometer down the street, a new “marketplace” stretches through the center of a former village. Over the last 30 years, the village has been surrounded by the city’s middle class with their new houses, patisseries and boutiques. Those villagers who have remained work as servants, house cleaners and day laborers in the surrounding neighborhood. It is here, in the newer neighborhoods, that the city administration has demonstrated what it means by a “modern” urban center. The market complex, with neatly tiled shops of equal size, was recently built here. No cars block the thoroughfares. Even the live chickens in their cages seem to await their final hour in an orderly fashion. The only problem to overcome is the lack of customers.
Many have yet to find their way to this symbol of “modernity” in this quarter. One kilometer is simply too far for Cairenes who can find everything they need in their immediate neighborhood. Thanks to Umm Hasan and people like her, Cairo’s streets overflow with all kinds of goods and services. City officials had hoped to relocate Umm Hasan to this tidy, new market. With her meager income, the 1,000-pound ($300) down payment for the shop, in addition to the rent and electric bills, are out of the question. Now Umm Hasan may lose the location on which she has made vegetable history for the last 40 years. Likewise, families who live from hand to mouth will lose this cheap source of produce. Umm ‘Abdu and Umm Hasan struggle not only for their own survival, but also for a piece of the market pie and culture of the city Should the sterile environment of Western shopping malls serve as the model for the future of Cairo’s inner city? Maybe it is the “chaotic” market scenes of Cairo which should provide an alternative to the super shopping malls of the West.
Whoever walks the streets of Duqqi these days will encounter a pile of half-covered vegetable boxes with no visible owner. If a potential client shows interest, Umm Hasan will quickly appear from around the comer to negotiate the amount and price of the desired product. “What can we do?” asks her daughter. “Water doesn’t flow from the bottom up.” Whose hopeless struggle does she have in mind: her fight to remain a street vendor or the city administration’s unshakable version of the modern?