Shubra: An Egyptian Melting Pot
by Adel Murad in Cairo
Millions of tourists visit Egypt every year, but only a handful ever set foot in Shubra. Most foreigners who visit Shubra, or live there, are either married to Egyptians from Shubra or they went there by chance and fell in love with the place. I visited Shubra in May 2005, and was lucky enough to tour the streets, do some shopping and witness a local wedding too!
But, where is Shubra?
Geographically, the district covers North Cairo and extends from the railway bridge behind the Main train station in Ramsis Square, to the edge of Shubra Al Kheima at the far north of the capital. From East to West it covers the area between the Nile, and the railway line going north at Ahmed Helmy Street.
In the past, Shubra was much smaller, and more aristocratic. Now, it is home to millions of Egyptians in often-crowded conditions, most of whom belong to lower middle and lower classes. About 40% of the Shubra population are Coptic Christians, and many come from Upper and Lower Egypt to live there.
Egyptian history books paint a picture during Fatimid times when the river Nile used to run along a line from the present Emad Eddine Street to Ramsis Square. A story tells of a ship called Elephant, sinking nearby, and on the wreckage, a small island was formed, and was called the Elephant Island. The name later changed to Badran Island, after a religious sheikh that used to live there. Now, a street carries the same name (Geziret Badran), and it is right in the middle of Shubra. There is no longer an island in Shubra, because it is a massively populated area a few miles away from the river (which over time, has shifted away from the district).
In the 17th century, Mohamed Ali, the ruler who modernised Egypt, built himself a palace in Shubra and extended Shubra Street all the way to his palace in 1808. It was recorded that the street had fig and date trees on its sides, and that a large mill was established nearby, known to the locals as Al Mabyada, for its production of white linen. Many residents were employed there.
These facts explain why there are still textile mills operating in northern Shubra, and why the area attracted so many to come and live there.
There were other palaces built in Shubra. One, which was built by Prince Touson in 1869, is now a school (Shubra Secondary School). The street opposite still carries the name of the prince.
Real development came to Shubra in 1902, when the tramline was introduced to the district: first on Shubra Street and then in the Rod El Farag area a year later. The tram continued to run until the end of the 20th century, when it was made redundant by the underground metro line. Shubra has always been strategically important to rulers of Egypt, being the connection between Cairo and the north.
The first railway line in Egypt from Cairo to Alexandria started in Shubra in 1854. The Rod El Farag market, which used to be the largest in all Egypt and was featured in many old movies, is why many regional farmers and traders settled in nearby Shubra. Another factor was a shipbuilding yard in Boulak in the early 19th century. The area is now very near the present-day TV building, a landmark on the Nile, where a railway bridge crosses the river.
It is estimated that the population of Shubra ranges between four to five million Egyptians, which means it contains more than a quarter of all the population of Cairo. In some inner areas of Shubra, the population density is 75,000 per square kilometre. About five million people commute daily into and out of Shubra!
Shubra has always been well connected not only to other parts of Cairo but to all of Egypt: by river, railway, road and long distance taxis to other cities. Now it has an underground metro too (marked green on the metro map), and is only three stops away from downtown Cairo.
In the recent past, Shubra was also home to many non-Egyptians who came to love the place. This is reflected in foreign street names that are unique to Shubra. Names such as Kitcheners, Chicolani, Kholosy, Victoria and Yalbugha are still landmarks of Shubra. In Shubra all creeds, religions, races and colors mix in truly human and tolerant fashion that can only be experienced there.
Shubra is by far the most liberal minded of Egyptian society. It produced many talented people in arts and politics, including the late French singer Dalida, and the Egyptian singer Muharam Fouad. Polititions from Shubra include former prime ministers Kamal Ganzoury and Ali Lutfy, and the head of the Peoples Assembly, Rifaat Al Mahgoub. Poet Ibrahim Nagi and the writer and cartoonist Ahmed Bahgat are also from Shubra. Many Egyptian movie stars come from Shubra, including Nabila Obeid, Madiha Usry, laila Faouzy, Shukry Sarhan and Mahmoud El Mleigy. There have also been many football stars, famous Moslem Sheikhs and Coptic priests that came from Shubra.
In Shubra, it is common for all to share in the public meals, which breaks the fast of Ramadan at sunset, and for all to celebrate both Moslem and Coptic feasts. Even local charities designated for Moslem orphans or Coptic elderly, usually take care of all comers, without discrimination. One example is the Karma Coptic Charity for the Blind, established in 1953 by a local priest. The Charity has now grown to 14 branches, and has as its honorary president the renowned Moslem cleric, Sheikh Sayed Tantawy, the Sheikh of Al Azhar.
There is a great deal of respect for the elderly in Shubra, and the police rarely solve disputes, as families take care of their own.
Shubra, however, is not perfect. There are incidents of ignorant extremism amongst a few residents, mainly youth. A few incidents took place in the past 30 years, which led to tension, but in serious crises, such as earthquakes, the Shubra spirit prevails.
Shubra may suffer from over population, poverty and a serious shortage of living space, but it also has some of the best shopping prices in Cairo. Kholosy Street is a shopping paradise and boutiques exchange hands there for LE five million! It is possible for an adventurous tourist to go off the beaten track to Shubra by metro. His or her first stop should be Rod El Farag, and from there the choice is in three directions. Shubra Street north will lead to two landmarks, the beautifully decorated Hageen Mosque, followed by the Catholic St. Teresa church.
Going south will reveal a variety of shops for shoes, fashion, sweets, nuts, fish, and department stores. In Kholosy Street itself, a walk towards Teraa Boulakia Street should beat any downtown fashion shops, at discounts of about 20-30 percent. There are many banks, complete with ATM machines, which accept all credit and payment cards and give out Egyptian banknotes. After the sightseeing and the shopping, the rest of Cairo is a few metro stops away. One word of caution though: English is not widely spoken in Shubra, so take a local guide, if you can. Otherwise try to practice your Arabic. Either way, you will be treated like the only VIP in town.