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Cairo's suburban sprawl

Arab life There is something dispiriting about the sprawling satellite towns north and south of Greater Cairo.

There is something dispiriting about the sprawling satellite towns north and south of Greater Cairo. A kind of latter-day suburbia spanning the upper echelons of an ailing economy, they seem to be where everyone is going these days. People are eager to escape the stifling living conditions of one of the world's most overpopulated and polluted cities, the irony being that (since they are invariably drivers and since they still work in the city) they too are contributing to the mess. And in so doing they seem to give themselves over to some of the most insular and depressing living spaces ever conceived by man. I often think that if housing was to be built on the moon, it would have more character than these expensively advertised ­developments.

"Cities" or not, these satellites have a strange way of crystallising all that is wrong with Cairo itself, as if by the mere fact of their existence they turn a mirror on the ageing city. And it is at least in part the way they reflect all the classism, corruption and hollow western aspirations of the powerful sphere that makes them so negatively compelling. Exclusive and closely observed, they recall so many cordoned-off corners of the world: Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, American military bases in Central Asia, private islands in the Pacific? Though some of them are already overpopulated, they always feel derelict; no matter who you are, once you have driven into one of them, you feel you are trespassing or intruding.

There is one particular quality of the cityscape that they reflect, which points up the idiosyncrasy of consistent incompletion in the Egyptian housing sector: Cairo is perpetually under construction, its streets dotted with un-, half-, or almost-finished apartment buildings; and this is due not only to lax contractors and underpaid builders but, more importantly, to the fact that businessmen who have taken out loans to bring into being architectural monstrosities are obliged to pay an interest much higher than their profit by market standards. Don't ask me why they go about building in the first place, or why it is that, while it is clearly possible to provide people with housing, Egypt's perpetual "housing crisis" persists, a purely abstract consequence of warped market forces.

Then you have the ever sprawling satellite towns - the house of the crisis - where prices are no lower, yet an increasingly de-urbanised middle class (more or less able to afford them) are moving in, dispossessing their children of the city and its history and, with their cars - no public transport exists for the satellite towns - turning it into an increasingly impossible place to live. Perhaps, when enough workplaces have moved out, they will finally let it be, and the capital of Egypt will shift slightly, leaving the old city to development haters like myself. That would not be so distressing.


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