The sign reads 'Coming in the Fall of 2010', and we think to ourselves – is it a mall that will be coming, or is it the arrival of the metastatic traffic cancer gripping Cairo? The answer to both is, sadly, yes.
We apparently do not have enough malls in Cairo, and certainly not enough in the Heliopolis-Nasr City area. That’s sarcasm, folks – we do have more than enough, but for some reason, developers see and empty plot of land and think 'mall!' instead of 'park' or at least 'where will the mall goers park?' As a resurrected Gordon Gecko ( from 80s cult classic Wall Street) would remind us; greed is good, and in Cairo, malls are the best example of said greed.
The mall in question is Sun City, whose location on the airport road (aka the Autostrad) linking Nasr City to Masaken Sheraton is guaranteed to bring us new cinemas, a water park, a hotel and a wealth of shopping options for the residents of Masaken Sheraton who think that Citystars is too far away. Masaken Sheraton is a pleasant suburb; it’s mainly residential and named after the Airport Sheraton (now the Fairmont Heliopolis & Towers) nearby.
Take a moment and try to remember what Nasr City was like before Citystars. Over 300 stores selling clothes and food attract thousands of visitors a day, each with their own car and a healthy reluctance to utilise the paid parking garage underneath the complex. Add to that hundreds of taxis loitering around and an ineffectual traffic monitoring system; and you’ve got the mangled traffic mess that is Nasr City. All roads leading to and from Citystars are clogged like the arteries of an obese man too greedy to put down the lamb chop in his hand. In this analogy, kids, Cairo’s roads are the clogged arteries and the lamb chop is the unhealthy and unchecked expansion of commercial outlets.
It’s here that we will cut our tirade against wanton consumerism– in a country where 60% of the populace lives below the poverty line, no less– short. We will, instead, begin our eulogy to the unlamented victim of this latest development; Cairo’s greatest and last road.
It starts in Nasr city’s 8th district, past El Ahly Club and over the '4.5 km' bridge over the Cairo Suez Road. Sliding off the bridge, the driver coasts along, blue sky and green medians stretch out as far as the eye can see – and then a gentle sloping turn to the right; past a cute little mosque. The gradient gets ever so steeper as we climb towards airport territory.
On the right, you will find a Watania gas station with one of the busiest and best car washes this side of Cairo. Follow a hard left turn, and the slope climbs then drops. On the right is the fence bordering the Cairo International Airport, and further down is the exit taking you directly to Terminal 3. Another 90-degree left turn, a few hundred meters further, and a flyover bridge obstructs the sky briefly as we turn into the final left turn, downward slope, and the home stretch to Masaken Sheraton. On the right hand side is the Oasis; an outdoor collection of cafés and restaurants raised out of the barren sands that used to belong to the old Cairo Airport; now a popular hangout for Heliopolitans and Nasserites.
The ride in one direction takes no longer than ten or fifteen minutes. The 60km speed limit is often ignored, but it shouldn’t be; driving on this road is a pleasure – the wide road, the gradients, twists, turns and cruising traffic are all to be savoured, not rushed. On a Friday morning, going in one direction is never enough; so the driver turns around, and heads back to Nasr City.
Immediately on the right is a modern-looking Youth Centre, an uphill gradient and a right turn follow. It’s straight sailing underneath the bridge flyover, until another right turn. As you come up to this second right turn, you will see what we fear most; the tumour threatening to kill this automotive lifeline– Sun City Mall. It’s built in an excavation seven- floors-deep; so only the roof is visible once you take the turn.
Cruising past, there is a different gas station, this time a large Mobil station. On most nights, you can see scores of cars parked in front of the gas stations’ FBI Juice Bar, with doors open and music blaring in what looks like a scene adapted from American Graffiti. A right turn and a downward slope eases the car into the next straightaway, then into the final gentle left turn before arriving where it all started, at the '4.5 km' bridge.
Sadly, our unborn children will not know this specific pleasure. Perhaps they will have their own favourite driving road – that’s if we’re not all in hovercrafts or a perpetual traffic jam by then. What we lament is not just the loss of a great driving road, but also the end of an era. Time was when this road was an unlit death trap, and then it was given life and safety with thousands of trees and streetlights. And it stayed that way for a very long time. It feels like that time is coming to an end. The road is a landmark of many of our own youths, and to see it go makes the passing of time in the city of Cairo seem all the more real.
As for our kids, we can only ask them to suspend their scepticism while we relate stories of drag races, spilt juice and golden afternoon cruises listening to Def Leppard or Kyte. We hope they’ll understand.