Gihan moved to Ezbet Khairallah not long ago. Escaping from an abusive marriage, she bravely left home in upper Egypt with her three kids — two boys and a teenage girl — with faith she would find in Cairo her chance of a new beginning. A friend of a friend mentioned that a catering kitchen was looking for cooks, and Gihan didn’t think twice. She took the job and rented a flat just a few steps from work. This proximity protects her and her children from too much exposure in an Islamic community where a divorced newcomer, especially a female one, is quite unusual.

She found a vacant unit in a family-owned building, a common setup at the al-ashwaiat. The two bedroom flat would be enough. For the moment she shares one room with the boys while her teenage daughter, soon to be engaged, sleeps in the other. Their pet turtle stays in the living room. After painting every wall in bright pink and covering every inch of the floor with carpets, Gihan could start a home on her own terms.

Every morning before going to work, her red dyed hair is gently tucked into her purple hijab. She walks down the dark winding concrete staircase into the street and crosses the road to her workplace. The Dawar Kitchen has become a home away from home to Gihan and other women in vulnerable conditions — some Egyptian migrants, some Syrian refugees. Their work has offered each of them a new life. The Kitchen is their community. For Gihan, this fresh start means that her mark as a divorced woman has not held her back, and here, in this community, she is accepted.

When things get more settled she might be able to pursue an old dream: to become a professional singer. Gihan has a powerful voice and everyone around her knows it. With a bit of push she uploaded her version of a classic Egyptian song online, Ahwak — I love you.

Ezbet Khairallah - Cairo, Egypt

Cairo is red. An ocean of bare brick buildings flood along the Nile’s margins from the North to the South. Millions of housing units are built informally in private agricultural land and state-owned desert areas to house the inflow of migrants coming from upper Egypt and the Delta, seeking for better opportunities in Africa’s largest metropolis. The government’s incapacity to provide affordable and viable housing for the vast majority of Cairenes leads to a rapid and relentless process of unplanned urban growth.

Driving along the Ring Road, the dense mass of red buildings extends to the horizon. The size and population of those areas are difficult to precisely measure; it’s estimated that 62% of the Greater Cairo Region population lives in the so-called Red City, also known as the al-ashwaiat, a term which in Arabic means haphazard. This naming reveals a lot about Egyptians’ perception of those areas. Official policies of demolition and relocation to unaffordable social housing, as well as mandates to paint facades facing roads, try to deny a reality that is already in place.

Although the al-ashwaiat may seem carelessly unfinished, the practice of leaving the facades unfinished is done to avoid taxation. The structures are solid, and the standards of construction are high. These buildings usually have a minimum of 4 stories, growing up to 15 floors in some areas. Buildings are largely owned by families that bought small parcels of land from local brokers, and negotiated themselves with local constructors to raise the building as an investment in their future. Floor by floor, room by room, additions are made as the family grows and external newcomers increase the demand for rental apartments. The incremental nature of the al-ashwaiat’s architecture is resilient as it leaves space for adaptation.

Informal Cairo is a contemporary phenomenon in a city that has a much longer past. The origins of present-day Cairo can be traced back to the year 641 AD, at the founding of Al-Fustat by Muslim conqueros, an area known today as part of Old Cairo. The south of Al-Fustat remained an inhabited desert plateau until the mid 1970’s, when a group of newly arrived migrants started occupying the area.

This empty plateau, with no urban infrastructure or services of any kind, meant the possibility to have a piece of land to settle down and begin to dream of a possible future. They delimited parcels with stones and built shelter with materials found in the area. Despite many attempts by the government to dismantle this settlement, those migrant families firmly resisted. Today that desert plateau has become the large community known as Ezbet Khairallah*, home to more than 650,000.

The bustling streets of Ezbet, with their high rooftops, vibrant food markets, and the energy of children at play, prove that toughness can be built on sand. It’s a symbol of human resilience, displayed side-by-side with ancient monuments that also persist, reminding us of the vast and unknown desert that is our collective journey of civilization. 

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