Magazine article New Internationalist

Colossus in the Sun

Magazine article New Internationalist

Colossus in the Sun

Article excerpt

I recently had an appointment in a place called New Maadi, south of Cairo, more an extension of the city than a town or suburb. I hadn't been down the road that leads there in a while. It passes through the City of the Dead, Cairo's millennial cemetery which actually has a burgeoning living population, a shanty town amidst the tombs. But aside from the informal housing that has sprouted everywhere, the capital's perimeters are expanding at a speed that defies belief. New Maadi barely existed 10 years ago, nor did the tight rows of highrise apartment buildings standing shoulder to shoulder against the desert that uninterruptedly lined the road.

Arriving at my destination, I had more cause for astonishment. There, at a knot in several under-construction highways, was a massive supermarket, one of a well-known international chain. While I'd heard that this franchise had come to town, I was unprepared for its sheer size. Since the person I was meeting lived just behind it, I figured going through would be easier than going around, so I stepped inside the cavernous airconditioned space, which was nearly empty at. around noon. It was in a shopping mall carrying local and international brand-name stores, in addition to the mega-supermarket, where an endless row of cashiers quietly awaited customers. It struck me they were better equipped to handle crowds here than at Cairo's International Airport.

I made my way through and left by an emergency exit, only to find myself in a loading dock, abuzz with the arrival of refrigerated trucks. Crossing it, I located my destination, climbed the stairs and rang the bell, but no-one was at home. I went back down, sat in the doorway, and watched the comings and goings of food, reflecting on how the process of provision had vastly altered in what seemed a very short time.

Shopping in Cairo has always been an adventure, since it ordinarily involves dozens of direct human contacts, and mostly takes place in the street. Sidewalk fruit, vegetable and bread vendors each have separate establishments, sometimes no more than a few crates turned upside down on the ground that serve as tables to present their goods. Although they provide a valuable service, the police plague these food sellers, raiding them and issuing fines, leaving them no choice but to go underground. …

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