Spread outside the walls of the bustling city of Cairo, with its millions of citizens, residents and tourists, are residential areas called ashwaiat, or "haphazards", in reference to the manner in which they were built.
Despite being an ideal solution for its residents who hail from rural regions, and for the poor and unemployed, many of them have become a threat to society. Poor social conditions and the accompanying proliferation of drugs and crime and the absence of police – all this created areas with their own traditions and norms.
To visit these areas, you need a local escort who can vouch for you and provide reassurance to the people and the "shabab" (youth). With no escort, you risk falling victim to harassment and detention by "thugs", who will not hesitate to ask you for a passage fee or rob you of everything you have.
The most important visiting rules is to avoid looking like a journalist or tourist, behave normally, and keep speech to a minimum so as not to reveal your accent and expose yourself as an outsider.
Al-Shorfa's escort, Ahmad Abdel Rida Mohammad, is a former resident of the ashwaiat near the Dar Es-Salam area. He left with his family after his father secured a job contract in one of the Gulf States. He took us to the home of his aunt, who still lives in the ashwaia along with many of his relatives.
Mariam Hussein Al-Shafi, or Aunt Um Mahmoud, received us at her house or quasi-house, consisting of two rooms—the first split between a living room and kitchen, which at night turns, along with the other room, into a second bedroom to accommodate the seven family members.
Um Mahmoud says she came to Cairo with her husband 10 years ago in the hope of a new life. Her family had "faced many difficulties because of the low salary of her husband, who works as a baker, and the many life necessities." They were forced to move to this area, where they built a room, adding on an extension years later.
The only way to move about within this area's alleyways is on foot or by tuk-tuk, a motorcycle modified to accommodate three passengers plus the driver.
The alleys are full of holes and sewage and lined with garbage. Health services are non-existent. There is no running water in most homes, some of which are more than one story and rent for very cheap prices.
"The basic definition of the word ashwaiat applies to everything constructed in a haphazard fashion and is not part of the state's urban planning, even if that means rooms of zinc, tin or cement," said Dr. Imam Hassanein of the Social Research Centre in Cairo. "In Egypt, it has become a synonym for certain impoverished areas."
He said that these ashwaiat areas "constitute a real threat to society as a whole because of the complete lack of security control, the rule of law of the jungle, crimes, drugs and prostitution, in addition to the threat of sectarian incidents."
The 85 ashwaiat around Cairo are home to about five and a half million people.
"I yearn and dream of one day donning a lawyer's gown and moving out of the area with my family," said. Mervat Badreddine, a 21-year-old woman Al-Shorfa met at Um Mahmoud's house.
She added that she currently studies law at the University of Cairo and works as a secretary in a law firm for a meagre 250 pounds per month ($45) to support herself. She sees a university degree as a way out of the ashwaiat.
With tears in her eyes, Mervat said, "I do not know how it is possible to marry the one I love, being from this area. For his family surely would not marry their son to a girl who lives in the same room with her four brothers and parents! We have no bathroom and share one with five neighbours. We live as though in a stable not befitting humans."
Mervat often lies to her friends about her residence. "I say that I live in special housing for female students because I am by herself in Cairo and my family is in a village in the governorate of Alexandria," she said.
There is no precise count of the number of these areas in Egypt. The Official Statistics Bureau reports that the number of ashwaiat currently in Egypt is 900, whereas other statistics indicate the existence of more than 1,300 in various regions.
As for the number of inhabitants, the official reports place them at 11 million, while reports by the United Nations and NGOs say up to 20 million live in unplanned housing, a large part of them deprived of the minimum requirements for a decent life.