Residents of Cairo's "ashwaiat" neighbourhoods dream of a better life

[KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images] Children walk to their school in one of Cairo's "ashwaiat" neighbourhoods.

[KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images] Children walk to their school in one of Cairo's "ashwaiat" neighbourhoods.

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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.

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    ناظم ايمن

    2012-8-1

    Since the old time, Bahrain has ever known as one of the greatest Arabs country, so it was necessary to seek to resolve some of the permanent crisis that may be possessed during the recent past and which Centered in the relationship of Bahraini government with citizens and the citizens with each other. First, before we discuss any matter we should focus on that Bahrain is a great home for all Bahraini people, they are the government and they are all categories of citizen, but sometimes this does not prevent a little sour from the internal differences and sometime it sour a lot of problems. Bahrain is the home of all, thus no matter how they Varies or agrees. Despite of their well, they are afraid on Bahrain interest, wish the best for their homeland and this will never have internal strife between citizens and government and between citizens each other due to political or religious differences. Whatever the cause, These differences, which are present in any country, will lead to bad and retrograde even these differences may reached up to a certain extent of bloodshed and this is what they should be avoided since the first.

  • Gasan

    2010-9-17

    Poverty is a widespread disease in all its parts of Egypt. Many persons are suffering from this prevalent scourge in Egyptian society. As a result, many bad habits have spread among the Egyptians, such as bribes, drugs, hashish and many other things. The Egyptians are suffering, and the government doesn't take this matter into consideration and doesn't try to eradicate poverty. Moreover, Egypt occasionally witnesses huge demographic increases, and I think that this increase is among the causes of the increased poverty rate. What aggravates the situation is the fact that there aren't job opportunities or enough governmental support to cope with the difficulties of life. In fact, this problem is still unsolved. The emigration of many Egyptian youth to other Arab countries in order to look for job opportunities proves that unemployment is widespread in Egypt.

  • موسى

    2010-7-5

    The housing crisis is the greatest and the most complicated issue facing Egyptians. It has increased in recent years, due to the population increase. The increase of population is not commensurate with the ongoing housing projects. Indeed, the Egyptian government didn’t attempt to keep up the pace with this population increase by launching residential areas to overcome the housing crisis and eradicate it. On the contrary, the government neglected the issue and turned a blind eye to it, because this dictatorial government doesn’t work on fulfilling the interests of the people and solving their problems. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t care about the Egyptians to begin with. This arrogant government should have found out the necessary solutions to solve the housing issue through the establishment of vertical residential complexes which provide a huge number of apartments, and then distribute them to citizens. The government should sell them to citizens at low prices and by installments over long periods of time, because the great and increasing housing problem in Egypt obliged the youth to leave the country and emigrate, especially to the Gulf countries, looking for good job opportunities so that they can gain considerable amounts of money and then go back to Egypt and buy a house. This crisis has also made the youth abstain from marriage, as they are unable to afford a house to start a family.

  • جلال

    2010-7-3

    The huge growth in population in Egypt is abnormal. This was parallel to the government neglect because it is preoccupied with pursuing its own interests, rather than following the events which have led to a real housing crisis. It obliged people to immigrate and look for job opportunities abroad, mainly in the Gulf and European countries, in order to gain enough money to buy or build a house and go back to Egypt and thus establish a family. The government didn’t focus on studying the problem seriously and find suitable solutions to relieve the suffering of the Egyptian people. People have been suffering from a dictatorial government which doesn’t care about them and doesn’t try to ease their difficulties. The housing crisis and other problems, including the deterioration of the economic conditions, the spread of financial corruption and the spread of bribery in the state institutions, in addition to the oppression of freedoms, have all contributed to increasing public rejection of the arrogant dictatorial government, and have strengthened the opposition, which is working on toppling the regime. It is an oppressive regime that doesn’t solve the problems of the people, but rather add to them, mainly the housing problem. Indeed, the government hasn’t financed new housing projects that it could provide to people at reasonable prices, to be paid for in installments over long period of time, in order to mitigate their ordeal.

  • 2010-7-2

    The Egyptian people suffer from a lot of hardships. The housing crisis is one of these hardships faced by all the Egyptian people. This crisis has prevented many Egyptian men and women from getting married. It is difficult to get married while this crisis is affecting the country. It is not new to Egypt; it is an old crisis, it has been there for years, and it has not been dealt with or considered by the government, which does not try to relieve or help the young people to ease the suffering they are enduring. This has led to the delinquency of many of them, as they cannot work or marry and cannot have a house. Many of them have turned to addiction to escape this despicable situation and the lack of interest by the government. The latter knows that the housing crisis is a crisis for every Egyptian citizen and mainly the poor, who suffer greatly from this crisis, and who live in heavily populated districts similar to cemeteries.

  • masri

    2010-6-28

    There is a situation of severe poverty all across Egypt, and it has affected most of the people and the neighborhoods in Egypt, especially those who do not work for the Egyptian government or are not among the businessmen in Egypt. The latter are dubbed as ‘sharks’ because they have invaded the market with all of its products, in addition to the fact that they have extensive control over the economy, in light of the government’s inability to confront them and by simply acting as a spectator because there is nothing that it can do. This is due to the fact that they have control over the government and the economy, and this negatively impacts the poor ordinary citizens. The percentage of poor people in Egypt has risen significantly as a result of the rise in unemployment and the lack of job opportunities for young graduates who are considered to be among the intellectual class. So, what would the case be with those who are not educated and do not have any qualifications, and how would they find an opportunity to improve their economic condition? Moreover, there are other numerous crises, such as the housing crisis, and all these crises have helped create a very poor economy in Egypt, which has affected the ordinary Egyptian citizen. This is why the Egyptians are increasingly in favor of change by any means possible. The citizens want a strong government that has things under control, one that is not helpless and subject to the control of greedy businessmen who are in charge of all the trading activities.

  • جمعه

    2010-6-27

    Egypt suffers from many crises, and the Egyptians are suffering from a state of poverty that became a phenomenon that covers all of Egyptian society, due to the policies of the governing regime in Egypt and its lack of awareness of the extent of the Egyptians' suffering. Ir, it knows about it but does not have the abilities that would help relieve it because it is a dictatorship that does not accept the opinions of the opposition, nor works on listening to the problems of the Egyptian people. Rather, its main concern is to remain in power by carrying out terrorism against the people, and dominating it via the repressing agencies. The deterioration of the economical condition in Egypt has brought about a state of poverty in the Egyptian society. Many Egyptians now live below the poverty line and do not have jobs that allow them to live decently, even if they work as employees of the government; their small and insufficient salaries hold them back from living their lives as they should. Egyptians are suffering from a terrible housing crisis and the common citizen in Egypt cannot buy a new house so he can have a new family. These are all due to poverty and the deteriorating economical status, which has been caused by the Egyptian government as we pointed out earlier. The government must turn to these poor people, grant them their rights, and work on rescuing them from the difficult circumstances in which they live.

  • عباس

    2010-6-27

    Poverty and the deteriorating economic situation in Egypt are caused by the corrupted government.

  • 2010-6-23

    Thank you for writing about our suffering. I am one of the slum population, and every day I pray to God to get out of it. I refuse to get married because I do not want my children to be called sons of the slum, and it is clear that the writer of the reportage felt our suffering. We thank him and may assistance come through him or someone like him.

  • khalid

    2010-6-23

    The Messenger, Allah's blessings and peace be upon him and his family, says "Whoever gives life to a barren land, it will be his." However, this statement is said by the master of all people, who never says a word on his own, except by an order from Allah, the Almighty. The unjust regulations and laws work contrary to that Hadith! The law says: Whoever gives life to a barren land, we will break his hand! We have seen how the state attacks anyone building a house in a land that does not belong to anyone except to God: it destroys his home under the pretext that the land belongs to the state or the government! To this day we have not seen the instrument by which Allah, the Almighty, gives the property of this land to the state! Until this moment we haven't seen the deed that God gave to the government. They prevent people from walking on the land and seeking the grace of Allah! Imagine, they have imprisoned two youths for fifteen years because they found treasures near one of the pyramids and wanted to make use of them! Hence they imprisoned both of them for fifteen years! On the grounds that the monuments are the property of the state! In short, the reason behind people and people’s starvation are governments and regulations, and there is no solution except that people should stand up to claim their rights, and to take them, because he who robbed the rights will never give them up willingly!