Paris along the Nile

Simon Akam takes a stroll down the crumbling, 19th-century boulevards of Cairo's European quarter

Mahasen Maher can still remember when the girls wore miniskirts to Groppi's. The 65-year-old Egyptian moved into her apartment above the venerable coffee shop on Midan Talaat Harb in downtown Cairo in the winter of 1960.

"It was one of the best restaurants, a nice place, with nice sweets," she says, seated at an inlaid table in the cavernous art-deco flat she shares with Rocky, her German shepherd, and Lazy, an exhausted-looking turtle. "We wore clothes without sleeves, décolletage. It was a nice place to live." However, almost five decades on, everything has changed. In the coffee shop below, girls in headscarves sip mediocre Nescafé at tables of stained Formica. The streets outside are choked with traffic. "Everything got worse," Maher says sadly.

The origins of Cairo's European quarter, centred on Midan Talaat Harb, extend back to a Europhile 19th-century ruler of Egypt, the Albanian Khedive Ismail. In 1867 Ismail visited the Exposition Universelle in Paris and was enraptured by the boulevards of the new city that had been constructed by Baron Haussmann. Flush with receipts from the spike the American civil war had created in the price of Egyptian cotton, Ismail decided to rebuild Cairo in the European style. On a swampy section of land between the Nile and the teeming souks of the medieval town, planners laid out a new city.

However, Ismail's ambition was not matched by financial acumen and his largesse bankrupted the Egyptian state. In 1882 the country came under de facto British control. Yet Cairo continued to thrive, and the hurried facades of the new boulevards were fleshed out by further construction, catering to a burgeoning Anglo-Egyptian caste of administrators, a cosmopolitan foreign community and the wealthy pashas and Coptic cotton kings of the Egyptian nobility.

The new buildings encompassed a riot of architectural styles, from art nouveau to arabesque. In the downtown area, villas were superseded by grand apartment blocks such as the Yacoubian Building, the monolithic structure on Sharia Talaat Harb, used by the Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswany as the setting for his bestselling novel of the same name.

However, despite its grandeur, the polyglot westernised Cairo that sprang up between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries remained a colonial imposition. Its glamorous residents were a tiny, feudal fraction of the population, most of whom lived in grinding poverty. Such a state of affairs could not last for ever and the beginning of the end came on 26 January 1952, Black Saturday, when lingering discontent came to a head and mobs rampaged through the city burning signs of foreign rule.

By the end of the day the windows of Groppi's had been smashed, and it was clear that nothing would ever be the same again. Within a year the pro-western King Farouk had sailed into exile in Italy, in 1953 Egypt was declared a republic, and in 1956 Gamal Abdel Nasser was confirmed as president.

After the 1952 revolution the new administration passed legislation to fix the rents for residential property. The law was intended to protect the homes of the poor, but when the value of the Egyptian pound collapsed, the controlled rents became worthless. With rental revenue slashed and anything associated with the ancien régime cast out of favour, landlords ceased to look after the buildings. As Samir Raafat, an Egyptian historian, has written, "The word maintenance has gone the way of the tarboosh."

Visiting central Cairo today - the district referred to in Egyptian colloquial Arabic as Wust al-Balad, or "the heart of the country" - is a sad experience. Egypt's heart is clogged with the urban cholesterol of traffic and once-grand facades are smog-blackened and pockmarked with leaking air-conditioning units. With Soviet-inspired town planning and exponential population growth, the amount of green space for each of Cairo's 20 million-odd inhabitants is now about the same as the area of the upturned palms of the desperate beggars on Sharia el-Bustan.

One of the few who has campaigned for the preservation of the old city is Dr Isaak Azmy, a Cairene designer. At his elegant studio in the suburb of Heliopolis, he laments the decay in the heavy, formalistic cadences of classical Arabic. "Downtown was the centre of history, civilisation, humanity and architecture," he says. "But the people do not have taste. They do not appreciate the beauty of the old buildings."

However, beneath the botched ferroconcrete and miasma of carbon monoxide and the improbably named wireless networks that fill modern Cairo, there are still a few places where it is pos sible to find vestiges of the old city. One afternoon in the Nile-side district of Garden City, I turned in to Grey Pillars, the fantastical pile where gaberdine-clad British staff officers planned the defeat of Rommel in the Second World War.

I knocked on a door at random, and a graciously greying Egyptian artist ushered me into another marble-pillared world. Silver Yemeni daggers were splayed under glass-topped tables and portraits of ancestors in full Ottoman regalia gazed serenely down at what remained of their pashalik. Perched on a French Second Empire gilt chair and surrounded by unfinished canvases, the graceful owner spoke of the city of her youth. "The ladies were elegant. Egypt was another Paris. Now the traffic is awful."

Her words are echoed by those of one of the last remaining foreign residents of the Yacoubian Building, a grande dame whose cursive business card still gives her address using the pre-revolutionary street name, Sharia Suleiman Pasha. "It was very nice. But the world has changed."

However, there is a final irony to the slow decay of the old new city, the former Paris by the Nile. As more and more Egyptian women choose to take the veil, and the rise of Islamist groups continues to worry the secular apparatus of state, the residents of Cairo might do well to remember that the Parisian boulevards that Ismail copied owe their graceful proportions in part to the Napoleonic diktat that they be too broad to barricade.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.