Life & StyleSociety

Streets of Cairo: Rewriting history in Saliba Street

Back in 1992, a strong earthquake near Cairo toppled buildings in the capital and caused deadly stampedes of panicked residents. Victims left behind families and loved ones whose loss was so great it was hard to overcome. Saliba Street, located in the heart of Sayida Zainab neighborhood, was one of many streets that suffered not only a loss of spirit, but also a total change of social structure.

The impact of the deadly earthquake cannot be measured only by the number of dead bodies or the ruins of fallen buildings. Its impact has lasted for years, and changed the socio-cultural dynamics of many Cairo streets.

At the time the government said 370 people were killed, including over 100 trampled schoolchildren, with at least 3,300 people hurt. Saliba Street in particular, home of multiple historical sights–including the Lagin al-Saifi Mosque with its short minaret and colorful dome and the Sorghatmash Mosque with Kufic style Arabic on its walls–still feels the changes that the devastating event caused.

The street's residents do not mind sharing stories from before and after the change.

Nadra Ali Hussain, a 65-year-old grocery shop owner on the corner of Saliba Street remembers the earthquake perfectly. Sitting behind her goodies-filled counter, the old lady said “I was in my shop when the earthquake destroyed the buildings around me. I was cooking food, but all of my kitchenware suddenly shook and fell to the floor. I looked outside and found that people were running scared, so I started running with them.”

“By the hand of God this earthquake took place, and it toppled buildings and killed people,” Nadra says in a matter-of-fact tone. “The neighborhood never returned to its previous state ever again.”

According to the veiled woman in thick glasses, people whose houses were destroyed left the neighbourhood never to come back. Meanwhile new buildings were created and new people arrived in the neighborhood.

Atef Abdul-Hadi Attya, who was born at 44 Saliba Street, was sitting with his cousin Sameh Qamar next to their tool shop. Al-Masry Al-Youm's reporter was treated to a cup of heavy tea and a long conversation with the two middle-aged men about the street and its people.

“After the earthquake, the street was ruined,” says Atef, offering tea and readjusting his vintage sunglasses. “Three quarters of the shops here closed and people abandoned the street to go to the Moqattam neighborhood. This street used to work around the clock, with people walking and buying stuff. Now those people are dead.”

Farag al-Halloti, the owner of a fish restaurant on Saliba Street recalls those days. “My father opened this shop back in 1958,” he says, pointing out a photo of his father with a little black ribbon on its corner, “and when he died I took over the shop.”

“Our work has been in the family for the last century and I’m planning to teach it to my son.” When asked if his son is interested in working in the shop, al-Halloti had a sad look on his face. “He is studying at the moment and I give him that excuse, but after he finishes high school, he will need to come and figure out his future here. Where else would he go?”

According to the 52-year-old Atef, only 60 percent of the street has returned to its previous state. “It’s nothing like how it used to be when we were toddlers. Residents of the street used to be one family together. Now youngsters sit around doing nothing and the people just dream of moving out!”

“Saliba Street used to be home to four major families,” the old man says. After instructing one of his workers to take care of a costumer, he starts recalling names: "The Qamar family, the Jeddi family, Zenihom family…” While he struggles with the last name, his cousin interrupts to say “and the Zabaleen (Garbage Collectors) family.” This ensures a fight between the two cousins, and a long discussion about the Zabaleen takes place.

“They are good people, would you stop calling them that, my brother?” Atef says in an angry tone, but Sameh won’t give him a chance.

“We are stating facts, and the fact is that they are Zabaleen and Wahatya (from the Oasis of Egypt). This is their job and there is no shame in that! This is history of our street and we should take it as it is!”

“These families are still here, their children and grandchildren are still alive and well in this neighbourhood,” a guy in his sixties–they call him Hag Ahmed al-Jeddi–passing by stops to say. “They are just lost among the people coming from all over town and living here.”

After a long bickering session between the two relatives, they decide to move away from these families and talk about the history of the places around them. Sameh hands his cousin his cup of tea and they smile.

“This tool shop that you see used to be a famous coffee shop called al-Miad (the Date), because if you sit here you get to see the clock on the other side of the street,” Sameh says, pointing to a clock on a beautiful building across the street. The clock has now lost both its hands and cannot provide the time anymore.

“This street is called Saliba because it looks like a salib (cross),” Atef says. “It used to be called Rakaib (Horse Carts) Street back in the day.” Sameh continues that the origin of the name comes from the fact that horse carts heading to Saudi Arabia back then, carrying the covers of Kaaba, used to gather here from all over Cairo. “They came from Hussain Mosque, from Sayida Zainab, Sayida Roqaya, Sayida Nafissa and from all over Cairo to start their long hajj (pilgrimage) trip from this very spot.”

“We are living in this street now,” the two cousins say together when asked who lives there nowadays. “Me and my cousin are the grandsons of the owner of the coffee shop. That Hamada down there is the child of the owner of the shop that he owns now." Sameh points out that “new people joined us in our place, people we don’t know and they don’t speak to us.”

Atef, who seems to be a politically correct person, says, “why should we refuse these new people? if someone bought a house with their money and decided to live there, who are we to stop them?”

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