Walking down 26th July Street in downtown, scenes from black and white movies popped unbidden into my mind. I was impressed by the artistically crafted buildings on both sides, creative touches we lack in our simpler architecture nowadays.
Linking downtown with Zamalek, the street is one of the longest in Egypt and its buildings dating back to 1930s are considered historical.
It was formerly Fouad Street after King Fouad I, the first king of modern Egypt who ascended the throne in 1917 when his brother Sultan Hussein Kamel died. It became 26th July Street to mark the day King Farouk left the country after the 23th July revolution in 1952.
Opposite the Supreme Judicial Council is the Rivoli cinema, one of the oldest in Egypt. High-class audiences used to dress up to enjoy the magic of the seventh art.
67-year-old Mahmoud said this was his favorite place to hang out with friends every weekend when he was young. “I used to come to this cinema specifically because it was not obligatory to show up fully dressed in a suit and tie, which was what Metro cinema required,” he said.
“Those were the days when the Egyptian pound had value,” he added, saying ticket prices ranged from 14 to 26 piasters during the sixties.
At the intersection of 26th July Street and Talaat Harb Street lies the Americaine, another unforgettable landmark. The Americaine was the first food chain in the Middle East and Africa, founded by Swiss pastry maker Giacomo Groppi in 1939.
“This was the destination of socialites. A queue of luxurious cars used to stand along the street to drive pashas and hawanem (ladies), who gathered to drink a cup of coffee and chat about different subjects,” said Fathy Nasser, an old man whose daily routine involves breakfast at the tea-room.
Groppi sold the famous chain to an Egyptian businessmen in 1980. These days it is no longer packed with customers, and it seems to have lost the glamor with which it attracted high-class clientele.
Asked about why the Americaine has lost its special status, the operations manager of the Groppi chain, Ahmed Yousry, said that downtown is no longer a magnet for aristocrats. He said changed economic conditions have affected the social class of clientele, and that even at five-star hotels you find different client segments.
Since 26th July Street is located in downtown, Cairo’s main shopping district, there is a great variety of stores lining both sides of the road. It is packed with restaurants and shops selling clothes, shoes and bags at reasonable prices.
Decades ago, downtown was known for chic boutiques such as the three-story Shamla Mall. Its stocks of expensive imported goods made it one of the classiest stores in the country until the 1952 revolution, but the government has owned the place since its Jewish owners left the country.
Our latest series involves profiling the streets and districts of Cairo. An old and beautiful city, those of us living here often overlook the history and life of the streets we rush through on our way to work or the crowds we curse at when Cairo traffic stands still. Divided years ago by craft, class or religion, the districts and streets of Cairo still hold much of their original identity and are often still referred to by their original inhabitants. Every Saturday Al-Masry Al-Youm will bring you a different street or district of Cairo–stay tuned!