In Egypt, there is a word for counterculture: Wust El-Balad, Arabic for downtown, the core or central district of a city. But even though Wust El-Balad is not exclusive to Cairo, the word has very specific semantics here.
The term has distinct social, cultural and geo-political connotations which go as far back as the late 19th century when the district’s wide boulevards and streets were laid out to depict Khedive Ismail‘s vision of a “Europeanised” Cairo. Today, there is very little left of Wust El-Balad that bears any resemblance to Europe; perhaps apart from the shabby buildings which remain the grandest architecture modern Egypt has ever witnessed. These are so run-down now that I literally mumble apologetically every time I pass by them. But, while the grandeur is gone, the geo-cultural and political significance remains, and Wust El-Balad is, more than ever, Egypt’s foremost counterculture hub.
Wust El-Balad now instantly reflects a people, a creed of dissidents, a cult. A way of life, if you so will.
No longer merely denoting a geographical area, the term Wust El-Balad now instantly reflects a people, a creed of dissidents, a cult. A way of life, if you so will. The city’s rules, which are so tightly woven into society, do not seem to apply here. Rebellion manifests itself in different forms; against restrictive cultural norms, extremist religious constraints, capitalism, the obsession with all things material, and the superficial. Religion is often frowned upon and non-drinkers are made fun of. If there is ever a place where guys share flats with girls outside the holy sacrament of marriage — as flat mates or otherwise — it is in Wust El-Balad. Girls smoke and swear more than they need to, and guard their independence with their lives. Words like secularism, atheism, agnosticism — words which do not easily find their way into other social settings — seem to be commonly associated with Wust El-Balad people.
The buildings so run-down now that I literally mumble apologetically every time I pass by them.
If you are a Wust El-Balad person, you are either an activist or a writer, or you work in the arts. Bankers and corporate people are not welcome; doctors are respected but not particularly encouraged. You are an avid film critic, trained to dislike most movies, music and works of art until proven otherwise. You cannot dress too nicely. If you make more than 5,000 Egyptian pounds a month, you keep it to yourself; and you must, at all times, grumble about money and refrain from going to posh places even if you can afford to. If you absolutely must go to some of these places, you should be wise enough to hide the fact that you went, or at least be apologetic about it. And, unless you hang out with non-Arabic-speakers, you must refrain at all costs from speaking English.
Girls smoke and swear more than they need to, and guard their independence with their lives.
You are a regular at rugged, yet strangely elegant, restaurants, bars and cafes — Café Riche, Estoril, After Eight, Le Grillon, El Horreya — some of which have been frequented by Egypt’s top intellectual figures and witnessed historically significant political and literary discussions and events for decades. In Wust El-Balad, you do not grow up as fast as you do in the …emmm… outside world. You can still be silly or spend the night on someone’s floor in your 30s, you can still dance and party well into your 60s. And your two best friends are aged 20 and 55.
If you make more than 5,000 Egyptian pounds a month, you keep it to yourself; and you must, at all times, grumble about money and refrain from going to posh places even if you can afford to.
Of course, some Wust El-Balad people are more equal than others; the luckiest being those second-generation ones born into the creed. These are the ones who own the streets (and they do not need to keep their identities hidden from their parents!). As for the rest of us, we need to earn our rite of passage. When I moved to Cairo two years ago, I was drawn, like many others, to the freedom offered by Wust El-Balad. I have since enjoyed the comfort of belonging to a place where people got together simply because they think alike …correction! Because it is ok not to think alike!
If you are a Wust El-Balad person, you are either an activist or a writer, or you work in the arts. Bankers and corporate people are not welcome; doctors are respected but not particularly encouraged.
Wust El-Balad is increasingly making its way into satire and critique. Especially so when associated with activism, which if anything reflects the growing popularity of the area as one of counterculture. Yes, Wust El-Balad is in fashion — especially post-January 25, which I like to think of as the coming-out party for Wust El-Balad — and even though the term Shabab (Youth of) Wust El-Balad (now more commonly, yet somewhat inaccurately, known as Shabab El-Tahrir) is still said like it is a bad thing, it is not without a trace of envy.