But in all my years here as an expat, I’ve never really talked about the suburb where I live.
That’s probably because it’s not very exciting. But then again, given the various misconceptions of the Arab world, perhaps it’s these ordinary stories that need to be told more often.
Don’t get me wrong – there are some fascinating and exotic neighbourhoods in Cairo. From the leafy Zamalek full of old villas with Nile views to the historic downtown full of crumbling European-style gems, hipster cafes and art galleries.
But I don’t live there.
My district is full of concrete apartment blocks and shopping centers. It’s also the largest district in Cairo and occupies some 250 square kilometers of what is Africa’s largest city. Though most people haven’t heard of it.
Nasr City is a district east of downtown that was established in the 1960s to ease the capital’s overcrowding problems. Today it’s a massive suburb divided into 10 sub-districts with overcrowding problems of its own.
Nasr City has modern roads, unlike the old parts of Cairo so familiar to tourists, and congested streets with multiple lanes in each direction. It’s about an hour’s commute to downtown along a pretty dull stretch of highway.
The main shopping street, Abbas el Akkad, is packed with clothing stores and international chains that some foreigners may be surprised to find. There are McDonald’s, car dealerships, gas stations, KFC, cafes and a bookshop with a small English section. There are dozens of eateries from fast food pizza and donuts to sit-down fish or Lebanese restaurants.
All these restaurants – down to the falafel stands – deliver.
Living in Cairo
There are no camels prancing through here and no CNN-style crowded alleys with the call to prayer in the background.
Instead, there is a ton of traffic.
There are Otlob scooters making food deliveries and electronic and computer malls with some of the best selections in town. There are dozens of furniture stores to appeal to the middle and working-class families who’ve settled here. Not to mention public buses, minibuses and Ubers creating further congestion. Traffic jams are part of daily life in Nasr City.
In recent years there’s been an influx of Somali and Sudanese refugees, especially in the 10th district. But Nasr City largely symbolizes Cairo’s nouveau-riche and middle class, many who made money working in the Gulf and then purchased flats in Nasr City.
Political leaders in the 1960s envisioned Nasr City as Cairo’s new capital and the seat of new government headquarters. And they aimed to alleviate downtown’s overcrowding woes. Instead, Nasr City grew into an urban monster that’s now more crowded than downtown.
There are 8 different shopping malls here, according to Wiki, including City Stars with its massive food court and floors of your usual H&M and Zara to more upscale brands (and what a foreign friend once found very surprising – Victoria’s Secret). It’s the mall where I take friends who come in the summer when it’s too hot for souvenir shopping in the old souq.
Nasr City is close to the airport and many residents can watch the planes fly overhead in those tall apartment blocks. And I always look out for my own street when I’m flying in from abroad.
There’s a large conference center where I’d go for the international book fair before it moved to another district.
More recently, I visit the annual Craffiti Egypt, an annual crafts exhibition where I always find great Egyptian handmade products (from straw baskets to linen bed sheets).
And most famously there’s Al-Azhar, the Islamic world’s most prestigious university. It attracts students from across the world, including many from Southeast Asia who sometimes open restaurants serving authentic (and cheap) Malaysian or Thai in Nasr City’s 10th district.
Nasr City’s most well-known site is probably the Unknown Soldier Memorial honoring the Egyptian and other servicemen killed in the October War of 1973. A modern take on the classic Giza pyramid shape, the memorial tells me I’m almost home whenever I pass it.
The International Gardens are often packed on holidays with families or school field trips. But on weekends in the cool mornings, they’re great to meet a friend for cappuccino and sit in the grass.
There aren’t as many expats living in Nasr City as in the teachers’ favorite Maadi or the pricier and diplomat’s choice Zamalek. The few in this bustling district are mostly longtime expats, like me. They’re often married to Egyptians or work long-term jobs.
The pros and cons
I can’t say it’s the most Instagrammable or desirous neighbourhood in Cairo. But I’m closer to downtown than many friends who live further afield or – worse yet – in the satellite cities. I’m also close to the charming district of Heliopolis, where I work freelance.
It’s easy to shop in Nasr City or have just about anything delivered.
And besides the malls and international chains, there are more traditional stands packed with crates full of seasonal fruits and vegetables.
There’s also a small grocer on my street run by a Syrian refugee with amazing olive oils and cheeses. And even though there are plenty of tall apartment blocks, there are also bougainvillea spilling out over fences and a small park with fragrant magnolia.
Whenever I have meetings, I always ask people to meet me at Cilantro on Abbas el Akkad where I can have a flat white and pick up some falafel on the way home.
But I haven’t explored much of this district besides these few spots. I prefer Zamalek for weekends or meeting friends.
Though maybe I haven’t been entirely fair?
Anytime I explore around Nasr City, I find a surprise around the corner. Whether that’s a small boutique selling oud, a Pink Floyd-themed cafe or the nurseries off Mostafa Nahas Street.
Maybe after corona, my next travel story will be about my favorite places in Nasr City.
For more of my travel stories from around Egypt, browse this full list.