A Soviet Geography of 1950s Cairo

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In 1956, the theatre critic Mohammed Mandur went on a cultural mission to Romania with several other Egyptian writers.

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Expecting to find an iron curtain and secret police everywhere he was pleasantly surprised to see a thriving state and welcoming people.

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In so far as their struggles were the same: against the old colonial powers, for peaceful co-existence. He saw opportunities for the “peoples of Bandung” to work with the Soviet Union. His role in this was to set up a journal of Soviet culture called “al-Sharq” (the East). When in Cairo, I came across the third issue of this journal. It includes an article on Dostoevsky, a translation of a Soviet article on the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, and article on colonialism in Afro-Asia, and other cultural and political pieces.

Beyond this, what was interesting about it to me is that it gives clues to reconstructing parts of the geography of 1950s Cairo that are now lost. The Soviet Union maintained a large presence in the Egyptian capital. Some of it still survives: the Novosti building in Zamalek appears to still function and various Russian consulates and cultural centres moved in where the Soviet ones used to be.

What I didn’t know is that Downtown Cairo also had its communist landmarks, which are advertised in this magazine.IMG_0752

At number 8 Galal Street (also known as Alfi Bey) there was a permanent exhibition to promote cultural ties with Egypt. It would show Soviet films at 5 o’ clock and again at 7 o’ clock and it one could listen to music from 11-1. There was also a library that was open from 10-1 and then 5-8. It was open every day except Monday.

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In addition to their place on Alfi Bey Street, the Soviets also had a distribution centre for music and magazines at 20 Adli Street, opposite the Synagogue.  IMG_0753

They sold records and books translated into Arabic like (advertised here) Turgenev’s First Love and a book on new Soviet discoveries at the North Pole.

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The offices of al-Sharq magazine were also at 20 Adli Street, suggesting a rather close relationship between its production and the Soviet propaganda efforts.

Now both of these institutions are gone and there is nothing to suggest they were ever there. Today, the popular restaurant Eish wa Malh has the address 20 Adli Street. It would be apt to think that people were now eating Westernised cuisine in the building that used to be the centre of Soviet cultural influence in Cairo. However, having walked up and down the street, I think it is more likely that Eish wa Malh only recently got the number 20 Adli street and that in the 50s it would probably have referred to the building across Kodak Alley. Either way, as you eat your slow-food ravioli at Eish wa Malh you can look across at the place that used to provide the population of Cairo with its communist books and records.

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