North of the ‘train of death’s’ tracks is a view of the sea and luxury cafes frequented by the rich patrons who live there. South of these tracks, however, drug dealers, violent dogs, poverty and scams linger.
Abu Qir Train travels 21 kilometers in Alexandria, from Abu Qir station in the east to the Masr station in the west. It transports mostly passengers of middle and lower classes and a ticket costs L.E. 2 (US 0.11). It is so dilapidated that on some doors, glass from the windows are missing. Some call it the “Train of Death” due to its repeated accidents. In 2011 alone, 1,500 people died and 1,200 others were injured in these accidents.
In fact, this train is not a mere cheap means of transport which links the center of Alexandria to its far east suburbs, but a line which divides the city into two hemispheres. In the northern hemisphere, there lies the sea, the corniche, Abu Qir Street, the upper-middle classes, quiet residential areas, active commercial areas, luxurious cafes, and destinations for summer visitors. The southern hemisphere is inhabited by the lower religious classes; crowded areas of informal settlements with horse-pulled carts, tuk-tuks, roaming fruit and vegetable markets where dogs and drug dealers thrive. Many of this hemisphere’s residents dream of climbing up the social ladder by crossing the railways and living in the northern hemisphere.
Vertical urban expansion
The southern hemisphere stretches 21 kilometers along the railway line, some 4-7 kilometers in depth according to Google Maps. From the eastern side to the center of Alexandria, it is bordered by Beheira Governorate, a green belt giving the area’s southern borders a rural look. This area has become a target for construction companies to build malls and luxurious residential compounds.
From a planning point of view, a large part of the southern hemisphere is composed of informal settlements. That does not mean that they are all made of tin and makeshift houses. The area is characterized by chaotic designs and organization plans. Rania Fo’ad, an architect and director of the Consultancy Group Office for Construction, says: “Here, one can even describe luxurious villas and buildings as informal settlements.”
“Most of the construction contractors are keen on lowering the costs at the expense of quality,” she explains. “Some take the construction designs and implement them without meeting the technical requirements and others build with no designs at all,” she adds.
Since the 1990s, there has been an architectural transformation in many areas in both hemispheres of Alexandria. It is a vertical transformation where three- or four-story villas and buildings are replaced with buildings that can reach as high as 18 floors in streets whose width does not exceed 10 meters. The maximum height permitted is 36 meters (11 floors) on a 21-meter-wide street, based on the Governor of Alexandria’s law No. 119 of 2016.
In case height requirements are met, many meters would have to be taken from property owners. If seven meters were taken from each side in a 100-meter-long street, 1400-1600 would have to be bought at L.E. 1.5 million (US 82,890,000).
“Imagine that an area prepared to host four families takes 1,000 people,” says Fo’ad. “Of course, the infrastructure, including sanitation, would not endure. Streets would have no room for the pedestrians and the residents’ vehicles and the rubbish containers would not be able to hold all of their waste.”
The northern hemisphere’s residents cross to the southern one as most of Alexandria’s vegetables, chicken and fish markets are located there and everything is 25% cheaper, says Mimi, a vegetable seller from Bakous, four kilometers east of central Alexandria.
Such markets are born through the aggregation of vendors on side streets. They stretch their stalls in front of the shops, forming a parallel market. Over time, the place becomes a destination for shoppers. “Those sellers are the ones who make business boom.” Mimi explains. “When the municipal authorities dismiss the stall owners, business weakens,” he adds. Shop owners might even rent the spots in front of their shops to the stall owners.
However, these markets clog the traffic. Trying to cross one of these markets with your car would take you hours just to pass a 500-meter-long street. This scenario can happen in Al-Mandara Market, the Religious Institute Market in Al-Asafra, the Cairo Street Market, and the markets of Darbala, Al-Sa’a, Bakous and others in the northern hemisphere. The most suitable means of transport in these crowded places are tuk-tuks. Previously, horse-pulled carts were used. In some places near the countryside, pickup trucks are used.
Amid this crowdedness, stall owners play a game of cat and mouse with the municipal authorities who cannot control the sellers’ space violations specified for pedestrians and cars. When the municipal forces raid these markets, the sellers take their stalls and hide in the alleys; and when the coast is clear, they go back to their places regardless of how long they stay in the market.
Vendors stand in front of their stalls, which include one kind of vegetable divided into two or three types: excellent, good, and vegetables which are about to spoil due to the transportation process. Prices depend on quality. Vendors call with high voices. This variety makes these markets a destination for the lower-middle classes.
Different kinds of poultry are sold, including live, slaughtered, and whole and in pieces, giblets, small freshwater fish, curd cheese, black honey, and tahini, second-rate fruits. “In the southern hemisphere’s markets, third-rate fruits run out before the high-quality ones,” says Mimi.
In the northern hemisphere, there are no such vegetables markets. Instead, there are luxurious shops which sell fruit and vegetables at high prices. “Sellers in the northern hemisphere bring high-quality types,” says Mimi. “The residents there are financially able to pay for it. The demand on such types in the southern hemisphere would be weak,” he adds.
The fruits and vegetables agency, in the southern hemisphere in the center of Alexandria, is the main source of fruits and vegetables. “95-97% of Alexandria’s vegetables come from the agency and the rest come from farmers directly,” says Mimi. “The agency’s vegetables come from the governorates of Kafr El Sheikh and Beheira but the leafy vegetables which do not last for more than a day come from nearby areas such as Abis, a rural area around Alexandria. Fruits come from Wadi El-Natrun and other areas on the desert road to Cairo.”
Sellers go the agency and take part in the auctions held by major fruit and vegetable traders and prices depend on supply and demand. These traders sell on behalf of farmers for a commission of 5% and mediation fees of L.E. 2.5 for each container taken from the buyers.
In case of buying from the farmer directly, the traders buy the crops before they are harvested. In this case, the traders might lose their money, as the prices may drop at the harvest if the supply exceeds the demand.
One other common trade in the southern hemisphere is keeping dogs and selling them later. It is a profitable business. The price of a high-quality German Shephard might reach L.E. 17,000 (US 938), says Yousef Al-Jundi, a dog keeper from Al-Mandara, east of Alexandria.
It is common to see high-quality dogs tied up at the home gates in the narrow streets. Dog keepers often impose their presence in the area and the residents cannot do anything about it despite the harm they undergo. Dog keepers may even put their dogs on the rooftops. Little children and stray dogs might clash with them, making them bark all day. These dogs stay tied at the gates with their food and water in front of them, waiting for customers.
“Violent dogs are in high demand in the southern hemisphere,” says Youssef. You rarely find gentle dogs such as the Golden Retriever, Beagle, the Danish breeds or the expensive violent dogs such as Rottweiler, Boxer and Doberman. “That is why the dogs in demand are the German ones, especially the Belgian breeds with weak features–such as short hair and flat back–whose prices do not exceed L.E. 1,000 (US 55). Youssef says this is the common price tag in the southern hemisphere where the residents’ average income is L.E. 2,500 (US 138) and keeping dogs does not cost much.
The process of making dogs violent starts when they are 6-7 months old by asking one of the area’s residents to provoke the dog while it is held by its keeper, who then orders the animal to attack the provoker. When the dog is to begin its attack, the keeper prevents it and makes it feel that it is doing well. This scene is familiar in the southern hemisphere.
“Pointing at the provoker, the owner orders the dog to ‘get him’ and thus the dog knows that it is an order to attack,” Youssef says. “Dogs can also become violent by mixing them with other violent dogs.”
For training purposes and making dogs more violent, keepers take two or three of their strong, violent dogs in tours to attack the stray, weak dogs, or provoke the male dogs and annoy their females.
Keepers, says Youssef, beat the new dogs to teach them obedience, “humiliate them,” and to teach them new orders; and, only then, can they be rewarded. These dogs are not treated gently as they do not stay long with their keepers. To be treated well, they must be obedient.
Lying about the dogs’ ages is very common in this trade as knowing the dog’s real age from its teeth requires long experience which very few people have. That makes deceiving beginners quite easy. Another deception method is selling the puppies of parents with weak features by presenting high-quality dogs as the parents of the dog which is about to be sold. Since puppies are similar, deceiving customers is quite easy.
Getting high in the southern hemisphere
Small tuk-tuks tour the southern hemisphere’s streets, playing the festival’s music and songs which describe the rituals of smoking hashish in the weddings. The southern hemisphere’s narrow alleys make the area suitable for drug dealing. They provide a good environment for drug users in the area and beyond.
“Here, only very small quantities of hashish powder (1-4 grams) are sold,” says Yaser (a nickname), a resident of Al-Jazeera Al-Khadraa, in the area between Sidi Bishr and Victoria, east of Alexandria. It was previously called Hajja Zizi, after a foreign lady who used to own large pieces of land in the area.
Hashish is sold in small quantities due to the residents’ limited purchasing power. The price of one gram is L.E. 50 (US 2.8), half a gram is L.E. 25 (US 1.4), a tablet of Tamol (a strong pain killer) costs L.E. 12 (US .66), and the price of half a gram of Al-Bisa powder (a mixture of cocaine, Abu Saliba and highly toxic chemicals) costs L.E. 35-50 (US 1.9-2.8).
Drug users go to the southern hemisphere to buy hashish, drug tablets, Al-Bisa powder, often on the street corners where groups of sellers gather and offer their goods to passers-by. They even offer their products to a man walking with his wife and children.
Drug dealers and users are scorned by the area’s residents. The dealers of different kinds of drugs might fight each other to control the key selling areas,” says Yaser, a Tamol dealer.
Although taking tablets is very common in the southern hemisphere, powder users do not disclose their identities as the powder’s damages made it an infamous drug which makes its users, says Yaser, lazy and unemployed. They become of a source of danger for those around them as they prefer to use drugs in groups and thus to lure more people.
The sellers who gather at the streets corners often work for larger dealers who stay nearby on the same streets. “Only two weeks ago, the police raided a dealer’s place and found a box of hashish and L.E. 20,000 (US 1,104),” says Yaser. “The police officers come in disguise on foot and in tuk-tuks. They raid the area 1-3 times a day. However, when they leave, the dealers return.”
Sometimes, the tuk-tuks’ drivers are drug dealers or delivery workers who transport the drug boxes from the source to the sub-dealers and VIP customers. Al-Jazeera Al-Khadraa is near Al-Awsa’i which, says Yaser, is considered to be the hub and the most popular drug-dealing area in Egypt’s history, and meets the drug demand in the areas of Al-Mandara, Al-Asafra, Sidi Bishr, Al-Sa’a, Bakous, Gabrial and other areas. Costumers stand in long lines to buy drugs through small windows in ground-floor flats.
Al-Jazeera Al-Khadraa hosts Al-Tantawi hotspot where high-quality drugs are sold at high prices. However, most of the customers are from outside the area. The artificial drugs, including Voodoo and Strox, are not in demand in the southern hemisphere due to their high prices.