“All roads lead to New Giza”, “Cleaner, safer, and more beautiful environments”, “The life you always dreamed of”. The gigantic billboards alongside Cairo’s Ring Road are overflowing with English slogans that attempt to sell a dream that virtually nobody in the city is able to afford. Despite this, investors continue to construct new residential neighbourhoods in the barren desert surrounding the continuously expanding metropolis.
The large, white Hollywood-style letters at the entrance welcome you into a different world: Beverly Hills, where bombastic villas are neatly arranged and the swimming pools are of the same blue as the clear skies above the gated community. The Egyptian upper classes instigated an urban exodus, moving away from traditionally popular areas in the old city centre into an artificial environment, secluded from the world. There are plenty of escape options: Hyde Park, La Mirada, Evergreen, Mountain View, Swan Lake, Palm Hills, Utopia, Dreamland…
The promises that are made when acquiring a home in one of these communities focus on a series of privileges that are usually impossible to find in an overpopulated city: privacy, green landscapes, space, and safety. And of course: tennis courts, golf courses and a few air-conditioned shopping malls that import the latest European fashion trends for their wealthy customers. To prevent these carefully constructed bubbles from bursting, the communities are all surrounded by a vast network of walls and safety features. Uninvited guests are kept outside through the use of security cameras and an army of security personnel that guard the virtually impenetrable access gates. Without a card to prove your residence or visitor status, there is simply no way of getting inside.
Belgian photographer Zaza Bertrand succeeded in penetrating this hidden world of extremes. She started the project three years ago, right after the revolution. Zaza began following a group of youngsters who were mostly still searching for themselves, attempting to construct an identity through a process of experimentation and wandering around. Catching them between their final exams, weekends at vacation houses, parties, and proms proved to be no easy task. Zaza’s girls never knew where the night would take them. Her images show the beautiful girls living in an artificial, surreal world. An almost eerie emptiness appears to pervade the images. The perfect world does not seem capable to actually fulfil these girls’ hopes and dreams.
They talk Arabic with an English accent, wear short skirts and dance in high heels. What happens outside these walls does not appear to have any effect here. However, most residents in the gated communities did let out a sigh of relief when the Muslim Brotherhood had to make way for army general Al-Sisi. Nour went to celebrate Al-Sisi’s election victory not on Tahrir Square, but in her favourite bar in Heliopolis. It takes more than an hour to drive from the centre of Cairo to her gated community, two hours if traffic decides to act up. Ten years ago, the place was just a barren surface in the dessert; nowadays, there is a road network connecting a handful of exclusive sports clubs, a few international schools, the new campus of the American University, and even an IKEA, the first and only one on the African continent.
The wall around the community offers protection from the outside world, but for some families, like Nour’s, that is not enough: they also constructed a big fence around their property, all for the sake of privacy and safety. “It’s way too quiet here,” Nour thinks. She would like to return to Heliopolis, the middle class neighbourhood where she used to live, “but I wouldn’t want to give up the garden and the swimming pool.”
She is sixteen years old and still has a year left to study at the international school she attends. In the backseat, she is fixing her skirt: “I’m on my way!” she promises a friend on the phone. Switching between Arabic and perfect English (with a convincing American accent) comes natural to her. Nour’s favourite thing is going out with friends. Every weekend, partying is what matters. Today, her private driver takes Nour to Zamalek, an upper class district in the old city centre, where she will have sushi in a hip club along the banks of the river Nile. “I like being in Egypt, with my friends and family, although I’d also like to go to Canada or England some day.” She used to dream about becoming a fashion designer. Nowadays, she wants to enter the world of business, like her mother, who works for an oil company. First, however, she wants to enjoy the summer holidays that lie ahead of her.
Uptown Cairo. Behind the walls, fences to keep the busy city at bay, sprinklers are switched on to keep the fresh grass green. The thirsty palm trees are still adapting to their new surroundings. There is a bustling neighbourhood at the bottom of the rocky hill where the new compound is being built; there, not a drop of water comes out of the taps any more. “Uptown has the unique position of being in the heart of Cairo, while also being isolated enough to seem disconnected from its urban headaches,” is mentioned in the brochure for potential buyers.
People, who already live in one of the mansions, overlook the city lights at night together with the underpaid labourers who are toiling day and night to finish the last of the luxury apartments. During the weekend, the hammering is exchanged for the beats of an international DJ. The garden of the gigantic golf club is the setting of exclusive parties; without a spot on the guest list, there is no chance to get beyond the driveway. Nariman sips from another Vodka Red Bull, her red lips leaving a trace of lipstick on her glass. In the distance, she recognizes the face of someone she used to love. Within this fenced off world, everyone knows each other. Nariman zips up her leather jacket and leaves. She closes the door of her Mercedes and drives into the night, en route to another gated community, another dreamland in Cairo.
Photographs: Zaza Bertrand; Text: Ruth Vandewalle
Zaza Bertrand (1986) studied photography in Gent at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium where she got a Master degree with great distinction in 2011. She worked in Amsterdam for the Dutch quality newspaper ‘De Volkskrant’ but recently came back to Belgium to work as a freelancer. Now she can make time for autonomos photo essays. Her most recent personal work is her essay on upper class Egyptian girls living in gated communities that is still in progress.
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