A five-story Ottoman-era apartment block above Louvre Meuble furniture store looms over Hoda Shaarawi Street like a cantankerous old grandfather.
On each floor redbrick window recesses, framing a series of battered green wooden shutters, arch up like scowling eyebrows, while peeling balconies are supported by grubby plaster friezes of vine leaves and grapes.
The building probably looked a lot sprightlier in the time of Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, the man who set up Louvre Meuble and whose grandson Lotfi is now deputy director of the store, which specialises in reproducing classical French furniture. “When my grandfather set up the shop, French furniture was very popular and very good quality,” said Lotfi, 22. “It was his hobby to collect it, and then he started this business.”
Louvre Meuble is something of a novelty on Hoda Shaarawi Street. The street is named after the pioneering Egyptian nationalist who founded the Egyptian Feminist Union and led the first women’s street demonstration in the country during the revolution of 1919.
All the furniture in Lotfi’s shop is brand new. “We export everywhere,” he said proudly, showing-off a mock-French Renaissance dining room with a price tag of LE55,000. But take a walk further down the road and it becomes apparent that most of the furniture available in it is of a slightly more antiquated variety.
A number of dusty old shops, mostly tucked away like forgotten storerooms, seem as if they have not changed since Shaarawi was fighting for women’s rights. To enter them is to step away from the grime and grit of downtown Cairo and into a world of faded glories. Brass candelabras sit on mother-of-pearl cabinets from Damascus, while mirrors reflect the dangling crystals of shimmering chandeliers.
A nameless white marble bust stares smiling from a corner–amused, perhaps, by a carved wooden elephant perched on a nearby shelf, and certainly unruffled by peeling ceiling paint threatening to fall down onto its world of bric-a-brac treasures.
Mohammad Assal works occasional shifts at his father’s antique shop halfway down the street. A lawyer by trade, the 47-year-old doesn’t usually spend time here selling ancient heirlooms. But he is happy to help out at the store, which has been in the family for 50 years now.
“I like this street,” he said. “It’s an old street and I feel like it’s my street. I was born near here in downtown and I like the old buildings.”
He is also a fan of the woman who gave the street its name.
“Hoda Shaarawi changed the history of Egypt,” he declares. “She was the first woman to speak out in a political way. She was also the first woman to begin politics in the street. Before that it was not the same, all the women stayed at home. Now women can learn and can work.”
Ask people in Cairo what you can do around here and they might answer that it’s a good place to buy cars. A number of single-story stores squat by the road like giant blocks of Lego. But according to Lotfi from Louvre Meuble, there are not as many as there used to be.
“The thing you’ll see in several places are the car shops. Now there are not so many, but this was a very big place to sell cars until three or four years ago. I think the financial crisis had an effect.”
One place which is still going strong is the famous Felfela restaurant at the north end of Hoda Shaarawi near Talaat Harb Street. Established 50 years ago by a vegetarian woman incensed at the quality of Egyptian food and determined to do something about it, the franchise now has a number of outlets around the city selling everyday classics from fuul to kofta kebabs. But the success story started here. Former US president Jimmy Carter had a table, if the signed menu in the restaurant’s entrance hallway is to be believed.
Yet although it might be the most famous dining venue on the road, it is by no means the only one. Right at the other end lies Le Bistro, a bar-cum-restaurant whose small flight of stairs lead down into a cosy, dimly-lit eating area. General manager Adel Bouchra has run this place for 14 years–a trifle compared to his antique-dealing neighbours. Naturally he is well aware of the high-profile competition up the road, but insists there is room for two eateries.
“Felfela is not competition,” he says. “All the time people need to change. When you visit Felfela, you will pass Le Bistro. And when you eat at Le Bistro you will pass Felfela.” Adel said that for the first 10 years of Le Bistro's history he did not give it his full attention because he had another job working in the French embassy. “But for the past three years I have come and done lots of work here,” he said.
“Now I think Le Bistro is one of the good things about Hoda Shaarawi. I think when people say Hoda Shaarawi, they remember Le Bistro.”
Our latest series involves profiling the streets and districts of Cairo. An old and beautiful city, those of us living here often overlook the history and life of the streets we rush through on our way to work or the crowds we curse at when Cairo traffic stands still. Divided years ago by craft, class or religion, the districts and streets of Cairo still hold much of their original identity and are often still referred to by their original inhabitants. Every Saturday Al-Masry Al-Youm will bring you a different street or district of Cairo–stay tuned!