Zamalek’s most important north-south traffic axis, which runs down the middle of the island, undergoes at least two changes of name on its way. It begins as Hassan Sabry Street near the police station behind the Gezira Club, and continues so-named until it crosses 26th of July Street. Further on, as it bends to the left after passing the Algerian Embassy, it becomes Mohamed Mazhar. In between, for three short, glorious blocks, it’s called Brazil Street, or, as it’s written on the signs, Barazil Street, phonetically tracking the lilted Arabic pronunciation.
Brazil Street is a Cairo oddity. It’s a street where it’s possible, even fun, just to amble along. Sidewalks exist, and, for now, are winning the battle against the invasion of cars long since lost in other parts of Cairo. Old trees provide shade, making it pleasant for a stroll even in the peak of summer. It’s a living street; everything you need is available here, from car repair to rug repair and everything in between. The street has a strong sense of community. As you stroll along, you’re never far from a garbage can or water dispenser. Homes mix with businesses and shops. Most importantly, it’s economically dynamic and mixed, attracting the chic and the baladi alike.
Samir Raafat reminds us in his delightful chronicles of urban Cairo how the street originated as Gabalaya Street, before taking the name of King Farouk’s prime minister, Hassan Sabry, who lived where the Benetton Building stands today. Later, honoring the Brazilian Embassy, the northern section took on its current name. It begins at the Misr gas station on 26th of July Street and continues north, intersected by three streets – Ahmed Sabri, Hassan Assem and Ismail Mohammed – before fading away into Mohamed Mazhar, which makes its way past the old Safir hotel before terminating at Sequoia restaurant.
It may be short, but there is an extraordinary and varied array of glorious goodies on display. Below we survey some of our favorite places, for shopping, dining or other business.
Brazil Street has its share of Cairo’s high-end retailers, Nola Cupcakes, Mobinil and Celebrations Chocolate to name a few. As such, it reflects the ongoing gentrification of this part of Zamalek over the past few years. However, there are still plenty of holdouts from Cairo’s more egalitarian past, and you’re never far from cheap clothing, shoes, cotton and lingerie stores that may remind you more of downtown. But Brazil Street is a real social hub, and everything you need to live is available: several grocery stores, a few butchers, flowers, silver, jewelry, sunglasses, and a bank. Cairo’s Fair Trade store, where you can find delectable homegrown gift items, is a block away; as is Sheraz Atelier, where craft niknaks and classes are available. An ancient pharmacy, the New Universal Pharmacy, seems unchanged since before the revolution (the 1952 revolution, that is). Just outside, a glorious street shack serves up a wide selection of used magazines, and I came across a delightful profile of a Tom Cruise in his Top Gun years. One of Cairo’s best book stores, Livres de France (don’t let the French name scare you off, there’s plenty in English and Arabic), is tucked away up a floor in an otherwise nondescript building at the northern end of the street. At Christmas, a colorful selection of imported and local versions of the Christmas tree, along with all the colorful accoutrements, fill the sidewalk at the end of Sayed el-Bakri Street as it runs into Brazil Street by the post office. Most stores are closed on Sundays.
Eat and drink:
If you’re ambling along and require sustenance, Brazil Street has plenty of options. If it’s a quick snack you’re after, Nola Cupcakes and Sugar and Spice serve up delightful baked goods. Treat Waffles even stocks Movenpick ice cream. An anchor of this part of town, Baraka Shawarma, serves up some of Cairo’s most tasty, greasy, shawarmas late into the evening. Chocoholics among you may find your cravings sated in Celebrations. If it’s more substantial fare you’re after, one of Cairo’s favorite all-time greats, Hana Korean Barbeque, now sits half a block off of the main drag on Hassan Assem. Its old space on the ground floor of the Zamalek hotel is now inhabited by a Chinese restaurant that I’m unable to comment on as I’ve boycotted it for kicking out my old friend Hana. Upstairs at the Zamalek hotel is a glorious rooftop bar, with sweeping views along the Nile, and next door is a decent Thai restaurant. One of Cairo’s best bets for vegetarians, Aubergine, lies next to the post office, which transforms late at night into one of Cairo’s happening hotspots for the younger set.
But shopping and eating do not a community make. Scratch the surface and you’ll find wide array of services on offer. Galal, a street-side tailor and general repair man, sits on the sidewalk near 26th of July Street, a position he says he’s kept for 20 years or so. For higher-end tailoring, try Abu Senna, a block behind on the tiny Sameh Ahmed Street, above the charismatic lady selling plastic household goods. This section of Brazil Street is anchored by the post office. Across the street, there’s a Mobinil store. Nearby are two of Cairo’s best art galleries, Safar Khan and Zamalek Art Gallery, always with something interesting on display. Along the way, there’s carpet repair, a coiffeur, the Dar el Tarbia School, among others. You can even fix your car. Rounding out the dynamic mix is a smattering of embassies, including those of Algeria, Spain and Bahrain. The Algerian Embassy is one of the best known landmarks along this stretch of the street, and has a delightful story. Before the 1952 revolution, Henri Curiel, a scion of the prominent Egyptian-Italian Jewish Curiel family, was banished from the country due to his Communist tendencies. Hooking up with the Algerian freedom movement in Paris, he decided to donate his family’s home to the Algerian people. It’s been their embassy ever since.
A glimpse into the functional city:
I recently spoke to a senior member of Egypt’s tourism establishment. He was once asked by the prime minister what was needed to better promote Cairo’s tourism industry. “Sidewalks,” he replied without hesitation. Sensing the confusion in the PM’s expression, he went on to explain that sidewalks enabled people to wander in peace, and explore on their own. They are a sign of a city that works. They allow tourists to escape from the canned banality of Cairo’s established sites, and the touts that loiter around them, and to discover the city’s hidden charms on foot on their own.
Brazil Street is as close as Cairo gets to an urban success story. It is organically grown, and avoids the lifeless over-planning of Cairo’s suburbs. It has something for everyone, mixing homes with shops and businesses, and caters to rich and poor alike. Last year, during the soccer-inspired hostility between Algeria and Egypt, the Algerian Embassy was placed under guard. Brazil Street, for a few lovely days, was closed to car traffic and transformed into a pedestrian precinct. It's rarely crowded in the first place, but during these few days, pedestrians ruled. We wandered, sat on the curbside, drew chalk art on the tarmac. It provided a glimpse of what Cairo could be. Think of how brilliant this town would be if, instead of creating failing, crumbling exurbs far from Cairo’s urban core, we instead invested in revitalizing the delightful urban core, creating healthy, organic, sustainable communities like the one that clusters along Brazil Street.