The image above depicts what appears to be a strategic piling of dirt and trash; it serves multiple purposes -- an informal structure, a small seed of resistance, a necessary public good.
I first learned about this Do-It-Yourself highway exit ramp while taking a class at the University of Chicago. A teacher’s assistant flashed this photograph on the lecture hall wall and launched into a discussion on the control of space in Arab urban centers, and the tension between private and public, formal and informal, recognized and subversive movements – all motivators of the endless conflicts in the Middle East.
Take for example the use and transformation of public squares, from Tahrir Square to Yemen’s Freedom Square on the doorstep of Sana’a University. While there is nothing new about protesting in squares and fighting for control of space during periods of political change and popular uprisings, the significance of the transformation and importance of these spaces still hold.
The highway exit ramp in the peripheries of Cairo plays a role in this narrative as much as the large downtown plazas. While thousands of protestors fought for control of Tahrir Square, smaller transformations took place across the city through growing informal construction projects in these peripheries and informal areas known as ashwa’iyyat (slums).
SLUMS COME TO LIFE
The ashwa’iyyat contain over 60% of Cairo’s population, but are largely ignored by Egypt’s government and denied access to public goods, such as highway exit ramps.The Cairo highway ramps served as examples of innovative urban design, part of the Do-It-Yourself movement, but less couched in the concept of the political.
Meshing these two perspectives together highlights the importance of informal transformations of public space, especially in communities fighting for access in the face of a negligent regime. The highway exit ramp in Cairo’s ashwa’iyyat brings the two together. It is a quiet protest simultaneously delivering a necessary public good. It is political and it is practical.