Egyptian Sprawl

With its move to a new city in the desert, is the American University in Cairo buying sanctuary or isolation?

“I started wearing it six months ago; I just felt like I wanted to,” Nancy El-Orindy says of the traditional hijab scarf that she, like many women in Cairo, wears over her hair. “We are supposed to be covered so we don’t attract too much attention from guys.” The 19-year-old student slouches in a wicker chair in the central courtyard of the American University in Cairo (AUC), an unlikely school in the heart of the capital city of Egypt. Around her classmates sit at café-style tables and chairs, and young men play basketball behind a wire fence. As the students lounge, a half dozen or so cats, ubiquitous in Cairo, slink about the walkways, stairs, and tables.

Orindy’s story illustrates the Waring-blender whirl of money, culture, religion, and history in the region. On the one hand, she wears the hijab to show her new commitment to her Islamic roots. On the other hand, she plays college soccer—a passion she picked up in her native Canada, where she was born to Egyptian parents. Orindy speaks English better than Arabic. And her professional goal? “I want to go to fashion school, to be a dress designer,” she says with an embarrassed smile. “I like Gucci and Prada.”

Orindy is one of about 5,000 students at AUC, a school that is confronting—and capitalizing on—similar cross-cultural forces. Founded by Presbyterian missionaries from Minnesota in 1919, it is presently “an Egyptian University with an international student body, teaching an American-style liberal arts education,” says past president John D. Gerhart. Many of Egypt’s most prominent officials send their children to AUC. Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egypt’s current strongman president, is a graduate, as are the couple’s two sons. Despite its largely Middle Eastern student body, the school’s board is mostly American, and some of its funding comes from the U.S. government. It is routinely called “the best university in Cairo,” and many Arabs see it as a model for how their region might modernize: by copying the best of American-style liberalism in the classic tradition, through openness, education, and scientific thought.

The institution’s next step in following that model is an ambitious expansion program. The school is moving its entire campus from the heart of downtown Cairo to a spot about 20 miles outside the city on the edge of the desert, where it will occupy 260 acres in the middle of a new planned city called New Cairo. AUC has hired top architects from around the world to design the grounds, buildings, and interiors. Currently under construction, the $300 million project—set to open in 2007—is intended to ensure the school’s position as the premier research and teaching university in the Middle East.

However, the university is expanding at a time when the American presence in the Middle East is controversial, to put it lightly. This past spring, as American jets bombed Iraqi cities, thousands of Egyptians protested the war and battled police at Tahrir Square, outside AUC’s front gates. By moving outside the city, the school will be escaping some of these turbulent forces. But is it buying sanctuary or isolation?

The map of New Cairo outlines 72 square miles—the equivalent of three Manhattans. It is the latest in a line of “new cities” Egypt has built over the last half century in an attempt to channel its swelling population. Presently New Cairo looks like the outer-growth edge of Houston or Dallas, with apartment buildings springing up on cul-de-sacs off wide empty highways. Closer to the city center a typical pattern of amenities is going up, including two water-hungry golf courses and a huge supermarket. If all goes as planned (a big if), state planners project that 2.5 million people will live here.

In its location, shape, size, and relationship to the highway, the new campus resembles nothing so much as an American regional shopping mall. Parking lots will ring the new complex, with shrubbery and other landscaping to soften their impact. Students, who in Egypt are accustomed to living at home, will drive or be driven to school on the city’s beltway. Many live in wealthy suburbs that are actually closer to the new campus than to the old one.

The school’s planned buildings and spaces—designed by an international team of seven firms—are imaginative and subtle, drawing on the Islamic approach to architecture. Although the campus has few horseshoe-shaped arches or minarets, it has a lot of courtyards, wooden screens, and pathways that blend inside and outside space. At a time when upper-class Egyptians are proud of their ability to air-condition spaces, the university will rely on traditional natural cooling devices like courtyards, “wind catchers” (open vents on upper stories that funnel cooler air into a building), and groves of lemon, palm, and olive trees. The primary architect is a joint venture of Sasaki Associates of Boston and Community Design Collaborative of Cairo, led by Abdelhalim I. Abdelhalim. On a site plan by Carol R. Johnson Associates and Cairo’s SITES International, there’s also a library by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates; athletic facilities by Ellerbe Becket; and student housing, a main auditorium, and a campus center by the Mexico City firm Legorreta + Legorreta.

The present campus occupies a relatively tiny 7.3 acres in the heart of an older planned city: a nineteenth-century neighborhood laid out by Khedive Ismail after a visit to Paris during its 1860s renovation under Baron Haussmann. The school sits at a central square where broad Parisian-style avenues merge. It has its own stop on the city’s subway system, just a block away from the Egyptian Museum, and the medieval city is a short drive or walk away. In þeeing all this, the university is gaining space and þexibility but losing a richer cultural context. Its already privileged student body will have even less contact with ordinary Egyptians.

“They did not try hard enough to get it together downtown,” one local architect says. “There are plenty of good examples of urban universities, like the Sorbonne or Leiden. The students could even walk a half mile to a building. They will be away from everyone and everything on the new campus. I’ll be damned if I’ll go schlepping out there.”

Another potential pitfall for the school is whether suburban New Cairo will ever come together in a way that resembles what is on the planning documents. At a luncheon in February after the official ground-breaking, at the Katameya Heights Golf and Tennis Resort in New Cairo, school officials and city planners began arguing over the area’s future and who would pay for what. “We try to get natural gas, and [city officials] say, ‘Sure, for twenty million dollars,’” complains Hussein M. El-Sharkawy, vice president of new-campus development at AUC. “We want a metro line; they say, ‘Okay. One-hundred and twenty million dollars.’”

One Egyptian planner has urged the school to open the campus to the public. “Don’t put up a fence,” says Raouf M. K. Helmi, who has a son and daughter studying at AUC. “Open your playground, your library. Open your beautiful facilities to the people.” In fact, the new campus of AUC, like the old one, will be mostly closed. The public can enter the exterior courtyard, an arts center, and the school bookstore, but the rest of the campus will be accessible only with a pass.

But Abdelhalim, the bearded wise man of Cairo architecture who came back to his native city after 11 years in the United States, says the new campus will be a center for the commingling of cultures and ideas regardless of its location. Just as the school blends Islamic architecture within an American-style campus, he hopes it will fertilize Egypt with Western-style education, to produce a new Islamic version of it. He says the essential question is, “What does a liberal arts education mean in Egypt, within an Islamic community?”

Recent Programs