Dusky, teeming Cairo in great need of humdrum street and sewer work
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To circumvent rent controls, landlords require (officially illegal) ''key money'' of $1,500 to $2,000 from new tenants. Landlords also have been constructing additions to the tops of rent-controlled buildings. Not only does this look tacky, but it often makes the buildings structurally unsound.Skip to next paragraph
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The government says there is a housing shortage in Egypt of 1 million units and that by the year 2000 this will rise to 3.6 million. Hundreds of families live on the grounds of cemeteries. Construction sites attract a temporary city of workers and their families living on the lot.
Yet even as the government tries to meet housing needs, it is working at cross-purposes with land-reclamation and agriculture efforts. Each year, the government estimates, 5,000 acres of Egypt's precious arable land is lost to urbanization.
In an attempt to alleviate the burden on Cairo, the government for the past six years has been building new satellite cities in the desert. The most successful of these is the Tenth of Ramadan village, on the road to Ismailia.
Transportation is an even more difficult problem. The streets are already choked with cars and jam-packed buses. Adding more buses would probably result in busier streets and fall far short of satisfying demand. On weekdays, the central business district around Tahrir (''freedom'') Square is so crowded with pedestrian traffic that even walking is difficult. Because of poor parking facilities, pedestrians are forced to use the streets - and buses and autos have to creep along. This gives the central business district the appearance of the Khan Al-Khalili souk, or open-air marketplace, where the prolific foot-traffic has long since ruled out all but essential vehicular traffic.
In 1982, excavation began on a subway system for Cairo, engineered by the French. The first leg of the subway is to run from Helwan in the south to Heliopolis in the north. But it will be a decade before the first trains are running. By then Cairo's population will no doubt have grown so much that the system will be inadequate before it opens.
The population problem is widely understood. Billboards throughout the country advertise the advantages of limiting family size to two children. Contraceptives are available, and Muslim sheikhs have frequently told their followers that there is nothing in Islam that precludes birth control. Nevertheless, Egyptians have great affection for children, family planning officials say, and still see large families as signs of success and fertility.
If, at the ground level, Cairo has its systemic problems of infrastructure and population, it nonetheless has its pleasures. It is not difficult to escape today's problems, to ride to the top of the Tower of Cairo or one of the new high-rises and gaze out over the city skyline onto the golden plain of Giza at the timeless symmetry of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. Or one can lose himself in the labryinth of Old Cairo and come suddenly upon the huge walls of the Citadel and conjure up Saladin and medieval splendor.
''Cairo of the caliphs,'' ''The Tales of the Arabian Nights'' called it, ''the superb town, the holy city, the delight of the imagination, greatest among the great, whose splendor and opulence made the Prophet smile.''