Arkadia Fire

When I first talked with Neil during the uprising in Egypt he spoke of the intensifying street battles between protesters & the riot police (that would soon culminate in the protesters’ occupation of Tahrir Square). But the enormity of the fast-developing situation hit home when he related the fate of one of our old haunts, Arkadia Mall. “…and Arkadia …Arkadia is gone”. Gone? “Totally fucked. Burned to the ground. I could see it burn from the balcony.”

Yesterday I visited with our friend Mohammad, the gatekeeper for our old houseboat in Imbaba. From across the river he had watched smoke rising from the mall for two days. They burned it? I asked. It didn’t burn, he said; it exploded. Attackers made use of the tall propane tanks found in most Egyptian kitchens. They tied kerosene-soaked rags to the tank valves, and rolled them, lit, into the mall.

*

Arkadia Mall is (was) a peculiar landmark on the Nile waterfront. In an enclave carved from the old working class neighborhood of Bulaq, it was a multi-story glistening monument of modernity. Five floors of fancy shops facing in toward a large atrium; well-lit, air-conditioned, and designed with all the usual trappings of mall layout including escalators running in mismatched directions to make shoppers cruise more storefronts. Within Egypt’s emergent consumer culture, Arkadia seemed to offer a crash course on the basics of capitalist leisure: the mall’s atrium was outfitted with a massive banner expounding the mantra “shopping and comparing… shopping and comparing… shopping and comparing” printed over clip-art ladies with purses strolling the hallways of a clip-art mall.

But the mall is no more. This afternoon I crossed the Imbaba Bridge, approaching the mall through the back alley that separates the new economy from the industrial yards and old scrap shops of northern Bulaq. As you approach the building you meet the smell of a campsite the morning after a bonfire. The north side and back of the building are marked by flame. The blown-out window frames all wear charcoal dunce caps—triangles of soot rising up the walls where flames tried to find a chimney. The same security guards still sit on white plastic chairs sipping tea, though their job is made redundant by new reinforcements: the rear entrance where there once twirled a glass revolving door is now blocked by eight gigantic steel plates welded together in a most forbidding industrial gray quilt. It surely wasn’t too little, but judging from all available evidence, it was too late.

Walking around to the front of the mall the damage is more obvious. Everything combustible is combusted, everything breakable is busted. Exterior windows and walls are smashed, revealing charred staircases, sales cases, mannequins, etc. The marquee now reads RKAD A. The polished stone front stairs are spangled with glass bits. The doorway of the grand entrance is now plugged by a hastily constructed brick wall.

*

My hunch says this wasn’t merely a rampage—nor was it simply rage directed at a monument of new wealth. As with many, I have been amazed at the exactness of the material damage of the protests (an extension of the focused aims of the protesters). The demonstrations did not devolve into frenzy. Downtown, protesters destroyed the headquarters of the ruling party, but when fighting & flames threatened the Egyptian Museum they formed a chain around the venerated building. North of Tahrir, the McDonalds, KFC, and Pizza Hut were totally stomped & gutted but the glass-fronted travel agencies next door didn’t suffer a single crack. [Don’t let this lead you to believe that Egyptians don’t have a soft spot for al-Kentucky!] And even at Arkadia, restraint is visible: amid the wreckage stands untouched a gilt bas-relief of Pharaonic scenes (seated goddesses fanned by palm fronds, etc.) I asked an Egyptian friend who had explored the wreckage at Arkadia if he had also noticed this sole undisturbed item. He smiled. “Of course. Because this one, it is ours.” Just three steps to the side of the unmarred Pharaonic bas-relief is the smashed ash-covered chrome sign for the former LA ROSE boutique.

Rather than undirected rage, my hunch is that the attack on Arkadia Mall has deeper roots. Arkadia was built upon land annexed from Bulaq during the tenure of former President Sadat as part of plans to modernize Cairo. Old, winding, dusty, neighborhoods like Bulaq are aggravatingly un-modern to urban planners and aggravatingly impenetrable to the state. Thus, some of the best real estate of the neighborhood was seized & razed to make way for Modern Things and the displaced residents were relocated to apartment blocks down the river. I think the residents have not forgotten the injustice of that episode, and have waited patiently to even the score. (I’ll look into this theory further in the next few days…) Alternatively, the destruction could have been a targeted attack amongst elite rivals, as some have suggested about the torching of CarreFour. Or, maybe this was an incident of looting by folks who, like me, always hoped to win that contest where you’re allowed 30minutes to storm through Kay Bee Toys and keep anything you manage to throw in your shopping cart. After all, through the mall’s rear revolving door—through which the local residents were not welcome—locals could see the gleaming, over-stuffed Toys “R” Us. And I did see a little rocker back in the neighborhood with a shrink-wrapped neon Back-to-the-Future-II-hover-board-style skateboard…. Or maybe the explanation lies in a combination of all three…

***

Post-Script: I don’t mean to sound a dirge for Arkadia per se. When I say above that the enormity of the protests hit home only when I heard of the mall’s destruction, that was owed to the audacity of the act rather than the loss of a favorite playground. That being said… at least two features of the ex-mall deserve a eulogy.

Eulogy the First: The second floor food court—unremarkable in its edible offerings—was adorned with the most magnificent fast-food themed mosaics imaginable. Surely the finest art schools in the country were tapped. I remember especially an exquisite multicolor mosaic of Colonel Sanders rendered in gleaming tiny tiles. His avuncular mug floating atop some celestial scene reminiscent of Wenzel Hablik.

Eulogy the Second. The ground floors of the mall were stocked with the usual lineup of clothiers, sunglasses merchants, and trinket peddlers. But—improbably and without advertisement—the top two floors held a secret & surreal indoor amusement park. If you happened to be lazily shuffling through the halls, enjoying the AC and probably an ice-cream cone and, without design or expectation, rode the fourth floor escalator heavenward, you would alight amidst a trove of treats. It was as if a Japanese funhouse had gone bankrupt in 1993, got packed into freights, and reassembled in the weird attic of Arkadia. The place had entertainments of yore—a ball pit, skeet ball, whack-a-mole, a wacky fun-timez photo booth—alongside new-fangled amusements like arcade video games where you sat on jet-skis to launch off wicked ramps and outwit sharks. The funhouse also had two large-scale attractions: a powerful, seemingly unsafe ride that twirl’d a yellow bench of fifteen shrieking fifteen year-olds in a twenty-foot vertical circle at space shuttle G-forces. The other large attraction was a laser tag arena. Nuff said! RIP!

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5 Responses to “Arkadia Fire”

  1. Matthew Says:

    Bravo! Doom Spirals for best in revolutionary tourism! (and I know you’ll probably take that as a knock, but it is not meant as one. My wife and I almost ditched out lives to hop on a plane on Jan 26th. I regret that we didn’t.) You’re the people’s champ for getting over there and covering this, especially given your connection to the City. These posts are really, really great.

  2. doomspirals Says:

    As one of this blog’s 4 readers (of which 3 are its authors) I appreciate your comments (even if we sometimes snooze you out with tame R&B jams). I have a lot more material to post as soon as I have a minute–anything in particular you’d like to hear about???????????? p.s. the Revolution has a merch table; would you like a t-shirt?

  3. rosemary rimmer Says:

    My family were staying in the Nile Hilton Residences for a few months, and my son was working in Nile City offices. We too mourn the Arkadia Mall. All those small businesses wrecked. I didn’t get any sense that the shop keepers were rich people, just ordinary people trying to work in a stalled economy.
    I didn’t know[but it makes sense] that the Mall was built on land that belonged to Bulaq people.I did see local people in there, but only the affluent. I saw a young family with a little girl tackling a giant sundae only the day before the fighting started. I guess that’s why they had the guards and dogs…
    The day after the looting we saw a couple of local kids on flashy brand new bikes wobbling along as they cycled down the wrong side of the Corniche…so locals were certainly involved.
    We walked past the smoking ruins and people threw stones at us, so we knew it was time to evacuate, and we left on the 2nd.
    The same people are in power, only the figurehead has gone…poor Egypt. I think the people deserve better leaders.

  4. hier entlang Says:

    hier entlang…

    […]Arkadia Fire « Doom Spirals[…]…

  5. ACAB « Doom Spirals Says:

    […] the early days of the Egyptian revolution, I returned to the old Doomspirals houseboat to chat with our friend Mohamed, the bowwab (doorman, groundskeeper). I asked Mohamed who was living here now, and in a hushed tone […]

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