Show on the road - Issue 167 - Magazine | Monocle
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Egyptians know that the road connecting their country’s two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, is full of surprises. When monocle makes the journey, families are driving along the route in oversized suvs while nimble microbuses packed with commuters weave between the overladen trucks and dodge the construction workers toiling in the central reservation, scarves wrapped around their faces to protect them from the dust and heat. Kerbside, men sell tea, spare tyres and salvaged parts from cars that have crashed here.

Egypt has one of the world’s highest traffic mortality rates and the desert highway connecting Cairo and Alexandria is often recorded as the country’s deadliest. Despite this, Egyptians tend to wax lyrical about it – the shooting stars that they see when they’re driving at night, the spectacular sunsets, the sublime falafel shacks. Few similarities unite Cairenes and Alexandrians but a strange appreciation for the highway is one of them. It’s common to come across people from all walks of life at the pit stops. “We serve guests travelling for religious, medical and business reasons, as well as tourists coming purely for pleasure,” Ali Gallah, manager of the roadside Balboul Restaurant, tells monocle.

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The wide road, which is some 220km long, was built in 1935. Millions of people use it every year for business and trade but, for many, driving along the highway is synonymous with leisure. On the day that monocle does the dash, streams of Egyptians have hit the road hoping to swap Cairo’s intense heat for the coast’s white beaches. For Yassin Ashour, a Cairene who drives on the highway most weekends in the warmer months, the trip evokes nostalgia. “I have memories of my late grandmother stargazing through the window,” he says. “I grew up to have that same ritual with my friends, so the road has come to symbolise summer for me during different times of my life.”

Others come here seeking economic opportunity. On the first stretch of the highway, three men are cutting up a tangled web of iron with an angle grinder, metres away from raging traffic. The noise is dizzying but they seem unfazed. Wearing a Manchester United windbreaker and standing in front of an array of equipment, Mohammed, the beaming owner of the business, explains that he makes a living by selling parts he finds on the road.

He’s not the first person to do business here. Over the years, inexpensive land prices and easy transportation links have lured the agriculture industry to this seemingly hostile stretch of land too. For instance, one of Egypt’s largest dairy companies, Dina Farms, is based along the highway, 80km from Cairo. Tea houses, restaurants, fruit and vegetable shops, and shisha cafés are also commonplace. For the most part, it’s inside these establishments that many people make lifelong memories. After passing a truck loaded with young men perched on bundles of rubbish bags, we arrive at the Master Rest House, a service station packed with excited children, groups of friends and exasperated mothers stocking up on snacks. Here, between gulps of coffee, a gaggle of glamorous older ladies tells monocle that they’ve been travelling together on the highway to the north coast for years and remain best friends.

As dusk falls over the desert, we start the journey back to Cairo. monocle gets the sense that, like the older ladies, we’ll return soon. A few kilometres on, our car passes trucks carrying watermelons and is overtaken by microbuses. But we’re unfazed. Traffic flows continuously, as does life on the road.

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