Cairo pines for its golden era

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Looking at Talaat Harb Square in central Cairo, it is hard to imagine that British lords and Egyptian princes once mingled there with songstresses and movie stars; that ladies strolled in sun dresses and men in linen suits gambled away nights and fortunes in elegant casinos.

These days, unemployed youths shout vulgar catcalls at female shoppers walking past crumbling facades. Vendors on potholed sidewalks peddle Chinese-made T-shirts. Legless beggars grab the ankles of passers-by for alms.

There are graver ills in the Egyptian megalopolis of 18 million people: Whole outlying neighborhoods thirst for drinking water, ramshackle houses collapse on shallow foundations and trash clutters miles of dirt alleyways. Still, the district of Cairenes, known simply as downtown, provokes a kind of longing for possibilities lost in a once cutting-edge and even glamorous city.

"The Talaat Harb district represented Cairo as a fresh capital of a European country," said Alaa al-Aswany, author of the 2004 novel"Yacoubian Building," a chronicle of Cairo's moral decay set downtown."It symbolized a vigorous, cosmopolitan Cairo."

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