Last Update 21:15
Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Mapping Cairo

Samia Mehrez explores the representation of the city in modern Egyptian literature

Samia Mehrez, Friday 26 Nov 2010
Views: 2968
Views: 2968

The title of my lecture today “Mapping Cairo” consciously evokes the Arab historiographical genre of khitat that persisted well into the nineteenth century and was especially developed in Egypt. Perhaps two of the most prominent examples of this genre and among the most influential are Khitat al-Maqrizi (fifteenth century) and al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiya by Ali Mubarak (nineteenth century).
The word khitat is the plural form of the word khitta. Both derive from the Arabic verb khatta / yakhuttu that means to write, to plan, to lay out, to draw (as in a map). The plural form, khitat, came to designate an Islamic genre of historiography, distinguished by its spatial organization; a form of social history and topography of the provinces of the expanding Islamic empire that felt the urgency of keeping records of its newly established towns.
Given the historical framework of the genre of khitat and its focus on a specific place and the changes and transformations of such a place under different authorities, it is not surprising that the khitat constantly needed to be rewritten. Indeed, the main reason why Ali Mubarak undertook the writing of al-Khitat al-Tawfiqiya during the nineteenth century was because, according to him, the Cairo described by al-Maqrizi during the fifteenth century was hardly recognizable anymore.

But why invoke the khitat when I am not a historian but a student and teacher of modern literature. The answer to this may lie in my training as a comparatist and as someone who has always sought to work “in between” boundaries rather than within them. This interdisciplinary thrust has informed and shaped all my teaching and research, specifically where the relationship between the sister disciplines of historical and literary studies is concerned.  
Indeed, my presentation today is based on a recent project that attempts, yet again, to straddle the literary and the historical and is inspired to a great extent by the historiographical genre of khitat that I have just described. But unlike the historian’s khitat, my map of Cairo is drawn from “fictional” not “real” representations of the city. As such it provides a doubly complicated process of representation that offers an alternative map of the city victorious and seeks to dismantle the classic and comforting distinction between “history” and “fiction,” between the “imagined” and the “real.” 

This new project is now a two-volume publication: namely, The Literary Atlas of Cairo and The Literary Life of Cairo both published by AUC Press in English translation and soon to appear in Arabic at Dar al-Shorouk, Cairo. When I first started the research on this project, I never imagined that I would find such a staggering amount of literary material on Cairo, whose sheer size and scope, even after considerable editing, still ultimately dictated the decision to publish two volumes instead of one. Fortunately, the ten chapters of the manuscript very conveniently divided themselves into two fairly independent yet complementary literary maps of the city. The four longer chapters included in The Literary Atlas of Cairo focus on literary representations of Cairo as a physical space and the transformations that its built environment has undergone during the twentieth century. In contrast, the seven shorter chapters that make up The Literary Life of Cairo all represent Cairenes’ lives and human relations at multiple levels across the city’s literary topography. These two very general levels of mapping Cairo in modern Arab works of the twentieth century now each stand alone. However, they also dialogue with and inform each other in many complex ways. Like the khitat, both the literary atlas and the literary life escort readers on a century-long visit to Cairo during which they can map out the growth of the city as well as its coexisting, sometimes colliding faces and histories. As such, the literary atlas project compliments and informs many other existing publications about the city of Cairo specifically in the fields of the humanities and social sciences, urban planning and development, migration studies, cultural studies, and gender studies all of which have explored similar contradictions, problems, and challenges in Cairenes’ lives. In fact, the chapters that constitute the two volumes are meant to open up new lines of inquiry and research questions as well as new ways of reading Cairo, one of the globe’s largest historic, multicultural urban centers.

Literature and the City
As a scholar of Arabic literature, a field routinely marginalized on the academic map today, I am convinced that many of the issues raised in the social sciences and in urban studies are in fact represented in these literary texts that have provided some of the most eloquent and perceptive readings of urban and social reality and its transformation in a form, language, metaphor, and idiom that are part and parcel of such transformations.
Both The Literary Atlas of Cairo and The Literary Life of Cairo constitute a necessary literary intervention that tries to‘re-construct’ the city and Cairenes’ lives from what the renowned historian of Cairo André Raymond has called the city’s fragments and its many mobile centers.  Through a careful selection and juxtaposition of reconstructions and representations of the city of Cairo in Arab literary works of the twentieth century, this two volume work provides a literary topography of the socio-cultural, political, and urban history of the city. It brings together some one hundred works by Egyptian and Arab writers who represent several generations of men and women, Muslims, Copts, and Jews, citizens and lovers of the globalized metropolis, writing in Arabic, English, and French about the city of Cairo.
As these writers undertake to represent the city in literature, their representations map out many of the changes in the ‘fragmented’ city’s geopolitics and its urban fabric while tracing spatial and social forms of polarization as well as new patterns of inclusion and exclusion within the borderless boundaries of the mega-city. Indeed, the literary atlas project reveals that Cairo’s twentieth-century writers, like its historians, feel the need and responsibility of mapping out their ever-expanding and changing city.

I have been asked how long it has taken to research, identify, edit and partially translate the selected excerpts that comprise this literary map of Cairo. There are two answers to this question. The immediate answer is one year: a very special year during which I was completely immersed in producing the map, putting it together, so to speak. It was also during this year that I came to understand what exactly I was trying to map or, to put it differently, what the works themselves were telling me I should map. This one year was crucial for defining the very parameters of the atlas project as well as my own understanding of the different facets of urbanity and the levels of the urban experience that I was trying to represent. But the real answer to the question is it took more than three decades of reading, teaching and writing about Arabic literature in order to feel familiar enough with Cairo’s ever changing literary topography to dare to map it. Many of my classes at AUC, specifically my seminars on “Cairo in the Modern literary Imaginary” provided magnificent testing grounds for the literary atlas of Cairo project. I remain indebted to all the students who attended these classes for their sharp interventions and valuable contributions.

Mapping and Nostalgia
Many reasons have come together to motivate the Literary Atlas project at this particular moment in time. The immediate reason that propelled me into mapping Cairo was perhaps a deep-seated personal anxiety about the ever-approaching date of the relocation of the American University in Cairo campus from Cairo’s throbbing downtown Tahrir area to its present location here in New Cairo. The old campus witnessed both my student years at AUC as well as eighteen years of my professional life in the institution This imminent displacement from the city of my childhood, school years, social life, and professional growth—not to mention emotional attachments and a lifetime of memories—all brought forth a surge of sudden nostalgia and a desire to try to capture this ever expanding city before we were uprooted from it, after we had been one of the main axes of downtown Cairo for almost a century.

This general sense of nostalgia was further accentuated by other parallel changes in the old city of Cairo namely, the new Open Museum project undertaken by the state in the heart of Islamic Cairo and its implications and consequences for life in the old city. The Open Museum project has effectively meant that Islamic Cairo is being emptied of its remaining social life and is being transformed into a playground for tourists where monuments and relics of the past are now the focus of the state’s Islamic heritage industry and globalized tourism projects. Concurrently, similar projects of gentrification are in the making for the modern colonial center of the city that has lost its earlier splendor and has become a sha’bi or popular area that now needs ‘cleaning up’. My colleague, sociologist Mona Abaza has recently written about the mounting speculation concerning the future of the Khedival, Belle Epoque, downtown Cairo that is known in Arabic as Wist al-Balad. In a recent paper, Abaza traces the mega multinational projects that await Wist al-balad and that will involve moving the main landmarks of the downtown area eventually transforming the very flavor of life in that part of the city as well. For example, what will happen to literary Cairo that occupies the very heart of Wist al-Balad: that vital literary space sarcastically labeled by Sonallah Ibrahim, one of Cairo’s most distinguished authors, as “the triangle of horror” that comprises the dens of Cairo’s literati located between Sulayman Pasha Street, Zahrat al-Bustan coffee shop, and the Cairo Atelier? All these imminent and actual changes and transformations of the urban experience in Cairo lie at the very heart of the literary atlas project and have driven me, like the historians of the khitat, to try and map my city, before it became unrecognizable but in this instance from the sources I know best, namely the modern literary production of Cairo.

Inspirational Literary Maps
Franco Moretti’s Atlas of the European Novel: 1800–1900 has been a great source of inspiration for my literary atlas of Cairo project as well as my teaching on Cairo in general, since it articulated in very concrete terms precisely what I wanted to do:
Geography is not an inert container, is not a box where cultural history ‘happens,’ but an active force, that pervades the literary field and shapes its depth. Making the connection between geography and literature explicit, then— mapping it: because a map is precisely that, a connection made visible—will allow us to see some significant relationships that have so far escaped us.
Despite the differences between Moretti’s project and my own, it remains self evident, to me at least, that we share the conviction that literary geography as he put it, can “change the way we read novels,” and, I would add, can equally change the way we read the space in which these novels came into being. Indeed, my project, like Moretti’s, understands literary geography as a means to pose new questions and look for new answers for literary geography provides analytical tools that dissect the text in an unusual way and foregrounds, as Moretti put it, “the only real issue of literary history: society, rhetoric, and their interaction.”
The relationship between literature and geography, writers and the space that they and their narratives occupy, has been succinctly articulated by Gamal al-Ghitani, one of Egypt’s major writers and literary architects of the city, in the following terms:
Fundamentally, writing is linked to a specific place, the history and past of this place, and the spirit of this place. To be interested in time, and the passage of time, is to be interested in a specific place as well. For space and time are indissolubly tied. Place contains time. That is why remembering a certain event, at a certain date, cannot but evoke the place, the space in which we were at that given moment. . . .
It is for this reason that the relationship between a writer and a place is very important, because place implies time, history, society and human relations.
Even though representations of ‘real’ space in literature are fundamentally an imaginative construction, they will necessarily provide, through narrativity and temporality, a map of real material geopolitics and histories as well as a complex network of human relations across literary topography. In “Semiology and the Urban,” Roland Barthes described the city as “a discourse and this discourse is truly a language: the city speaks to its inhabitants, we speak our city, the city where we are, simply by living in it, by wandering through it, by looking at it.” Not only is the city a ‘discourse’ and a ‘language’ but it also ‘speaks to its inhabitants’; not only is the city constituted of signs that need to be deciphered and read, but those very signs signify differently for the city dwellers who behold and decode them. Indeed, urban semioticians and planners have moved away from trying to identify universal features of the urban experience and have placed the emphasis on the readers of the city whose cultural and social positions will determine the very visibility and legibility of the cityscape.

The city is not simply a physical presence that writers reproduce; rather, the city is a construct that continues to be reinvented by its inhabitants—in this case, its writers—each according to his or her experiential eye and personal encounter with it. At this level, the city emerges as an actor with real agency that embodies and structures social power as well as political, economic, and symbolic processes. As the writers come to represent the city in literature, they, in turn, become architects of its history whose literary works reconstruct and re-map the city. Even as writers provide us with the familiar landmarks of the city, ultimately these same physical landmarks take on, or lose signification for each one of them depending on the perspective, class, ideology and time frame from which the place and space are written. The process of reading the city through its signs becomes doubly complicated when these real urban landmarks are represented, indeed re-invented, through literary language and vocabulary that invests them with new levels of symbolic signification.

Cairo: Real and Imagined
Given the dominance of the realist tradition in Arabic literature in general and Egyptian literature in particular, it is no surprise that Cairo, whether it is the historic city or the modern metropolis, should be the main ‘real’ and metaphoric space for much of the literary production during the twentieth century. Urban space, for the writers of the city, has been a major architect of its social, economic, and political fabric. In this literary production, Cairo becomes a protagonist whose existence is indispensable for the existence of the narratives themselves, not to speak of our own reading and decoding of these works. Hence, the city becomes a text that is constantly rewritten, a space that is continuously reconstructed/ deconstructed through its ever shifting, ever-changing signs.

During the twentieth century, specifically since the 1960s, Cairo has witnessed an accelerated pattern of physical expansion beyond its historic Islamic neighborhoods and its modern colonial ones. Many factors have converged to produce this image of ‘fragmented’ Cairo: the socialist, centrally planned, and public-sector dominated state economy of the Nasser regime of the 1960s was abandoned for an ‘open door’ one during the Sadat period (1971–81) that encouraged the private sector and Arab and international investment. This, together with rural–urban migration, led to the appearance of informal and illegal housing during the 1980s, as well as the ‘ruralization of urban areas,’ the deterioration in living conditions and infrastructure in the old city, as well as class inequalities and urban problems both social and economic. The state’s laissez-faire policies, not only within the economic field, but also in the field of urban planning, have resulted in the uncomfortable coexistence of skyscrapers and multi-million-dollar commercial centers side by side with shantytowns and informal settlements. The uncontrollable growth of the city has pushed the affluent into gated communities, “utopias” or, as the social scientists have come to label them, the ‘ashwaiyyat of the rich where they seek to protect themselves from all those others who “think they are alive,” and where “language breaks down to a jargon of grunts.” The mega-city of Cairo has also experienced new patterns of geographic, economic, and social mobility: the rise of professional and labor migration to the Gulf, the emergence of new patterns of investment and consumption, the disintegration of the ‘traditional’ social fabric, and the emergence of new forms of urban affiliations and solidarities. The fragmentation of old familiar spaces and the encroachment of new unfamiliar ones led to a heightened sense of mobility and anonymity as well as an imminent sense of alienation and isolation. As the city transformed itself, so did the metaphors that came to represent it in literary texts. Gradually, the historic hara, that dominated the representation not only of Cairo but also of Egypt in general, faded out and was displaced by new metaphors that are more representative of the new realities of both, the city, and the country at large.

The Literary Atlas of Cairo Project
The Literary Life of Cairo and The Literary Atlas of Cairo map out these migrations and displacements and attempt to reconstruct Cairo as it grows, changes, and expands through its representation in literary works over a century. Moreover, through its thematic chapter organization, the literary atlas project traces, with equal depth, both the developments that have taken place over an entire century in modes of literary production as well as the unique historical cross section of the actors within the Cairene literary field. From the pre-modern prose style that imitates the classical form and structure of the maqama, to the elevated neoclassical style of the début du siècle, to experimentations with a third language that combines the written and spoken Arabic at levels more attuned to the needs of modern narrative texts, all the way to creative uses of the vernacular and everyday lingo of the street—all these forms of fictional expression, as well as those developed by anglophone and francophone Arab writers, are an integral part of the city’s literary geography. Likewise, throughout the Atlas, readers will experience the extent to which the authors’ class, gender, race, and ethnic background condition and shape these literary reconstructions of the cityscape at both the diachronic and synchronic levels. Even though the selections in the atlas are dominated by a century-long representation of the marginal status of the writers in the city this seemingly “marginal” position is countered by the crucial and conscious role these writers play as underground historians of the city whose knowledge is indispensable in Cairo’s past, present, and future.

A literary map of Cairo then, but, which Cairo would this literary atlas represent? And how? These were the difficult choices that had to be made in order for this project to materialize. Given my own area of expertise—modern Arabic literature and more specifically narrative literature—it was obvious to me from the start that I would focus on the representation of Cairo in twentieth-century narrative works by Arab writers. But beyond my own field of study there were two crucial determining factors in the choice of material for the atlas project. First, as Benedict Anderson has argued in Imagined Communities, there is an intrinsic relationship between the birth of the imagined community of the modern nation and the new structures, forms, and languages that developed with the novel and the newspaper, for “these forms provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation.” It is through these new structures of representation that readers came to imagine themselves as a community even if they had never and would never see each other. The novel, then (or narrative literature in general, I would say) imitates the nation to a great extent, not only through setting, temporality, character, and event, but also through language. For the purposes of compiling both The Literary Atlas of Cairo and The Literary Life of Cairo, it seemed appropriate to use narrative literature in constructing a literary geography of Cairo precisely because it allows, through its very form and structure, the representation of real material geopolitics and histories as well as a complex network of human relations across literary topography. One could imagine another atlas of Cairo that focuses solely on poetry for example, however, given the dense, elliptical nature of poetic language, the end product, no doubt very interesting, would have been substantially different.

The second issue that needed to be resolved was the time frame for the project. This was perhaps an easier decision to make given my choice of novel as the dominant literary form in the atlas as a whole, for not only is the novel related to nationalism and the rise of modern national imaginings, but it is related equally to urbanity and the centrality of the urban experience both of which have become increasingly dominant in twentieth-century Arab narrative literature. Whether we choose to consider the canonical beginnings   of the twentieth century or the more hybrid and cosmopolitan popular fiction from ‘below,’ there is no denying that the literary geography of the city gradually came to dominate the fictional space, so much so that it prompted Gaber Asfour, one of the Arab world’s most prominent literary critics, to label the twentieth century “the time of the novel” (zaman al-riwaya). Naguib Mahfouz was among the first to lead the way during the first half of the twentieth century, with most of his novels set in Old Cairo. Gradually, however, as urban space expanded, and as Old Cairo lost much of its distinctive social and economic fabric through the exodus of its population to the modern metropolis, writers of the city, including Naguib Mahfouz himself, migrated or were displaced to other locations, mapping out many of Cairo’s new boundaries and their accompanying social changes and economic developments.

In collecting, editing, organizing, and translating at least one third of the material that constitutes this project, I tried to let the city speak, to use Roland Barthes’ formulation: I tried to let the city emerge from the literary works, in ‘fragments,’ in bits and pieces that, when juxtaposed against each other, would provide a map, would actually “speak to us” as Barthes said. Even though the texts themselves are excerpts from the authors’ works, their juxtaposition and arrangement in both volumes is my own. The act of selection and juxtaposition implicates me at a second degree in the reconstruction of Cairo’s literary geography and suggests that the map that unfolds before the readers is but one of many possible maps that would ultimately depend on the perspective of the ‘cartographer,’ or the city dweller—myself—and how the city ‘spoke’ to me.
As readers discover the major axes, patterns, and issues that are raised by the selected literary excerpts within each chapter of the two volumes, they will also begin to read across the chapters and will trace new and interesting, as yet unwritten, relationships, thereby producing new maps of the cityscape and becoming themselves active authors of Cairo’s literary geography.
It is important to remember that the literary map of Cairo that unfolds in these two volumes is one that is constructed in translation. The representations of the city in Arabic, English, and French original texts for over one hundred years are here mediated through translation into another language. To be aware of this complex linguistic fact is to realize that embedded within both The Literary Atlas of Cairo and The Literary Life of Cairo is an equally valuable and unique atlas of literary translation that has yet to be written. Just as the selections span the history of the relationship between literary producers and the city, as well as modes of representation of urban space, the English translations themselves provide an interesting glimpse into the transformations that have occurred in the field of Arabic literary translation and the roles and tasks of the translators of Cairo throughout the twentieth century: from the more literal and heavily annotated translations of the first half of the twentieth century to increasingly more free-flowing renditions that oscillate between foreignizing and domesticating the original texts.

Almost twenty years ago, I had written an article entitled “Re-writing the City: The Case of Khitat al-Ghitani.” It was a modest attempt at reading the changing faces of Cairo through the work of one of Egypt’s most prominent writers, Gamal al-Ghitani. To put it very generally, Khitat al-Ghitani is a prophetic re-mapping of modern Cairo which lays out the oncoming defeat and downfall of the city victorious, Al-Qahira. In this work, Al-Ghitani parodies the great historical texts of Khitat and produces his own “fictional” history of the modern city. In doing so, Khitat al-Ghitani undermines the authoritative voice of the historian and proposes to challenge it by imitating it. This symbolic gesture allows Al-Ghitani to line up with some of the most noted historians thereby assuming, just like them, an equally authoritative role and voice in the city.  More importantly however, Khitat al-Ghitani remains a fictional not a historical Khitat and can therefore represent an alternative historical record and an alternative cultural map.

As I started working on the atlas project, I was struck by how long the idea of mapping Cairo may have been brewing in my mind. Twenty years ago it was a mere chapter in a book, written by one person. Today it has become a collective work about ‘The City Victorious’ produced by almost one hundred writers and translators over an entire century. I want to seize this opportunity to thank Cairo’s authors and translators for inspiring this literary map.  The Atlas project is dedicated to them.

Short link:



© 2010 Ahram Online.