Book review:: A Unique Look at Life in Downtown Cairo

Abdalla Dnewar, Wednesday 26 Jan 2011

Mekkawi Said reveals a different map of Downtown Cairo, telling the history of its people and places, with illustrations and photographs bringing its stories to life

Moktanayat west el-balad (Downtown Belongings), Mekkawi Said, Cairo: Dar El-Shorouk, 2010. pp.471 (hardcover)

This fascinating area with its unique character, distinctive streets, buildings, cafes and bars has attracted everyone from artists, intellectuals, rebels, businessmen and even foreigners, rendering it an attractive place for the jobless, the rogues, and any newcomers to Cairo. This book isn’t the first to be situated in downtown Cairo, as it has proved a popular setting for authors and poets and an inevitable location on everyone’s path.

However, this volume isn’t exactly fiction as we know it. It is divided into two main themes. First is the book of the people, which is the literary part with a selection of portraits from the author’s own experience.

The second part is the book of the place, which is more like a documentary of the main geographical and historical landmarks, with details of the streets, squares, bars and restaurants, all founded during the 1970s, with the exact date, important features, even famous customers and sometimes pointing out why such a place was established.

In the book of the people, we find many dreams and aspirations of creative thinkers and pretend artists; the well-off and the less fortunate. The author has chosen a varied mix of characters, although the multitude of faces may confuse the reader, and in some instances the impression is given that it’s a description of the same character but on a different page. The character of the “climber” who tries to reach upward without any effort was repeated throughout although his means differ; leading to the feeling that such a trait is common to the downtown clientele.

A possible reason for this is that a number of pages have been dedicated to each character, rather than trying to weave them all into one text. Said has done this successfully in the last section, and in this sense makes it possibly the best in my opinion. The introduction of the characters in “Ikhtibar Al-Balata” (Testing the Tile), which revolves around the “Stella bar” (a famous small bar) is depicted very smoothly, starting with the old lady then the barman and the body-building young man, all merging together in a humorous atmosphere.

Failure to weave this pattern for the characters in “Makha Ali Baba” (Ali Baba’s Café) left it lacking, despite being an important stop in the larger scheme of places. Said chose to portray himself in each of the stories, and this was partly unsuccessful, especially as his role was marginal and hardly worth mentioning. It is common to stumble across expressions such as “I saw her the first time…,” “We got to know about him when …” only to discover later that Said’s presence hardly affects the flow of events, and even limits the imagination in some instances.

The book of the place is however a coherent and complete guide to anyone who appreciates downtown Cairo or wishes to visit, with a lot of history about each corner. The reader is given a time and space map, indicating some rarely-visited places, which are otherwise inaccessible or even unheard of, in addition to some fun stories, such as the one about discovering coffee in Ethiopia and the introduction of ice cream in Egypt. It is loaded with information about the workers in the cafes and the hotels for tourists, in addition to the locations of cultural activities with many stories about intellectuals and artists.

Said is a brilliant storyteller who writes as if it’s a drawing for the camera, possibly as he has written for the cinema. He fell in love with the downtown area after living there for a long time, which is also apparent in his previous works; especially “Taghredit Al-Bagaa” (The Song of the Swans) which was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker prize and tackles the topic of estrangement.

In 2008 Said was awarded the national award in Egypt and many of his works have been translated into English. He has not written a lot of books overall, but his distinctive style in weaving together events has left a mark on literature. This latest book is quite different from its predecessors, especially in its experimentation with drawings by artist Amr El-Kafrawi, giving this book its unique form.


Search Keywords:
Short link: