Book Review: The Cairo books

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 10 Sep 2022

With the government’s fast and intense urban development plans across the city, Cairo’s history, present and future, is being subject to daily attention of the Egyptian press. Below is a short list of some titles providing many perspectives on this invincible capital.

 The Cairo books


Inspirations of the city

The Literary Atlas of Cairo: One Hundred Years on the Street of the City (Original English - AUC Press 2010)

Atals Al-Kahera Al-Adby: Maeit Aam fi shawarei Al-Kahera (Arabic version – Dar Al-Shorouk 2012) Shahira Mehrez

Cairo is not just a venue for events of novels that take place in the city, but rather a protagonist of these literary works of 20th century Egyptian and Arab novelists. This seems to be the basic thesis that Mehrez, a professor of literature at the American University in Cairo, tries to offer to her readers as she walks them through close to 100 literary texts in the span of close to 500 pages.

Mehrez certainly offers an easy read, with the book divided into a sequence of chapters, each addressed to a particular literary title where Cairo stands prominent. She makes sure that at the end of every chapter the reader sees Cairo as the influencer and never just as the venue of any of the novels her book is discussing.

Mehrez’s selection of novels include both the modern and the contemporary, with some set in the older quarters of the city and others unfolding in the unavoidable shanty towns that have grown to be so integral to 20th century Cairo. In each of the titles that appear in this book it is clear that Cairo could well be a city that brings people together or the one that forces them into feuds.

The city that is described in the novels that Mehrez chooses to discuss might not be exactly the city that many Cairo residents would reckon.It is this collage of realities that Mehrez depicts that makes the book a very interesting read and a true literary atlas of Cairo, even for someone who has read most of the novels on the list.

For sure, Mehrez is not at all offering just a set of novel reviews. This did not seem to be her purpose. The purpose seems to be an attempt to read the relevant literature as a literary map that portrays the city’s fast evolving urban morphology, with the clear contrasts that the novels issued in the 1940s and those published in the 1990s show. It shows the subsequent evolution of the identity of the city – particularly with the witty but maybe unintentional contrast of the quarters of Cairo. The changing fates of these quarters as they appear in the novels are closely examined in this book, not as strict work of literature, but as literary work that reflect a great deal on the city that seems to have captivated the authors and joined in deciding the development of events and evolution of characters.

Mehrez leaves her reader with more than one image of the city. Those are the images that the novelists sensed and wrote. They are the images that the reader may or may not find depending on how they walk the streets of Cairo.

History of the City

Al-Kahera fi Aasr Ismail (“Cairo in the Years of Khedive Ismail”) – AlMarsiya AlLebenaniah Publishing (1998) – Amr Abdou Ali

Al-Kahera fi montassaf al-karn al-tassia ashr (“Cairo in the Middle 19th Century”) – AlMasriya AlLebenaiah Publishing (2021) – Original English by Edward Lane, with an introduction by Stanley Lane and Arabic translation By Ahmed Salem Salem

Kenouz Wasst AlBald (“Treasures of Downtown Cairo”) – AlRewaq Publishing 2022 – Michel Hanna

It is quite impossible to discuss Cairo without referring to the impact that Khedive Ismail, who ruled Egypt in the mid 19th century, had on the city as he gave it a whole new character and profile when he chose to embrace the European architecture and urban norms. The story is familiar: Ismail met Haussmann in Paris and then came to Cairo to assign Ali Moubarak the job of giving the city a face lift before the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.

The details that Amr Abdou Ali offers in his close to 200-page book – Cairo in the Years of Khedive Ismail – are not so much about a city remade but rather about a city that turned out to be the haunting dream of a ruler who decided that his capital had to change fast and decisively.

Meanwhile, the over 300- page book – Cairo in the Middle 19th century – offers an image of pre-Ismail Cairo. Originally a text by Edward Lane on the city around the middle of the 19th century, the book got a revision and a new introduction by Stanley Lane upon its publication in 1950 under its original English title The Story of Cairo. Reading this volume second to Ali’s book shows an image of the city that Ismail could not really reconcile with and wanted to change.

However, to judge by the close to 250 pages of Michel Hanna’s Treasures of Downtown Cairo, today there is perhaps more of the city’s architecture that Ismail wanted to leave behind than the architecture Ismail created. In a sequel of many profiles, Hanna’s book captures specific shots and glimpses of the heart of Cairo, incidentally created by Ismail. A great deal of the shots that Hanna shows date to the earlier decades of the 20th centuries. The downtown that Hanna shares with the reader is a district rich with captivating architectural heritage but also of ample signs pointing to the rich cultural and political life of this part of the city during the first half of the 20th century.

Clearly, Hanna’s book, like those of Ali and the Lanes show that the full or partial remaking of Cairo is not just something of the present as it has been there for decades on end.

Moods of the city

Youshebeh Al-Kahera (“Looks Like Cairo”) – AlKarma Publishing (2021) - Mennah Abou Zahra- Poetry

Nadahet Al-Kahera – ElMaraya Publishing (2019) – Pierre Gazio (Original French: “La Sirène du Caire”) -Translator: Arij Gamal

Hadath thata saif - Dar AlShorouk (2018) – Yasmine El Rashidi (Original English: “Chronicle of a Last Summer”) – Translator: Ahmed Shafai

In a collection of short poems that are mostly written in the simplest Egyptian form of classic Arabic, Looks Like Cairo offers a somber but heart-warming profile of a city falling into disrepair, at least in parts, but which still has much to offer, especially for those who do not care much for the polished or the predictable. Abou Zahra’s soft-spoken Cairo is a city that looks gray, but still has its own twilight.

It is perhaps this eclectic mood that inspired Pierre Gazio, a French writer and teacher who lived for years in Cairo, to suggest that Cairo is a compelling city that attracts people to it without a very clear and specific reason except perhaps its gripping features. These features transcend into swinging moods and tempos, whether one is following the “recklessly walking crowds” in Old Cairo or the posh neighbourhoods of the city.

Gazio’s short text, just over 50 pages, could best be described as a page from the dairies of a man who is living in a city that he finds to be as fascinating as perplexing. The book is certainly not designed as “an orientalist’s review of the city” but rather as a passionate reflection over a city whose influence is remarkable on the author’s own sense of things around him.

What Cairo does to its own people as it keeps moving from one mood to the other, both in political and socio-economic terms, is? This is perhaps one of the key questions of Yasmine ElRashidi’s intimate and almost sentimental, yet highly political, title. In her 150 pages, ElRashidi takes the reader into her own family apartment and sits them in the comfort, or maybe the slight unease, of her living room. There the readers could see how an upper middle class Cairene family lived in the 1980s, shortly after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, through the rule of Hosni Mubarak, up until the January Revolution in 2011 and the subsequent political ups and downs.

The book, however, is far from being a strict political chronicle of the capital of Egypt. What it offers is much more profound because it really shows how the city and its people, those well-off and those who are struggling to make ends meet, are influenced by the politics that are unfolding in their own capital without them having any impact on it – except ever so rarely.

The Cairo that Rashidi shows is not necessarily the same Cairo of Abou Zahra or that of Gazio except in as much as it is the Cairo that goes through swinging tempos and that inspires its own residents their wavering moods.

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