Cairo: The changing city

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 19 Aug 2021

Critic Dina Heshmat talks about changing images of Cairo in modern and contemporary literature in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly

Dina Heshmat
Professor Dina Heshmat

What has been the meaning of the city of Cairo to different people from different backgrounds over recent years? This is arguably the underlying question of Egyptian critic Dina Heshmat’s book The Evolution of Representations of Cairo in Modern and Contemporary Egyptian Literature.

The book is perhaps even more relevant today than it was upon its publication in Arabic in 2007. It is a text that goes through the different layers of Cairo as seen and lived by leading characters in six titles by six authors who saw the different faces of the city at different junctures.

The characters come from literary works such as Zuqaq Al-Midaq (Midaq Alley) by Naguib Mahfouz, Al-Naddaha (The Siren) by Youssef Idris, Asafir Al-Nil (Nile Sparrows) by Ibrahim Aslan, Lussus Mutkadun (Thieves in Retirement) by Hamdi Abu Golayel, Heliopolis by May Al-Telmessani, and Qanoun Al-Weratha (Inheritance Law) by Yasser Abdel-Latif.

The selection offers a large timeframe that starts with World War II and takes in the period from the 1950s until the late 1990s. It tells the story of a wide range of characters. Some have always lived in Cairo, even if they have moved from one neighbourhood to another, whether from poorer to richer or from older to newer or from the heart of the city to its suburbs. Others came to the city because they had an irresistible will to do so or because they felt they had to.

All the characters Heshmat considers walk about the city, often aimlessly, with different degrees of ease or unease depending on the meaning of the city for them and its impact. Hamida, a character in Mahfouz’s novel Midaq Alley, is very different from Fathia in The Siren or Micky in Heliopolis. But all three characters find their way around a city that both lures and disappoints them.

In the years after World War II Hamida is mesmerised by the dramatic difference she finds when comparing her own neighbourhood of Al-Moski, “where life is so unworthy,” to the glamour of Sherif Pasha Street in the Downtown district. Fathia similarly falls under the spell of the big city lights that take control of her soul. Micky laments the deterioration of her neighbourhood during the “open-door” economic policy introduced by former president Anwar Al-Sadat in the 1970s.

Modern and contemporary literature
Covers of six literary titles in modern and contemporary literature that discuss the evolution of Cairo.

According to Heshmat, who is now an assistant professor of Arabic Literature at the American University in Cairo, the point of such comparisons is to consider the layers of the evolution of the city, to follow the inevitable battle between the old and the new, and to come close to the dynamics that parallel spaces have through the movement and interaction of people who give the city its wholeness, even when it might come across as segregated into parts.

The new might not necessarily be better, as some characters might think, than the old, for example. There might be issues about the movement from outside Cairo into or around it in the shape either of migration into the shantytowns built in the 1970s or into the suburbs, in this case Heliopolis and Maadi, at the turn of the century.

The idea of looking at these developments, Heshmat says, is to reflect on certain conflicts that are unavoidably part of a certain evolution.

Heshmat herself has seen such movements around the city. Born in the then newly built neighbourhood of Mohandessin in 1975 just as the open-door policy was taking effect, Heshmat saw the end of low-rise buildings. Two-storey homes were knocked down to allow for taller and more imposing buildings inhabited by the “new rich” who had lived and worked in the Gulf, benefiting from the petrodollars of the time and from the close association of Sadat with the Arab Gulf states after the 1973 War.

“I was living in a first-floor apartment, and suddenly there were these 10-floor apartment buildings that were keeping the sun from finding its way in. Life as I had known it as a child was simply disappearing,” Heshmat said.

Maadi in South Cairo.

SOCIAL STRATA: This moment of “estrangement” same with the creation of new social strata, also part of the evolution of the city.

The question, Heshmat said, was how far these new characters could be integrated into the city, “whether they would be taken in or not”, as she puts it. Eventually, she added, it was also about whether those who already lived in the city would be able to live with the newcomers or not.

In the six literary works she examines in her book, newcomers have to succumb to the norms of the city, or they do so of their own free will. Others remain on the fringes and never fully make the shift into the city. In a sense, the city keeps them out, even as they want to remain outsiders, like the lead characters in Aslan’s Asafir Al-Nil, for example, or other works by the same author.

Heshmat herself remembers being uneasy about the changes that were affecting her own neighbourhood, and she found distraction in aimless walks that took her to other parts of the city.

In this sense, she may have been like the lead characters in another of Mahfouz’s works, Al-Karnak, who would meet in a particular café that was for them a central place that brought them together. “The café is a central point for the lead characters in the novel [a group of university students]; this is where Zeinab finds refuge from the unease she feels at home, for example,” Heshmat said, referring to one of the novel’s main characters.

“The Downtown Groppi’s is another café that becomes central for those looking for a place away from the declining charm of the city in Wagih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club,” she continues. Holding on to a place of refuge when the city changes, Heshmat argues, is particularly clear in the works of Aslan, where the banks of the Nile River is a place of refuge when things get tough.

“It is about the affinity that one manages to develop with particular places in the city. This is the bond — and when these places are no longer there, the affinity is put to the test,” she added.

Heshmat herself feels that over the decades she has lost the bonds of affinity she once felt with the city. This was one of the reasons that took her to the suburb of Maadi, away from the area where she grew up.

The comparison she makes between Al-Telmessani’s Heliopolis and Abdel-Latif’s Inheritance Law also shows the difference between Heliopolis as a suburb that is almost independent from the rest of the city and another one, Maadi, that feels almost cut off from it. 

Al-Korba in Heliopolis, east Cairo.

Over recent years, both suburbs have come under extraordinary pressures that have forced the acceptance of new realities that have challenged the whole concept of a suburb removed from the rest of the city, however. Heliopolis today is a lot more challenged than the neighbourhood lived in by Al-Telmessani’s Micky, whose family had originally moved from Abbasiya, for example. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, they sadly observed the changes overcoming this once spacious suburb.

Similarly, Maadi is lamented by Ahmed, whose family had originally come from Nubia in the late 1980s, with the changes taking place mirroring those in other parts of the city.

EVOLUTION: Such endless shifts, depicted in these and other novels, are perhaps the best way to follow the evolution of the city as a whole.

The connections between the older and newer parts is made through people like Fawkiya, an old-fashioned seamstress who used to make house visits to her clients and who kept in contact with the family of Micky as they moved from Abbasiya, where she had first known them, to Heliopolis.

However, there comes a point when such characters are gone, and so is the link between the older and newer parts of the city. This happens when these newer parts themselves become older, as has been the case of Heliopolis.

There is still the possibility of visiting the old city in search of traces of the past, Heshmat said. A good example of this is Iman Mersal’s non-fiction work In the Footsteps of Enayat Al-Zayat, where the author goes to older neighbourhoods in Cairo to try to put the pieces together and formulate a full picture of a novelist of the 1960s who came to a tragic end after having written one novel that was only published after her death.

Heshmat’s book came out before the growth of the gated residential compounds that have sprung up around Cairo over the last decade, rendering many neighbourhoods of the city like something out of the past. In this sense, Heshmat notes, a novel like Heliopolis is an epitaph of a world falling apart.

“As we move through the years of the new millennium, we are in fact moving into higher degrees of estrangement from the city, which is where the current emphasis on dystopia comes from,” she says.

Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia, where Cairo itself is a city left behind, is in Heshmat’s view a leading title in this respect. Cairo is a place of destruction and decay in this novel, she says, with many people living in gated residential compounds and only those who cannot do so living in Cairo.

“The residents of the compounds go ‘human-shooting’ in the place that was once Cairo. It is there that we see the end of the idea of the city as we have known it,” Heshmat said.

It presents the estrangement of the city rather than just estrangement in the city, she added.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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