Book Review: Cairo Books – Reviews – Books


City inspirations

The Literary Atlas of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the City Street (English Original – 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 only a place for the events of novels that take place in the city, but rather a protagonist of these literary works of the Egyptian and Arab novelists of the 20th century. This seems to be the basic thesis that Mehrez, a professor of literature at the American University in Cairo, tries to offer his readers by guiding them through almost 100 literary texts over nearly 500 pages.

Mehrez certainly offers easy reading, the book being divided into a sequence of chapters, each addressed to a particular literary title in which Cairo figures prominently. She makes sure that at the end of each chapter the reader sees Cairo as the influencer and never just the location of any of the novels her book is about.

Mehrez’s selection of novels includes both the modern and the contemporary, with some set in the city’s old quarters and others set in the unmissable slums that have become so central to the 20e 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 one that forces them to quarrel.

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

Of course, Mehrez doesn’t offer a set of new reviews at all. That didn’t seem to be his goal. The aim seems to be an attempt to read the relevant literature as a literary map that depicts the rapidly changing urban morphology of the city, with the clear contrasts that novels published in the 1940s and those published in the 1990s show. shows the subsequent evolution of the city’s identity – particularly with the witty but perhaps unintended contrast of Cairo’s neighborhoods. The changing fates of these neighborhoods as they appear in the novels are closely examined in this book, not as a strict work of literature, but as a work of literature that reflects greatly on the city that seems to have captivated the authors and participated in the decision of the development of events and evolution of characters.

Mehrez leaves his reader with more than one image of the city. These are the images that novelists have felt and written. These are the images that the reader will find or not depending on his walk in 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 mid-nineteenth century”) – AlMasriya AlLebenaiah Publishing (2021) – English original 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 European architecture and urban standards. . The story is familiar: Ismail met Haussmann in Paris and then came to Cairo to entrust Ali Mubarak with the task of rejuvenating the city before the inauguration of the Suez Canal in 1869.

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

Meanwhile, the over 300-page book – Cairo in the Mid-19th Century – offers a picture of pre-Ismail Cairo. Originally a mid-19th century text by Edward Lane on the city, the book was revised and reintroduced by Stanley Lane when published in 1950 under its English title original The Story of Cairo. Reading this second volume after Ali’s book shows an image of the city with which Ismail could not really reconcile and which he wanted to change.

However, judging by the nearly 250 pages of Treasures of Downtown Cairo by Michel Hanna, there is today perhaps more architecture of the city that Ismail wanted to leave behind than the architecture created by Ismail. In a suite of numerous profiles, Hanna’s book captures specific snapshots and glimpses of the heart of Cairo, created by Ismail. Many of the shots shown by Hanna date from the first decades of the 20th century. The city center that Hanna shares with the reader is a district rich in a captivating architectural heritage but also many signs indicating the richness of the 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, shows that the total or partial overhaul of Cairo is not just something of the present because it has been there for decades.

City Moods

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

Nadahet Al-Kahera – ElMaraya Publishing (2019) – Pierre Gazio (French original: “La Sirene 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 Classical Arabic, Looks Like Cairo offers a somber but heartwarming profile of a city falling to pieces, at least in part, but which has still plenty to offer, especially for those who don’t care much about the polished or the predictable. Abu Zahra’s soft-spoken Cairo is a city that seems gray, but still has its own twilight.

It is perhaps this eclectic vibe that inspired Pierre Gazio, a French writer and teacher who lived for years in Cairo, to suggest that Cairo is a fascinating city that attracts people for no very clear and precise reason except maybe -be its captivating features. These features transcend in changing atmospheres and tempos, whether we follow the “reckless crowds” of Old Cairo or the chic districts of the city.

Gazio’s short text, just over 50 pages, could be described as a page from the dairies of a man who lives in a city he finds as fascinating as it is disconcerting. The book is certainly not intended as “an orientalist review of the city” but rather as a passionate reflection on a city whose influence is remarkable on the author’s sense of the things that surround it.

What is Cairo doing to its own people as it continues to swing from mood to mood, both politically and socio-economically? This is perhaps one of the key questions in the intimate and almost sentimental, but highly political title by Yasmine ElRashidi. In its 150 pages, ElRashidi takes up the reader in his own family apartment and seated them in the comfort, or perhaps the slight discomfort, of his living room. There, readers could see how an upper-middle-class Cairone family lived in the 1980s, shortly after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, during the reign of Hosni Mubarak, until the January 2011 revolution and the political ups and downs that followed.

The book, however, is far from being a strict political chronicle of Egypt’s capital. What he offers is much deeper because it really shows how the city and its people, the well-to-do and those struggling to make ends meet, are influenced by the politics taking place in their own capital without them have any impact on it – except very rarely.

The Cairo shown by Rashidi is not necessarily the same Cairo of Abou Zahra or that of Gazio, except insofar as it is the Cairo which passes through swaying tempos and which inspires its own inhabitants with their wavering moods.

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