i moved to cairo unexpectedly in july (immediately leaving the city for the north coast until the beginning of ramadan) and am currently living with my parents (!) in a gated community in the western suburbs of the sprawling cairenne urban mess.

two things i never thought i would be doing.
so i’ve slowly been engaging with the intimidating city. mainly from a safe distance- hanging out in my parents’ garden reading books and watching films on the city. sad but true.

cairo cosmopolitan: politics, culture, and urban space in the new middle eastis an ambitious tome that attempts to get to grips with the complexities of modern day cairo. it also marks the launch of ‘the cairo school of urban studies, committed to fusing political-economy and ethnographic methods and sensitive to ambivalence and contingency, to reveal the new contours and patterns of modern power emerging in the urban frame‘!
although the book, published by the american university in cairo press, is nominally aimed at both an academic and general interest readership, it mainly reads as a social sciences academic tome.
the editors claim an approach that welcomes and is comfortable with a certain amount of ambivalence and contradictions that makes sense when dealing with a subject as un-tamable as a megacity. it’s also neat way to make what is primarily a disparate collection of academic papers fit together into a publishable book.
the individual writings take wildly varying approaches, at times drilling down to a hyper-specific tale (often the more enjoyable) without generalizing, while at others taking a more macro view with at times weak attempts at placing cairo into is regional and global context.
the book and the school came together in the false dawn of egypt’s democratic spring in 2005 when condi rice’s pressure had allowed for the kifaya (enough) movement to rise through the gap in the authoritarian mubarak clouds.
it’s split into five sections:

cairo’s role is questioned in a series of essays, is it a neo-liberal capital? a capital of social revolution? a global / regional culture / economic capital?

by far the weakest section of the book. i say that with a professed engineer’s bias against soft and waffley social sciencey type work that addresses ‘cosmpolitan belonging in cairo’s coffeeshops – cafe latte and ceaser salad‘.

the book picks up in the 3rd section, focusing on the country’s tourist-driven (and often misguided and mismanaged) restoration work.

caroline williams’ excellent essay on the government’s unfortunate, mishandled renovation efforts of islamic cairo is summed up by her:

‘perhaps here the cautionary wisdom of an arab proverb is appropriate: “he tried to beautify her with kuhl {dark eyeliner} but blinded her instead.’

i especially enjoyed galila el kadi and dalila elkerdany’s belle epoque cairo piece on the current interest in, and nostalgia for, a romanticized golden era in cairo’s recent history, in part because of my love of cairo’s wust el balad colonial buildings.

‘cairo is portrayed as the decaying, overcrowded victim of haphazard state planning efforts and natural disasters. this nostalgia for belle-epoque cairo is articulated during a time of economic and political decay…’

intelligent insights are offered into cairene sociey:

the renewal of the public’s relationship with places deserted for decades by the intelligentsia and the middle class illustrates the emergence of a new cultural identity amongst the neoliberal elites, certain state authorities, and egyptian businesspeople.

within the elite, the content and notion of ‘heritages’ in the plural, with each fraction of the elite defining heritage one way or another. the popular classes also identitify with other heritages. for some it is a sheikh’s grave, for others, a relic in a church. very few in egypt seem to have pluralistic commitment to embrace the totality of heritages and to draw meaning from a variety of legacies.

and interesting tidbits of knowledge:

one learns that the surrealist art movement was born in cafe groppi; that leaders of the 1919 revolution met in cafe riche. etc

another strong collection that includes for me the book’s standout essay: walter armbrust‘s (a lecturer at oxford) ‘when the lights go down: cinema as global crossroads and space of playful resistance‘. in which armbrust thinks about male egyptian youth while going to rambunctious sounding cinemas in cairo :

the most remarkable (and depressing) thing about this ‘third-rate cinema,’ … was that it was full of adult men with no better place to go at midmorning on a weekday.

he places his findings in the context of of the dilly-dance between state and the lower-class audience that:

‘when the lights go down’ rarely conforms to official prescriptions. semi-licit dates, open mocking of official imagery, the frank admiration of ‘vulgar’ indian films, homosexual liaisons, and deliberate misreadings of the older generation’s sacred cows are all contraventions of order. each of these is a small rebellion, but in total they constitute an appropriation of public space by a liminal group, namely male youth.

a group armbrust finds:

have been twice marginalized: first structurally, by virtue of their position between childhood and adulthood; and secondly, by the indefinite prolongation of their youth due to the economic impossibility of entering married life. many of the young men in the theaters have no realistic chance of marriage before they are in their thirties. this fact creates obvious tension when there are few socially sanctioned rituals for interacting with the opposite sex. the appropriation of movie theaters by marginalized youth has to be seen in this context.

the rest of the chapter focuses on regional egyptian subcultures (nubians, ismailis, upper egyptians) and their struggles with an ever centralized and centralizing government.

the excellent closing chapter focused on specific locations of cairo and their transformations over recent generations. anna madoeuf’s ‘mulids of cairo’ and nicolas puig’s ‘egypt’s pop music clashes’ were especially meaningful to me because of my interest in music, but as enoyable was vincent battesti’s charming and illuminating ‘the giza zoo’ detailing the changing accessibility of cairo’s public spaces:

appropriation of zoo space is intense, a pretty confusion of generalized jostling.

and the middle and upper classes’ derogatory views on this increased access:

there is that anecdote of winston churchill who said that a desert entrusted to jews became a garden but a garden entrusted to arabs became a desert. it is quite nasty, but history has proved him right. forty-year-old egyptian male industrialist interviewed at his private club, nadi muhammed ‘ali, 2003

battesti captures the comedy recognizable in everyday cairene life on his visit to the zoo:

at cairo zoo, keepers insist that the visitors feed animals (from the end of a stick of wood, accepting tips from visitors), while in other zoological gardens of the world, it is ‘forbidden to feed the animals.’ indeed, observing the keepers, it is possible that certain animals are, for the most part, fed this way.

as well as that out of control, chaos that is another ever-present characteristic of daily life in cairo:

a priori, it is the keepers’ demonstration of a level of control over the animals that is not matched by the guards’ level of control over human guests

there’s a nostalgia that permeates many of the books’ essays. puig’s tantalizing descriptions of muhammad ‘ali street – a place that for nearly a century served as a suq am-musiqiyyin – a marketplace for musicians:

for approximately thirty years, muhammed ‘ali street at night was completely different that it is now. it had an aspect of ‘carnival’. you found musicians smoking, their shoes shining. they were astonishing characters that made people happy.

the home or focal point of egyptian street music, literally with a thriving and unique cafe culture described in one of the author’s interviews:

in this cafe everybody can sit: he occupies a chair [sahib kursi] , he occupies a space. he will become somebody who has a ‘name,’ somebody ‘famous,’ known. when i want a player of the qanun, i say i want so-and-so. like this he occupies a chair, he gets a reputation. it is similar to the shaykhs who taugh in al azhar in the past who always sat with their students next to the same column, and were known as the sahib ‘anud[owner of the column]. who is the best qanun player? this man. who is the best ‘ud player? this one. these men occupy a chair, they get a name thanks to their talent and their technique.

madoeuf’s piece again uses a specificity with much general relevance to the cairene existence:

all surfaces are exploited, thanks to the many practical gimmicks employed by necessity, but also according to unbridled inventiveness and imagination as urban space is appropriated in its multiple dimensions, volumes and structures.

infectiously describes the excitement of these celebrations that exist on the fringes of all authorized officialdom:

the dhikr is, in principal, a collective, codified existence. movements of the body, men and women together, ample and supple, are essentially created by lateral swaying

cairo cosmpolitan

cairo cosmopolitan

cairo cosmopolitan

who is the book for? a question i often asked myself as i read. it is probably of interest for two reasons.

  1. i) as an example of the developing world megacity trend;
  2. ii) for those with a specific interest in cairo, home to 10 or 20 million people and 5,000 years of history.

i disagreed with the general economic leanings of the book- the term neoliberal is brandied about often (possibly the most repeated term in the book). the problem with egypt is too much (grossly incompetent) government and too many barriers to entrepreneurial enterprise and not the market system itself. sure the ‘infitah’ that sadat heralded was in typical post-revolutionary style implemented with abhorrent corrupt nepotism but the book too often lazily blames too much of contemporary cairo’s ills on this. overall there is an underlying anti-capitalist thread throughout the book (indeed it’s one of the book’s only consistent themes).

the book at times looks at cairo in it historically influential regional context, but cairo’s relevance and influence on the wider middle east has waned considerably and post-nasser has been inward-looking and detached from its non-immediate neighborhood.

so although i learnt much from reading cairo cosmopolitan i wouldn’t really recommend the book to those with a passing or non-academic interest in the city. walter armbrust’s wonderful essay though is worth seeking out by all.

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