happy mayday workers of the world and egypt.

combined with the dust that blows ceaselessly off the desert, heavy use gives the city a cosy patina  of age. it burnishes knobs and handrails to a greasy smoothness, cracks tiles into shards, and tints walls to a uniform dun colour that ignites into gold in the soft, slanting light of the late afternoon. sidewalks buckle under the weight of feet. staircases in grand beaux arts buildings sag, their marble steps eroded into slippery hollows. advertising tattoos every surface with arabic’s elegant squiggle. neon spangles rooftops, mingling with antennae and the upturned domes of satellite dishes.

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max rodenbeck loves (or at least did at the time of writing this book) cairo. his feelings infect the whole of the beautifully written cairo: the city victorious which is showered with warmth affection.

his personal journey started off:

when a friend urged me to write a book about cairo, i said tsk and went back to my water pipe.

he went from wondering whether another book on cairo was needed and what format it could possibly take to realizing that he ‘must write this book’, that he somehow ‘owed it as an offering, however flawed of this city which had given him so much‘. balancing the increasingly ugly faces of modern cairo ‘far removed from other cairo’s he had known’ with the city’s captivating past was a concern:city victorious

if cairo was, in the words of its great novelist the nobel laureate naguib mahfouz, like meeting your beloved in old age, then was i to tell her about her wrinkles, her bad breath and worse taste, and her unfortunate habit of shouting at the servants?

as you would expect from one of the world’s oldest cities, vast riches of source material and narrative dramas to draw on are on offer. obsessions of time, eternity and the after life are some of the city’s constant themes:

ancient conceptions of time were sophisticated indeed. the idea of eternity so preoccupied the egyptians that their language expressed subtly distinct forms: while d–t (the lack of vowels in hieroglyphics renders pronunciation speculative) described absolute changlessness, the term n–h–h signified cyclical recurrence. river, sky and desert were eternal, but so in their way were the works of man.

and throughout the book, max connects these and other recurring themes across mellennia to the modern age:

if a single trait can describe cairo’s people, it must be their enduring, life-giving nonchalance. and where does it come from? one drowsy denizen of a cairo bar, a psychiatrist by day, assured me that obsession with the afterlife – even to the exclusion of daily travails – explains all the city’s mysteries. ‘everyone here, you see, lives inside his coffin,’ he said. ‘we are all mummies … and half gods!’

one of the most fascinating parts of reading the book (and i had very little knowledge of cairo’s or egypt‘s history beforehand) is how disingenuous cairo’s modern identity seems to be. this can probably be traced to nasser’s revolutionary education policies that had:

the school curriculum sanitized, a whole generation grew up ignorant of its own past, believing that egypt before the revolution had been a sorry place of oppressed peasants lorded over by imperialist lackeys and wicked feudalists.
cairo forgot itself.

cosmopolitan cairo

the rises to greatness throughout cairo’s sinuous history usually comprised a flocking to the city of foreigners who transformed (often at the expense of the locals at the time – who in turn were descendants of previous foreign migrants) the city with their entrepreneurial innovation.

al-ahram was founded by syrian chrstians the takla brothers who pioneered arab journalism. incidentally many of the modernizing foreigners at this stage had fled their native beirut because the american misisonaries there had denounced them as darwinists.

  • (cairo) thrived as a magnet for immigrants (often feeling persecution elsewhere)
  • khawagat, the egyptian the term for foreigners is derived from a persian word meaning ‘lord’, referred in egypt originally to greek and italian merchants, particularly slavers. by the twentieth century it embraced all europeans, and had come to have a mildly pejorative sense akin to the mexicans’ gringo.

  • by 1910 an eighth of the city’s 700,000 people were foreign-born.
  • by 1952 a third of cairo’s pupils were enrolled in foreign schools, taught in a score of religious persuasions and half a dozen languages.
  • according to the 1927 census a fifth of its people belonged to minorities: there were 95,000 copts, 35000 jews, 20,000 greeks, 19,000 italians, 11,000 british, 9,000 french , and uncounted numbers of white reussians, parsees, montenegrins and other exotica.
  • i reviewed a book called cairo cosmopolitan last year that focused on the recent past’s so called belle epoque era, and it was interesting to have rodenbeck put the internationalism of the city in its proper historical context. this is especially important in the context of today’s domestic calls to lessen the influence of the outside world on egypt.

    the cosmopolitan periods of greatness were usually followed by bouts of supressive conservative, lazy, authoritarianism with leaders over-extended their power, usually by overtaxing the ever suffering common man leading to revolution of some sort or another. [see john bradley's inside egypt for when the next one is due].

    always a megalopolis

    one of the greatest joys of reading the book is realizing how little things seem to have changed over the city’s 5,000 years. cairo was probably the world’s first megalopolis and has stayed relatively large enough to remain one since.

    whether muslim pilgrims, jewish scholars or christian traders, medieval travelers agreed on one thing: the scale of cairo was incomparable.

    between 1930 and 1950 cairo’s populaition doubled to 2 million… the country was ruralizing the city

  • cairo’s popuation doubled again to 4 million by 1960.
  • dislocated disconnected leaderships form time and time again.
  • era upon era of top-down molding
  • hedonism and religiosity

    edward lane on cairene religiosity:

  • while the city oft he people held piety to be the greatest virtue, the desire to appear religious led many to ‘hypocrisy and pharisaical ostentation’.
  • cairo has always been deeply religious and wildly decadent often simultaneously. throughout cairo’s history religion had been a channel of communication between rulers and the ruled. those lamenting the purer more pious days of yore may be surprised by the contemporary sounding complaints of sheikh badr al-din al-zaytuni writing of medieval cairo:

    the eater of opium found constant delight…
    while the mirth of the drunkard was its height.
    goblets brimmed beneath the full moon
    while poets sang to the gentlest of tunes

    now time has erased these haunts…
    o eyes, shed tears of grief, o heart endure!
    and god’s favour bless those days of joy when cairo was secure.

    records from the cairo religious courts in 1898 show that there were three divorces for every four marriages in that year

    vice taxes were significant revenue generator’s for cairo:

    taverns lined the leafy banks of the khalij. pleasure boats cruised the many seasonal lakes around the city, which were favorite haunts for lovers of music and imbibers of hashish, opium and wine. though spurned by the pious, such vices brought hefty revenues to the state. in the early fourteenth century taxes on wine and prostitution – another strictly reglulated industry – brought in a reputed 1,000 dinars a day. for a time the governor of cairo himself controlled the city’s prostitution rackets. indeed, complained al-maqrizi, so greedy were the mamluk state’s tax collectors that women of ill repute resorted to ambushing potential customers and holding them to ransom. the trade flourished particulalry in the western suburbs near bab zuwayla. by the sixteenth century the district of bab al-luq alone could boast some 800 ladies of the night. a turkish tourist of the time assures us that they excelled in uttering voluptuous, raucous cries and in making coquettish motions ‘like an arabian horse that has slipped out from under its rider’.

    drink was the least of the vices foreigners brought: by the 1920s, cocaine and heroin were supplanting hashish and opium as the drugs of choice.
    plus ca change.

    except that by the mid 1980s even sex was effectively denied many, since egypt’s strict conventions demanded marriage, and marriage required money for dowries and furnishings and apartments.

    modern nationalism and nasser
    in the early 20th century cairo was going through an existentialist crisis, the british has used the country primarily as a business and neglect was boiling over. coming to terms with european modernity and fishing around for an identity and a response. some egyptians

    said that nationalism – passionate and even irrational – was the source of western power. egyptian schoolchildren, too, could learn to sing anthems and salute the flag. they could be made to feel egyptian first, not muslim or christian, rich or poor. this was to be the strongest trend of all, subsuming and absorbing the work of feminists and reformers, liberals and traditionalists in the fight against foreign dominance. nationalism was one theme around which all could unite, and the did so to great effect…

    under nasser, the ratio of techers to students at cairo university went from 1:6 in 1950 to 1:60 in 1962
    of course the absolute number of students increased dramatically over that period
    from the late 1970s onwards, crowding began to transform universities into diploma factories rather than places of learning.
    and yet there were positive advance in this period too:

  • a visitor in 1968 could remark that cairo boasted more female dentists and physicians than most western cities, with scarcely a veil in sight.
  • the economic and social decline of cairo meant that may of those who could leave, did so in search of economic betterment abroad:

    in 1996, the wall street journal could report that egyptian-born americans were the most highly educated of 110 immigrant groups identified in the united states: 60 per cent had university degrees, a quarter of them at postgraduate level. this erosion of talent was to have devastating effects on cairo.

    sadat’s open door policy failed to alter the situation although apparently

  • the city rediscovered fun in the joys of noise… hashish parlours thrived … [sadat] himself was said to enjoy a good smoke. his own brother was rumoured to be a big-shot drug runner.
  • rodenbeck’s pondering on egypt’s future, its struglle for a modern identity are still as valid today as they were in 1999 when the book was first published in cairo:

    the attempt … to bring together heritage and intellect, heart and mind, remains the overriding challenge for egyptian intellectuals.

    against the continued backdrop of lackluster economic growth, stifling socio-politics and probably the largest police force in any city in the world (can that really be the case?).

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