Cairobserver — Cairo as History: David Sims on Raymond, Rodenbeck and Golia

Cairo as History: David Sims on Raymond, Rodenbeck and Golia

The following is an excerpt from David Sims’ Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control

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Cairo as History

The single strongest pull in the imaging of Cairo is probably the city’s historical dimension. And Cairo certainly has a lot of history, over four thousand years of it if Memphis and Giza pyramids are considered part of the city, and over one thousand years even if Cairo’s history is considered to have begun only in the Fatimid era. In fact, it could be said that there is a whole industry, curiously dominated by American and French scholars, which looks just at Islamic Cairo. It even seems sometimes that the most important commentator on Cairo is the fourteenth-century chronicler and urban observer Ahmad ibn ‘Ali al-Maqrizi.

It is worth remembering that, although Cairo certainly has a proud historic past, at present the parts of the city that can be considered historic (that is, those that existed at the time of the French occupation in 1798) represent only a minuscule fraction of the whole. Currently the population of these areas does not exceed 350,000 persons, or 2 percent of Greater Cairo’s total of over seventeen million inhabitants. It should be added that the population of these small areas continues to decline, and if the government has its way, historic Cairo will soon become a sterile open-air museum with little else but theme-park embellishments and tourist shops.

Although historic Cairo is now an almost insignificant part of the modern metropolis, Cairo as history seems to trump the literature. In the last fifteen years three substantial books have appeared that look specifically at Cairo—Andre Raymond’s Cairo: City of History (published in 1993 in French, and in 2001 in English), Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious (1998), and Maria Golia’s Cairo: City of Sand (2004). Each tries to see the city as a whole, and each includes descriptions of contemporary Cairo. Yet in each the historical emphasis is at the forefront, if not overwhelming.

Raymond’s book is the most historic, devoting only one chapter of some thirty pages to Cairo’s development over the 1936 to 1992 period. And this chapter is predictably named “The Nightmares of Growth.” It concentrates on “galloping population growth,” wholesale urban expansion on precious agricultural land, and “frenetic growth” of what had been genteel neighborhoods, the “near-paralysis of traffic,” and deplorable infrastructure services. Raymond devotes only two pages to the phenomenon of informal or spontaneous settlements around Cairo, which flourish “without the help of any planning, in agricultural areas that one would wish to preserve,” focusing instead on laments for the decline of the historic quarters and the ugliness of recent architecture. Raymond seems to see nothing good in recent developments, implying that his “city of history” is losing its soul. He concludes:

But Cairo risks becoming an ordinary city, another example of the vast conurbations proliferating throughout the world…the population threat is still present, poised to sweep away the fragile barriers that technicians and politicians have managed to erect to direct its flow. In the past demographic growth has been an asset to Egypt, giving it power, prestige, and authority. Today it is a mortal danger. Cairo long played the part of safety valve for Egypt’s population growth. Tomorrow it could be its detonator.

This gloomy assessment was published in 1992, when Greater Cairo had just eleven million inhabitants. Today it has over seventeen million and is still nowhere near detonating.

Max Rodenbeck’s book on Cairo is also unabashedly historical, and the first two-thirds present a very readable and insightful historical time-line that starts in earnest with the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 640 and the establishment of al-Fustat. The last third of the book covers modern Cairo since the 1952 Revolution, going through the rule of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, and focusing on Egypt’s changing fortunes and social dynamics and how they played out in Cairo. Religion and fundamentalism, political games, bloated bureaucracy, foreign aid, riots, Sufi mulids, coffee houses, class hierarchies, the hopeless education system, garbage and the zabbalin, song and film, are all subjects for observation. Cairene kindliness, stoicism, humor, and wit in the face of economic stagnation and chaos rightfully claim pride of place. Rodenbeck offers few generalizations, but he does sit back and muse, quite accurately: “On the surface Cairo’s ways of coping seem hopelessly tangled and sclerotic. They can be maddening…By and large, though, the city’s mechanisms work…In richer cities formal structures, rules, and regulations channel a smooth flow of things. In Cairo informal structures predominate.”

Rodenbeck never completely abandons the historic take on the city, even when discussing modern facets. He is clever at intertwining the old with the new. Thus Nasser’s autocracy is compared with that of the Mamluks, modern Cairo’s cavalier attitude to garbage is compared to a similar pharaonic nonchalance, today’s rampant bribery is compared to legal knavery recorded on tomb reliefs from the New Kingdom as well as to medieval Cairo’s corrupt judges and bribed witnesses, and present-day funeral obsequies are compared to both the pharaonic and Islamic preoccupation with death. These comparisons might help provide continuity in a take on Cairo that is more or less biographical, but it does not in itself explain how modern Cairo grows and works. For example, although the book was published in 1998 when almost half the city could be considered informal, the phenomenon of informal urban development and its ascendancy in Cairo’s landscape is hardly mentioned, except in a quote from Asef Bayat on the informal city’s style of “quiet encroachment” and a reference to the “higgledy-piggledy burrows of Bulaq al Dakrur.” To Rodenbeck, as to many other observers, the hard life of the poor is found in an amorphous geographic landscape called “the Popular Quarters,” which combine new informal Cairo with older tenement and historic areas.

Maria Golia’s book is less historic than either Rodenbeck’s or Raymond’s. In the preface she poses the question: “Some of us wonder, watching Cairo teeter between a barely functional glide and an irretrievable nosedive, what keeps this plane in the air?..How and why, given some of the most grueling, incongruous conditions imaginable, Cairo retains its allure and its people their sanity.” She aims at looking at “Cairo’s broader present moment, its giddy equilibrium and unfolding contemporary nature,” pursuing lines of inquiry about Cairo’s millions and their “grace under pressure.” Golia bravely tries to do just that, but even so, she also cannot avoid the historical spin. One of her five chapters is devoted entirely to the city’s history, and references such as “the arc of fourteen centuries” pepper the text.

At one point Golia asks “Perhaps today’s greatest riddle is not so much ‘where is Cairo headed?’ as ‘where is Cairo at all?’ Is it in the old quarters, or the remnants of belle époque downtown, or in the new middle-class areas on the west bank, or in the satellite cities of the desert? Or is the real Cairo to be found in the myriad hovels in which most of the people actually live?” Except for her pejorative and incorrect descriptions of informal Cairo as a collection of hovels, this is a good question! Unfortunately she doesn’t really answer it, except to ask another question, which turns back to history: “Does a collective hallucination sustain the image of an ancient and venerable city when it is in fact disfigured with slums and crass consumerism?”

Even Janet Abu-Lughod, who describes the orientation of her well-known 1971 book on Cairo as “social and contemporary rather than historical and architectural,” seems unable to escape from being partly tied down by a thousand years of history. Over one-third of her book is devoted to the Islamic and Khedivial city, up to roughly the time of the First World War. However, the rest of the book investigates the formation and growth of the “contemporary city,” which roughly covers the 1920 to 1960 period.

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