Even during the most mundane times cities experience processes of transformation but sometimes it takes a revolution for these transformations to become legible, visible and tangible. The political upheaval sweeping Egypt since 2011 has put into sharper relief the many challenges Cairo and its residents have been experiencing for decades. The heightened sense of possibility has given many Egyptians a renewed sense of belonging and offered many an opportunity to revisit the ways in which they experience Cairo in the present and their role in shaping its future and in telling its story. Ahdaf Soueif’s Cairo: Memoir of a city Transformed is born out of Egypt’s struggling revolution and it beautifully captures the essence of its struggling capital city.
Soueif waited twenty years since she was first asked to write a book about Cairo. During those twenty years one president ruled with a false promise of reform and democracy. During those twenty years a security apparatus grew stronger and suppressed dissent, intervened in all aspects of everyday life from education to urban planning and along the way Cairo had fallen into a state of desperation. The city became a place where the poor from other cities and the countryside escape to in search of opportunity that wasn’t there. Cairo also became a place to escape from, for those who could, in search of a promise for a better quality of life on its desert outskirts in gated compounds and in search of work in Gulf cities rising as quickly as Cairo was falling. During those twenty years Soueif refused to write her Cairo book, she tells us, because it would have read like an elegy.
The great city of Cairo has been the subject of many books that aim to capture its complexity, chronicle its many events across time and navigate its bewildering urbanity across space. However, being such an ancient city with thousands of years of history and such a massive metropolis stretching for miles with dense urban life, many past attempts to write Cairo have taken on too much. Soueif’s memoir of Cairo is at once grounded in particular places and particular events while still shedding light on a social and political reality and an urban geography that stretch far beyond those narrated in the book. Soueif makes visible neighborhoods, streets and buildings that rarely get named in English language accounts of the city. The reader is invited to learn about Shubra, where her parents lived, Abbasiyya, where a major confrontation between protesters and armed forces and thugs took place, and Lazoghli where the fortified Interior Ministry is located but also where young Soueif watched the screen of an open-air cinema from a window above. Sites of memory and locations of historical events past and present are narrated in unison drawing a personal map for us, the readers, to be able to navigate a city inhabited by millions.
Cairo invites readers into an ongoing event, the revolution, taking place in an ever-transforming city. The fate of the revolution and of the city are unknown, both struggling in a state of in-betweenness. The revolution is in between a tug of war between multiple factions primarily the Islamists, military and old regime with their access to networks and funds. The city is also in a state of in-betweenness struggling to remain a place of everyday lives and a place of momentous events despite violent clashes and virginity tests. Buildings with layers of history and symbolism such as the Egyptian Museum gain layers of painful memories, as they become temporary detention centers and places of torture. The book also occupies an in-between space. Cairo sits comfortably between genres and Soueif seamlessly shifts between positions from acting the revolution to writing about it. The end result is not a record of what happened as much as it is a thick description of a particular time and place, infusing the personal and collective, a palimpsest of the revolution and of Cairo.
Cairo: Memoir of a city Transformed is the US edition of Soueif’s 2012 book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution. As events evolved and the revolution transformed what remained was the memory of the initial eighteen days that led to Mubarak’s ouster. The US edition preserves the integrity of the original text and picks up where the UK edition left off. Cairo should attract a general audience seeking a different perspective on recent events in Egypt that saturated the news cycle. Cairo should be read as part of a landscape of cultural productions such as the documentary “The Square” and the film “Rags and Tatters.” Together these productions shed light on the revolution and on Cairo in ways that pundits and historians are likely to fail.
*A version of this review will be published in the Review of Middle East Studies (RoMES).