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).
Please join us at the British Council for the launch of our two new publications: Learning from Cairo and Archiving the City in Flux
The publication Learning from Cairo: Global Perspectives and Future Visions, and accompanying website: www.learningfromcairo.org, are based on a three-day international conference held at AUC Tahrir Square April 12-14, 2013
Learning from Cairo, co-organized by CLUSTER and the American University in Cairo, was an international symposium that sought to engage the current political and urban transformation unfolding in Cairo as a critical context for examining relevant international case studies and best practices in areas ranging from housing, transportation, public space and local governance to informality. The conference emphasized a comparative and interdisciplinary approach bringing practitioners, academics, officials and local stakeholders into dialogue, with the objective of generating an ongoing critical urban discourse and future visions for Cairo
Archiving the City in Flux examines new modes of informal urban interventions in public space in Cairo that have emerged since January 2011. During this time a breakdown of the security apparatus has led to a state of unprecedented fluidity in the city. Archiving the City in Flux offers a preliminary account of the city as it has evolved over this two-year period, focusing primarily on public space and emerging urban orders, and attempts to draw lessons from informality towards the development of alternative design guidelines and planning policies
نتشرف بدعوتكم للإنضمام إلى حفل إطلاق مطبوعتين : دروس من القاهرة وتوثيق المدينة فى حالة السيولة
المقام بالمركز الثقافى البريطانى
يستند كتاب: “دروس من القاهرة”: منظور عالمي ورؤى مستقبلية والموقع الإلكتروني المصاحب له على أعمال مؤتمر دولي عقد في مقر الجامعة الامريكية بالتحرير في القاهرة لمدة ثلاثة أيام من 12 وحتى 14 إبريل،2013.
نظم كلا من مختبر عمران القاهرة للتصميم والدراسات والجامعة الامريكية مؤتمر “دروس من القاهرة” الذي سعى إلى توظيف التحوّل السياسيّ والعمرانيّ الجاري في القاهرة ليكون سياقا نقديّا يسمح بالتعرف على أفضل الممارسات العالميّة والحالات النموذجيّة في مجالات الإسكان والنقل والمساحات العامّة والإدارات المحليّة المستقلّة بالإضافة إلى اللارسميّة العمرانية. وشدد مؤتمر “دروس من القاهرة” على إعتماد نهج مقارن ومتعدد التخصصات يجمع بين الأكاديميين ومسؤولي المؤسسات الحكومية والمهنيين وأصحاب المصلحة المحليين في حوار يهدف لتفعيل خطاب عمرانيّ نقديّ مستمر ورؤى مستقبليّة للقاهرة.
يتعرض كتاب “توثيق المدينة في حالة سيولة” أنساق جديدة للتدخلات العمرانية غير الرسمية في الفراغ العام في القاهرة التي ظهرت منذ ثورة 25 يناير، حيث أدى الانهيار الجزئي للمنظومة الأمنية إلى إحداث حالة من السيولة غير المسبوقة في المدينة. يقدم “توثيق المدينة في حالة سيولة” رصد أولى للتغيرات المتلاحقة التي حدثت في المدينة خلال العامين السابقين، مع التركيز بشكل أساسي على الفراغ العام والممارسات العمرانية الناشئة وكذا محاولة إستخلاص دروس من اللارسمية نحو رؤى تنموية ومعايير تصميمية وسياسات تخطيطه بديلة.
More event info here.
The French diplomatic mission in Egypt has occupied two notable houses of exceptional architectural appeal. Both houses utilized fragments from Mamluk and Ottoman decorative elements, which came from various houses and structures around the city. The decorative fragments were reused in these new settings around which the new modern houses were built. Architectural historian Mercedes Voliat and photographer Blas Gimeno Ribelles have documented and analyzed these two houses and their decorative features in the recently published book Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne. The book (French/Arabic) is published and is available for purchase at the Institut Francais d’Archeologie Orientale (IFAO) in Mounira.
The French embassy building in Giza was built in the 1930s when modernist architecture was widespread in Cairo particularly in newly developed areas and among the bourgeois class in general. Yet the interior of the embassy is dressed in antique Mamluk and Ottoman patterns reused from older structures. The main hall of the building is impressively ornamented with a montage of historic Cairene interior architectural details including stone inlays, wooden ceilings, inlaid wooden doors, and brass lighting fixtures. The modern 1930s building was designed to accommodate these precious decorative interiors, which came from an earlier modern house built in 1880-85 for Gaston de Saint-Maurice (1831-1905).
The house of Gaston de Saint-Maurice was built on land gifted by Khedive Ismail located on what is today Sherif Street in downtown. The French government acquired the land/house soon after to establish its new embassy. The new house incorporated fragments of historic structures that were collected from Cairo. The urban transformation of the city throughout the 19th century meant that many older structures were demolished to make way for new ones. Sometimes state-planned projects such as the cutting of the avenue of Mohamed Ali through the historic fabric caused the demolition of hundreds of structures including houses and sometimes mosques. These demolitions led to a lucrative trade in building parts including entire wall panels, doors, and ceilings which were sold to collectors, aristocrats to decorate their new homes and sometimes shipped abroad for the homes of wealthy Orientalists. The use of historic fragments in new buildings was increasingly popular during the same time in France. The adaptive reuse of historic fragments became a new art as it required artisans to create new pieces that fill the gaps and correspond with the older pieces. This new art called for the study of ornamental motifs and gave rise to an increased art historical interest in oriental interior/decorative architecture.
The building on Sherif Street was neo-Mamluk with various details belonging to various architectural styles from Islamic architecture. The building built in the 1880s was not unusual for that period when many notables and aristocrats built in an eclectic historicist style. The new building was inspired by a collection of architectural fragments and the interior decoration was composed of actual fragments belonging to different eras, different buildings and different styles.
As the area known today as downtown developed rapidly in the 1920s onwards from an urban fabric of mostly palaces and villas to tall modern apartment blocks the French Embassy acquired land in the then newly developing areas of Giza near the Nile and a new house was built in the 1930s. Again, in the new house fragments which formed the interior of the 1880s house were removed before that house was demolished and the interiors were reassembled in the new modern understated structure. The new building set in gardens consisted of a modern Moorish inspired design, rather than Cairene palatial architecture. The architecture was designed to host the interiors from the 1880s house. The main hall (pictured at the top of this post) is particularly impressive. Of course, since the Giza building was erected some of its parts had been redesigned or redecorated with various elements including art deco. However, the main halls with the reused Ottoman and Mamluk decor remain the main features of that building.
The book is divided into five chapters with a particularly important conclusion that sheds light on the forgotten art of reusing old architectural fragments, a practice that had existed in Cairo for centuries. The book concludes with a question about such practices as seen in these two houses: is such reuse of building materials impertinent or is it a way of salvaging heritage?
Of course such a question has no easy or universal answer but the author makes the case that in these particular houses the reuse of decorative elements from demolished Cairene houses reinvents and in ways protects heritage that could have been lost. Of course such practices continue today in much more destructive ways as intact historic buildings (examples: Villa Casdagli, Villa Ispenian) get vandalized in order to feed the clandestine market for antique building parts the clients of which are mostly outside of Cairo and Egypt. The recent destruction of several villas is evidence that the market for building parts to be reused in new buildings for the wealthy elsewhere is a lucrative endeavor. Of course these recent developments are significantly different from the context in which these two French houses in Cairo were built.
The following is an excerpt from David Sims’ Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control
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.
Book Launch on Wednesday May 29 at Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO) in Mounira at 5-7pm, followed by a presentation and debate with the author, Mercedes Volait at 7pm, and an exhibition and sale at 8pm.
Maisons de France au Caire. Le remploi de grands décors mamelouks et ottomans dans une architecture moderne
(French Diplomatic Architecture in Cairo. The reuse of Mamluk and Ottoman Fragments in Modern Buildings).
Cairo: IFAO Publications, December 2012 [in French and Arabic]
Hardcover, 298 pages, 231 illustrations.
The book presents a detailed analysis of the two main premises that the French diplomatic mission successively occupied in Cairo : the Neo-Mamluk mansion designed in 1875-79 for the French aristocrat and early Islamic art collector Gaston de Saint-Maurice, based on the reuse of historical material (marble fountains, floors and panels, moucharabiehs and carved ceilings), complemented by matching design, and the Neo-Moroccan structure designed in 1934-38 to accomodate the historical fragments when the diplomatic mission was transfered to a new site. Based on unpublished sources, both visual and textual, complemented by contemporary photography, the book traces the artistic and political history of these consecutive reuses and reveals their accompanying epigraphy, of which a full illustrated catalogue is proposed.
The table of contents is available at:
By Elisabeth Jaquette
The Literary Atlas of Cairo: One Hundred Years on the Streets of the City edited by Samia Mehrez. Cairo. The American University in Cairo Press. 2010.
“His heart had been snatched from him… where to? … He wanted to find someone to warm this small part of his chest, that little cage between the ribs, a small part that needed to be filled with tenderness. But can tenderness be had from Cairo, the ogress?” (36)
So wonders the narrator in Ismail Wali al-Din’s Hammam al-Malatili, one of the excerpts from Samia Mehrez’s collection The Literary Atlas of Cairo: One Hundred Years on the Streets of the City. Mehrez is a professor of Modern Arabic Literature and founding Director of the Center for Translation Studies at the American University in Cairo, and edited, introduced and partially translated the two-volume Atlas. “Each and every text that I included in the atlas imparts one impression of the city, one level of its energy, one aspect of its life, of being in it, moving in it, but also reading it, discovering it, and imagining it,” she said in an interview with World Literature Today.
Mehrez’s book paints a richly dense portrait of Cairo in all of its multiplicities. The excerpts travel across history, neighborhoods, social classes, and even language itself. From the early days of the Fatmid period to the dystopic future in Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s Utopia, from the garbage-collector’s slum in Moqattam to the gardens of the early twentieth century Shubra Palace, and from Naguib Mahfouz’s flowing prose to Ahmed Alaidy’s coarse, choppy slang, the collection is vast. It is the diversity in language that lends richness to the collection: “from the Babel-like linguistic world of the palaces, to the chic francophone of the beginning of the century, to the Anglicizations of the sixties, to the Islamization/globalization of the eighties and nineties,” (214) the language within the texts is dense and varied.
Even within a single excerpt, national history blends with a community’s oral history mixed with a dosage of humor, as in Ibrahim Aslan’s The Heron. A voice is caught on the mosque’s speakers in midan Kit Kat recalling the neighborhood’s claim to fame during French occupation: “It was even established in history books that when the French army came from Umm Dinar to set up camp nearby and do battle with Murad Pasha of Murad Street fame, they ate the local cantaloupe. And it’s written somewhere that when Napoleon saw his army afflicted with diarrhea, he ordered them not to eat the local melons. They could eat cantaloupe from anywhere but Imbaba,” (113) the voice chuckles, before discovering that his voice had been broadcast across the entire quarter.
A sense of nostalgia is often present, whether the narrator is reminiscing about a childhood in Belle Époque downtown or amongst the villas of Garden City. Even inanimate objects long for the golden days of the past: the narrator of Muhammad al-Fakharani’s An Interval for Bewilderment is the statue of Ramsis, nostalgic for his place in front of Misr Railway station after being relocated to the Grand Egyptian Museum in one of Cairo’s satellite cities. Mehrez herself can likely relate to the statue’s plight; one of the impetuses for creating the collection was the American University in Cairo’s relocation to the satellite city of New Cairo.
At times, the collection is as sprawling as the city itself. Readers familiar with the city will be rewarded with authors’ visions of known locations—from landmarks like al-Azhar Mosque to well trodden street corners and back alleys. Yet it is difficult to imagine that readers unfamiliar with the geography or history of the city could make much sense of the collection, or emerge with even a vague idea of what distinguishes one area or time period from another.
In the end, perhaps the true value of the collection is that it creates not only a map of the city but also a map of the writers themselves. Mehrez writes that “geography is ideology: as each one of the writers records the present and past of a given neighborhood or area, his or her economic, social, political, and aesthetic biases are written into the map they each produce” (27). Ultimately, this creates a literary layering effect, where writers’ fictional worlds become the foundation for the next generation of authors. “This is the police station that Naguib Mahfouz described in his Cairo Trilogy,” (44) says a character in Mahmoud al-Wardani’s Heads Ripe for Plucking, while the narrator in Ahmed Mourad’s Vertigo is characterized by “very weak eyesight that would have won the complete sympathy of Taha Hussein himself” (201). The collection’s success is truly based on that layered tradition: contemporary Egyptian fiction is very often set against the backdrop of Cairo, and it is hard to imagine this project being as compelling elsewhere.
Many representations of Egypt created just before the 2011 revolution seem trapped in a particular moment, obsolete shortly after being released. The second volume of the collection, The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the Heart of the City, was published in March 2011, just a month after the January 25th uprising that transported images of Cairo’s downtown onto television screens worldwide. Within the pages of The Literary Atlas a cab driver complains about corruption as he passes Central Security Forces trucks in midan al-Tahrir; Miral al-Tahawy recounts exchanging volleys of rocks with the Central Security Forces and falling in love with a poet penning protest chants. The collection serves as a backdrop to both the past and events to come. As history continues to be written on the streets of Cairo and recorded by its authors, The Literary Atlas proves a compelling and enduring collection.
Elisabeth Jaquette is a graduate student in Anthropology at Columbia University and a 2012-2013 CASA (Center for Arabic Study Abroad) fellow at the American University in Cairo. She has been based in Cairo since 2007 and tweets at @lissiejaquette.
By Samah Selim
Mara Naaman, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature: Portraits of Cairo. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
In January and February of 2011, Egyptians descended upon public squares throughout the country to bring an end to the thirty-year regime of Husni Mubarak. For those eighteen days—and on many other occasions throughout the following year—the people of Egypt wrested control of public space from the physical and discursive grip of Mubarak’s police state and reconfigured the material and symbolic spaces of their cities to express a revolutionary vision of subjectivity, community, and citizenship. Cairo’s Tahrir square—and its downtown environs—was of course the most visible and most symbolically charged center of these insurgent acts of occupation and celebration, and the whole world watched in wonder and trepidation as Egyptians struggled to forge a new and radical language of being-in-the-world.
Mara Naaman’s timely book, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature: Portraits of Cairo, was published during that heady year (and includes a brief postscript referring to the events of the revolution). The book addresses the production of urban space in the modern Egyptian literary imagination and offers the reader an erudite and engaging analysis of four acclaimed novels that all take Cairo’s downtown as their main setting. Naaman’s exploration of the sometimes utopian, sometimes brutal and bloody history of dreams, desires, and struggles that have shaped this seminal space in modern fiction and architectural practice subtly and persistently evokes the ghost of a future become the present. The book is thus important reading for anyone seeking to understand the affective power of “Liberation Square” within the context of modern Egyptian history and cultural production.
The book includes a preface, introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The preface, introduction, and chapter one set out the main conceptual and historical framework within which Naaman situates her literary readings. Chapters two through five each deal with a contemporary novel by a leading Egyptian author—Radwa ‘Ashur’s A Piece of Europe (2003), Khayri Shalabi’s Salih Hisa (2000), Idris ‘Ali’s Poor (2005), and Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2002)—while the conclusion, “Wust al-Balad as Neo-Bohemia: Writing in Defense of a Vanishing Public Sphere,” raises some very interesting questions about location and the relevance of national narratives to the contemporary political imagination.
In the preface, Naaman takes note of the political impetus underlying modern Arab fiction as a whole, tying this impetus to the framing and contestation of real and imagined spaces: “Contemporary Arab authors,” she writes, “have used fiction as a way of responding to crucial, and often traumatic, historical moments…where questions of political authority and power are largely enacted through struggles over public space” (xx). She then sets out the framework for her reading of her chosen novels against the background of a broad range of disciplinary and theoretical interests and concerns—urban and postcolonial studies, architecture and art history, and globalization theory:
I hope to show the way in which the notion of the modern Egyptian subject has evolved in direct relationship to the changes manifest in the space of the downtown….Ultimately I hope to show how the contested nature of the downtown—as a spectacular imitation of European modernity, as Egyptian public sphere, as a site for staging revolution, and as a modernist ruin—was and continues to be central to the notion of what it means to be Egyptian. (xxi)
Naaman goes on to reflect on Cairo as an “oscillating landscape” whose neighborhoods are situated as “allegorical spaces through which we can read the history of the nation” (xxv). Through the accumulated passage of time and the imprints of generations, streets and neighborhoods take on the phantom nature of the palimpsest; “home” is constantly rewritten as part of an uncertain yet imperative project of liberation. The downtown, she writes in a poignant assessment, “remains a contingent space, marked by traces of the past and spaces of familiarity, but never offering a sense of a secure present” (xxv).
Naaman uses the Arabic term “Wust al-Balad” (center city; downtown) throughout the book rather than an English translation to signal the iconic status of this particular space in modern fiction as well as national history. She weaves a careful account of the area’s dramatic architectural and political history into her literary analysis of the way in which the four novels inscribe questions of agency, identity, language, critique, and nostalgia in spatial terms. The famous history of Khedive Isma‘il’s new city, Isma‘iliyya, or “Paris on the Nile,” and the great Cairo Fire of 1952 (during which furious crowds burnt a large chunk of this new city to the ground) are thus both major leitmotifs that recur at key points in the book. Naaman’s description of the process by which the novels’ characters engage in revisionist “mappings” of these histories in space is thus also an apt description of her own critical method (7). The bulk of this critical method is presented in the book’s introduction, “The Urban as Critical Frame,” and covers a broad cross-section of works and authors: the Cairo School of Urban Studies; Gwendolyn Wright’s work on French colonial design; Chicano border studies; and the work of Timothy Mitchell, Arjun Appadurai, and Sabry Hafez on (respectively) colonial modernity, global flows, and the “new novel” in Egypt.
At times, Naaman’s theoretical framing sits uneasily with her evocative and subtle readings of the novels themselves. Naaman closely follows a certain strand of postcolonial studies that proposes a spectacular, Western-authored (colonial) modernity as the presumed antithesis of a kind of authentic or antediluvian local identity and where points of contact or relationship are somehow inevitably defined by suspicion, corruption, or violation. Isma‘il’s new city is offered as “a spectacular imitation of European modernity,” a place that has “internalize[ed] the gaze of the West” (xxi, 1). In such a place, the circulation of capital takes the primary form of staged spectacles of consumption and public entertainment (the lavish department stores, clubs, and cafés of Cairo’s rich). Modernity then becomes an ontology: a fixed and external object (of desire or refusal) rather than a social habitus shot through with contradiction and struggle. The notion that “Egyptians [were] mere spectators in the staging of their own modernity” leads Naaman at times to problematic culturalist readings of political events (Timothy Mitchell quoted in Naaman, 12). For example, the Cairo Fire of 1952 becomes “a debate over what it meant to be modern” rather than a violent rejection of the political and economic structures of a collapsing colonial regime (16). She further argues that “the ‘Urabi rebellion of 1881-2, the revolution of 1919, the workers’ protest in 1946, and the fires and subsequent revolution in July 1952” were all a result of “the Khedive’s complete indifference to the older districts of Cairo (in terms of their architectural and infrastructural neglect)”—or more simply put, to “colonial modernity” (23, 32).
Naaman’s capable and sensitive close readings, however, point to the limits—if not the inadequacy—of this theoretical staging to describe and elicit the rich and complex texture of the novels themselves in their reflections on agency, identity, and loss in the modern Egyptian context. In chapters one and two (“Specter of Paris: The Staging of Cairo’s Modern City Center” and “Reconstructing a National Past: Radwa ‘Ashur’s Revisionist History of Downtown”), Naaman beautifully captures the way in which both the urban-architectural and the textual function as narrative acts that produce legibility and meaning for subjects and readers alike. She further builds on this insight in the next chapter, “The Indigenous Modernism of Khayri Shalabi: Popular Intellectuals and the Neighborhood Ghurza,” by elaborating on Michel de Certeau’s poetics of walking as a form of pedestrian enunciation and Jonathon Shannon’s exploration of modernity and musical improvisation in Syria. In her reading, the palimpsest of the city—the downtown and its “shadow thoroughfare[s]” (77)—is metaphorically composed by the active handling or use of its material structures (‘Ashur’s narrator, The Gazer, “re-members” the downtown by walking its streets and visually summoning its ghostly monuments) or by the continual crossing and re-crossing of porous, shadow borders inscribed into the urban landscape (Salih Hisa’s celebration of multiple social identities and languages; The Yacoubian Building’s crumbling vertical hierarchies). Ultimately, the book’s greatest strength lies here: in its compelling, engaged, and almost tender attention to the materiality of urban space as a lens that brings a whole history of collective desire, aspiration, and struggle into focus through the medium of fiction.
Toward the end of the book’s final chapter, “The Nation Recast through a National Bestseller: Alaa al-Aswany’s Ode to Downtown Cairo,” Naaman tentatively suggests the possibility of claiming this history-in-fiction as a living portrait of the imagined nation—“a master-narrative” as she puts it, “for the Egyptian experience” (167). Meanwhile, the resurgent “neo-bohemian” public sphere of the downtown that she describes in the book’s conclusion has once again metamorphosed into a fully insurgent space of struggle and contestation (169). In this moment of exhilarating and dizzyingly unreadable futures, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature does an admirable job of underlining the ways in which “a reworking of the past vis-à-vis our cities is an important part of the process in determining who we are (and want to be) in the present” (176).
Samah Selim is assistant professor of Arabic literature at Rutgers University and the author of The Novel and the Rural Imaginary in Egypt 1880-1985 (Routledge, 2004).
[This review was originally published in the Spring 2012 issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here. This review was also published in Jadaliyya]
The author of Architecture for the Dead, Galila El Kadi’s new book on Cairo’s central area and its development since the 19th century is a much needed addition to the literature on the city. The bi-lingual book, in French and English, combines disciplinary approaches such as history, social history, urban geography, architectural history and urban morphology. The Cairo central area “is composed of the medieval city, the modern city established in the mid-19th century, and the new district extensions dating back to the middle of the past century, which have received activities migrating from the original sectors as well as recent innovative technological activities. The CCA (Cairo Central Area) is the product of fusion of diverse areas that were separate cities in the past but have become central districts of today’s metropolis.” (14)
The area covered in El Kadi’s book is what David Sims referred to as the formal/historic core. It includes 1000 year old streets as well as more recent development dating from the 1970s. Districts included in this core are: Boulaq, Azbakeya, Ismailia (downtown), Daher, Old Town (a large area with several historic districts known as the medieval city, known touristicly as “Islamic Cairo”), Mounira, Garden City, Roda, Zamalek, Doqqi, Giza, and Mohandessine.
[Limits of the Cairo Central Area, according to El Kadi, p.15]
The book is divided into three well illustrated chapters each looking at the central area of Cairo with a different set of tools. The first addresses Cairo’s centrality within the national and regional contexts. The second provides an analytical approach to the city’s anatomical development over two centuries with particular attention to issues of urban form, pattern, landmarks, distribution of functions, and evolution of residential areas. The final chapter zooms in on a neighborhood, a square and a street to reveal further details about the layers of the city and its anatomy. In this final chapter architectural typology takes a leading position as the scale of analysis shifts from the urban to accommodate the architectural scale. Questions pertaining to urban morphology and fabric string the three chapters together.
[Ramses Street, an architectural catalogue, p. 157]
The third chapter is particularly interesting. The author identifies parts of the urban anatomy then follows three approaches in analyzing such parts to “grasp these spaces in their material and intangible dimensions.” The first approach is historical and aims to “grasp the initial moment of the urban project’s conception and its evolution.” The second approach is morphological and it “inspects the elements of urban make-up and analyses the interrelations between the hierarchy of thoroughfares, the forms of land division and the constructions.” And the third approach is what the author calls “sensitive” which “reflects on perceptions, impressions and illustrates the memories linked to specific place and imparts a new meaning to it.”
Galila El Kadi’s Cairo is a much needed, well researched, clearly written, and richly illustrated addition to the literature on Cairo. The book makes some significant departures from previous works on Cairo by demarcating the Cairo Central Area as a unit of analysis rather the conventional approach of focusing on parts of this central area (downtown, or the medieval city) severed from their context. The book also provides a wealth of new information regarding urban transformation of various districts over time. For example the district of Garden City is rendered in four maps on page 228 which show the development of this zone from 1930 to 2006. Such maps, and diagrams in addition to photographs provide an easy to read wealth of information that shows change over time rather than the conventional snapshot view of a particular location during a particular time. This is a book about Cairo as a changing and moving city.
The book concludes by suggesting that a close reading of the city’s development over the past several decades reveals the resilience of the central area as a focus of the city despite decentralization plans by the government. Perhaps this study will attract the attention of policymakers, and consultants who have mislead previous governments that moving away from the center is a worthwhile endeavor. It is time to reconsider plans to escape Cairo and to focus development and regeneration plans back to the center where the spirit of Cairo lives on.
In 2009 the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo published a two-volume book by Istvan Ormos on the life and career of an important figure in modern Egyptian history and Cairo’s history: Max Herz Pasha.
Max Herz “was born in Hungary, studied in Hungary and Austria, spent his active life in Egypt, died in Switzerland and is buried in Italy.” Ormos’ extensive research pieces together the life and career of this exceptional personality so central to the study, conservation and documentation of Islamic and Coptic architectural heritage in Cairo following his first visit to Egypt in 1880.
In 1881 Herz was employed as a draftsman by Franz Pasha, the director of the Technical Office of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Waqf) and was later appointed as engineer. Herz subsequently held several positions including director of the Arab Museum in 1892 (Islamic Art Museum) and in 1901 became director of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe. Throughout his career in Egyptian civil service Herz developed a reputation that led him to being honored with the title Bey in 1895 and later Pasha in 1912.
From the middle of the 19th century Cairo was undergoing mass modernization efforts and the Ministry of Public Works sought to improve the hygiene and safety of the city. In some cases this called for the demolition of historic buildings and monuments because they were structurally unstable (and therefore posed a safety threat to communities). What is important to remember here, and this is something the author explains at some length, is that the decision to demolish buildings that posed a threat even if they are several hundred years old, reveals a different conception of urban memory. The concept of “monument,” the author tells us, was a recent European conception where buildings were seen as carriers of memory. There are ancient monuments in Egypt that belong to past civilization and which were not part of daily life in the 19th century, such as the ancient temples or pyramids for example. However, in Cairo antique buildings, from the medieval period for example, were lived and used in daily life, unlike monuments of a more distant past. Therefore the concept of preserving buildings that may be posing a threat or are no longer fulfilling their functions, or are in the way of modernizing urban projects was relatively new. Hence the significance of Herz Pasha in saving many of Cairo’s ailing historic buildings by restoring and rebuilding, in addition to documenting and studying buildings that would have been erased by turn-of-the-century modernizers (as happened in many European capitals earlier).
[Left: The central court of the Maridani mosque after restoration; Right: same space before restoration]
[Left: Aqmar mosque facade in 1901; Right: Aqmar mosque facade after restoration]
Take for example the minarets above the famous Bab Zuwayla. What we see today is in fact the product of restoration and rebuilding supervised by Herz Pasha. Until the 1890s the tops of the minarets had been destroyed. Another example is the Aqmar Mosque (1125) which was reconstructed with particular attention given to the facade, which was later replicated in the Coptic Museum. St Mercury’s church (known as Abu l-Sayfayn), St Sergius (Abu Sarga), St Barbara (Sitt Burbara) are among the Coptic monuments restored under his supervision. The Maridani Mosque (1340) was in ruins before the Comité team arrived and rebuilt it. Sultan Barquq complex, Al-Azhar and many other mosques around the city were restored under the helm of Herz but his most significant work was on the Sultan Hassan Mosque (1356), Cairo’s iconic Mamluk monument for which he produced a monograph in 1899. Furthermore, many buildings lining the historic and now popular Muiz Street were missing domes, minarets or were near collapse due to the rise of the water table under that part of the city, however what we see today is in fact largely due to the works of restoration carried out a century ago by Max Herz. In addition to works of restoration Herz also designed several buildings and completed the architectural design of the Refai Mosque, Cairo’s royal mosque, after work had been interrupted for several decades and its original architect, Husayn Pasha Fahmi, had died.
[Left: Bab Zuwayla with minarets of al-Muayyad mosque in 1892. Sometime between 1860 and 1890 the tops of the minarets collapsed. Restoration of the mosque had already begun long before Herz appeared on the scene; Right: minarets after rebuilding as seen in a 1920s postcard. The minarets were rebuilt while Herz was in charge of the project.]
[Left: Rifai mosque before the resumption of work in 1906, Right: Rifai mosque in the 1930s with new minarets and dome designed by Herz.]
Herz was spending the summer of 1914 in Europe when WWI broke out. The British occupying forces in Egypt expelled all officials of Austro-Hungarian origins. Upon his return to Egypt in October 1914, British officials forced him into retirement and demanded he leave the country. The European war had direct repercussions on Egypt as the British interfered directly into Egyptian affairs and even deposed Egypt’s ruler Abbas Helmi who was in Istanbul on official visit and was not allowed to return. Herz Pasha left Egypt before the end of 1914, his family awaited him in Italy but in 1919 he went to Zürich for treatment and died during an operation. He is buried in Milan at the Cimitero Monumentale.
Arguably after Herz Pasha’s sudden departure the Comité and by extension the preservation of Islamic and Coptic monuments, which as a field developed almost entirely under his helm, were no longer the same. Although the Comité was not disbanded immediately, its budget was severely cut and no head architect comparable to Herz Pasha’s expertise headed the organization thereafter until it was officially inactive in 1953.
Much of the literature about Cairo or Egyptian architecture in general is produced in Western academia for Western academia. Although some of these books have become classics among English or French reading audiences, they remain unknown to a wider Egyptian audience. Although many Egyptian university students are capable of reading second languages, classic works dealing with Cairo’s architecture and urban history must be made available in Arabic and thus readable to an audience that inhabits the very spaces these books describe and analyze.
1. Janet Abu-Lughod’s Cairo:1001 years of the city victorious (Princeton University Press, 1971). Forty-one years have lapsed since Abu-Lughod’s book was published, yet it remains the classic source for the history of Cairo’s urban development from the city’s founding until the middle of the twentieth century. No other book has narrated and analyzed Cairo’s urban and sociological history across the time span covered in this book as well as Abu-Lughod has done. It is inexcusable that the prime biography of the city has not been translated into Arabic and made available to Cairo’s residents four decades after it has been published.
2. Mercedes Volait’s Architectes et Architectures de l’Egypte moderne (1830-1950) (Maisonneuve et Larose, 2005) is the best and most comprehensive history of Egypt’s modern architects and their architecture. Volait is truly a trailblazer in the field of Egyptian architectural history as she set the course for future research projects that aim to highlight Egypt’s architecture from the modern period, which has been ignored in scholarship until recently. Egypt’s rich architectural past prior to the 19th century has monopolized academic scholarship leaving behind a rich and illustrative period from the early 19th century until the middle of the 20th century. Volait uncovers architects, projects and plans that are unknown to Western and Egyptian audiences and places Egypt in the context of evolving modern architecture in Europe and the region. The book is not available in English nor Arabic. Egyptian audiences need to have access to this book in Arabic, which sheds light on a fast disappearing heritage from the modern period.
3. David Sims’ Understanding Cairo: The logic of a city out of control (AUC Press, 2011). Forwarded by Janet Abu-Lughod, this book reads like the missing final chapter from her own 1971 work, above. In a time when many Egyptians are beginning to understand the physical environment in which they live and its political and economic dimensions, few books are available that paint an up-to-date and easy to read explanation of the current situation. The book focuses on the most dramatic period in Cairo’s urban transformation in modern history, the 1950s to the present. Unobstructed by academic jargon and free of romantic narratives, Sims’ book paints a matter-of-fact image of contemporary Cairo and highlights the key issues, players, and policies that shape the city today. Egyptians have been kept in the dark about the very policies and political decisions that affect their daily lives in Cairo. A translated version of this book made available to a wider audience has the potential to dramatically transform the future of urban policy in Egypt as Egyptians realize that what they took for granted as a reflection of their disjointed society is actually the product of carefully orchestrated ill-intentioned urban policies and deeply rooted corruption.
Farha Ghannam. Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
Reviewed by Amy Mills (Department of Geography, University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-Gender-MidEast (June, 2003)
Building the Urban Landscape with the Gendered Spatial Practices of Everyday Life
This rich ethnography examines the forces shaping Cairo’s landscape from the perspective of its poor. Al-Zawiya al-Hamra is a housing development built for a population relocated from Bulaq during Sadat’s efforts to redesign Cairo according to his idea of a modern city. Farha Ghannam’s work on the daily practices of its residents contributes to the literature on Cairo’s urban development with a new perspective. Her work also treats some of the most important elements conditioning life throughout the region: the articulation of state discourse in urban development, the emergence of Islam as a unifying factor for a poor population of mixed origins, and the role of globalization in spreading desires and creating new economic realities. The study focuses on the ways in which people have altered the visible forms and uses of the spaces allotted to them by the government when they were relocated to al-Zawiya. The book describes the “tactics” and “strategies” employed by people in efforts to realize their visions as individuals and as families. These actions are explored as negotiations with which people selectively appropriate or reinterpret the various powerful forces that condition the context in which they take place. State, global, or religious discourses are not top-down influences to be dichotomously rejected or accepted by the poor. This study challenges the idea of modernity, particularly as it is discussed in relation to Muslim societies. For Ghannam, modernity is not a Western-defined ideal to be more or less successfully emulated by “other” societies, particularly in regard to the emphasis on secularization. Rather, residents of al-Zawiya are modern in that they are both attracted to a religious identity and to the desires and expectations stimulated by globalization, and deal with both in articulating identity and producing neighborhood space. Farha Ghannam’s steeped experience in the field and her careful methodology give her subtle analysis an unshakeable credibility. Her theoretical framework and her own identity as a woman place the hands and visions of women at the heart of her ethnography, as they are in the landscape of her analysis.
Remaking the Modern is structured in six chapters that begin with an introduction to the fieldwork site by describing the state discourse surrounding the relocation project and its population. The relocation articulated state desires to improve the city by removing “less desirable” (p. 29) parts of central Cairo in line with its vision for a modern city ripe for expanded tourism and foreign investment. Chapter 2 describes the modern and scientific ideals embedded in the spaces of the housing development; its segregated and regular spaces would produce a healthy and productive citizenry for the nation. Here Ghannam reveals the tactics and strategies of people in reinterpreting the spaces allocated to them by the state to meet their own needs, by changing the balconies or using a single space for several purposes, for example. As women are the “main daily users” of the housing unit, their visions, desires, and needs are central to its individual transformation (p. 61). Chapter 3 discusses the identity construction of al-Zawiya residents through their relationships to place. Ghannam explores both the narratives of residents’ past and their identifications with Bulaq and their places of origin, as well as the reordering of relationships and the new uncertainties caused by relocation to al-Zawiya. Chapter 4 brings the issue of the control of public space down from the level of state discourse to the gendered relations of the family. Ghannam challenges the public/private dichotomy, the traditional point of departure for academic discussions on the gendering of space in the Middle East, to examine the ways in which the boundaries between them are continuously contested. The construction of the mosque as a “safe” (p. 126) public space is examined in chapter 5, where religion is discussed as a unifying factor for a mixed community. Chapter 6 reveals the global context in which the local neighborhood is created. The space of the apartment is the site of the nexus between the global and the local; global connections build the local landscape and realize the global desires of one couple, even as another couple struggles with the inequality created by the same system as they search for an apartment to consummate a marriage.
Because the foundation of Ghannam’s work is in the practices of everyday life, this book bridges urban studies and gender studies in the Middle East by moving beyond defining the gendering of space as a simple division between public and private spaces. Ghannam argues that women have always been viewed as “privatizing the public” (p. 91), because the public has been defined as the male domain; such a view does not allow for the complexity of actions and spaces that go beyond the dichotomy of the male-dominated public and the female-oriented private. Ghannam opens the discussion by exploring the varying public spaces that are open or closed to women (and young men) at differing times. Her uses of such a spatial analysis builds on studies that focus on veiling, for example, which explore the control of female sexuality through the body. Ghannam argues that the power relationships that reinforce gender inequalities regarding the movement or access to spaces do not aim to control women’s sexuality but to control their access to knowledge.
The discussion of the tactics and strategies of women also contribute to theoretical discussions on the nature of the production of space. For Ghannam, “the city is not a ready-made container for the practices of its residents but a flexible entity that is made and remade through these practices” (p. 23). Ghannam illuminates the role of local people in making Cairo’s landscape as well as the significance of their attachments to local place for their own identity construction. However, she argues that the local is never fixed, it is instead continuously remade through the practices of residents. Through actions of everyday life, women and men in al-Zawiya al-Hamra articulate their visions in a local neighborhood while they selectively appropriate or reject elements of the state discourse on modernization, global flows of information and the creation of new desires, and religion that serves as a unifying force for the urban poor. This is the nature of modernity in Cairo. Remaking the Modern joins a growing body of literature that contributes to gender studies in the Middle East with a geographical analysis of social practices. Farha Ghannam’s model ethnographic study gives students of urban culture in the Middle East a text which evokes the life of the city itself.
. Ghannam uses “tactics” and “strategies” as defined by Michel deCerteau in The Practice of Everyday Life. According to Ghannam, a strategy “assumes a proper place,” whereas a tactic “is a ‘clever trick’ that depends on time and waits to manipulate any emerging opportunities in a system of domination” (p. 50). The physical addition or change to an assigned apartment is an example of a strategy. A tactic is based on “shifting meanings” (p. 59); changing the functions of spaces inside apartments according to different daily needs is a tactic. Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
. Such geographic studies emphasize the importance of the spatialization of daily practices and suggest the complexity of the role of Islam in shaping the context in which women negotiate these practices. Another recent example of such work is that of geographer Anna Secor, who explores the spatialization of various practices of veiling across Istanbul, Turkey, suggesting links between the gendered production of Islamic knowledge and women’s mobility. Anna Secor, “The Veil and Urban Space in Istanbul: Womens Dress, Mobility and Islamic Knowledge,” Gender, Place and Culture 9:1 (2002): pp 5-22.