I just finished one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read: Cairo, the City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck. He basically writes about Egypt from different perspectives and points in time, and since it isn’t in chronological order it is really fascinating! One part could be about the Pharoah’s and the next about Sadat. On the downside, the book made me feel incredibly homesick. I thought I’d share some of the nicest parts of the book with you:
Other places may have been neater, quieter, and less prone to wrenching change, but they all lacked something. The easy warmth of Cairenes, perhaps, and their indomitable insouciance; the complexities and complicities of their relations; their casual mixing of sensuality with moral rigor, of razor wit with credulity. Or perhaps it was the possibility this city offered of escape into other worlds: into the splendours of its pharaonic and medieval pasts, say, or out of its bruising crowds onto the soft, gentle current of the Nile – even if the tapering lateen sails of the river feluccas did now advertise Coca-Cola.
Cairo too has risen from its ashes. It has survived countless invasions, booms and busts, famines, plagues and calamities. Through them all the city has ultimately remained, as in its classical Arabic name, al-Qahira – The Victorious.
Rabbi Meshulam of Volterra:
We arrived in Cairo on Sunday, June 17, 1481. I had come to see the Cairenes and their deeds. However, if I were to write about its wealth and its people, all of this book would not be sufficient. I swear that if it were possible to put Rome, Venice, Milan, Padua, Florence and four more cities together, they would not equal in wealth and population half that of Cairo.
The Wall Street Journal:
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% had university degrees, a quarter of them at postgraduate level.
A wave of religious conservatism washed over the city. Self-declared Islamists took over student and professional unions. The crowds of faithful at Friday prayers outgrew mosques and spread onto sidewalks and streets. In my own building the tea boy in a lawyer’s office took to chanting the noon call to prayer down the stairwell.
But now, in the 1990s, Madame Eleni would be shocked. The dominant style is retro seventh century (lol). The arbiters of fashion are stern sheikhs for whom the models of feminine virtue are the numerous purdahed wives of the Prophet. TV reruns of romances churned out by Cairo’s studios during the 1940s and 1950s, or panning shots of the audiences at Umm Kulsoum’s concerts, reveal a lost age of daring.
3/4s of Cairene women believed their husbands had a right to beat them, and half said that refusing sex was an adequate reason (wonder where this idea comes from …I think I’ve heard it before…ah yes: the ‘ulama).
Despite all the negatives that exist in Cairo, I am still absolutely in love with it. I know I often come across as very anti-traditionalism on this blog and the main reason for that is I think new religious conservatism/puritanism/traditionalism is the main reason for many of Cairo’s problems today. This new form of Islam has really taken away so many of Cairo’s charms, leaving it a city with too much intolerance and fanaticism.
Still, if I’ve learnt anything from this book its that Cairo has been through everything, and survived. This too shall pass. On a brighter note:
To this day, nothing is so admired in Cairo as sharpness of wit. No trait is so despised as having what Egyptians call “heavy blood”, which is to say no sense of humour. The general hilarity can be grating: the jiving and joshing in any Cairo market street will strain the patience of anyone but a Cairene. But taken in the right spirit it is just plain fun – and certainly more so than the sullen mind-your-own-businessness typical of the West.
Were else would a taxi driver leap out of his cab, kneel down on the asphalt, and kiss the white line at an intersection? “See, ya bey,” the cabbie shouted to the cop who was about to ticket him, “the white line isn’t angry any more.”
The book ends with a beautiful story about a man who was forced to move into a cemetary building after his own building collapsed. Asked whether he was happy, he replied:
Of course I am happy. I live in the greatest city in the world.