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:

Cairo then…

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.

Cairo now…

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.


15 thoughts on “Cairo

  1. Aw that sounds like a great book! It’s really nice to hear someone talk about the positives. Cairo HAS been through a lot, and it’s just beautiful how you can see it across the skyline. You see the ancient pyramids, the colonial buildings in downtown, the billboards of new Arab media.. even though I was only there for a year or so I fell in love with Cairo too.

  2. Great post! Thanks for sharing about this place so important to you! You always have an upbeat attitude about life that’s really contagious! 😀

    I apologize if this is too personal, but I’ve not followed your blog since its beginning. Are you Egyptian? I get confused with your blog name and feel you must be part Egyptian, but currently living in Amsterdam. Or else you just lived in Cairo for a while and grew to love it. Hope you don’t mind my asking. Thanks! 🙂

    • Of course its not too personal 😀
      My dad is Egyptian, my mum is Dutch, and I grew up in Lusaka, Zambia (so Cairo Lusaka Amsterdam :D). I lived in Cairo for 5 years and now I live in Holland.

      How about you?

      • Thanks for answering….now I can picture you better in my mind. 🙂 Sounds like an exciting life!

        I’m just an ordinary person (mixture of European ancestries…ha!) from the US South. I’ve lived here all my life and don’t know tons of people from other cultures except for the ones I’ve met on blogs. 🙂 I did travel to Damascus, Syria last year and that was a wonderful time. I hope to go back sometime.

        My husband and I have an Egyptian friend at our church. In fact we went to his house two weeks ago for lunch. Very nice family!

        I appreciate the info on you, CLA! 😀

  3. That is one of my favourite books in the world. It’s written like Cairo is built… in random circles. My kids bought me a hardback copy when it was first published and I bought each of them a copy when they went off to college to keep them reminded of home. And then as they had friends coming to Egypt to visit, they would buy the book for friends. As far as I’m concerned it has to be absolutely one of the best books about Cairo.

  4. Salam
    The selfdeclared puritans could also be an answer to the panarabism that held its grip on the arabs for the last century. A responce to the fact that Egypt is one of the countries int he mid east that supports, helps and defends Israel, for a few judaspennies from the USA.
    I think that the issue with Egypt is that of its leaders, who have sold out the muslim/arab cause. When a population sees its leaders speak of pan arabism, and at the same time support Israel, they realise that their leaders and their politics is corrupt, so they go back to basics, and basics is islam.
    Because of the rigid and pretty old fashioned system in sunniislam, they fall for teachers and “ulamaa” from the more salafifashioned madhabs.
    I think that the problem with the egyptians are
    1. Their leaders, who prefer to build 35 meter deep walls around their brothers in Gaza to help the state of Israel.
    2. Their relationship with the US and Saudi, both states are of no good for Egypt or the muslims.

    If the population would feel that its leaders were more just, then they wouldnt become more puritans, i think its a protest from the egyptians against the politics of its leaders and those “Ulamaa” who work for the politics.
    Puritanism is not always bad, the question is what kind of puritanism should we follow? I want more religion in society, but there are several ways to go by to do that.

    • I completely agree with you. I definitely think the roots of the “Islamic Revival” are in the political problems Egypt has had/is having.

      “Because of the rigid and pretty old fashioned system in sunniislam, they fall for teachers and “ulamaa” from the more salafifashioned madhabs.”

      Yes I think this is the MAIN issue. They have not turned back to the basics in Islam. they have turned towards the ‘ulama and old-fashioned scholarship.

      Great comment!

  5. I spent all Sunday afternoon going through old tapes and watching clips of Abdel Halim Hafeez, and I know I’m not the only one who knows the words to Haga Ghareeba…The next few months and years should prove interesting for Egypt with upcoming elections and conflict in the surrounding areas.

  6. Even fifty years ago only a section of the westernized elite were like that.
    Are you saying most common people were less religious then and are now more religious ? Rituals like Salah are one of the most important aspects of Iman.
    Are you saying that people should not keep beards and practise hijab?
    Offcourse the development of Taqwa requires many equally important issues – like huqul ibad .

    Look up the history of the last king of Egypt . his lifestyle will horrify a practising muslim

    • “Are you saying most common people were less religious then and are now more religious ?”

      No, actually that’s what many salafis and ikhwan members are saying: that Egyptians before were not religious enough and now there has been some kind of “awakening”.

  7. It is good to read from two different opinions. Reza Aslan argues that the Muslim Brotherhood was Egypt’s chance at a real democracy, and of course it was foiled with U.S. intervention. He claims we should let groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood rise and take responsibility because they historically have been known to become “moderate” leaders. Your post about this book and it’s views are interesting to say the least, such differing opinions, as are all good debates.

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