From an intensive study of the city and his own personal observations, comes Cairo – The City Victorious by Max Rodenbeck, a correspondent for The Economist. This book is neither a travelogue nor a history, but an excellent narrative that combines both. If you are looking to really get to know the city by scratching beyond the surface of what is Cairo to why it is the way it is, then this is a book for you.
Rodenbeck spent much of his life in Cairo. It is where he gets his intimate knowledge of everything about the city from – he takes us to the pyramids that came before the Grand Pyramids at the Giza, to the back alley cafes where bonding happens between locals and outsiders over hashish.
Cairo is as old as Egypt itself and holds within it monuments and artifacts of all shapes and sizes and uses that stand witness to a history spanning over 5,000 years. It has been one of the first cradles of the human civilizations. The rise and spread of Islam from the 10th century onwards greatly influenced the city’s make, beliefs, and norms. The city saw the coming of the French and the Britsh from the 16th century. The country gained independence from colonialism only to fall into the hands of authoritative leaders with puritan ideals. The city has never stopped reinventing itself. To this day, Cairo continues to bridge the gap between the East and the West, the ancient and the modern, what is innately its own culture and the cultures of other nations that have left an indelible print on it.
Al-Qahira – The Victorious
One of the first things to strike me about this book was just how much Cairo was not a sprawling city in the sense of housing the living but a necropolis of the dead. The pyramids are just one example of honoring the dead that stands out on a grand architectural scale. Even today, a traveler to the city will find majestic mosques and tombs of well-known personages from the days of Islamic rule dating back to the medieval era. What these pyramids and tombs contained was lost to tomb raiders and locals before finding the sympathy of conservationists and archaeologists.
“The mummy-grubbing was to continue through the advent of Islam and down to the present.”
Cairo’s classical Arabic name al-Qahira—The Victorious, is well-earned. In a geographical space that is just a narrow fertile Nile Valley with hundreds of miles of desert to its south, several Egyptian capitals preceded the Cairo of the present day; Memphis, Heliopolis, and Fustat – each Egyptian capital was a dominant center of political activity, and each has its own fascinating historical past.
Successive rulers sought to control this stretch of land between Upper and Lower Egypt. They built new compounds to showcase their wealth and maintain exclusivity away from the crowding commons. The tombs of the rich and powerful were more splendid than the homes of the masses. Every time a ruling dynasty passed into oblivion though, its crumbling palaces became the dwellings of the commons while the new rulers moved a few miles in a different direction to repeat the process of building and separating themselves from the ordinary, all over again. Given its strategic geographical location, Cairo has attracted many world conquerors – from Alexander the Great to Saldin to Napolean. The city has eternally been in a restless shift, always in the process of burning up like a phoenix and then rising again from its ashes.
Struggle against stagnation
“From being the proud seat of a great empire, the fountainhead of Islam, and the marketplace of the Mediterranean, the city tumbled into mediocrity.”
During modern times, Cairo began to witness a polarization of thoughts and culture, and its people were torn between Paris and Mecca. On the one hand, were those who had gone abroad to find themselves lucrative careers and build a western lifestyle; on the other, were those who struggled amidst corruption, inefficient bureaucracy, and overpopulation, and felt that the wealthy and powerful were meandering away from their moral and religious past.
“The fact is that for a century Cairenes have felt torn between Paris and Mecca.”
From a European outpost that linked the Europen powers to their colonies, Cairo turned into a nationalist capital of rebellion and revolution. The ideologies of the 20th century in Egypt point to an intolerant puritanism from political leaders and fundamentalists alike. There is also a divide, a feeling of us versus them – between the rich and the poor, the public and the private, the Muslims, The Jews, and the Copts.
“Post World War II saw presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak try and fail to modernize postcolonial Egypt.”
But there is also a spirit of fun and carefreeness in the air. There is dancing on the streets on festive occasions, a general tomfoolery among the locals, and good-humored haggling between the hawkers in the bazaars and the tourists. This is a city like any other, and yet unlike any other in the world.
“We are an as-if society,” a physician at Qasr al-‘Aini Hospital once explained to me. “We speak of rules as if we intend to follow them. Our government acts as if it were a democracy. Some of my colleagues got medical degrees by hook or by crook, but they behave as if they were learned practitioners because they sat through exams as if they had not bribed the examiners.”
From ancient to medieval splendor to modern-day confusion
The commentary in this book doesn’t come from someone who is an occasional traveler in love with the idea of a city like Cairo. Instead, it comes from an intimate knowledge that only someone like Rodenbeck, who is a journalist, a keen observer of human nature, and who has spent a lot of his years in Cairo from the age of two. He shares without concealing anything about the city – which is why there is the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“The decay may be sad, but in compensation the place is alive.”
What Rodenbeck accomplishes through this book is rare – taking the readers on a journey, not only through time but also the space that a city has been occupying. To capture the spirit of a city in such an in-depth manner in just 300-odd pages is a wonderful achievement. With personal observations on contemporary gossip, snippets of medieval lore, and a critical examination of the double burden of the past and the present that the Cairenes bear almost every day, Rodenbeck richly conveys not just the details of a city but the indomitable spirit of a city that Cairo is.