On Cairo: Histories of a City

Histories of a City: the many hands that shaped today’s Cairo

Frederick Deknatel, The National, September 16, 2011

One of Jean-Léon Gérôme’s most famous Orientalist paintings, Prayer on the Rooftops of Cairo, is backwards. The men in the scene are facing north in prayer, not south-east towards Mecca. Under the shadow of two Mamluk minarets with the mosque of Mohammed Ali in the distance, perched atop the Citadel, the Cairenes on the canvas pray just after sunset, with a sliver of the moon in the sky. It’s an idyllic, invented scene that Gérôme, one of the most accomplished Orientalists of his day, painted in his studio in France, embellishing it to suit his viewers’ desire for the exotic. Its inaccuracy was beside the point. This painting, like so many that Gérôme made in the late 19th century, captivated its European audience.

Nezar AlSayyad includes a large detail of this painting spread over two pages in Cairo: Histories of a City. AlSayyad’s book, a colourful sweep of over 3,000 years of urban and architectural history, is as much a short genealogy of Cairo’s many commentators and portraitists as it is of its buildings. He narrates a broad history of urban development from the Pharaonic capital of Memphis, “the first Cairo”, on the Nile’s west bank, to the Ptolemaic, Roman-Byzantine and Arab-Islamic cities that developed on top of and adjacent to each other on the river’s east bank. Each chapter begins at an iconic Cairo landmark and tells a history of the building’s era, bringing in both neighbouring architecture and contemporary voices. Gérôme’s work is among those accumulated impressions of the city, from ancient scribes and medieval chroniclers to colonial-era artists and modern historians. But in reversing the direction of the men in prayer, Gérôme’s painting suggests the role of imagination and misunderstanding not only in explaining and portraying Cairo, but in planning and developing it too.

Read the rest at The National.

More literary Tahrir

Like Scopophobia I keep thinking about my time in Tahrir.

I lived in Cairo for a year a few years ago, and again for four months more recently; the first time around, I rode a cab into Tahrir every morning to go to AUC. Last time, with graduate studies at new AUC in New Cairo, that ride became an hour or more in an air-conditioned coach bus: the worst part of AUC’s move, not only the bus ride to the periphery, but depriving you of a daily ride into Tahrir, unless you already lived downtown and could walk, stopping for a juice near Midan Falaki.

Not being able to be in Cairo, to talk to people and write stories, I’m supplementing news reading with a literary hunt. It’s not hard yet; Samia Mehrez’s The Literary Atlas of Cairo is on my desk, a collection of snippets of writers on Cairo, many translated from the Arabic by her. The other day I posted an excerpt from Sonallah Ibrahim’s Cairo from Edge to Edge. Today it’s the young novelist May Khaled’s The Last Seat in Ewart Hall, appropriately enough.

When she drives through Tahrir Square, everything is dwarfed when compared to that building, that lofty edifice that inhabits her completely. The Mugama, the gardens of the square, the former Astra Coffee Shop which has been transformed into a number of glittering fast-food restaurants that cater to her building, Qasr al-Aini Street with all the important national institutions. All of these places derive their very being from surrounding her temple–it’s structure which she still refuses to believe she has not belonged to for the past fifteen years. In fact, the longer her time away from it, the more she clings to it, is proud of it and of her sense of belonging to it. That Islamic architectural style that has towered over the heart of the city since the twenties of the past century and witnessed a series of events that have shaped the modern history of her country. Here it is, boasting the very best of Islamic architecture and the finest of human resources, with the American flag flying alongside her country’s flag. She never really noticed this or that flag. Only one phrase continues to enchant her as if it contained the best that was ever produced by poets, artists, and musicians: “The American University in Cairo.” It dominated the facade in Arabic and in English, sitting in an ornamented border that is repainted yearly, along with the renovations of the premises, in bright white so it remains forever young and fresh.

Unrelated, has Sonallah Ibrahim commented on the revolution?

Vintage photo from Kodak Agfa’s photos via Getty Images.

With Cairo in transition, collectors scramble to save a fading era

By Frederick Deknatel Contributor / January 11, 2010

CAIRO: Amgad Naguib is sitting in his garagelike storage space on a side street in the dusty belle epoque heart of downtown Cairo looking to buy junk. “Bikya!” the junk seller yells from his cart on the street outside, which means reusable rubbish. “I get a lot of treasures from bikya,” Mr. Naguib, an artist and collector, says from his garage, which is stuffed with old furniture, vintage advertisements, and stacks of papers and photographs from the early 20th century.

Between the vendors who buy and sell junk and the tourist shops that offer overpriced historical keepsakes – Iraqi 
dinars with Saddam Hussein’s face, fake old photographs, faded postcards – there are other Egyptian collectors, artists, and historians collecting pieces of the past, and not always for profit. Accumulating old objects, whether valuable or not, suggests connection with downtown Cairo’s material past as the area 
undergoes major changes, from the flight of historic institutions to news of investment-driven gentrification.

Read more at the Christian Science Monitor. Also check out Hanna‘s related post, which includes part one of a series of good old postcard pieces.

Cairo: Where You Can Get a Beer, Even During Ramadan

I wrote a story for the Faster Times travel section on the downtown drinking scene in Cairo, partly in response to a long and strange travel feature in the New York Times yesterday about visiting Cairo during Ramadan (hardly timely now in the middle of winter, when the holy month is not until next August). Not only did the writer admit that she spoke no Arabic, thus qualifying her to write so many words that read like a passerby-tourist, she complained about the lack of alcohol in Cairo, during the holy month of fasting no less. First of all, Arabs drink, whether Muslim or Christian, and it’s tiring to read stories — travel, news, or otherwise — in which the silly reporter breathes a sigh of relief over an overpriced drink at the Marriott, or Four Seasons, or other overpriced Western hotel that is inevitably listed in these kinds of articles. BUT more importantly, it’s wrong that you can’t drink in Cairo, even during Ramadan. The city is full of grimy and charming dive bars, relics of colonial grandeur, or at least smoky, cheap and local spots that are just the thing to fall outside the scope of the New York Times travel section. Here’s the beginning:

Only once have I ever been kicked out of Horreya. One of downtown Cairo’s busiest and grimiest drinking spots is rarely closed. But sure enough one night this fall, as the clock was pushing past three in the morning, the barkeep, who is in turns cantankerous and jolly as he swings at least a half dozen oversized beer bottles from his hands and drops one in front of you before you’ve finished the last, counted the empties on the table and pushed a few of us into the street. We all smiled. In the world of downtown drinking in Cairo, getting the boot from a saloon like Horreya as it shuts its door is rare.

Read the rest here.

To Stop Cairo from Smoking

There have been various articles and reports for a while now about how this is happening, or how it’s not happening. Is it actually happening now? Seems not, entirely, since the ban reported on has been flaunted and overturned before.

To illuminate this point, I’ll refer to Eugene Rogan’s superb new history, “The Arabs,” which I started reading in Beirut during a recent visit over Eid.

In mid-18th century Damascus, the Ottoman governor wanted to abolish prostitution, which was plaguing the conservative city in the view of a barber, Ahmad al-Budayri, whose diary Rogan reads as an excellent source of social history. Problem was, many Damascenes admired these ladies, who eschewed veils and let their hair down, got drunk, and (one of them) even stabbed a leading judge in downtown Damascus. Various crackdowns and legal bans on prostitution failed. As the barber Budayri lamented corruption and the “prostitutes [who] proliferated in the markets, day and night,” the Ottoman governor, As’ad Pasha al-Azm gave up his anti-prostitution campaign. He “abandoned all efforts to expel the bold prostitutes,” Rogan writes “and chose to tax them instead.”

So, Cairo and your aged President. Why not tax the smokes?

Jingo hooligans and the police state

Things are getting increasingly strange here. Hosni Mubarak’s eldest son, Alaa, has basically added fuel to peoples’ fake fire against Algeria – the government co-opting popular frustrations with Wednesday’s loss and the news that Egyptian businesses in Algeria were attacked and Egyptian fans in Khartoum were assaulted by Algerians.”It is impossible that we as Egyptians take this, we have to stand up and say ‘enough,'” said Alaa, who had traveled to Khartoum for Wednesday’s game, the AP reported. “There should be a stance, we have had enough. When you insult my dignity … I will beat you on the head,” added the younger Mubarak.”

Today Zamalek is a cordoned police zone, thousands of Central Security troops and dozens of trucks not only around the Algerian Embassy, but on every side street on that side of the island. Honking horns and chants against Algeria can be heard in the air — I was walking near the Indian Embassy this afternoon and heard crowds, probably across the river in Bulaq. 26th of July street is littered with rocks, garbage, and broken glass. Storefronts on money exchanges and the various other shops — Egyptian stores — were smashed late last night, early this morning.

I took some video of the protests on 26th of July last night, but before the rioting really took off. Still, people were burning Algerian flags, waving huge Egyptian ones, and chanting insults to Algeria – (not just “Allahu Akbar” as the AP and other agencies focus on). More vulgar things.. insults more suitable for a kind of soccer riot, which this is, sort of, but is clearly ballooning into something else.

‘Bill Clinton is Syrian’ and other tales of Obama’s speech from Damascus

The traffic flowed through Damascus last Thursday, peaking as always in the early afternoon. There was little buzz about President Obama in Cairo, and given all the packed taxis and microbuses clogging the street, it was a typical day in Damascus – and no special arrangements to watch the speech.

“Of course I know,” taxi driver Adnan replied when asked about Obama’s visit to Cairo University. “He was in Saudi yesterday.”

The oil-rich kingdom is hardly popular here, owing to its mass accumulation of crude cash, its support for Sunni fundamentalism, and its closeness with America.

“Obama goes to Saudi, he goes to Egypt. He goes to Turkey and soon enough he’ll go to Israel,” Adnan complained. “But he doesn’t come here.”

Before an American ambassador returns to Damascus, before US sanctions are lifted, average Syrians will likely continue to ignore gestures of American oratory and reconciliation.

More of my recent HuffPost.


Better reactions to Obama

Sifting through all the reaction pieces — and posting here for the first time in a while — I found this op-ed by Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif

The Egyptian state is doing pomp, and relieved (because of the security lockdown) of traffic and noise Cairo is playing along: the morning light is clear and free of dust, the flame trees are magnificent with their crowns of red massed flowers.

Writers life Soueif often make the best commentators:

Obama did what many of us hoped he would not do: he accorded faith a central position in the relationship between our different parts of the world: rather than human beings with different histories and different political interests and ambitions – and despite a quick acknowledgment of colonialism – we were essentially people of different faiths who would now make nice with each other. And such is our beleaguered state of mind here in this part of the world that every time he quoted the Qur’an, he was applauded. But then again, it seemed that it was the same 200 or so people who were putting their hands together – to less effect each time.

Also on the Guardian’s website was this op-ed by Ali Abuminah. Cheers for the British press. 

Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of President Obama’s speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy. It is not necessary to divine Obama’s intentions – he may be utterly sincere and I believe he is. It is his analysis and prescriptions that in most regards maintain flawed American policies intact….

… Nowhere were these blindspots more apparent than his statements about Palestine/Israel. He gave his audience a detailed lesson on the Holocaust and explicitly used it as a justification for the creation of Israel. “It is also undeniable,” the president said, “that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.”

Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?

“These images were taken as early as 1850”

If collecting photography is collecting the world, here are two worlds: sepia and digital color; late 19th and early 21st centuries; Damascus and Cairo in old and current photographs. Right now I’m delighting in MidEastImage.com.


ABOVE: The Treasury, Omayyad Mosque Damascus, undated (late 19th century?).


ABOVE: The Treasury on my first trip to Sham, April 2007. 


ABOVE: “Photograph by Tancred R. Dumas, Italian in origin, studio in Constantimople and later in Beirut, photographed late ninteenth century. The photo is of the northern gallery of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.”


ABOVE: Omayyad Mosque earlier this fall, looking toward the northern gallery. 


ABOVE: Souq al-Hamidiyeh, Damascus, early 20th century.


ABOVE: Souq al-Hamidiyeh today.

And because Cairo is always close…


ABOVE: Ibn Tulun Mosque, “by Bonfils, 1870s.”


ABOVE: Ibn Tulun in June 2007.

How I got home, 2006-2007

Classes are over and once again I’m standing in the street downtown near Tahrir, or Liberation, Square, trying to hail a cab. For a while none will stop. Those that do will refuse to go to Zamalek, just across the Qasr al Nil bridge, because it’s five or six and the traffic up the island is total gridlock. Eventually one stops, but the driver demurs when I insist on five pounds.

“No. Ten pounds.”

“By God, ten pounds?”

I’ve been trying, probably to the delicious amusement of Egyptians like this cab driver, to pick up the local tongue. Lots of exaggeration and gestured proclamations tinged with “by God”s and “God willing”s.

“Five pounds, my friend.”

He mutters another “khalas” – enough – and starts to pull away.

“Seven pounds?” I yell looking at the license plate of this old Fiat, which then stops.

“Tayeb. Yalla.” Okay. Let’s go.