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The City Victorious

August 5, 2011
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Cairo: The City Victorious

I’ve just finished reading Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious. It’s a very lively and engaging portrait of both the bricks and mortar city and Cairene society. A little overwritten on occasion (verging on flowery) but an otherwise excellent introduction to the history of umm al-dunya – “the mother of the world”, as Egyptians sometimes call Cairo.

By nature I am a lover of big cities, and on my first trip to Cairo a few years ago I was star struck by the vistas across the Nile and the down town aura of faded grandeur. I’m now enjoying a more extended stay here and I’m seeing the harder edges to life here; the tensions and frustrations deriving from the long years of political stagnation, the poverty, pollution and grinding commutes many Cairenes have to submit to. However I’m also here at an extraordinary moment of optimism in Egyptian history: the protests which overthrew Mubarak have changed the rules of the game, and where politics was largely kept for the few, the many are now flooding into the political arena and finding that they can make their voices heard.

Published in 1998, The City Victorious struggles to avoid a narrative of decline. Rodenbeck seems most enamoured with the colonial era, and has little time for the Nasser period (except for Umm Kulthoum) during which, he considers, “Egypt forgot itself”. Nasser’s authoritarianism comes in for heavy criticism while when he notes that the British kept education spending to 1% of the budget in 1920 (leaving three-quarters of Cairenes still illiterate in 1940), it feels like an afterthought to his lengthy romantic descriptions of the European quarter in the colonial era. However the book is rescued from this “decline and fall” narrative by his lively and affectionate descriptions of working class culture in contemporary Cairo.

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