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New Texts Out Now: Nezar AlSayyad, Cairo: Histories of a City

[Cover of Nezar AlSayyad, [Cover of Nezar AlSayyad, "Cairo: Histories of a City"]

Nezar AlSayyad, Cairo: Histories of a City. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Jadaliyya (J): Why did you write this book?

Nezar AlSayyad (NA): Cairo has fascinated me since I was first exposed to the city’s Islamic heritage in 1973, and it has continued to keep me under its spell. This love affair began to wane by the early 1990s, however, when my appreciation for the city began to be tempered by the realities of its problems.

By the time I was asked to write this book, in 2006, I had published two other books on various aspects of Cairo and had spent many years devoted to Cairo-related research. But I had been reluctant to write a book on the history of the entire city. The task, I thought, was dangerous and impossible, and I had simply assumed that to do it justice would consume my life. It did not, and this book is the outcome of this engagement.

The novels of Egypt’s most distinguished writer, Naguib Mafouz, provide a dense commentary on Cairo as it navigated the twentieth century, presented through the life and times of three generations of the Abdel-Jawad family. Through them, Mahfouz accurately documents Egypt’s coming of age by tracing the changing social relations in this extended Cairene family. In these three books, he moves us very carefully between the tensions of the emptiness of inherited traditions to the challenges facing a new generation in revolt.

Although Mahfouz wrote his trilogy in the middle of the twentieth century, the dynamics that he describes have existed throughout the history of Cairo. The first volume, Bayn al-Qasrayn (translated into English as Palace Walk), was written in the first years following the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, Mahfouz having titled it after the famous space in the medieval core of Cairo. But Bayn al-Qasrayn was also witness to the evolution of Cairo for over a thousand years, from its origins as a royal settlement to its development into a dense cosmopolitan city.

There is, however, a lot more to Cairo than Bayn al-Qasrayn, which I had written about as an urban history—more than the medieval Fatimid city, or the few cities built nearby that preceded it. Indeed, the first settlement in the metropolitan area we now call Cairo was actually Memphis, built more than four millennia ago, near the great pyramids of Giza. A serious history of Cairo should indeed start with Memphis, a city that had survived for twice as long as the Cairo of the Arabs. My book was meant as a history that starts from the current city and goes backward.

J: How is the book structured?

NA: The book is composed of twelve vignettes, arranged by place rather than time. Each vignette carries stories told through the place’s built environment. Each edifice has been dictated by the environment (for example, the changing course of the Nile), the needs of the people (an increase in population has created a need for a new marketplace), and the grandiosity of the ruler sponsoring the edifice. Each addition or adaptation to the built environment tells a story of the people who lived in that time, and the ones before it. Many of Cairo’s architectural features have been witness to a thousand years of changes.

J: What is the main focus of the book?

NA: The premise of the book is that the history of a city is mainly that of specific individuals, places, and events. I begin each chapter at a specific place that best represents a period in Cairo’s history, and then proceed to describe that time period and the lives of specific individuals, narrating important events and citing the reports of specific travelers and local residents, all the while attempting to evoke a sense of the evolving spatial order of the city.

An underlying assumption behind this work is a fundamental belief that the institutional structure of a society, based on who governs it and how, is often reflected in the places this society produces. Again, this assumption affords methodological limits, because urban form is very complex and cannot be looked upon simply as a language that can just be read. Such reading would be meaningless without the qualifications of social and economic history. At best, the shape of a city becomes a road map for deciphering its history.

J: What was your method in writing such a comprehensive history of the city?

NA: I started by asking: What can be said of Cairo and its history that has not already been told? For no city has been as well studied as Cairo. There are many ways to tell the story of a city, and my book simply offers one. Travelers to Egypt, even before the time of Christ, had inscribed their impressions of the area on the pyramids of Saqqara and Giza. Throughout medieval times, travelers who visited the Fatimid city wrote extensive accounts of their journeys. Many residents and administrators of Cairo also produced extensive histories and documentations of the city, all the way into the modern era. And in the twentieth century, many scholars have written detailed histories of the city’s development, while numerous novelists have used it as a backdrop for their plots. My method required me to use of all these sources.

I proceed from the premise that all historical periods are usually uncovered and articulated as clearly bracketed eras, not at the time in which they transpire, but after many decades or centuries have passed. For this reason, I often narrate the history of a period by relating it in terms of the time of its discovery. I do not, however, let my method dominate my narrative; when the method cannot accommodate historical evidence, I leave it behind.

J: What is the general philosophy of history that you have advanced in writing this book?

NA: This book has required me to delve into many histories and different historical methods, but it has also forced me to refine my approach as an urban historian. The choices I have made, in terms of which historical periods to cover (although I try to cover most of the significant ones), which historical characters to single out (again, I try to include all of the noteworthy figures, at least as far as the development of the city is concerned), and in which places to anchor my stories (and here I have had to leave out many), are all part of a broader historical method, rather than just a style of writing.

Writing this book has convinced me that there is no history without historians—with all the biases, frailties, and limitations of their methods. The book also reminds me of an old conviction: history is always written from the present moment, and possibly in the service of it. No history is innocent of contemporary demands. From this perspective, history is neither simply the knowledge of things that have occurred in the past nor the memory of these past events; rather, it is the convergence of these events with certain individuals and in specific places, as discussed and interpreted by others removed from the time and place in which the events occurred.

Under the best possible conditions, the act of writing history consists of piecing together fragments. The process unavoidably leads to resolving contradictions between bits of evidence to arrive at a reasonably substantial version of what has occurred. We inevitably exercise judgment in qualifying which sources are more reliable than others. All these problems are compounded when, as historians, we set out to construct a narrative whose strength lies in its ability to convey precise representations of urban form and space.

J: What do you think is the book’s most significant contribution? 

NA: Cairo: Histories of a City presents a progression of events, through which one can see a pattern. With this historical pattern we can attempt to predict the progression of future events in Cairo. Each event, each change, signals another, just as the events of the years leading up to the Arab Spring signaled its arrival. Cairo is a vibrant, alive, and constantly changing metropolis that shapes the lives and imaginations of millions of people.

Excerpts from Cairo: Histories of a City

On Writing Urban History

Under the best possible conditions, the act of writing history consists of piecing together fragments. The process unavoidably leads to resolving contradictions between bits of evidence to arrive at a reasonably substantial version of what has occurred. We inevitably exercise judgment in qualifying which sources are more reliable than others. All these problems are compounded when, as historians, we set out to construct a narrative whose strength lies in its ability to convey precise representations of urban form and space. But in the final analysis, we must remember that the writing of history will always be, first and foremost, an art of interpretation, not a science of representation. The stories that we depict will change from time to time and from place to place to reflect the interpretations of those who tell them and the interests of the people for whom they are written. The challenge in the telling of history today perhaps lies in reversing the equation and finding the proper balance between what I call the science of interpretation and the art of representation.

In this work, I have attempted to let the multiple histories of Cairo speak for themselves. I am, however, very conscious of how this exercise is enmeshed in a politics of representation in which I play a part. Because I operate mainly in the space between the words and the images, I am perhaps another Baudelairean flâneur who wanders through the city’s history with his mind instead of seeing its actual streets with his eyes. The great novelist Italo Calvino once wrote that cities are like dreams: their rules seem absurd, their perspectives are often deceitful, and everything in them conceals something else. He tells us that we should take delight not in a city’s wonders, whether these number seven or seventy, but in the answers a city can give to questions we pose, or in the questions it asks us in return. It is only in the context of this wisdom that I have attempted to write this history of Cairo.

On Cairo Today

But something else was happening in Cairo in the late twentieth century that has firmly reshaped it into the city we know today. The nineteenth-century project of medievalizing the old quarter—the invention of a sanitized historic urban environment that had never existed—has now taken hold as an official preservation strategy. Preserving Cairo for tourists, and possibly for future generations of Egyptians, now gives the government free license to restore old structures, and in the process to outfit them with an invented aesthetic that requires the abandonment of the structures’ traditional func­tions. The old core is now being cleared of many of its craftworkers and small shops, replaced by cafés and tourist rest houses. What is left today are only the hollow names of the vibrant quarters—the spice and coppersmith bazaars—once dedicated to communities of craftsmen and traders.

The old quarter is quickly becoming a museum, and with this museu­mification has come a loss in trades, changes in people’s lifestyles, and the fundamental transformation of the city into a Disney-like theme park. Indeed, Cairo is now starting to resemble its fictional image. Ironi­cally, however, it also seems to be gaining sustenance from it. In the late nineteenth century, the architect Max Hertz was commissioned to design a replica of a Cairo street for the Chicago Columbian Exposition. To ensure the authenticity of one of its structures, a replica of a sabil-kuttab, Hertz went about removing the windows and tile work from the original sabil-kuttab of ‘Abd al-Rahman Katkhuda without any qualms. He then had them shipped to America and installed them on the replica in uniform fashion. But the replica did not resemble the original. In a twist of fate, when the real sabil-kuttab back in Egypt underwent resto­ration in the early twentieth century and then later again that century, the restorers had little to rely on other than the images of the replica at the Columbian Exposition and the drawing produced to build it. Cairo now began to resemble its imagined self, and had come to derive its new authenticity from its copy

It is not a wholly new phenomenon that Cairo is beginning to mirror its copy, as this is likely to have happened several times before in the city’s long history. But arguably what is now new is how these copies are influencing the perception and appreciation of the real city. A decade ago I organized a large conference in Cairo that dealt with the “consump­tion of tradition,” a theme on which I have written extensively elsewhere. Many of the conference participants were foreigners from the United States and Europe, so the conference included the standard tourist trips to famous Cairo sites, including the Giza Pyramids. Stand­ing close to American conference participants who were gazing down at the pit where the Sphinx lay, I overheard one say in a tone of disappoint­ment, “Oh, it is small. Really small.” His comments puzzled me for a while. Why was the Sphinx small? And compared to what? When I checked the participant’s nametag and asked why he had made this comment, the story became much clearer. It turned out that he was a resident of Las Vegas, Nevada, the biggest casino-turned-city on earth, and that he often lectured in one of its colleges. He regularly parked his car in a lot in front of the Luxor Hotel and Casino, built in the form of a pyramid, and whose entrance lobby and car drop-off areas form the replica of the Giza Sphinx. To accommodate the multi-lane entrance road underneath, however, that Sphinx had to be much bigger than the original from which it was copied. When our participant looked at the real Sphinx in Giza, he indeed had to be disappointed when its reality did not match his mental image of it. He was already acculturated to the size and the proportions of the Vegas Sphinx, and for him the original ceased to be relevant, as the image—the modern-day replica—was now his main frame of reference.

In a globalizing era when cities no longer belong exclusively to their people, the image of the thing may come to replace the thing itself. Will that happen to Cairo? Will it transform itself using its invented tradition, employing its imagined historical aesthetic—mainly attempting to appeal to those who come to visit? Or will it continue to be the messy and diffi­cult but often vibrant and innovative city that its citizens will continue to shape though their actions and inactions? Only time will tell.

[Excerpted from Nezar AlSayyad, Cairo: Histories of a City. Copyright © 2011 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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