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Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature

[Cover of Arab Studies Journal Vol. XX No. 1 (Spring 2012)] [Cover of Arab Studies Journal Vol. XX No. 1 (Spring 2012)]

Mara Naaman, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature: Portraits of Cairo. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

[This review was originally published in the most recent issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

In January and February of 2011, Egyptians descended upon public squares throughout the country to bring an end to the thirty-year regime of Husni Mubarak. For those eighteen days—and on many other occasions throughout the following year—the people of Egypt wrested control of public space from the physical and discursive grip of Mubarak’s police state and reconfigured the material and symbolic spaces of their cities to express a revolutionary vision of subjectivity, community, and citizenship. Cairo’s Tahrir square—and its downtown environs—was of course the most visible and most symbolically charged center of these insurgent acts of occupation and celebration, and the whole world watched in wonder and trepidation as Egyptians struggled to forge a new and radical language of being-in-the-world.

Mara Naaman’s timely book, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature: Portraits of Cairo, was published during that heady year (and includes a brief postscript referring to the events of the revolution). The book addresses the production of urban space in the modern Egyptian literary imagination and offers the reader an erudite and engaging analysis of four acclaimed novels that all take Cairo’s downtown as their main setting. Naaman’s exploration of the sometimes utopian, sometimes brutal and bloody history of dreams, desires, and struggles that have shaped this seminal space in modern fiction and architectural practice subtly and persistently evokes the ghost of a future become the present. The book is thus important reading for anyone seeking to understand the affective power of “Liberation Square” within the context of modern Egyptian history and cultural production.

The book includes a preface, introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The preface, introduction, and chapter one set out the main conceptual and historical framework within which Naaman situates her literary readings. Chapters two through five each deal with a contemporary novel by a leading Egyptian author—Radwa ‘Ashur’s A Piece of Europe (2003), Khayri Shalabi’s Salih Hisa (2000), Idris ‘Ali’s Poor (2005), and Alaa al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building (2002)—while the conclusion, “Wust al-Balad as Neo-Bohemia: Writing in Defense of a Vanishing Public Sphere,” raises some very interesting questions about location and the relevance of national narratives to the contemporary political imagination.

In the preface, Naaman takes note of the political impetus underlying modern Arab fiction as a whole, tying this impetus to the framing and contestation of real and imagined spaces: “Contemporary Arab authors,” she writes, “have used fiction as a way of responding to crucial, and often traumatic, historical moments…where questions of political authority and power are largely enacted through struggles over public space” (xx). She then sets out the framework for her reading of her chosen novels against the background of a broad range of disciplinary and theoretical interests and concerns—urban and postcolonial studies, architecture and art history, and globalization theory:

I hope to show the way in which the notion of the modern Egyptian subject has evolved in direct relationship to the changes manifest in the space of the downtown….Ultimately I hope to show how the contested nature of the downtown—as a spectacular imitation of European modernity, as Egyptian public sphere, as a site for staging revolution, and as a modernist ruin—was and continues to be central to the notion of what it means to be Egyptian. (xxi)

Naaman goes on to reflect on Cairo as an “oscillating landscape” whose neighborhoods are situated as “allegorical spaces through which we can read the history of the nation” (xxv). Through the accumulated passage of time and the imprints of generations, streets and neighborhoods take on the phantom nature of the palimpsest; “home” is constantly rewritten as part of an uncertain yet imperative project of liberation. The downtown, she writes in a poignant assessment, “remains a contingent space, marked by traces of the past and spaces of familiarity, but never offering a sense of a secure present” (xxv).

Naaman uses the Arabic term “Wust al-Balad” (center city; downtown) throughout the book rather than an English translation to signal the iconic status of this particular space in modern fiction as well as national history. She weaves a careful account of the area’s dramatic architectural and political history into her literary analysis of the way in which the four novels inscribe questions of agency, identity, language, critique, and nostalgia in spatial terms. The famous history of Khedive Isma‘il’s new city, Isma‘iliyya, or “Paris on the Nile,” and the great Cairo Fire of 1952 (during which furious crowds burnt a large chunk of this new city to the ground) are thus both major leitmotifs that recur at key points in the book. Naaman’s description of the process by which the novels’ characters engage in revisionist “mappings” of these histories in space is thus also an apt description of her own critical method (7). The bulk of this critical method is presented in the book’s introduction, “The Urban as Critical Frame,” and covers a broad cross-section of works and authors: the Cairo School of Urban Studies; Gwendolyn Wright’s work on French colonial design; Chicano border studies; and the work of Timothy Mitchell, Arjun Appadurai, and Sabry Hafez on (respectively) colonial modernity, global flows, and the “new novel” in Egypt.

At times, Naaman’s theoretical framing sits uneasily with her evocative and subtle readings of the novels themselves. Naaman closely follows a certain strand of postcolonial studies that proposes a spectacular, Western-authored (colonial) modernity as the presumed antithesis of a kind of authentic or antediluvian local identity and where points of contact or relationship are somehow inevitably defined by suspicion, corruption, or violation. Isma‘il’s new city is offered as “a spectacular imitation of European modernity,” a place that has “internalize[ed] the gaze of the West” (xxi, 1). In such a place, the circulation of capital takes the primary form of staged spectacles of consumption and public entertainment (the lavish department stores, clubs, and cafés of Cairo’s rich). Modernity then becomes an ontology: a fixed and external object (of desire or refusal) rather than a social habitus shot through with contradiction and struggle. The notion that “Egyptians [were] mere spectators in the staging of their own modernity” leads Naaman at times to problematic culturalist readings of political events (Timothy Mitchell quoted in Naaman, 12). For example, the Cairo Fire of 1952 becomes “a debate over what it meant to be modern” rather than a violent rejection of the political and economic structures of a collapsing colonial regime (16). She further argues that “the ‘Urabi rebellion of 1881-2, the revolution of 1919, the workers’ protest in 1946, and the fires and subsequent revolution in July 1952” were all a result of “the Khedive’s complete indifference to the older districts of Cairo (in terms of their architectural and infrastructural neglect)”—or more simply put, to “colonial modernity” (23, 32).

Naaman’s capable and sensitive close readings, however, point to the limits—if not the inadequacy—of this theoretical staging to describe and elicit the rich and complex texture of the novels themselves in their reflections on agency, identity, and loss in the modern Egyptian context. In chapters one and two (“Specter of Paris: The Staging of Cairo’s Modern City Center” and “Reconstructing a National Past: Radwa ‘Ashur’s Revisionist History of Downtown”), Naaman beautifully captures the way in which both the urban-architectural and the textual function as narrative acts that produce legibility and meaning for subjects and readers alike. She further builds on this insight in the next chapter, “The Indigenous Modernism of Khayri Shalabi: Popular Intellectuals and the Neighborhood Ghurza,” by elaborating on Michel de Certeau’s poetics of walking as a form of pedestrian enunciation and Jonathon Shannon’s exploration of modernity and musical improvisation in Syria. In her reading, the palimpsest of the city—the downtown and its “shadow thoroughfare[s]” (77)—is metaphorically composed by the active handling or use of its material structures (‘Ashur’s narrator, The Gazer, “re-members” the downtown by walking its streets and visually summoning its ghostly monuments) or by the continual crossing and re-crossing of porous, shadow borders inscribed into the urban landscape (Salih Hisa’s celebration of multiple social identities and languages; The Yacoubian Building’s crumbling vertical hierarchies). Ultimately, the book’s greatest strength lies here: in its compelling, engaged, and almost tender attention to the materiality of urban space as a lens that brings a whole history of collective desire, aspiration, and struggle into focus through the medium of fiction.

Toward the end of the book’s final chapter, “The Nation Recast through a National Bestseller: Alaa al-Aswany’s Ode to Downtown Cairo,” Naaman tentatively suggests the possibility of claiming this history-in-fiction as a living portrait of the imagined nation—“a master-narrative” as she puts it, “for the Egyptian experience” (167). Meanwhile, the resurgent “neo-bohemian” public sphere of the downtown that she describes in the book’s conclusion has once again metamorphosed into a fully insurgent space of struggle and contestation (169). In this moment of exhilarating and dizzyingly unreadable futures, Urban Space in Contemporary Egyptian Literature does an admirable job of underlining the ways in which “a reworking of the past vis-à-vis our cities is an important part of the process in determining who we are (and want to be) in the present” (176).

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