Nezar AlSayyad. Cairo: Histories of a City. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.
David Sims. Understanding Cairo: the Logic of a City out of Control. Cairo; New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2010.
Nezar AlSayyad’s Cairo: Histories of a City and David Sims’ Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City out of Control are the latest additions to a vast body of literature on Cairo’s urban development. In these early days following the 25 January revolution, Cairo has become a focal point for urban planners and architects who see recent events as an opportunity to position the city at the center of public discourse. Since January there have been numerous events, talks, and roundtable discussions about the city’s future. Some events centered on creating a monument marking the revolution in Tahrir Square. Proposals regarding a monument lack critical evaluation of the meanings and histories of the erection of such monuments in the past or in other locales. The latest such proposal submitted to the Prime Minister’s office is by architect Hesham Ali Greesha, of Misr University for Science and Technology, who imagines a grid of plexi glass columns each itched with the name of a martyr. Other events centered more generally on the future of Cairo. One such event was held at the Goethe Institute where German architect Albert Speer Jr casually presented some ambiguous ideas about the necessity for Cairo’s urban future to be sustainable.
Missing from these discussions is a comprehensive approach to the city as it exists today and how it manages to function. Also missing is a historical understanding of how Cairo of 2011 has become what it is. The current political situation is inspiring many to imagine the future of Cairo. Yet ironically, there has been little attention to how presidents and politicians manipulated previous political events to create self-congratulating monuments (e.g., the 6th of October Panorama under Mubarak) or expanded the city in the name of revolution (e.g., Nasr City under Nasser). Coincidently AlSayyad’s and Sims’ books, published in early 2011 and late 2010 respectively, are useful guides for architects, planners, Cairo visitors and residents to understanding Cairo’s past and present before they contemplate her future.
The two books approach Cairo from different perspectives with different sets of questions. While AlSayyad covers a time span of over three thousand years, Sims’ book is focused on the last sixty years. And while Sims analyzes the ways in which the city functions on the ground, AlSayyad zooms out and paints a panoramic picture of the various eras this city witnessed.
AlSayyad builds on the rich literature on Cairo and relies on three classics: Marcel Clerget’s Le Caire (1934), Janet Abu-Lughod’s Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious (1971), and Andre Raymond’s Cairo (2000). AlSayyad compliments reading these classics by referencing more recent biographies of the city as well as Arabic literary works. The total sum is an account of Cairo’s multiple histories, as the title suggests, that brings together the vast literature on the city and presents it in succinct chapters that are easy to read and richly illustrated.
AlSayyed presents twelve ambitious chapters, some of which span hundreds of years in the course of twenty pages including illustrations. This format will probably attract newcomers to Cairo, tourists and undergraduate students alike. The chapters are organized around historical eras such as “From Ancient Egypt to the Coptic Enclave.” The chapter organization for the most part traces the impact of powerful pharaohs, sultans, khedives, kings and presidents but also colonialists, explorers and Orientalists. However, there is a shift in approach in the last three chapters, which are discussed thematically organized around modernization, nationalism and neoliberalism. This is mostly a history of Cairo as the work of powerful men with different and conflicting political and artistic interests.
Forwarded by Janet Abu-Lughod, David Sims’ ten chapters trace major changes that have happened in recent decades with themes such as governance, mobility, housing speculation, and informality. The chapter “A History of Modern Cairo: Three Cities in One” reads like the missing final chapter to Abu-Lughod’s 1971 classic and brings it up-to-date. In this chapter Sims argues that socio-economic and political shifts in the city’s history over the past five decades are manifest in three zones that sometimes overlap; these are “the (decaying) formal city,” “the (expanding) informal city,” and “the (neoliberal) desert city.” Within each of these categories there is great variety; however establishing these typologies aids in breaking up the massive urban conglomeration of Cairo into manageable units of analysis.
History is always written from the present moment, and possibly in the service of it. As such, there is no history that 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, but 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.
The weakest parts of AlSayyad’s work are the final three chapters, which cover the period shaping Cairo’s present condition. In three short chapters the author tell us about the building of so-called modern Cairo in the nineteenth century, then Nasser’s 1950s nationalist city-building, before abruptly ending the book with some personal reflections on the present. The explosive growth the city has witnessed over the last century, particularly since the 1950s is not sufficiently covered in so few pages, leaving the reader wanting more.
David Sims’ Understanding Cairo begins with the present by posing a basic question: “Is modern Cairo out of control?” He then proceeds to prove that it is not “out of control” with the assistance of satellite images, census information, statistics, economic studies and a wide array of other sources. The author crosses disciplinary lines in his search for a new map of Cairo today and over the last fifty years. He utilizes primary materials rather than relying on secondary literature. For Sims much of the secondary literature does not help readers understand what has happened to Cairo since the 1950s when things get rather messy. Contemporary Cairo begins precisely at that moment when the literature becomes increasingly superficial and less substantive.
The illustrations in Sims’ book will radically change how scholars and students investigate this great city. The text is beautifully coupled with Google satellite images (sometimes side-by-side to show change over time), poignant photographs that focus on housing typologies, floor plans and some of the most helpful maps of the city printed in recent memory. For the first time we are presented with a floor plans of apartment units in informal areas. There is not a single image of a great monument, palace or mosque; instead there are many images of the everyday, housing typologies and typical streets.
One of Sims’ many contributions is his discussion of informal areas, where over sixty percent of the city’s population lives. Sims highlights the gulf between popular and journalistic images of `ashwa`iyya, informalities, and the reality on the ground. This gap is best illustrated in city maps that simply mark informal areas as a large undifferentiated mass with scattered names that are unhelpful in identifying where one area begins and the other ends. After confronting stereotypical views of informal areas, Sims goes into a great deal of new information regarding this hitherto mischaracterized majority of the city. New information includes highlighting the diversity in typologies within informal areas, scanning those areas from above while showing street views, along with statistics and case studies. In addition to shedding light on the realities of informal areas and their historical development across more than half a century, Sims also offers equally important insights on the evolution of the government’s (mediated) response to this phenomenon.
Regarding illustrations, AlSayyad offers beautifully printed color photographs accompanying his text, however there are some technical mistakes that should be noted. For instance the image of Cairo Railway Station on page 204 depicts the building which was erected in 1891 and which was radically modified in the 1950s and is currently undergoing the finishing touches of Mubarak-era architectural vandalism. The text relating to the station only mentions the original, more modest station, which was built in 1854. Another example is on pages 224 and 225 where the captions have been switched around. The image on 224 is of the Palace of Baron Empain and the image opposite is of al-Korba in Heliopolis. For a work that can potentially be used as a textbook to students of Cairo, such mistakes should be corrected for subsequent editions. Regarding maps, the chosen map style is cartoonish and on multiple occasions inaccurate. Take for example the map that includes the now famous Tahrir Square on page 240 where the square is represented simply as an out-of-scale white circle and the surrounding street patterns are significantly misrepresented. Tahrir Street, which links Abdeen Palace to Tahrir Square, has been cut short and Bab el-Louq Square seizes to exist.
Nezar AlSayyad’s Cairo: Histories of a City and David Sims’ Understanding Cairo are two excellent and timely additions to the ever-growing literature on one the world’s most exciting cities. The two books compliment each other well: AlSayyad moves across time in search of the city’s exceptional architecture and Sims moves across the map at the contemporary moment focusing on everyday spaces. Cairo: Histories of a City will give students and first-time Cairo readers a comprehensive tour de force of the city’s long history. On the other hand Sims’s Understanding Cairo offers less general history and more in-depth analysis of how the contemporary city works. This book is highly recommended to students and scholars looking to further explore issues relating to contemporary Cairo. It is also useful to tourists as an alternative to the clutter of superficial narratives and portraits of the city.