The swirl of articles and books in graduate school, perused and ingested during a few years to shape and inform one’s courses and research, felt unending at times. On the other hand, there are some scholars whose books stop you cold as you realize they are just what you have been searching for, as they lead to many days of inspired reading and ideas which take decades to unfold. In my life, Janet Abu Lughod’s Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious was one of those few books. I could not imagine how one person had the skills, intellect, imagination, and dedication to construct such a volume, which traced the social, historical, demographic, institutional, and geographic character of Cairo over a millennium. Interpreting a wide range of historical sources, linking demographic census tracts with Cairo’s changing social geography, dissecting Cairo’s neighborhood patterns, Abu-Lughod’s masterful command of sources and deep empiricism exposed the diversity of Cairo as well as its historical roots in economic, political, religious, and juridical institutions and practices. She wrote in the preface:
“I have not been the first to be charmed into bondage by the city of Cairo; she has captivated many before, and to these earlier writers each new student of the city must defer, recognizing that his endeavor has been built by the foundation laid by others. If and to the extent that my effort improves upon theirs, it is only because I had had the advantage of standing on their shoulders.” (1971: vi)
Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious was a generous gift to my generation as we stand on Abu-Lughod’s shoulders, continuing to try to understand some of the urban challenges which Abu-Lughod addressed so eloquently. Rapid urbanization, the environmental challenges of water, drainage, and sanitation, the complexities of property relations rooted in waqf, elite monopolies, inheritance law, credit options, the weakness of municipal governance, the modern interest in planning new cities, the regulatory framework of residential life, were all analyzed as historically embedded issues. Her decade-long project, which resulted in this volume demonstrated an intellectual commitment to understanding complex phenomenon, from an interdisciplinary and historicized perspective, which is all too rare today.
This volume continues to offer insights into the challenges that Cairo faces in the twenty-first century. One can see traces of arguments that she developed in her later work critiquing the orientalist notion of an Islamic city, or the urban apartheid of Rabat, when she carefully explains the ways in which foreign elites separated government and social decision-making from the indigenous population for centuries. Cairo was left with very little political autonomy and municipal institutions, despite its size and centrality to the country. Ruling Cairo was a national security issue for a succession of military leaders, foreign and indigenous—and unfortunately, we continue to see this pattern of weak local government and representative collective life despite another revolution and waves of protest and resistance.
The rapid urbanization of Egypt which Abu-Lughod described so well and the critical demand to house its growing population led the nationalist government in the 1950s and 1960s to expand the boundaries of Cairo and Giza into agricultural land and the desert, as planners proposed building new cities and housing developments. She ends the book with a preface written close to publication, explaining how the 1967 war will curtail the government’s ambitious urban development plans, while adding new waves of refugees to Cairo from the Suez Canal cities. Within three years, President Anwar Sadat would come to power and take the nation in a different economic and political direction, expanding the high modernist plan to build new cities in the desert, supposedly providing both housing and jobs, through private sector (local and foreign) investment. While the planned cities were built in the next three decades and a few were successful, many more absorbed public resources (and private investment) while ignoring where most of the public still lived—in lower and middle class areas of the Greater Cairo region, as well as the new informal housing areas that ringed the city. Securing basic services in informal areas and providing public space and public services to them continues to strain government and private resources.
Although I am aware of Professor Abu-Lughod’s rich academic life and collaborative efforts, I did not know her personally. Yet, her book Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious always remained in a prominent place wherever I went, and more importantly, her scholarship and intellectual dynamism and courage, became part of my academic chemistry, motivating me and many others, to understand and learn from Cairo. The (somewhat) honorific term mu’allima refers to a female master craftsman, harafi, renowned trader or local businesswoman and prominent neighborhood ‘force,’ who successfully negotiates the social, political, and economic dimensions of their business or craft in their neighborhood. Perhaps it is inappropriate to use such as baladi term to describe Professor Abu-Lughod, but like the other mu’allim and mu’allima in Cairo, she mastered the city and shared her deep knowledge about it. Her reputation for academic excellence and generosity is obvious in the oeuvre that she has left behind. Cairo and all who love her have been enriched by Professor Abu-Lughod’s life and her life’s work.
[This article is part of a series commemorating Janet Abu Lughod. Click here to read the Introduction to the series and view a complete listing of articles included in the series].