Cairo: The City Victorious

But sometimes – in April especially – the wind changes ominously. Brewing up from east or west, it sweeps the desert blustering into the city. Stifling hot and teased with whirlwinds, the sandstorms counterpoint the river, serving to remind Cairo that even as the water of life flowers through its centre, death lurks at the edges of the valley. Cairenes need reminding. The city’s ceaseless urban racket casts an amnesiac spell. It is easy to forget how close the utter empty silence of the desert lies.

Eager to learn more about Cairo’s history and to keep my Mamlouks straight from my Fatimids, I’ve been reading Max Rodenbeck’s Cairo: The City Victorious, which was published by the American University in Cairo Press back in 1998.

It’s an interesting book, and I’m glad I picked it up, although I found it a bit dense and couldn’t read much more than 10-20 pages at a time. There’s a lot of stories and information here, with some chapters following a more thematic approach, and others running through the chronology of Cairo, from its origins in the pre-historic city of Om (today located in the upscale suburb of Heliopolis) to the metropolis of 20+ million people it has now become. Rodenbeck is also lyrical at times, crafting the right phrase or finding the right metaphor to capture a smell, a sound, or a sight.

While I learned a lot reading Cairo: The City Victorious—it’s obvious that Rodenbeck adores the city and knows it very well—I think the book suffered a bit from a problem of personality. At times it read like a straight up “biography” of Cairo, encompassing large swathes of Egyptian history condensed into a few pages, while at others Rodenbeck couldn’t help but describe a few of his personal experiences in the city: meeting a workshop owner from a baladi neighbourhood, having dinner with a gossipy gin-sucking upper-class lady, encountering a Sufi mystic in a tent during a night festival. Yet Rodenbeck deals with scenes like these ones hastily. He offers the minimum of context before zooming back out into a broader social history of the city.

Max Rodenbeck is a correspondent for The Economist, and perhaps that’s why he appears to be so uncomfortable in the first-person mode. Yet the parts of the book where Rodenbeck swoops in on tangible moments gave me the strongest impressions. I would’ve loved for the author to make this book more personal, to offer more details about his own life and experiences in Cairo, while offering some of the historical material as background. Instead he seemed too intent on erasing himself from the story, unless when absolutely necessary.

This book was a bit of a missed opportunity for me, but it was still a very interesting read. And, yes, I can now tell apart the Fatimids apart from the Mamlouks.

Le Tarbouche

“We were not expelled. We did not force ourselves out. The truth is somewhere in between. We have always been in between: between two languages, between two cultures, between two Churches, between two chairs. Papa used to say, ‘It’s not very comfortable, but that’s how are buttocks are made.’”

I just finished reading a wonderful novel called Le Tarbouche, by the French writer Robert Solé.

Le Tarbouche is a sprawling family saga set in Egypt, from the end of the 19th to the mid 20th centuries. It follows the Batrakani family, from their humble origins as Christian Syrian immigrants arriving in Alexandria, until their departure from Egypt after the revolution in the 1950s. It reveals a lot about the large ethnic communities that once existed in Egypt—Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Armenians. They owned businesses, started newspapers, built entire neighbourhoods in Cairo at a time when Egypt was turned towards Europe (largely because of their colonial occupants…).

The members of Batrakani family are all Francophiles. Even as the British take control in Egypt, they go to a French Jesuit school and keep up-to-date on the latest fashions in Paris. Some of them even struggle to communicate in Arabic with their maids. And that, of course, is their downfall. Unable or unwilling to become fully Egyptian, despite having invested so much in the country and having earned some healthy returns from these investments, the Batrakanis eventually have to flee when a wave of nationalism seizes the country in the 1950s. The British are kicked out, and with them go everything that represents the “old” order.

One of the things I enjoyed about this novel is that it’s not told in a strict chronological way. Rather, it’s built up in short chapters that form recollections, digressions, anecdotes—so many snapshots for a family album. It’s like meeting an interesting person at a café, and having them tell you family stories. In fact, this book reminded me of a shop-owner we met here in Cairo—someone I’ll try to write about in more detail in the future—who grew up speaking French, English, and Arabic and who still feels more culturally aligned with France.

The book’s title, of course, refers to the tarboosh, that traditional, tasselled red hat, also known as a fez, which became unpopular when Egypt took control of its own destiny in the 1950s. In the novel, one of the family’s businesses is a tarboosh factory, and the “flowerpot” hat becomes a potent metaphor for changing fortunes in changing times.

As far as I can tell, Le Tarbouche has never been translated into English, which is a real shame. You can find some of Solé’s other books, such as The Alexandria Semaphore, in English, and they might provide an interesting introduction to his universe.