Nezar AlSayyad


On his book Cairo: Histories of a City

Cover Interview of August 30, 2011

The wide angle

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, provides 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 to 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—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 known as 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.

But what can be said of Cairo and its history that has not already been told?  Perhaps little, or nothing at all!  For no city has been as studied as Cairo.  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.

There are many ways to tell the story of a city, and this book simply offers just one.

Of course, my approach has its limitations.  For example, some chapters deal with only two decades.  On the other hand, certain events and individuals are indeed more consequential to the development of a city than are others.

Similarly, 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.