Nezar AlSayyad


On his book Cairo: Histories of a City

Cover Interview of August 31, 2011

A close-up

The last chapter of Cairo, the grand finale, if you will, speaks to the necessity of knowing the history of the city in order to understand the present.

In a globalizing era, when cities no longer belong exclusively to their people, the image of the thing will come to replace the thing itself. Without knowing the history of Cairo, one would not be able to see that it is now transforming itself into its imagined historical aesthetic, a sort of Disney-like theme park, where restorations of historical sites will be modeled after their modern-day replicas, rather than the other way around.

That is one possible avenue of change.  Another is that Cairo will continue to be an innovative city, one that its citizens will continue to shape through their actions and inactions. Recent events in Cairo suggest the second path.

Not only has this book required me to delve into many histories and different historical methods—it has also forced me to adjust my role as a historian.  The choices I have made, in terms of which historical periods to cover (although I try to cover most of the significant ones), which historical characters to single out (again, I try to include all of the noteworthy figures, at least as far as the development of the city is concerned), and in which places to anchor my stories (and here I have had to leave out many), are all part of a broader historical method, rather than just a style of writing.

Writing this book has convinced me that there is no history without historians—with all the biases, frailties, and limitations of their methods.  The book also reminds me of an old conviction: history is always written from the present moment, and possibly in the service of it.  No history 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; 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.

An underlying assumption behind this work is a fundamental belief that the institutional structure of a society, based on who governs it and how, is often reflected in the places this society produces. Again, this assumption affords methodological limits, because urban form is very complex and cannot be looked upon simply as a language that can just be read.  Such reading would be meaningless without the qualifications of social and economic history.  At best, the shape of a city becomes a road map for deciphering its history.