Nezar AlSayyad


On his book Cairo: Histories of a City

Cover Interview of August 30, 2011


Cairo presents a progression of events, through which one can see a pattern.  With this historical pattern we can attempt to predict the progression of future events in Cairo.  Each event, each change, signals another, just as the events of the years leading up the Arab Spring signaled its arrival.  Cairo is a vibrant, alive, and constantly changing metropolis that shapes the lives and imaginations of millions of people.

Under the best possible conditions, the act of writing history consists of piecing together fragments.  The process unavoidably leads to resolving contradictions between bits of evidence to arrive at a reasonably substantial version of what has occurred.  We inevitably exercise judgment in qualifying which sources are more reliable than others.  All these problems are compounded when, as historians, we set out to construct a narrative whose strength lies in its ability to convey precise representations of urban form and space.

But in the final analysis, we must remember that the writing of history will always be, first and foremost, an art of interpretation, not a science of representation. The stories that we depict will change from time to time and from place to place to reflect the interpretations of those who tell them and the interests of the people for whom they are written.  The challenge in the telling of history today perhaps lies in reversing the equation and finding the proper balance between what I call the science of interpretation and the art of representation.

In this work, I have attempted to let the multiple histories of Cairo speak for themselves. I am, however, very conscious of how this exercise is enmeshed in a politics of representation in which I play a part.  Because I operate mainly in the space between the words and the images, I am perhaps another Baudelairean flâneur who wanders through the city’s history with his mind instead of seeing its actual streets with his eyes.

The great novelist Italo Calvino once wrote that cities are like dreams: their rules seem absurd, their perspectives are often deceitful, and everything in them conceals something else.  He tells us that we should take delight not in a city’s wonders, whether these number seven or seventy, but in the answers a city can give to questions we pose, or in the questions it asks us in return.  It is only in the context of this wisdom that I have attempted to write this history of Cairo.