Yasmine El Rashidi, a journalist and novelist, guides readers through Cairo, a city whose presence is so powerful it is “the subject, the object and the main character” of many of its writers.
Aug. 3, 2022, 9:23 a.m. ET
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The face of my city is changing fast. Highways are replacing centuries-old cemeteries with their mazes of alleys, old neighborhoods are being razed to make way for shiny new skyscrapers, and, on the banks of the Nile, concrete walkways and flashy cafes are uprooting the gardens and trees that have long framed the river.
As the Cairo in which I grew up is erased in the name of development, I seek out the parts and pockets that remain untouched all the more: the alleyways, the historic homes now turned into cultural centers, the traditional craftspeople — the carpenter, the weaver, the bookbinders — nestled in ancient courtyards and lanes, holding onto a way of life that is disappearing.
It was that Cairo, with its layers of history and character, that shaped the literature of Egypt, inspiring the likes of our Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. It was also what made me a writer. The city has always been an occupying force: You couldn’t escape it, even if you had physically left. It remained the subject, the object and the main character for many of us as we wrote.
Recently, the charming wooden houseboats that were a feature of Egyptian literature and classic films were towed away from their resting places on the western bank of the Nile in central Cairo. These houseboats, with their colorful decks, have been around for about 100 years, and were an essential part of the view I’ve always known from my home across the river.
Their removal, hasty and without warning, essentially displaced their owners, including the novelists Ahdaf Soueif and Omar Robert Hamilton and the nonfiction writer Yasmin El-Rifae. But their place in literature also means that, even though the houseboats are gone, like so many aspects of the old city and the ways of life it contained, the dream of a life spent in them on the Nile will continue to exist — at least on the page.
Now that the houseboats are no longer in place, what should I read to take me there?
To remember the houseboats and what they inspired, I would read Ahdaf Soueif. She paved the way for Egyptian authors writing in English, and she expected to complete her next book in her floating home — houseboat number 53. Her novels “In the Eye of the Sun” and “The Map of Love” are epic stories and great starting points to explore the complexities of the city’s long, layered and cosmopolitan past: its customs, charms and contradictions, which can make Cairo both a home and a place one seeks to escape.
What should I read before I pack my bags?
Mohamed Kheir’s recently translated novel “Slipping” is a good scene setter for the country. It is a partly real, partly fantastical depiction of post-revolutionary Cairo and Alexandria as seen through the stories of a struggling journalist, a former exile and a difficult love affair. Featuring giant flowers bigger than people and episodes of walking on water, the fantastical in this novel feels as true to the Cairo of today as the parts that are lifted from life.
I would also recommend Maria Golia’s “Cairo: City of Sand,” which captures with astonishing detail the sounds, smells, street dynamics and customs of the city. Although much of what she writes about has changed since the book was published in 2004 — including the country’s leader, since our longest-standing president, Hosni Mubarak, was ousted in 2011 during a popular uprising — her book offers an immersive experience that will prepare you for Cairo’s intensity and bustle.
In the same vein is Albert Cossery’s “The Colors of Infamy.” A very fast read, the book follows a well-mannered pickpocket and serves as a guide of sorts to the dynamics of the city’s ancient markets — the swindling, the bargaining, the haggling for a deal. Once you set foot in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar, or even onto the pyramids plateau in Giza, where you will be swarmed with offers for camel rides, horse rides and guides, you may appreciate having read this book.
What books or authors should I bring along with me?
Cairo is characterized in large part by its layers of architecture — Fatimid, Mamluk, Khedival. But it also has a rich history of modern architecture, from turn-of-the-century revivalism to concrete expressionism and modernist design. This includes the houses of iconic cultural figures. The house of the singer Oum Kulthoum has been demolished, but similar homes by the same architect, Ali Labib Gabr, still stand in the vicinity, including what was once my grandmother’s house, just a few blocks away. This is not a novel, but Mohamed Elshahed’s “Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide” offers a brilliant guide to this modern age and makes for a perfect walking-tour companion, speaking not only of the buildings and their historic significance but also of that era.
In fiction, Waguih Ghali’s “Beer in the Snooker Club” is a cult classic originally written in English that depicts post-colonial Cairo through the eyes of a nationalist, Anglophone aristocrat grappling with a regime change and new socialist policies under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although it was written in 1964, it also tells the story of Egypt now.
At the other end of the class and experiential spectrum during that same political regime is Sonallah Ibrahim’s experimental novel “That Smell.” Published in 1968, it tells the story of a recently released prisoner and his malaise as he struggles, and fails, to readjust to everyday life on the outside. There are many days in this fast-changing city that feel like this novel to me.
If I have no time for day trips, what books could take me farther afield instead?
André Aciman’s essay collection “False Papers,” for a journey to Alexandria. Born and raised there, Aciman returns decades after his family left for exile and tries to retrace the city as it existed in his memory. He finds little of it left, but his search captures in vivid detail the city as it is best remembered. His pensive book moves across time and geography, from Egypt to Europe, but, even there, it is still about Aciman’s Alexandria. To hold on to that sentiment — the looking and the loss — you should then read Constantine P. Cavafy’s “Collected Poems.” The two writers, both born in the ancient port city, form an unofficial Alexandrian compendium.
Yasmine El Rashidi’s Cairo Reading List
Novels by Naguib Mahfouz
“In the Eye of the Sun” and “The Map of Love,” Ahdaf Soueif
“Slipping,” Mohamed Kheir
“Cairo: City of Sand,” Maria Golia
“The Colors of Infamy,” Albert Cossery
“Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide,” Mohamed Elshahed
“Beer in the Snooker Club,” Waguih Ghali
“That Smell,” Sonallah Ibrahim
“False Papers,” André Aciman
“Collected Poems,” Constantine P. Cavafy