The Literary Atlas of Cairo

Is it possible to draw a “map” of Cairo, the Middle East’s largest metropolis, one of the most congested cities in the world where growth is exponential, an ancient city where modernity and disorder grow day by day?

cent_1This question often challenges Cairo’s unaccustomed visitor whether he’s foreign or Egyptian. The visitor can solve the problem by using one of these regular maps bought on the street in the city centre. However, is such a “map” sufficient to account for the city’s everyday life? Would it allow to learn how the city developed and eveolved, not throughout history but through its modernity…and how the city of Cairo had only one centre that have multiplied…or how the city has expanded, amplified, dehumanised to become a symbol of clutter and disorder but also a place with a particular rhythm that each and everyone tries to seize.

This is what makes the university professor and critic, Samia Mehrez’s approach important in “The Literary Atlas of Cairo”, her most recent work where she tries to describe the city through literature. This approach is quite new in Arabic literature. In fact, the author tries to reconstruct the city that is currently fragmented with its many new and changing centres. Through a patient choice, a collection of representations of Cairo in the Arabic literature of the twentieth century, Mehrez presents a literary topography combining the social, cultural, political and urban history of Cairo. This is a compilation of texts written by a hundred Egyptian and Arab writers belonging to several generations of men and women, Muslim, Copt and Jewish dwellers of this global metropolis. They are all fans of Cairo and describe it in Arabic, English or French.

cent_2They are not travellers but writers and Cairenes. The reconstitution of its geography and the experiences they have lived in certain places brighten the city’s landscape and improve its readability. By giving it a place in literature, these writers draw a map of its political changes and urban fabric. Due to the predominance of the realism movement in Arabic literature, especially in Egyptian literature, it is not surprising that Cairo, the ancient city or the modern metropolis, was the “realistic” space that featured in a large number of the twentieth century literary works.

Samira Mehrez opens her Atlas with the literature of the early twentieth century to then continue presenting the most recent texts that deal with Cairo. This is how the reader experiences the expansion and the different changes that the city has been through. The first chapter entitled “Mapping Cairo” presents the stages of its exponential growth starting from Islamic history from the early 20th century to the end with the chaotic aspect that the city took at the end of the same century.

The second chapter entitled “Public Spaces”, focuses on the representation of certain monuments including the ancient pyramids, shops and modern shopping malls in literary works. These representations make urban space more readable and the monuments suddenly take various levels of historical, cultural and political significance.

cent_3Throughout the third chapter entitled “Private Spaces”, the reader penetrates the distinctive identity of Egyptian homes and the city’s private spaces where he gets an overview of domestic rituals, hierarchies and relationships. The juxtaposition of these private spaces offers a unique vision of the forms of conflicts and contrasts existing in the domestic life of Cairenes whether they live in aristocratic mansions or miserable rooms.

Chapter four, “On the Move in Cairo”, attempts to understand how the lives of Cairo’s dwellers, even if they strongly differ from one another, intersect in the city through private and public transport that link both private and public spaces, interior and exterior in a city where people must constantly invent new strategies to stay there.
Samia Mehrez borrows passages from novels she chooses, making the reader feel the city blossoming in his hands.

How does the author of a historical novel or the one of a contemporary novel perceive the old Cairo of Mamluksi? How does Cairo enter the modern era with a new centre that now belongs to the past? How has Cairo expanded to new areas that are not directly related to the modern centre – let alone the old centre – but to their own modernity? And how does this unique city interact with its latest innovations, bazaars and computer shops?

As Mehrez reveals in her introduction, “As such, “The Literary Atlas of Cairo” complements and dialogues with many other existing publications about the city of Cairo in both humanities and the social sciences, specifically in the fields of history, sociology, anthropology, architecture, urban planning, migration studies, cultural studies, gender studies and development studies, all of which have explored similar issues, problems, contradictions and challenges in Cairenes’ lives”.

cent_4As he travels along the chapters, the reader realises what an unprecedented literary book he holds in his hands. One after the other, the texts invite him to discover Cairo through different perspectives. Through the variety of narrators and eras, the city takes a specific form. Samia Mehrez writes her own Cairo, the one she has lived during her childhood, her life, her work, and her story walks through the city to make its voice heard.
In the preface, the author writes: “In collecting, editing, organising and translating at least one third of the material that constitutes this projects, I tried to let the city speak, to use Roland Barthes’s formulation: I tried to let the city emerge from the literary works, in “fragments”, in bits and pieces that, when juxtaposed against each other, would provide a map, would actually “speak to us”, as Barthes said. Even though the texts themselves are excerpts from authors’ novels, their juxtaposition and arrangement in the Atlas is my own.”

Mehrez acknowledges that despite its size and its extended chronology, the book is a unique piece of work that could be infinitely different depending on the city’s habitats. Thus, the author warns the reader before entering Cairo: “The map that is about to unfold before the readers is but one of many possible maps that would ultimately depend on the perspective of the ‘cartographer’ or the city dweller – myself – and how the city “spoke” to me.”

We are thus confronted with a piece of work to which the Arab reader is not accustomed. Page after page, he is driven, entering a capital city that means a lot to Egyptians but also to the Arab people in general who have long dreamed of Cairo as an avant-garde city that is also a reference to other Arab cities. This is also true for foreigners who come to try to discover and understand its mechanisms. “The Literary Atlas of Cairo” is therefore a new piece of work that instead of belonging to a specific literary genre, belongs to the unique city of Cairo.





Mohamed Farag
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech