Review: Rodenbeck’s Cairo A City Victorious

One of many reviews I wrote for an old livejournal account. Now archives here. 

Cairo: The City Victorious
Max Rodenbeck

It is close by at first, starting with the intimate pock of the microphone and discreet , would not need to be all hearing to hear it. An electric cloud of sound accumulates and holds, suspended over the city for a full minute by the loudspeakers of some 15,000 mosques, before dissolving piecemeal into the twitter of the waking birds.

Cairo A City Victorious is a great book. In 267 pages it takes the reader from Egypt in the time of the Pharaohs up to the age of Mubarak. Its honest in its telling, reminding the reader that this is Cairo as seen by a westerner who speaks Arabic, and though the author has lived here for twenty something years, there are parts of the city he is unable to explain or even see. When I lived in Cairo I saw the things he talks about everywhere – the insane traffic, the mosques lit in green at night, the pyramids peaking out from behind the city high rises.

This was the first book I read about Cairo (actually on the plan on my way there) but it was a really great place to start to get an orientation on this city.

Ben Ezra, Old Cairo, Geniza Documents

So I am done with work here in Cairo, and just hanging out for the week until my flight for London on Saturday. Originally, I was planning on going to Dahab (a beach resort spot) for a couple of days this week. But really, going to a beach resort spot by yourself can be kind of depressing. So, I am just staying in Cairo, and will check out the few remaining sites I haven’t seen.

On Friday I went back to Coptic Cairo (the oldest part of the city) for a return visit. I wanted to see the Ben Ezra synagogue. Ben Ezra really isn’t much to see. Its small, well maintained and heavily guarded, and they don’t let you take photo’s inside. But what fascinated me about it, and what I wish was better documented at the site was that this is where Jacob Saphir found the Geniza Documents.

Max Rodenbeck devotes part of a chapter in Cairo: The City Victorious to the Geniza documents, it’s a good story, involving a traveling Jewish scholar (Saphir) and a bunch of superstitious minders of the synagogue. I won’t quote the whole thing, (you should read the book) but here’s the paragraph where describes what Geniza means to the history of Cairo:

Saphir had in fact penetrated the intact Geniz, or treasury, of Ben Ezra. Since the Synagogue’s last restoration in A.D. 1041* nearly all the papers of the city’s Jewish community had been thrown higgledy-piggledy into the musty, two and a half story high storeroom, because by tradition any document in Hebrew letters, or any that might bear the name of God, had to be preserved. Aside from countless pages from sacred texts, the trove contained thousands of more mundane documents, the bulk of them from the 10th to the 13th century heyday of Misr-al-Fustat**, before most of the cities Jews made the short move to al-Qahira.*** Court depositions nestled among deeds and titles and contracts, letters petitions, business accounts and inventories, religious questions and rulings; in short, the Geniza held the most complete documentation of any medieval society that has ever been unearthed.****

I love this story. The packrat in me loves the validation of this communities saving of every little thing. Plus the story of Saphir traveling from Lithuania, and finding all of this makes me smile. I wonder if he knew at the time what he had unearthed, because a huge portion of what we know about daily life in not just the Jewish community, but of all of Medieval Cairo, is because of these documents.

Of course in keeping with Egypt’s almost total disregard for its own history, you would know none of this if you just went to the synagogue*****. There’s no sign explaining any of this, and while there was a book for sale on the Geniza documents, I doubt many visitors bother to check it out. Too bad. Another part of Cairo’s history the average tourist will miss.

Still, way to go, Saphir. well worth the trip.

*Saphir found the documents in 1864!
**meaning old, now “Coptic”, Cairo.
*** meaning what people now call “Islamic Cairo”.
**** The story after Saphir’s discovery gets a little messier after this, with the documents being sold of piece by piece to manuscript collectors. Most of the documents eventually made their way to Cambridge where people finally began to piece together their worth.
***** I could see an argument for this being because of anti-Semitism, except if you go to the mosque of Ibn Tulun, one of the most amazing architectural achievements in Islamic architecture, you won’t know anything about it, either.

Impressions of Muslim Brotherhood

I wrote this originally in 2007 and, again, it seems terribly naive and dated, but I’m keeping it as is.


The Muslim Brotherhood (lets call it MB from here on out) is a massive organization, the biggest opposition group by far in Egypt, and everyone I have asked here had an opinion about it.

Here’s some of the basic things I have learned since I got here about MB and opposition groups in Egypt in general, take it for what it is worth. Remember that my impressions of this place are deeply colored by the fact that almost everyone I associate with is very well off and extremely well educated by Egyptian standards.

The way people talk about the Muslim Brotherhood here is similar to the way I have heard people from Ireland and Palestine talk about the IRA and Hamas. Like Hamas, it provides much needed social services to the poor, but also like Hamas, its religious and political views are more hardline than the views of many of the people who take its services. Though it banks on the reputation (again like Hamas) of incorruptibility and efficenciecy*, from what I have heard, it is beginning to behave, at least on the local level in some neighborhoods, more like a street gang asking for payouts and bribes than like a pious organization. That same stink of corruption was prevalent on the local level in the IRA by the 1980s.

Officially, MB swore off violence in Egypt years ago.** There are those who will argue that that is a cover to allow it to engage in more mainstream politics and that in fact MB has a hand in violence that flares up in the Sinai and elsewhere every now and then. I have no way to judge how true this is, but most Egyptian I have talked to doubt the MB has an active hand in violence in Egypt.

MB technically can’t run candidates in elections here, since its still a banned organization***, but many of its members have run, and won as independents, or as members of the Wafd party. There also among people I know whispered rumors of MB members in high positions in the state bureaucracy.

For better or worse, though, MB is the main, serious, opposition to the Mubarak government and even from people who don’t agree with them on anything, they get grudging respect for this. If and when the Mubarak machine crumbles, MB will definitely be in the best position to control the future of Egypt.

Personally, I don’t like that idea very much, and neither do most of the well off, well educated Egyptians I have met here. Most of them aren’t really down for Sharia, and view MB’s recent liberalizing of some of its rhetoric (accepting Copts into the org, toning down the anti-Semitism, etc) with distrust.

But there is little in the way of other viable opposition groups happening here. Kifaya, a student/liberal intelligencia group lead umbrella group of pro democracy advocates that had a bit of a following two years ago, seems to have fallen on hard times with internal power struggles causing it to lose its way. ****Tomorrow Party, the party of imprisoned reformed Ayman Nour, is also easting itself up in fights about whether or not Nour should be expelled from the party or not. Until the progressive movement gets its shit together MB will remain the main game in town, and that is a shame, and a condemnation of leftist and progressive organizing in this country.

* Multiple times I have been told that they have the best demonstrations, and their campus recruiters are the most polished and articulate of the opposition groups.
**MB still supports suicide bombings in Israel, however.
*** Though they publish a public newspaper, and hold public events… I know, doesn’t sound like a banned organization to me either, but the state does crack down, and hard on MB at various times jailing leaders and breaking up offices when it thinks things are getting out of hand with recruitment. Seems like the idea of Mubarak is to keep a lid on things as opposed to trying to squash things.
****Imagine! Progressive movements derailed by internal strife! Thank good that doesn’t happen in the U.S.

Review: Raymond’s Cairo

Andre Raymond
Its amazing to me that a city with a history so rich, that spans such important events in history of the world, can be turned into such a boring book. I think Raymond is aping Braudel in this book with his focus on the economics and geographical changes that happened in Cairo’s long, long history, but he fails to use these details to capture the sense of a place, or an idea of what makes this ungovernable mess of a mega-city so interesting. Instead we just get a laundry list of how many single family homes there were in Fustat, followed by a simplistic listing of the how many people of what religions lived in which neighborhoods… boring Sydney, bloody fucking boring.

Raymond almost never bothers with the big events in history. There is no real discussion of the end of French rule. No explanation of rise of Muhammad Ali, and Nasser’s revolution takes up half a page, before we head back into lists of demographics of different neighborhoods. Maybe Raymond assumes his reader already knows all about the revolution and is more interested in where the tanneries were location in medieval Cairo. But I don’t know everything about the revolution, and Raymond’s book failed to make this and many other events in Cairo’s history any clearer. Avoid this one, it isn’t worth the time.

Not recommended.

Gender in Cairo

I wrote this post in the summer of 2007 when I was living in Cairo. Much changed soon after and my “resistance is weak” line seems horribly naive. Much was building, even then, but I was too out of touch to see it. Still, I’m leaving this as it was written at the time.  


Its life in a dictatorship here, but one that exerts a pretty soft power on the parts of the city I inhabit. I work with the most privileged people in Cairo, highly educated and generally pretty well off, and I live in one of the most international part of the city. My perceptions therefore are obvious skewed, but in the coming weeks, I’ll try and write about some of the main issues I see here from the vantage point I have.

Women’s rights here is, like everything everywhere, a very class based issue. If you’re without a veil in Zamalek (where I live) or Doqqi (where I work), it’s not a problem. I work with a pretty left/progressive Muslim woman (whose mother, b/t/w runs one of the biggest women’s rights groups in the mid-east) and she doesn’t wear a veil and shows up to work in an above the knee skirt fairly often. But when she is trying to get a cab, the cabbies will hassle her about the way she is dressed – expecting more money because only a rich girl would dare to dress that way. And they’re probably right, and that makes me sad.

A number of my friends from g’town are working in non profits, two of them in women’s rights groups. The stories they tell are pretty harrowing. Abuse and rape that go unreported for fear of retaliation. Rocks thrown in the street for a violation of the sense of decorum. Women followed for blocks by packs of young men. Women divorced and left with nothing. All the things you read about in the west. My understanding is these things happen to women across the economic range, but the worst of it is felt by Cairo’s poorest women. And God help you if you’re a female refugee – that is a horribly bleak scene.

As will be a common theme in these political posts, resistance here is pretty weak. Mubarak is a smart guy. When western funding countries start complaining about the plight of women here (like after the notorious assault on women in the marketplace last year) he just goes out and starts his own NGO to solve the problem. The biggest women’s rights one is run by his wife. But, surprise, surprise, the situation doesn’t get any better.

And I don’t know what place we as Americans really have in this. I am opposed to women being forced to wear a veil (duh.) but what if anything should I be doing about this in a foreign country? I don’t have a problem with kids from g’town coming and providing skills to organizations they believe in, but I am also not so naïve as to think that all the brouhaha in the states about women’s rights in the Middle East is really about the women here. Its about power, and about displacing the focus from the problems we have in our own society (and me, as an American male gripping about the sexism of Egyptian men could easily fall into me avoiding dealing with my own sexist behavior). If I’m going to do work internationally (which, In Shallah) I hope to do, I am going to have to come up with better answers of how to deal with these contradictions that, “I don’t know what place I have”.

The Zamalek Boardwalk

Another post originally written for livejournal during my stay in Cairo.

This is the boardwalk a couple of blocks from my house on the island of Zamalek. On one end stands the Iraqi embassy, on the other, the hip nightclub Sequoia. It’s a small little site – only about two blocks long.

On weekend nights, it is filled with Cairo’s young, couples and groups of young men too young or too poor to frequent the nightclubs on the water. They sit together looking out at the Nile and the giant new hotel / office complex being built across the water.

There are those who don’t like that couples come here to cuddle and look out the Nile. They’ve been known to pour oil on the banister to make the site unpleasant. But the kids keep coming. And there are people who are there to cater to them. The other night, on my way Sequoia, I saw a guy with a sterno can heating water for tea that he would sell up and down the boardwalk.

The kind of motivation that leads someone to set up a sterno can to sell tea to teenagers is either a sign of the grinding poverty that many in Cairo face, or a sign of the hustler attitude prevalent in Cairo – or both. Either way, I totally admire the guy who does it.

Cairo (The Hanging Church)

I should do a big tourist post about everything I’ve seen – maybe later. For now, settle for these bullet points of last couple days…

1. This weekend I almost got in a fist fight with a cabbie.

2. I also saw all of coptic cairo, which boasts cairo’s oldest synagogue, church and mosque. I only saw the church, so I’ll have to go back.

3. I had two I cannot believe my life moments:
a. Sitting in an insanely nice bar on the nile, sipping a beer while the people around me argue in a mixture of arabic, french and english.
b. Going a 90 miles an hour in an escalade on my way to a plastics factory in the middle of dessert where, when we show up, they serve us grilled salmon.

4. They’re playing Biggie in the cafe I am sitting in, and it is making me homesick.

Here’s the hanging church

Islamic Cairo I

Note: another old post from a long-dean LJ account I had while I lived in Cairo

Friday was my first excursion into Islamic Cairo, the part of town built after the “opening of Cairo” as my coworker and guide, K told me. We were more interested in taking our time and enjoying the day then we were in making sure we saw everything (I’ll be here for a month after all) so we only went into half a dozen mosques of the dozens that dot the area. Excuse me if you find this post horribly pedantic, but I am writing as much as a tool to help me remember all this as for any other reason. Anyway, here are some highlights:

Mosque of Ibn Tulun

This is Cairo oldest working mosque. People still come to pray here everyday. Built by Ibn Tulun, who was sent to Cairo by the Abbasid caliph. It was built around 876 AD. It’s really stunning, almost entirely open to the elements with a place to wash before prayers in the center of the praying area.

Here’s K by the washing area.

Like everything in old Cairo, you gotta pay extra to get to the good bit, which is the minaret. Over a thousand years old, and they still let you climb it. Here’s a view.

Old Cairo is a strange place, it reminded me in some ways of the walled portion of Jerusalem. Except with cars, and less machine guns. It’s still in constant use, with people living and working there who have nothing to do with the tourism industry. There’s also an odd tension between restoration and use going on. Some of the less famous mosques, almost as old as Inb Tulun, are falling apart. We went into one that had a giant hole in the wall. There’s just not enough money to keep it all going, especially when it is being used so much. Also, some of which is restored looks a little… fake as well. As K said, sometimes the restorers get a little overzealous. I didn’t get any good pictures of this, but I’ll try on my next trip.

By the time we got to Mosque of Sultan Hassan, it was getting near closing time, and they weren’t real keen on me taking pictures inside, but here’s little ‘ol me in front of really fucking big Mosque of Sultan Hassan
 Hassan was a Mamluk, the slaves who turned into the rulers of Egypt in the mid 14th century. The complex inside is huge, with a giant minaret, a hospital, and a crypt room where Hassan was to be buried. Unfortunately, he got assassinated, and his body was never discovered, so the guy isn’t actually buried in there.

Next to the Hassan Mosque is the Mosque of A Rifai, where King Faoruk, and members of his family are buried. It’s a much more recent than the Hassan Mosque, dating from the early twentieth century* Five pounds and the soldier guarding the tomb gave me my very own call to prayer. Not that I asked for it, but whatever.

After this we went to Al Ashar park for dinner, which is literally built on an old garbage dump. It’s nice, I guess. If you like L.A. When I think about Dubai, this is what I think it looks like.

*That’s historic Cairo, I guess, a hundred years old is no big deal.

Cairo (Part 4)

Running in Cairo in June is a sure way to prove that there is nothing necessarily healthy about training for a marathon. I am still sweating. And my snot is really, really black. But I gotta say I love my neighborhood, I got incredibly lost, but hey, it’s a island, so as long as you don’t go crossing water, you can only get in so much trouble.

Here’s a picture from my run.

Last night, I was talking to E on the phone. Over the internet, from my balcony, overlooking the Nile while she was sitting in an apartment overlooking Washington square park. We totally live in the future

Yet another picture from one of my windows

Work so far has been kind of boring, but the people have been great. Really welcoming and fun. Apparently, I am going out for sushi in Giza on Wednesday. WTF?

Cairo! (Day Three)

Do you ever have those moments where you just can’t believe your life? I had one today where I was like “holy fucking shit, I am riding in cab, over the Nile rive, in a suit, on my way to my first day at a job in a law office where I will be the only American.” How the fuck did this happen? I’m a kid from Vernon, CT for Godsakes. What the hell am I doing here?

Here’s some random thoughts from today:
– Tried to take a photo of the Iraq Emvassy today, but got waved away by a dude with a big gun.

– Its strange being here for two months and working full time. I don’t really have time to explore too much at night. (though I did check out Zamalek a little more… not much going on besides hipster spots and the Dawan bookstore, which is pretty awesome) I am in a strange place between a tourist and a resident. I’ve been here three days and I really have’t seen shit. The old part of the city and the

– Zamalek is I think the perfect place for me to live. Its quiet by Cairo standards, and I don’t get hassled on the street at all. Of course the down side is non-Egyptians surround me pretty much all the time. My whole building is full of foreigners, for example. And the place on the corner advertises “American coffee”.* Awesome.

– Tomorrow, more work, and allowing myself to take it easy. Sight seeing is just going to have to wait till the weekend, I think.

* Can I say so far the food has been eh? I must be missing something. I’ve had decent shwerma, but nothing I couldn’t get in New York. I need to find a fuul spot, anyone who has been here got recommendations for places to eat?
Anyway, first day on the job today and I think it went pretty well.