From the outside looking in, modern Egypt is a puzzle: a running conflict between soldiers and Islamists taking place on the foundation of a great civilization, revolving around a relationship to the West that the word “complex” doesn’t even begin to describe.
To understand the currents and undercurrents of Egyptian society and politics, it helps to have a local guide. Few are more qualified than Ahdaf Soueif, author of the newly released Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed. Soueif, who has been an author, a political commentator, and an activist amid Egypt’s change and turmoil, is able to take readers back behind the headlines to see the individual Egyptians whose decisions help to shape the country.
“Cairo” is a story of struggle against sometimes brutal authority, but it’s also a tale of people talking – the kinds of conversations that happen in the street amid moments of great social upheaval. Arriving on the second anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests that helped to overthrow Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, “Cairo” offers many keys to understanding the ongoing turmoil. Soueif delves into the physical and emotional centrality of Tahrir Square to Cairenes, the role of government thugs (known as “baltagis”) in Egyptian daily life, and the profound sense of shame that many Egyptians feel about their government’s friendly – some would argue servile – relationship with the United States and its allies.
“Cairo” also explores the way that the landscape of Soueif’s beloved city has been changed (and often terribly warped) by generations of development projects aimed at serving and enriching the country’s elite.
Her accounts of water-guzzling golf courses springing up and strangling a city where sidewalks are crumbling and streetlights are snuffed out through neglect is powerful because of its specificity. As you read “Cairo,” you get a sense of what it would be like to be an Egyptian – a feeling that is one part fear, one part pride, one part confusion, and two parts serious civic indignation.
Soueif also digs into the corruption that seems to be the rotten core of the hundred-layer onion that is the current Egyptian struggle. She lays out both the ways in which – in her view – her country has been sold out, and the ways those transactions affect her and her compatriots.
“[W]e knew that everything was up for sale: land, monuments, islands, lakes, beaches, people’s homes, antiquities, stretches of the Nile, natural resources, people, sovereignty, national parks, human organs, gold mines, the wealth under the ground, the water in the river, the labor of the people – everything,” she writes. “And yet every time we come across a specific transaction, a specific target, we’re gripped again by that surprised horror: They would sell what?”
She also takes the reader to the front lines of the conflict in the streets with vignettes worthy of a novel.
“We get to the middle of the bridge before we realize that there are no cars, that the air is dim and fumy, and that the few people around us are not moving forward,” Soueif writes. “There’s something of Dante about the spectacle. Isolated figures drift. Smoke drifts. Everything is slowed down and dim. A young man comes up and gives us tissues, then sprinkles vinegar over them. ‘Hold them over your nose,’ he says, ‘a tip from our Tunisian friends.’ In Palestine they use onions.”
Soueif’s ability to render grand events in human terms and put Egypt’s current conflict into historical and global context makes “Cairo” a book that demands attention. This isn’t to say that you’ll emerge from “Cairo” feeling in command of the situation in Egypt – possibly because no one appears to be in command of that situation at the moment. (Just look at the recent investigation of a Vodafone Egypt commercial – featuring puppet actors – for spreading coded messages to Islamist fighters as an example of how the chaos continues to spiral.)
Soueif’s book couldn’t have come at a more useful time. The pendulum of change has swung so fast and furiously in Egypt over the past few years – and past few months, for that matter – that the entire country seems as though it is shaking itself apart.
The rocky transition of power from the longstanding Mubarak regime to the democratically elected but Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi and back to a military group led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has rent holes in the social and political fabric of Egypt. Or more accurately, as Soueif skillfully explains in “Cairo,” the conflict has ripped the paper-thin covers off gaping holes that were already there.
James Norton is a frequent Monitor contributor