Rural queen of the Nile

Cairo: The City Victorious

Max Rodenbeck <em>Picador, 395pp, £20</em>

I first went to Cairo 25 years ago. There was a steel boom across the Nile to impede floating mines, concrete blast-shields before the doors of public buildings and police and informers everywhere. The city was depressed by military defeat and the total bankruptcy of Arab nationalism. On the radio, Anwar Sadat was promising "a year of decision" during which the Israelis would presumably be knocked to kingdom come but, then, he'd said the same the year before and the year before that.

I remember a cocktail bar, called the Rex, so beautiful that though I have searched for it in the ensuing quarter-century I now conclude I must have made it up. I remember a colossal building called the Mugammaa in which uncounted civil servants dozed or screamed at whining women; mosques spilling on to pavements and buses bristling with bodies; and the pavements of Sayyida Zaynab, where people lived in shifts. I dined like a character in Aristophanes on beans and radishes for a farthing. I remember the smell of the place, which Max Rodenbeck identifies as "transpired fenugreek". I'd never seen a city that was so conclusively a city and also, amid the sheep grazing in the scuffed and barbed-wired public parks, so ineradicably rustic.

I now learn from Rodenbeck that the summer of 1973 was Cairo's absolute low point in modern times. That October, Sadat, a very Egyptian mixture of hero and buffoon, crossed the canal and gave the Israelis quite a nasty turn. Having restored his country's self-respect, five years later he made peace. In a fury of self-righteousness, the Arab world turned its back on Cairo and sought its leaders in Baghdad, of all places, with consequences disastrous for everyone concerned. Deeply hurt, Cairo turned in on itself and began to knock down and build. On recent visits, I have been saddened by the decay of the old city and the Cairo of the colonial era, and shocked to find that the telephone works and I can make (and keep) more than one appointment per day.

To write a book in English about a large and ancient city requires, it seems from this one, no special aptitude. You need merely to be an expatriate American, live there for 20 years, learn the Arabic of the Koran and the slang of the city, marry into an Egyptian family, immerse yourself in Islam and know everybody from a seedy pasha in the Gezira Sporting Club to a family of Coptic ragpickers. You may, if you like, be familiar with the scholarly literature in three or four languages. You must be witty, for what's the use of a book about Cairo that isn't funny? And you must, above all, be calm: Cairo is a city that disapproves of both silence and solitude.

In his introduction, Rodenbeck confesses he became fed up with Cairo a year or so back and moved to another Arab city, rather as a person tired of London might move to Nuneaton. Shamefaced, he returned. It is that affection and exasperation that allows him to view the city as if from a height. For the first time, I can understand Cairo's history because I can put it on a map: first of all, the antique towns of Memphis and Heliopolis, miles apart on either bank of the river; then the primitive Muslim settlement called Fustat; then the Fatimid and Mamluk city of Misr al-Qahira which lost its prosperity to the Black Death and the shift in the eastern trade to Venice; and then the modern quarters along the Nile, which have now largely shed their European character. The historical sections of the book, which are not long and are notable chiefly for lovely quotations from Arabic city histories, provide a receding perspective behind what really interests Rodenbeck, which is the present.

His strength is in quality: what it feels like to squat in the City of the Dead or be a university student where you cannot squeeze into the lecture hall. Cairo is a city of the poor, in which a growing population negates any rise in living standards, and it is Rodenbeck's sympathy for the poor and the weak - the disoriented migrant from the sticks, the mistreated daughter-in-law - that is the glory of the book. In particular, he has a regard for the self-respecting professions of the very poor, such as the zabbalin (Baudelaire's chiffonniers) or the Cafe of the Sick by Ayn Shams Medical School. His discussion of the popular culture of films, story-tellers, belly dancers and television soap opera culminates in a lament for the great singer Umm Kulthoum.

If there is something missing it is the destructive character of Cairo: how it draws all the wealth and talent of Egypt into its maw, grinds bodies, breaks hearts and sends the best people abroad to mope in safari suits in non-cities such as Riyadh or Dubai. But Rodenbeck is an optimist about Cairo. He believes the city can absorb both the religious fanatics and Coca-Colaism. He evidently believes that irony, flexibility, ambiguity and curiosity are as important to the character of Cairo, in their fashion, as religion; and that, in a resonant phrase he quotes, the Cairenes are like students "who sat exams as if they had not bribed the examiners".

I recollect people saying similar things about Tehran and Algiers, though maybe Cairo is in another league: if it has lasted five thousand years, it will, God willing, last another five thousand. The book itself is cause for optimism. Appearing so soon after Philip Mansel's Constantinople, it suggests that the orientalists, demoralised for a generation, are regaining some of their confidence; and that to know an Eastern language, even one as difficult as the Arabic of Egypt, may not be such a dreadful crime and insult after all.

James Buchan's next novel is published by Harvill in spring 1999

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.