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