December 6, 2023

It is in the same spirit Albert Cossery’sThe Colors of Infamy.” A very quick read, the book follows a well-educated pickpocket and serves as a guide to the dynamics of the city’s ancient markets – the scam, the haggling, the haggling for a deal. Once you set foot in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar or even on the Pyramid Plateau in Giza, where you’ll be inundated with offers for camel rides, horse rides and guides, you might appreciate having read this book.

Cairo is largely characterized by its layers of architecture – Fatimids, Mamluks, Khedivals. But it also has a rich history of modern architecture, from the turn-of-the-century revival to concrete expressionism and modernist design. This includes the homes of iconic cultural figures. Singer Oum Kulthoum’s house has been demolished, but similar houses by the same architect, Ali Labib Gabr, still exist in the surrounding area, including my grandmother’s house just a few blocks away. This is not a novel, but “Mohammed ElsahedCairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide” offers a brilliant guide to this modern day and makes a perfect touring companion, talking not only about the buildings and their historical significance but also about the time.

In fiction, by Waguih GhaliBeer at the Snooker Club is a cult classic originally written in English that depicts post-colonial Cairo through the eyes of a nationalist, English-speaking aristocrat struggling with regime change and the new socialist policies under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although written in 1964, it also tells the story of Egypt now.

At the other end of the class and experiential spectrum during the same political regime is Sonallah Ibrahim’s experimental novel That smell.” Published in 1968, it tells the story of a recently released prisoner and his malaise as he struggles and fails to adjust to everyday life abroad. There are many days in this fast-changing city that I find this novel.

André Aciman’s Collection of Essays”Fake papers“, for a trip to Alexandria. Born and raised there, Aciman returns decades after his family left for exile and tries to find the city as it was in his memory. He finds little of it, but his search captures in vivid detail the city as best remembered. His brooding book moves through time and geography, from Egypt to Europe, but, even there, it is still about Aciman’s Alexandria. To hold this feeling – the look and the loss – you should then read the book by Constantinos P. Cavafy.Collection of poems.” The two authors, both born in the ancient port city, form an unofficial Alexandrian epitome.

  • Novels by Naguib Mahfouz

  • “In the Eye of the Sun” and “The Map of Love” Ahdaf Sweif

  • “Sliding”, Mohammed Khair

  • “Cairo: City of Sand” Maria Golia

  • “The Colors of Dishonor”, Albert Cossery

  • “Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide” Mohammed Elsaheed

  • “Beer at the snooker club,” Waguih Ghali

  • “That smell,” Sonallah Ibrahim

  • “Fake Papers”, Andre Atchiman

  • “Collected Poems”, Konstantinos P. Cavafis

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