Book review: The grandest old lady of Egypt

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The Independent Culture
MAX RODENBECK's credentials are impeccable. In 1895, his great- grandmother met his great-grandfather in an incident involving that ubiquitous Cairo animal, the donkey, outside the legendary Shepherd's Hotel in Azbakiyyah. His parents (although he does not mention this) have lived and worked in Cairo for many years and were among the first to set up Save, the conservationist organisation that lobbied for Islamic monuments when their maintenance allocation in the government budget was pounds 1 per monument per year.

Rodenbeck has lived in Cairo on and off for 20 years. He has passed through enchantment with the city, to disillusionment, and now, it seems, to a wiser love that sees her clearly as she is, and yet believes in her uniqueness and capacity to endure. "Cairo," Naguib Mahfouz has famously said, "is like meeting your beloved in her old age." True. But this is a beloved who has the ability to shed her wrinkles and rise phoenix-like from her own rubble. To love her is to take an elegiac pleasure in her decay while waiting for her reincarnation.

If the Inuit have many words for "snow" and the Arabs for "sand", the ancient Egyptians had various words for "eternity". And it is in eternity's cyclical manifestation that Rodenbeck - and most Cairenes - find confidence for the city's future. In Cairo: the city victorious, he guides his reader through the many reincarnations in Cairo's 5,000 years. He moves from her beginnings as "On" (now Heliopolis), whose priests invented the 365- day year, to "Menf" or "Memphis" the White-Walled, established by Mena at the forking of the Nile as the capital for his unified Upper and Lower Egypt, to the Roman "Babylon" and "Fustat", built by the conquering Muslim army in the AD640s, then to the medieval Cairo of the Fatimids, and the sprawling metropolis of today.

It is a journey with an engaging guide who knows his subject well. All the old favourites have walk-on parts: the priests of Ra', Saladin, the Sultana Shagar al-Durr (my personal favourite), Napoleon Bonaparte, and others. The city's most noted chroniclers, al-Magrizi and al-Jabarti, speak; as do a minor prince left over from the days of the monarchy, the great singer Umm Kulsoum, and Ahmad Fuad Nigm, Cairo's vernacular poet. One quibble: Ali ibn Abi Talib was the Prophet's cousin, not his nephew. And a typo on page 239 shrinks what must have been 200 years into 2 - fast even for a city so geared to change.

Rodenbeck (as befits a correspondent of the The Economist) has worked out some fascinating statistics. Before the latest tarting-up of Cairo, the city offered just one square foot of parkland to each of its inhabitants. Detritus builds up street levels by 23ft every 1,000 years. And when Khufu (Cheops) was building his pyramid, the rate of work was "one mammoth stone block put in place every two minutes for 33 years".

He provides a modern take on Cairo's past. Pharaonic Memphis was the size of Manhattan. To new arrivals, 14th-century Cairo "must have seemed as strikingly urban in its scale and density and sensibilities as New York or Hong Kong does today". In the 11th century, Ibn Radwan, the Caliph's physician, complains of the air pollution caused by the boilers of Cairo's many bath-houses. In 1241, Ibn Sa'id, a poet from Granada, gets stuck in a traffic jam in the main thoroughfare, and, around 1420, al-Magrizi notes that Cairenes have switched from wearing fine Egyptian linen to cheap European cloth.

In the 150 pages or so which deal with contemporary Cairo, Rodenbeck proves a conscientious and entertaining guide across the social landscape. From her chaise-longue, Zaza, a lady with the latest green fingernails, tells how at a society wedding the groom's uncle (an army general) "ordered a whole brigade or whatever to shave off their hair, and shipped them in for the evening. You know, they had them sitting under the table with their heads sticking out through holes in the top, and the guests peeled the smoked salmon off their sweaty bald pates". We can only guess at how much closer that evening brought some of those young recruits to joining the "Fundamentalists".

Meanwhile, an old man, whose apartment block in Abbasiyya has tumbled down, and who now lives in his ancestors' tomb in the City of the Dead, gazes contentedly at his plump homing-pigeons. He declares: "Of course I am happy; I live in the greatest city in the world".

Cairo: the city victorious captures the many contrasts of the city and her capacity to accommodate them. If a mark of the creative mind is its ability to hold two opposing ideas at once, this book shows that we need have no fear for "the Mother of the World": her mind holds a dozen.