Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 May 1999
Issue No. 429
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Index of issues This week's issue

Books Monthly supplement

Food for thought
A word from the Editor-in-Chief Hosny Guindy

Time for forgiveness?
Mona Anis revels in a 1960s memoir vividly chronicling the underground life of Egypt's angry young writers

A sun which leaves no shadows
Mokhtarat (Selections), Ghaleb Halasa, Al-Ahram (Kitab fi Garida), February 1999

Mothering the populace
The Pure and the Powerful, Studies in Contemporary Muslim Society, Nadia Abu Zahra, London: Garnet Publishing,1997. pp.308

Lights, camera, chit-chat
Cairo: From Edge to Edge, essay by Sonallah Ibrahim and photographs by Jean Pierre Ribière, Cairo: AUC Press, 1998. pp21+ 70 photographs

The art of conversation
Tawfiq El-Hakim Yatathakar (Tawfiq El-Hakim Reminisces), ed Gamal El-Ghitani. Cairo: Supreme Council of Culture, 1998. pp183

Not quite another country
Alnesaeyat, Malak Hefny Nassef. Cairo: The Women and Memory Forum publications, 1998. pp246

Journey of a giraffe
Zarafa, Michael Allin, London: Headline Book Publishing, 1998. pp215

Village life from within
Denys Johnson-Davies offers insight into Mohamed El-Bisatie's work, and translates an extract from his new novel, appearing this Saturday in the Al-Hilal series
And the Train Comes

Short Reviews:

*Al-Kotob: Wughaat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints)

*Soheir El-Qalamawi, Nabila Ibrahim

*Sifr Amal Donqol (The Book of Amal Donqol), ed Abla El-Reweini

*Mithl Saif Lan Yatakarar Kathiran: Mahkiyat (Like a Summer that will Not Often Repeat Itself: Anecdotes)

*Al-Sayida allati wa'l-Rajul alathi lam... (The Lady who and the Manwho did not ...), Sabri Moussa

*Buka'iya illa Hafiz Al-Shirazi (Elegy to Hafiz Al-Shirazi), Abdel-Wahab Al-Bayati

*Deen Al-Harafeesh fi Misr Al-Mahrousa (The Religion of the Harafeesh in Egypt the Protected), Ali Fahmi

*Al-Ibna Faten (Daughter Faten), Naim Sabri

*Siwa Door: Poems 1993-1997, Tom Lamont

*Tujar Al-Tawabil fi Misr fi'l-Asr Al-Mamluki ah (Spice Merchants in Egypt in the Mameluke Period), Mohamed Abdel-Ghani El-Ashqar

*Ragul Tayeb Yukalim Nafsah (A kind man who talks to himself), Girgis Shukri

*Nizwa: A quarterly literary Journal

*Al-Tifl Al-Manbuz (Testaments Betrayed), Milan Kundera

*Arba' Masrahiyat 'Iraqiya (Four Iraqi Plays)



Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

Lights, camera, chit-chat


The book, part of the AUC Press Photo Books, is comprised of an essay by Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and photos by Jean Pierre Ribière. The essay has occasional humorous moments and is at its best when describing the various moves Ibrahim made from "edge" of Abbasiya to "edge" of Sayeda Zeinab, to that of Ezbekiya, Dokki and Heliopolis, and when satirising the café social life of artists and men of letters like himself in Cairo's downtown area -- at the Zahrat al-Bustan Café, the Atelier du Caire, an arts and literature society, and the Odeon and the Grillon bars.

But having begun his essay as a casual, innocuous enough amble through the city, Ibrahim then wanders off into a sociological and historical terrain that is far too complex to be dealt with successfully in the chit-chat-over-a-drink-with-like-minded-friends tone which in the more personal sections of the essay works.

Between all the neighbourhoods in which he lived as a child and his knowledge of the downtown social scene, and with a foregrounding of the fact that he is a novelist, Ibrahim could have produced an impressionistic essay which does not fail to convince. "The edge of Husaynia," one such impressionistic and convincing passage reads, "is where I discovered the various scents of life. The smoke of boilers and ovens in the early morning would reach me as I walked indifferently to school, treading a colourful pebble pavement just like those in the Azbakiya gardens and the Zoo. Orange fruit and jasmine huddled over the walls of villas. Musk and amber prepared by a sheikh clad in brocade caftan: he dips a reed pen into his mixture and etches obscure signs on the bottom of a gas lamp, in a futile attempt to read the future. The smell of old books that shakes my very being to this day every time I come across a similar smell..."

Impressionistic, but convincing and unpretentious. When, however, Sonallah Ibrahim -- with all the authority implied by having his name on the cover of a book -- discusses social phenomenon with the same boyish abandon and informality as he does his own childhood and the downtown gossip scene, the result is far from enlightening.

Holding forth on the fact that the hair of more and more Egyptian women is no longer visible, Ibrahim tells us the story of a friend of his who, before she donned the hijab, was "the model of the contemporary, enlightened young woman [who] looked forward to an outstanding future in research." Having married young and become a mother of three, "the gap between herself and her own plans increased." "On the threshold of her fifties... dominated by a feeling of acute frustration... she sensed life trickling between her hands, she found herself incapable of any adventure on the level of social utility or sexual fulfilment in order to compensate for what she had missed or in order to rediscover herself. The repertoire of the dominant social traditions [...] would not allow her that. The only way out was to 'withdraw'; she selected, from among the different forms of withdrawal (madness, suicide, drugs, etc), the safest and most socially acceptable: she repressed her emotions, or at least concealed them."

"Mid-life crisis", however, Ibrahim enlightens the reader, is not the only reason women adopt what they consider to be Islamic dress. "Indeed many discover it quite early. Take, for example, a young middle class girl as she leafs through a fashion magazine [...], then sees the rich upper class university girls in their expensive, attractive clothes, and then walks past the shops that offer designer clothes at incredible prices. Does not the higab represent an easy economic solution...?

"Economics is but one of the many contradictions of which a young Egyptian girl becomes aware, as she debates the question of 'proper behaviour'. One of the television channels, for example, calls for commitment to the principles of religion, and to wearing the higab... Other channels broadcast strange programmes in which women appear half naked. In the midst of this confusion, the higab seems like a strategy of self defense and a protection against two potential dangers: madness and prostitution."

Ibrahim's discussion of the hijab is over-simplistic and patronising. Over-simplistic the way a Tante Fafi I know quite blithely reduces socialism to a matter of envious have-nots vs the forces of civilisation, patronising in the way she will compassionately add: "But it's not their fault, these lower middle class types and fellahin; they are, after all, under extreme pressure." One tries to put up politely with Tante Fafi's waffle about socialism; her platforms, after all, are the tea parties she hosts for her cronies and their daughters. In a book ostensibly about Cairo, however, statements about complex social and historical phenomena could be made a bit less casually. A book is not a tea party.

One of the problems of this book has to do with audience and purpose. Who is the intended readership of Ibrahim's informal essay? How and whom does the book enlighten about Cairo?

The photo section of the book consisting of 70 black and white images by Ribière is a potential feast fit for a king. But flip through them, and this is no Cairo you know. Not because they explore an underside into which you have feared venturing, but because the photographer seemed to favour an empty Cairo -- a contradiction in terms if ever there was one. Nor does the emptiness speak eloquent or defamiliarise in order to refamiliarise. A photo of high rises on the Bulaq corniche taken from the Zamalek side with man in galabiya in the foreground does not say much. Not even when given the title "The new citadels -- Bulaq", followed by a photo (entitled "Rock'n'roll attitude -- Gezira") of a boy in a baseball cap leaning against a Suzuki Swift, and preceded by this quote from Sonallah Ibrahim's novel Al-Lagna: "I walked aimlessly down the streets looking at passers-by, shop windows, entrances to buildings... Everywhere there was a spectacle of people fascinated by the race for happiness and wealth."

"The new citadels -- Bulaq" comes in a section entitled Modern Times. The other sections grouping the 70 photos are: One Thousand Days and... One Night (which includes: a photo of a TV screen with Sheikh Shaarawi and five of the Sayeda Zeinab moulid which under Ribière's lens manages to seem a bit on the lifeless side), Downtown Traffic and Romantic Landscapes.

The section titled Modern Times attempts to highlight, often in a short-hand, cliché way, the "contrasts" or "contradictions" one sees in Cairo: man in galabiya vs skyscrapers, street sweeper vs fancy car, man in galabiya vs Pizza Hut home delivery motorcycle, man in turban vs satellite dish, woman in khimar hijab vs a Mohandessin billboard advertising Hawaii ice cream. Sometimes subtlety is attempted. "New cities -- Fustat plateau" shows a barren landscape with concrete block buildings in the horizon; "Advertising -- Cairo-Alexandria desert road", a billboard in the middle of nowhere reading "Mena Garden City. The future is now." Most eloquent of all, the photo which closes the book, is "Pyramid of Khafre -- Giza". This shows the pyramid plus the front half of a tourist bus with the word Utopia on it plus shadow of bus, desert, and sky. So much for Cairo's modern times.

Which is not to say that the photos are compositionally uninteresting. Trapezoids, diagonals, squares, rectangles, reflections in windows and mirrors can be a lot of aesthetic and visual fun, even if they are not made to carry such weighty titles as "Virtual images". Ribière has a fine and strong sense of line, and many of the images have something of the Zen about them. To snatch a few Zen like moments of stasis from a city reputed for being boisterous and overcrowded, to enable form to triumph so absolutely over content is no small achievement.

Ribière's photos would have been presented to their best advantage in a book showcasing several photographers' respective visions of Cairo; alone, it is difficult to see what is striking about them. The same is true of the Ibrahim essay. Published in a book comprising a collection of essays about the city by several Egyptian writers and artists, and hence relieved of some of the weight it has been made to carry, it may have been a more enjoyable read.

On the page which opens the Romantic Landscapes section are white letters on black background, a quotation, probably sensible and illuminating when it belonged to an argument, but here dropped on a page for aesthetic effect and left limply dangling out of any meaningful context: "Once the rather exclusive domain of the 'colonial' foreigner and the francophilic Egyptian elite, this zone has obviously undergone a dramatic transformation since the Revolution of 1952." On the page facing the quotation is a photo of one of the Qasr Al-Nil lions. The lion turns its back on the quote, as if trying to get a view beyond the confines of his habitat, the book. Need a change of scene? Somewhere new and exciting? How does Cairo sound?

Reviewed by Nur Elmessiri

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