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  • The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the Heart of the City
  • Caroline Seymour-Jorn (bio)
The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the Heart of the City, edited by Samia Mehrez Cairo, Egypt: AUC Press, 2011; pp. 433. $39.95 cloth.

The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in the Heart of the City serves as a companion volume to Mehrez's The Literary Atlas of Cairo (2010). It represents the work of several literary generations as it includes short stories, excerpts from novels, and essays by authors who have lived in and written about Cairo and Egypt. All of the selections are presented in English, with most having been translated from Arabic or French. A few selections were originally written in English. One strength of the book is that it presents not only a range of Cairo's authors but also the work of both well-established and newer translators.

The Literary Life of Cairo is divided into seven chapters—each with a separate brief introduction—designed to familiarize the reader with the complex social, economic, ethnic, and political landscape of metropolitan Cairo. The chapter divisions are highly relevant and useful, with titles such as "Going to School in Cairo," "Women in the City," and "Cairo's Drug Culture." By means of these thematic divisions, the editor reveals to the reader the unexpected and many-faceted world of one of the Middle East's most important and influential cities. This volume and that of Mehrez represent an important contribution to the study of Egyptian literature and the Cairene literary world in the English language.

This text will be useful for readers who are new to the field of Egyptian or Middle Eastern literature, as it provides a wide-ranging set of representations of Cairene life and society. The section "Women in the City," for example, presents a literary view both of poor and otherwise marginalized women and of much more privileged women, of those living within the borders of the city and even of those Egyptian women living and pursuing higher education abroad. The collection of translations provided here will also benefit more seasoned consumers of Middle Eastern literature, especially because the volume includes several pieces by younger authors, including Miral al-Tahawy, Mona Prince, and Mohamed Salah al-Azab.

The section "Icons of the City" includes fiction and essays about some of the city's larger-than-life political and cultural figures, including pieces that illuminate the periods of King Farouk and Gamal Abdel Nasser. Also included is a fascinating selection by Edward Said about his youthful [End Page 148] memories of the dancer Tahia Carioca and her live and film productions. "Cairo Cosmopolitan" features selections that highlight aspects of life in Cairo's ethno-religious communities, including a very short piece from Ihsan Abdel Qaddus's I Am Free about Jews in the once relatively integrated neighborhood of al-Dhaher. Fathy Ghanem's A Girl from Shubra explores the personal geography of an Italian Catholic woman living in the populous area of Shubra, along with her hopes and fears for her own and her daughter's future. "Going to School in Cairo" contains selections that span the historical timeline, from Naguib Mahfouz's early-twentieth-century setting in Palace Walk to Ihab Hassan's memories of his school days in 1930s Cairo, to Miral al-Tahawy's representations of the specific struggles of schoolgirls during the final decades of the twentieth century, which saw the rise of both Muslim fundamentalism and strong capitalist and consumerist orientations. The section "The Street is Ours?" is a particularly fascinating read for anyone following the events of 2011 in Egypt, or the Arab Spring more generally. The section includes literary representations of public protest, arrest, imprisonment, and torture over the span of the twentieth century, from Huda Shaarawi's account of the women's demonstration against the British in 1919 to Alaa al-Aswany's famous representation of a Muslim activist in The Yacoubian Building. These readings echo more recent incidents of protest and demonstration and also serve as a solemn reminder of the long history of government oppression of political activists in...


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pp. 148-149
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