Letter on status
mother of cities and seat of Pharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad regions and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting-place of comer and goer, the halting-place of feeble and mighty… — Ibn Battuta (Gibb)
Cairo means ‘conqueror’; it is female. Every night she dreams of being herself, every morning she wakes up alienated. Pondering over the city’s fate I am reminded of canonical Arab and Arabized scholar-writers (examples I’m thinking of range from the 10th to the 15th century), for whom the words for ‘essay’ and ‘epistle’ — also ‘book’— were one and the same. The role of Cairo, a central destination on their frequently Maghreb-to-Mecca itinerary, strikes me as the kind of notion that might interest them. She seems the right subject for a letter, anyway: rather than the inevitably false claim to impartiality, the city elicits a subjectivity both particular and prescribed. An epistolary subjectivity: involuntary postmodernism. A letter is intimate and specific, and yet those writers were encyclopedists and synthesizers: generalists in the most efficacious sense. Aside from their occasionally confessional tone, their object was never private. They saw the world whole, and it was the wholeness of that vision, not the integrity of their texts, that excited them. They were spokesmen for the unity of reality, but they wrote rather like pen pals addressing their patrons, sometimes each other, never unduly concerned with standpoint, seldom self-consciously artistic. They conveyed knowledge geographically, which means that they spread it individually over a collective surface: the Arabic tongue, the Koranic rhetoric that underpinned it and an unyielding commitment to truth. It also means that, while they sustained a classificatory compulsion, their sense of detail remained paramount.
Rather than a temporal, linear arrangement, they assayed a spatial, non-sequential scattering: precisely the mode of progress I am proposing here—a medieval-style ‘letter’ on the status of the City (no longer so) Victorious.
For Arabs everywhere Cairo is geographically central—as much in the physical as in that wider, conceptual sense, posited in contrast to the historical, which is not only temporal and linear but makes a more persuasive case for the city’s name—yet since the 20th century, and I take this rightly or wrongly to be the principal historical framework of the present, her significance has derived largely from numbers. (I maintain the affectation of personifying Cairo as a woman; let it evoke a wrinkled whore!) Egypt is significantly smaller than its cartographic representation, due to both the positioning and the density of its human habitation, and within that smallness—since AD 639, at least—seethes the greater smallness of its unequivocal and tyrannical hub. (So much so that, in Arabic, all through post-Arab Conquest history, Egypt and Cairo have often been confused in the reference to masr (misr in standard Arabic), with the more predominant occurrences denoting the city.) Outside of Cairo, Egyptians complain of being marginalized, something that has come to be known in government-supported cultural circles as ‘the predicament of the provinces’; but in perpetuating the conviction that nothing happens anywhere else, in feeling deprived and seeking fortune in her ‘bounty’, it is the alleged victims who contribute more than anyone to the centralism and arrogance of the city.
In this connection it should be stressed that Cairo has been subject to an unrelenting process of de-urbanization since 1956, when the migratory waves began to converge on her following the greater freedom of movement imparted to the fellahin—in a spirit of both ‘nationalism’ (later, and more importantly, nonalignment-style ‘socialism’) and ‘nationalization’—abandoning agriculture, deserting civic fronts: the postcolonial fate which the Arab states, themselves colonial inventions, have one way or another shared with the rest of the so called Third World. It was in those times, paradoxically, that Cairo’s role as Arab capital was fervently emphasized. At one point, with the declaration of the United Arab Republic in 1958, the notion might even have sounded viable; for, of course, it is totally absurd to speak of a capital—however ‘cultural’ its designation, the concept of a capital city is political in essence—when the larger demographic entity in which it occupies a position of prominence is but a loose conglomerate of nations of dubious sovereignty, with very emphatic (and, for the vast majority, largely impenetrable) borders separating one from the other. (Note the ease, the sheer legitimacy with which an Israeli citizen passes into Egypt, compared to the Arab holder of Palestinian papers—for example.) Cairo looks down, muttering cliches about the Palestinians being selfish and unreliable.
Most will now claim that Arabness is a myth, shunning it in favor Islam or some other form of pragmatic globalism—whether dominant (like Bushism) or submissive (like Ladenism), so to speak—which will be invariably bound by the atavistic and universalist imperatives of the millennium’s incredibly narrow political spectrum. Certainly, some degree of fragility remains inherent to the concept in the light of political experience; the terms ‘pan-Arabism’ and ‘Arab unity’, at least, are always on the verge of implosion, as if by merely uttering them one is instantly replaying the Lebanese Civil War, recalling the 1967 War, underlining the Gulf nations’ wholesale defection to a mode of pan-Americanism.
Arabness as a cultural condition remains profoundly geographic—as opposed to historical—a trait complicated further by the fact that it is quite simply interesting, especially in the first decade of the millennium, for something to be called Arab. ‘Interesting’ implies, above all, plurality: it means more things to be Arab than it does to be communist, for example, or even modern.
One thing it does not mean is that the subject should consider Cairo her cultural capital. In fact inter-Arab chauvinism—Bedouin vs. Hadar, Mashreq vs. Maghreb, Umawite-Levantine vs. Abbasid-Gulfie: all are as much intellectual as psychological divides—may well be at the root of inter-Arab strife; and in this context the imperialist divide-and-rule volley can travel incredibly far, as has been demonstrated time and again over the decades. (Witness, once more by way of example, the recent history of Sunni-Shia strife in Iraq, the effect of the US ‘liberation’ of the country on the escalation of that strife, and the ideological—for which read, in effect, tribal—substance of its drive.) The fact that, through cinema, then radio and eventually television, Egypt had for a long time dominated the audiovisual media—it is this, and the country’s location, that explain the currency of Egyptian Arabic, compared to other dialects, in both Mashreq and Maghreb—has often made other urban Arabs (Beirutis, for example) deeply resentful of Cairo, eager to point up both contradictions and disappointments as they claim a position of leadership for their cities. Cairo shrugs, laughing shrilly as she thrusts forward her cleavage: she knows that no other girl on the market has been around for longer, none will ever have as many clients.
Still, Egyptian chauvinism is arguably the worst of all; after the blatant fact of political segregation, it is the complacency and corruption of the Cairenes’ own sense of identity that forms the first obstacle in the way of the city actualizing her potential as Arab cultural median. (Nasser, the first truly Egyptian head of state and Egypt’s only true champion of Arabness, delivered his speeches in a combination of broken standard Arabic and dialect, breaking with a tradition that had maintained a level of linguistic proficiency in formal contexts in the wake of the 19th-century battle against the official imposition of Turkish on Egyptian—also, by general consensus, Arab—life, especially in the military, where Nasser was a corporal.) This chauvinism manifests in an infinity of registers, many of which have only the most contingent connection with other Arabs, some of which have to do with postcolonial self-hatred a la Frantz Fanon, and a few, a very few of which hark back to pre-Conquest times.
One of the latter, I believe, is conservatism, colored by both inflexibility and stasis. Much has been made of the rise of religiosity in Egypt in terms of both (potentially militant) political dissent and (middle-class) social attitudes. The truth is that, while their Wahhabi and consumerist registers may indeed be recent developments, ritual piety, sartorial modesty, ageism, nepotism and classism—the mainstays of Egyptian public life—are as old as the Pharaohs; they do not occur with the same incidence in other Arab states; and they have negative implications for the theory and practice of culture. It is possible to see 20th-century sociopolitical phenomena that have a bearing on cultural life as expressions of this ancient trait.
Nasser’s Soviet influence, for example, has made for a legacy of both police-state security and inefficient bureaucracy. This means that, among many implications for culture, outdoor gatherings are outlawed; it means that writers and artists are often also civil servants, with their loyalty to the establishment, the only available source of money and kudos, overruling the creative impulse. But outdoor gatherings are hardly sanctioned by city-dwellers themselves, unless they have to do with religion; and a place in the official hierarchy, to a far greater extent than artistic accomplishment outside the popular media, is the gauge by which the vast majority—including police personnel—will judge a person they do not know. It also means that, when a young blogger receives a prison sentence for speaking his mind about Islam, his parents are the first to support the move and disown him. State, religion and family suddenly put aside their differences and become one, alienating the individual beyond any hope: this is Egyptian. Together with xenophobia—a condition less of history per se than of cumulative lack of access to information—it makes for an unsafe and inhospitable cultural space. Cairo smiles sheepishly, concerned and slightly ashamed: she gathers her bundle of tatters, adjusts her makeup, and leaves…
There are now in Egypt three means to the production of culture: a nepotism-ridden ministry suffering all the symptoms of a formerly socialist dictatorship and inextricably linked with similarly afflicted government and pro-government bodies; a commercial sector prone not only to profit-making constraints but, more importantly, to censorial intervention from the official, the religious and the family establishment—as in the case of the blogger; and an ‘independent’ sector with roots in the NGO scene, frequently subject to the same patterns of conservatism as the other two. Of the three only the latter, however, is eager to maintain links with the rest of the Arab world. But there are indications of the meaning of Arabness in all of them, whether positive or negative. Rather than showing that Cairo is or isn’t cultural capital, two examples of these should give an idea of what is involved in saying that she is:
Ellimbi. Star comedian Mohammad Saad’s cult figure Ellimbi, who first appeared in his late peer Alaa Waleyeddin’s 2000 film vehicle Al-Nazir (Salaheddin) but found fuller expression in Saad’s subsequent, eponymous vehicle of 2002, is among the most eloquent metaphors for urban dispossession in recent Arab culture. Ellimbi is illiterate, a drunk-druggie and a thug—all of which, as well as reflecting socioeconomic deprivation, are occasions for comic interest and laughter: a powerful statement about the contemporary inner-city Arab living in a country of relative stability and struggling with unemployment and official oppression—but his most compelling attribute is the way he speaks. Together with Waleyeddin, Mohammad Heneidi, Ahmad Helmi and, to a lesser extent, Hani Ramzi, Saad is part of the cinematic phenomenon I have tentatively named ‘new-wave comedy’, which, though it remains a wholly commercial development and in the process perpetuates rather than questions sociopolitical norms, has evidenced a comic sensibility distinct from that of the previous generation of Egyptian comedians, like the superstar Adel Imam, whose verbal antics expressed emotional responses to meaningful dramatic situations. In new-wave comedy, by contrast, laughter derives directly from such verbal antics, which in reflecting the development of the vernacular—the latest slang, the influence of satellite TV, the results of urban-rural and inter-Arab interactions—capitalize, rather, on the breakdown of language as a the principal container of meaning.
In Ellimbi such breakdown reaches an apex; though Saad has made a sequel, Elli Bali Balak (2003) and attempted a series of variations since, nothing compares to the power of the original, suggesting that, in Ellibmi, Saad had already exhausted the possibilities of this late-in-the-day figure of fun. In Ellimbi’s mouth, all the major components of the vernacular, both standard and dialect—love poetry, including the lyrics of classic Om Kolthoum songs; everyday sayings, proverbs, idioms and turns of phrase; exclamations and interrogative constructions; the platitudes and comforts of an entire society—are semantically and phonetically distorted, mispronounced, misappropriated, muddled and confused to the point of being meaningless; the situation is understood, and the characters’ position within it, but never through the ordinary (normative) operation of language; and the result, though funny—largely because laughable—can be profoundly unsettling. It is as though, in Ellimbi, the linguistic frailty of Nasser’s speeches reaches its ultimate conclusion, reflecting a parallel process of disintegration that afflicted society in the half century separating the two popular figures (however incompatible they look at first glance): the suicide of the spoken word; the death of collective meaning insofar as it can be verbally communicated.
Amkenah. The flowering of the nineteen sixties, quickly cut short by 1967 and the return of both conservatism and unchecked capitalism under Sadat, gave way to a deep rift in reader-writer relations. Since then serious poetry and fiction have not had the benefit of a readership to speak of, partly because they were increasingly inaccessible, partly because fewer people were interested in books. It wasn’t until the mid nineteen nineties that a new current in prose poetry—subsequently igniting more novel(ette)s than diwans, but also informing a much wider range of scriveners from less self-consciously ‘professional’ novelists to journalists, diarists, humorists and political analysts—opened up the parameters of literature somewhat. In this regard nonfiction seems to promise rather more than ‘literature’ as it is currently understood by the vast majority of creative writers: fiction and poetry; and it is Amkenah (Places), the occasional magazine published from Alexandria since 1999, that demonstrates this. An initiative of Alaa Khaled — himself not only a nineties prose poet but, since he is based in Alexandria, technically also ‘a writer of the provinces’ —the magazine showcases the widest variety of nonfiction texts, sometimes interspersed with or accompanied by monochromatic photographs or archival extracts.
In so doing Amkenah has managed to become financially self-sufficient—a genuinely unprecedented feat; Khaled, refusing to align himself with the so called independent scene, the only funding option available to him, has had to produce the magazine from his own pocket, overseeing its Cairo sales in person. Amkenah—openly defiant of Cairo’s centralism, and thus a modest precursor to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—must be Cairo’s best-selling literary publication—paradoxically enough—which says an amazingly great deal for the appeal of nonfiction in Arabic. Nonfiction, arguably the most lasting consequence of the nineteen nineties’, as it were, breath of fresh air—seems to be freeing literature from the tentacles of obscurantism and ‘sophistication’, finally. It is a slow process, but it is ongoing and gathers advocates by the day. The influence of Amkenah has certainly been felt throughout the literary scene, and it is gradually reaching other Arab countries by way of Cairo…
Mixing her (non-alcoholic) cocktail, the old whore listens in silence. She is consumed by a passion of remembrance but will not divulge her grief. At the street corner she gazes at the billboard of Mohammad Saad’s latest film, ignoring a book stall where Amkenah is stacked to one side, dusty and obscured. It is sunset and she must find work: she sniffs after expensive eau de toilet; she listens hard for non-Egyptian cadences of speech. Then she crosses the streets in hurry, paying no attention to traffic lights, strutting her tired stuff.
this piece published two years ago in Magaz, the design magazine