In the same vein Albert Cossery’s “The colors of shame.” The book is a quick read and follows a well-mannered pickpocket and serves as a sort of guide to the dynamics of the city’s old markets – the scamming, the bargaining, the negotiating a deal. Once you set foot in the Khan el-Khalili bazaaror even on the pyramids plateau in Giza, where you are inundated with offers on camel rides, horseback riding and guides, you would appreciate reading this book.
Which books or authors should I bring?
Cairo is largely characterized by its layers of architecture — Fatimid, Mamluk, Khedival. But it also has a rich history of modern architecture, from turn-of-the-century revivalism to concrete expressionism and modernist design. This includes the homes of iconic cultural figures. The house of singer Oum Kulthoum has been demolished, but similar houses by the same architect, Ali Labib Gabr, still stand nearby, including what was once my grandmother’s house just a few blocks away. This is not a novel, but Mohamed Elshahed’s”Cairo Since 1900: An Architecture Guide” provides a brilliant guide to this modern age and is a perfect companion for walking tours, talking not only about the buildings and their historical significance, but also about that time.
In fiction, Waguih Ghali’s “Beer at the Snooker Club” is a cult classic originally written in English that portrays post-colonial Cairo through the eyes of a nationalist, Anglophone aristocrat grappling with regime change and new socialist policies under President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Although it was written in 1964, it now also tells the story of Egypt.
At the other end of the classroom and experience spectrum during that same political regime is Sonallah Ibrahim’s experimental novel “that smell.” It was published in 1968 and tells the story of a recently released prisoner and his malaise as he struggles, and fails, to adjust to everyday life on the outside. There are many days in this fast-paced city that feel like this novel to me.
If I don’t have time for day trips, what books can take me further afield?
André Aciman’s collection of essaysfalse papers”, for a trip to Alexandria. Born and raised there, Aciman returns decades after his family left in exile and tries to find the city as it existed in his memory. He finds little about it, but his search captures in detail the city as it is best remembered. His pensive book moves through time and geography, from Egypt to Europe, but even there it is still about Aciman’s Alexandria. To hold onto that sentiment — the watching and the loss — then read Constantine P. Cavafy’s”Collected Poems.” The two writers, both born in the old port city, form an unofficial Alexandrian compendium.
Yasmine El Rashidi’s Reading List in Cairo
Novels by Naguib Mahfouz
“In the eye of the sun” and “Love Card”, Ahdaf Souif
“Slip”, Mohamed Kheir
“Cairo: City of Sand,” Maria Goliath
“The Colors of Shame”, Albert Cossery
“Cairo Since 1900: An Architectural Guide”, Mohamed Elshahid
“Beer at the Snooker Club,” Expensive Guiha
“That smell,” Sonallah Ibrahim
“false papers”, Andre Aciman
“Collected Poems”, Constantine P. Cavafy