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The City and the Writer: In Cairo with Youssef Rakha

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

               —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Cairo as you feel/see it?

You could think of Cairo as a lie worn so thin by repetition that it actually shows the truth. A mega-village posing as a metropolis, a security agent posing as an intellectual, or a commercial bedlam posing as a sidewalk flanked by stalling traffic. Incredible busyness and no one going anywhere. The most recent example of the lie is the pretense that a major historical transformation has been happening since 2011, when in fact what’s taken place if anything is a more extreme reinstatement of the status quo. It is always the lie of correctness or goodness, the tendency to abide by a supposed tradition or received notion of what is self-evidently right. Wherever you go in the city you see exaggerated shows of fellow feeling and friendliness that barely conceal the impossibly inconsiderate attitudes of the people putting them on. Lurid displays of piety, chastity, and patriotism are routine, but they’re routinely unconvincing. Where there is no deterrent, you can see these patterns dissolving into their constituent violences—something that has been very obvious since 2011. Still, Cairo’s insistence on falsifying itself is only partly mercenary, because the lie always lives beyond its immediate function. It lives in the desperation of the liars who without their otherwise unnecessary mendacity would have no sense of self at all. 

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

Several possibilities here. There is this one moment in 2001. My father’s death the year before was finally registering. September 11 had just happened and I didn’t know how to feel about it, except that it was intimately connected with my own predicament. I was driving with my friend and his car tire exploded at the tallest point of the October Bridge (which is called “the Dry Nile” in Book of the Sultan’s Seal). It was late at night and we were very high, on our way to a place where we would get higher still. There was no equipment with which to replace the tire and had there been we wouldn’t have been able to operate it. We pulled over and got out to wait for help. The asphalt shook under our feet as the cars sped past. The railing felt very low and, leaning over, I suddenly felt I was looking both 9/11 and the death of my father in the face. I was gazing at the destruction and doom that was (my) contemporary Arab-Muslim identity. It felt as though in my life I was trapped in a forsaken spot just like the one I was physically in now, shackled to religious and political insanities I did not accept that would nonetheless trail me wherever I went in the world. Irrevocably bereft of civilization. 

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Oddly I find this question very hard to answer, or maybe not so oddly. I suppose what is missed the most, or not seen in this way, is the poetry of ruins so widespread in Cairo. Not just ruins, I mean, but the peculiar grace of poverty and destitution on the rooftops of Boulaq abu al `lla, for example. Images that people don’t usually associate with beauty can be incredibly scenic in this cityscape, especially combined with the sense that there used to be great architecture here, whether Islamic or colonial, that is either falling apart or no longer. I remember once on the way to some press assignment, as the Pyramids emerged on the horizon, a coworker pointed to a cluster of ramshackle dwellings between us and them and said they should be removed because they were spoiling the view. For my part, I found the mini-shantytown more charming than the Pyramids, or at least it gave the Pyramids all the aesthetic meaning they could have under the circumstances.

Photo: Cairo, Youssef Rakha.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

You should read the nineties prose poets. I will mention only Ahmad Yamani (who actually lives in Spain now). You should also read the early short stories of Youssef Edriss, and Tawfik al Hakim’s Return of the Spirit, and the Mameluk historians Ibn Iyass and Jabarti.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Street No. 9 in Maadi, one of the oldest suburbs in the Southeast. There are lots of trees there, and more space to walk than usual, and nearby there is a Thai restaurant, Bua Khao, that I really like. I’m not often there, but I always return. No particular reason beyond what I have said, except perhaps for formative associations. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The “Bermuda Triangle,” formed by the Zahret al Bustan Cafe, the Atelier du Caire, and the Grillon Bar in and around Talaat Harb Square, is aptly named. This is literary and intellectual Cairo, full of galleries, bars, cafes, and egos, and it has satellites within walking distance in Bab al Louq and Maarouf. It includes the historical Café Riche which though a deadly place now is as iconic as you can get.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Only cities within the city have intrigued or seduced me. Despite being suffocatingly homogeneous, Cairo has a multitude: cities of art, of drink, of nostalgia, and of systematic debauchery; tour-guide and male-prostitute and drug-dealer cities, Little Wests, political cities. They are the settings for intense and sophisticated dramas that the majority of Egyptians think or would like to think can only happen elsewhere in space and time. I don’t know how hidden these cities are but they tend to be demarcated by overriding social boundaries: if not a class, then a quasi-tribal community, a shared place of origin, a trade, or a habit. It occurs to me now that I’ve never been truly part of any of these cities. So, when I’ve lived in them, I must’ve been pretending in order to gather material. But at the same time I don’t think there is much space for my work in mainstream Cairo, which is a very parochial and prurient place. At least from where I stand, the lie will automatically repulse any attempt at truth. 

Where does passion live here?

There are love stories in Cairo as insane as any in human history. There can be a lot of religious and patriotic fervor, too, easily reduced to sectarianism and xenophobia. People are more emotionally articulate and interpersonally engaged than, say, in the UK. But passion seethes in the compulsion to achieve social kudos: a variation on the dog-eat-dog theme of so much modern life, distinct in that it’s driven not so much by ambition and hard work as by desperation and conning. This passion lives side by side with an old and impractical code of decency—loyalty to the family, for example— that people often feel obliged to key into their calculations, if only for appearances’ sake; hence the nepotism, wasta, and corruption so rife and so rooted. 

What is the title of one of your works about Cairo and what inspired it exactly?

Book of the Sultan’s Seal. My main work, I suppose. It is a portrait of Cairo, city of (post-9/11) Islam. Focusing on the Ottoman Empire as the last seat of the Caliphate, it is a kind of thriller that simultaneously subverts and substantiates conspiracy-theory accounts of Muslim demise, suggesting that the way to a renaissance has less to do with dogma and Jihad than with such things as love poetry and calligraphy: the cultural heterogeneity inherent in the Sublime State. The story is told alternately by and from the viewpoint of Mustafa Çorbaci, its British-educated hero, who has solicited a fellow Egyptian based in Beirut to help him to write an account of his strange experiences, referred to in the rhymed prose subtitle: gharayib at-tarikh fi madinat al marrikh, or The Oddities of History in the City of Mars (the latter being an allusion to the story that Fatimid Cairo—the second, initially royal-military settlement to form the city—was built by mistake while Mars was in the ascendant). The book includes sketches made by Mustafa. Like giant punctuation marks, they illustrate his cartographic attempt to retrieve a Cairo that, by the time the story starts, he feels he has lost completely. By the end, his map of Cairo, made by tracing his journeys through the city with his eyes shut, has the shape of the Ottomans’ best-known calligraphic emblem, the tuğra or sultan’s seal.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Cairo does an outside exist?”

The short answer is no. I suppose it is something of a cliche to quote Cavafy’s “The City”: “This city will always pursue you.” But it’s true at so many levels. For years I wrote nonfiction portraits of Arab capitals thinking I was interested in them for their own sake, only to realize that I was really using them as reference points from which to look at Cairo. As a teenager in England, I was jokingly scolded (by an Englishman) for eating pork, and my having escaped to Europe seemed to defeat the purpose when I saw women in niqabs crossing the street. But all this is superficial compared to how much of my being is constituted by the city, whether positively or negatively, in reaction to all the pain in that it has given me. It sounds ridiculous to say but, yes: I am Cairo.


Born, raised, and based in Cairo, Youssef Rakha is a poet, writer, journalist, literary critic, and photographer of mostly black-and-white photographs. He went to university in the North of England, and more recently lived in Abu Dhabi. Rakha has traveled widely in Europe, Asia, and the Arab world, but middle-class Cairo remains his home. His work has been published in numerous well-known Arabic and English-language newspapers in the Arab world. He is the author of two novels: Book of the Sultan's Seal and The Crocodiles—the first part of a fairy-tale trilogy of poetry and revolution in Cairo, which was published in the US in 2014. His website is

Published Nov 10, 2015   Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal

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