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Cairo -- still Mother of the World


"Cairo: The City Victorious," by Max Rodenbeck. Knopf. 288 pages. $27.50.

You have taken a wrong turn and are in hell. It is every degree as hot as you feared. And is painfully bright, everything bleached dead white -- another fear fulfulled -- and tortuously loud because demons in Fiats constantly honk their horns while a hundred buses roar, while you try to breath air that seems mostly grit. Tahrir Square, in central Cairo, is the busiest, most energizing hell I know.

In the Arab world, haughty Damascus sinks to the level of provincial capital when compared to Cairo. Amman, Jordan, seems a nice little desert crossroads. Baghdad is frightened and soulless. Jeddah and other cities floating on oil just seem crass. Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East correspondent for the Economist, chooses the perfect tale from "Thousand and One Nights" near the beginning of his celebration of the city to remind readers of its centrality in the Middle East's spirit:

"He who has not seen Cairo has not seen the world," a wise father in the story tells his son in the far-away city of Mosul, on the banks of the Tigris River. "Its dust is gold; its Nile is a wonder, its women are like the black-eyed virgins of paradise; its houses are palaces and how could Cairo be otherwise, when she is the Mother of the World?"

Rodenbeck traces his personal connection to the city to great-grandmother Alfreda from Virginia crossing donkey paths in Cairo with a British officer on his way to India. Thus are born several long-lasting romances. Rodenback is honest enough to admit to having fallen wholly out of love with it at least once. He has a fine, warm description for this most exhausting of places: "gloriously grubby."

Nothing about it is artificial. Every imaginable ugliness and beauty is right in front of you. Ten million residents jostle past 200,000 street vendors and far more vehicles than the streets can handle. It apparently seemed no less crowded when all vehicles were camels or donkeys. A 13th century traveler tells of an oxcart loaded with stones blocking an official procession, while smoke from open fires pours onto the street, nearly choking every pedestrian. Tahrir Square!

What a shame the book overextends itself. Cairo proper is plenty rich for a fine travel memoir, but Rodenbeck emerges as downright pharaonic, claiming almost everything as his subject. His book has well-written material on ancient Egypt and the old capital at Memphis beginning in about 3000 B.C. That gives the author a lot of ground to cover because Cairo doesn't really emerge for another 3,500 years.

It means we have to wait until the last third of the book to inspect the present-day city. We finally meet a few living, breathing Cairenes, such as the widowed mother who earns more money as a maid than does her daughter as a physician. But only a very few, and we don't get to know any of them well. There is Ashraf, one of the millions of men eking out a living without evident pleasure, who guides the author a few steps into that immense struggling caste, but then he's gone.

We take a pleasant, speedy Grand Tour (like great-grandmother Alfreda made). Lovely, chaotic city; lovely, chatty book. But, oh!, if only the guide would tell us more about what he sees today and less about yesterday.

Robert Ruby, an editor on leave from The Sun, spent five years in the Middle East as the paper's correspondent there. He is author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms," and is working on a second nonfiction book.

Pub Date: 02/21/99

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