I am a very fussy reader. I ordered several books about Egyptian history in preparation for a trip to Cairo. I made it about half way through Amitav Gosh's In an Antique Land with interested starts and long lapses between readings until I gave up. I looked through Traveling Through Egypt from 450 BC to the Twentieth Century, an interesting collection of short excerpts of travel writing across gender, time and culture; however the print was too small and the excerpts too choppy to really grab me and pull me in. I was desperate to find a book which would capture a sense of Cairo as a place.
I was saved by Maria Golia and her exquisitely written book Cairo: City of Sand. From the first paragraph which describes an apocalyptic scene which turns out to be a sandstorm to the last paragraph which praises the enduring quality of all great cities, especially Cairo.
Reading along with Golia allows one to peer into corners of the city known only to native Cairenes from a women's day at a spa, to ordering a MacFalafel at an Egyptian MacDonalds, to attempting to cross a busy street in deafening traffic so close that it brushes one's clothing as it passes, to rooftop gardens and livestock pens, and to a wedding celebration. Through Golia's pen one can hear the cacophony of Cairo, smell the myriad aromas of a host of ethic cuisines, see the dingy squatters settlement and the Mamluk mosque, and feel the scorching blast of a sandstorm. The book is organized in an interesting way beginning with a chapter called "Vanishing Point" which explores daily life in Cairo by looking at diminishing resources such as housing and water as well as growth in population and pollution. The next chapter, "Artifice and Edifice," examines Cairene's history through buildings from its days as a tent encampment through the modern age and its satellite communities. The chapter titled "Guests" explores Cairo's relationship with its visitors from Napoleonic French to Saudi princes who behave badly and the impact of these guests on Cairene culture. The love of language and relationship building is featured in "Listening" and "Ensemble" probes the mazag - the cultural melange that is Cairo.
The treasure of intimate glimpses into this city of 17 million is only surpassed by Golia's gift of language. Golia manages to capture the complexities of Cairo through the juxtaposition of images: "Bats gorge on Nile mosquitoes, which are languorous and menacing, an airbourne version of the Portuguese men o'war" (43). She uses metaphors to capture the reader's attention and to create humor: "Blackouts are lapses in the municipal attention span" ( 39). Using vivid imagery and lyrical language Golia brings Cairo alive.
I must say that prior to reading this book, my feelings about going to Cairo were an blend of 80% anxiety with 20% excited anticipation. Now that I have vicariously been to Cairo, I now feel mostly excited anticipation.