Having lived much of his life in Cairo, Rodenbeck disparages its rich, intent on creating their own plastic California - what is the Egyptian for McDonald's? He prefers its proletarian quarters; Cairo, we discover, has a sense of humour.
The city is a geographical inevitability. It nestles, like vocal cords, in the neck of the Nile Valley, between Africa and Asia, across from Europe. Echoing to the languages of the Pharaohs, Greece, Rome, Islam, France, and England, it has seen many guises.
There was a thriving community there 3000 years before Christians numbered the millennia - an economic, social, and cultural crossroads. For half its life it was at the heart of an autonomous Egypt. The Greeks and Romans, however, relegated it to colonial subservience.
Cairo became the plaything of invading armies and evangelists. History and armies course through Cairo, as unhurried and irresistible as the Nile.
Yet Rodenbeck presents modern Cairo as a youthful, bustling place. Densely packed, it makes Manhattan look like a newly settled wilderness. People jam available rooms: homeless children spill onto the streets fighting for breath in the press of motor cars.
Home to a quarter of Egypt's population, Cairo dreams of being the cultural, political and economic powerhouse of the Middle East and North Africa: it may simply be dazzled by the glory of its past, pursuing a modernity it can never achieve.
Arab tourists flock to Cairo as a seat of Arab culture; Westerners come to consume antiquity. A legacy of ancient civilisation can be stultifying - tourism ossifies life. Meanwhile politicians have abdicated responsibility for its re-creation as a modern capital: political energies are dissipated in an ideological struggle between Islamic fundamentalism and modernism.
Rodenbeck carries the reader through thousands of years of Cairene life. He treats culture - even ancient culture - as a dynamic, living thing, presenting modern Cairo as a place of contrasts and extremes. Exciting, vibrant, refusing to become a museum, Cairo's hourglass has limitless sands.
Rodenbeck doesn't treat us to a long history, reducing the present to mere adjunct, a consequence of history with no life of its own; nor does he regale the reader with a gushing travelogue of things to do, places to see, bargains to collect. Cities are living places which can't be summed up in terms of sites and sound-bites.
Cairo: the City Victorious should be read, not left on the shelf. If you never visit, this is still a book to enjoy. It questions how cities age and change. Rodenbeck's argues they live because the people in them live. They become theme-parks only if and when their inhabitants cannot imagine any other future. Cairo's smile hasn't yet become the anodyne grimace which accompanies anonymous fast food - it remains one of genuine amusement and joie de vivre.