by Max Rodenbeck ‧ RELEASE DATE: Feb. 19, 1999
An exhaustively researched, thoroughly entertaining jaunt through the back alleys and teeming boulevards of Cairo, where the ancient world mingles daily with the modern. Rodenbeck, a Cairo resident and Middle East reporter for the Economist, has written an ambitious book that is neither straight history nor exotic travelogue, but an impressionistic, free-flowing combination of both. Early chapters detail Cairo's geographic significance and ancient history. The very reason for Cairo's wealth and cosmopolitan flair, the Nile River, also brought with it devastating floods that have killed thousands. It's no surprise, then, that death and the afterlife have remained Cairene obsessions for three millennia. Rodenbeck describes the city as a crowded necropolis of pyramids, tombs, and mausoleums that often overshadow the living. With its commercial and cultural centrality, Cairo has attracted numerous conquerors, from Alexander the Great to the Muslim Saladin to Napoleon. The city's chaotic political history, a tale of autocratic self-glorification and bureaucratic corruption, has rendered the average Cairene cynical and suspicious of power. Even so, since the seventh century, Islam has exerted the strongest single influence on Egyptian life. Rodenbeck brilliantly discusses Egypt's contradictory urges for Western materialism and religious fundamentalism. The post-WWII period has been especially tumultuous for Cairo, as presidents Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak tried and largely failed to modernize postcolonial Egypt by drawing on Western models. As problems of unemployment, inequality, and overcrowding continue to plague modern Cairo, Islamic fundamentalism increasingly attracts the culturally alienated and economically frustrated. Rodenbeck worries about Islam's encroachment on political and intellectual freedoms but finds reason for optimism in the practical, common-sense outlook of Cairo's people. A lucid and strikingly relevant look at a city caught between its glorious past and problematic future, attempting to accommodate both East and West.
Pub Date: Feb. 19, 1999
Page Count: 288
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1998
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