Rodenbeck, a journalist for The Economist, has written a superior paean, one that mixes the intensity of first-hand experience with the fruits of a thorough immersion into the written record. The result is both jaunty and learned, a pleasing whole that will interest those who wish to imagine that exotic locale as well as those who have personally experienced the city and wish better to understand its rhythms. Few cities can inspire as interesting a book as Cairo: The City Victorious and few writers can carry it off as well as Rodenbeck.
Size and crowdedness tend to make Cairo less than a favorite for travelers—more a place to bear and get through than to enjoy. But if one can endure the noise, dirt, and traffic, there is much to discover. The city contains antiquities from an amazingly diverse collection of eras; only Rome can try to compete with Cairo's monuments that span the five thousand years from the great pyramids of Giza to the present. Rodenbeck breezes through ancient times and settles on the medieval era, then traces its decline during the dismal period 1500-1800. His account comes most to life in the late nineteenth century, when Cairo revived in the guise of a partially European city (in 1910, he reckons, one-eighth of the city was foreign-born)—a heady, exciting place for the Europeanized elite.
"The first half of Cairo's twentieth century saw the West overwhelm the East. High heels and two-tones clattered up marble stairs; camelskin babouches rustled down. The century's second half saw the reverse: silken slippers shuffling down, bare peasant feet and army boots stomping up." After the coup of 1952 that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, Cairo then suffered, as did the whole country, under Nasser's tyranny and the cost of his foreign adventures. Even Rodenbeck's infectious narrative takes a somber turn, weighed down by near-totalitarian rule at home and military disaster abroad. Fortunately, things improved with Nasser's death in 1970 and the lighter rule of Sadat and Mubarak that followed, though our author finds much not to like in the present-day city. Fanatical Islamic sheikhs who would ban zucchini because of its suggestive shape are one sort of problem; the inevitable proliferation of McDonald's is another. Still, he counts on the city's "shambolic grandeur and operatic despair" to continue, on its "enduring, life-giving nonchalance" to sustain it beyond jihad or hamburgers.