Some say that divine will guides the chaotic and unpredictable life in Cairo, but author Lesley Lababidi tells Daily News Egypt that, in fact, “two groups essentially keep Cairo moving.
Colorful and concise, Lababidi’s latest book, “Cairo’s Street Stories begins with a dedication, above the picture of a lion that guards the Qasr El Nile bridge, to those two groups: “To Cairo’s traffic police and taxi drivers in admiration of “the randomness faced. every day they go to work.
It takes immense lung-power and will-power to control Cairo traffic, said Lababidi, and “you can always get the beat of the city through the taxi driver.
Aiming to capture the city’s pulse, the 152-page book – subtitled “Exploring the City’s Statues, Squares, Bridges, Gardens, and Sidewalk Cafés – carries more layers in its pages than your typical guidebook.
In fact, Lababidi asserts that her work, compiled as a result of many meanderings through Cairo streets and musings from her domicile over the Gamaa Bridge, is “not a guide book, but a way to guide you through the history of Egypt.
Lababidi provides an accessible, orderly guide, with chapters presenting Cairo through the ordinary local spots: traditional coffee shops, packed gardens, busy squares and still bridges. Each spot embodies a different facet of the city, each portraying Cairo in different light.
She explores the inner disparity between the eclectic nature of the city and its oriental character, while highlighting three periods (Muhammad Ali and modernization; 1882-1952: nationalism and independence; and 1952-70: revolution and political reform) through images of literally statuesque figures from the last three centuries.
Consequently, the book carries the pace not of a quick, cursory walk in which sites are explored and ticked off, but of contemplation over history and the poetry that produced this city, and what Lababidi often refers to as the “movement within it.
Most acutely embodied in the unpredictability and constant chatter and pressure of the daily routine of traffic police and taxi drivers, this movement is what defines Cairo.
A Cairo resident for nearly 20 years, Lababidi had initially “wanted to know whom these statutes represent, but was encouraged by the American University in Cairo Press to go further. They were more interested, said Lababidi, in “a movement around the statue; why they’re there.
This is not the first literary venture for Lababidi, who is also the author of “Cairo: The Family Guide and “Silent No More: Special Needs People in Egypt . She is also editor of the 2006 and 2008 editions of “Cairo: The Practical Guide .
The current work, though, was in gestation for an entire year before she finally found her much-needed lead. The statues in Cairo, Lababidi found, “had the thread of 1800s to the 1970s.
Pulling that thread of time entailed an investigation through the lives of figures that now adorn Cairo’s streets and squares. “Cairo Street Stories weaves a narrative around this thread to trace the past and study the path leading to the modern history of Egypt.
The second stage of the book’s creation involved a survey of Cairo’s development through the different faiths that pervaded it, and their interpretations of Cairo’s landscape.
The challenge in producing this four-year long enterprise was “in taking all of this information and presenting it as if moving through Cairo, observing how it is to “sit on a bridge and sip some tea and look at how we see the city.
While studying the history that paved the cityscape, Lababidi encountered questions such as, “What is the meaning of a gineina (garden)? What is the meaning of a midan [square]? Hence, chapters such as “Cairo is. a Gineina or “.a Midan.
“Cairo is a city carved from the desert, an oasis along the Nile waters. It comes as little surprise that amid moving sands and waters, these monuments too are often shifted around, caught in movement on camera in these pages.
Towards the end, the book provides brief biographies of the sculptors of the Cairene cityscape.
“It was very difficult finding many of them. I was sad that I could not get everybody, said Lababidi, adding regretfully. “I had to leave some out.
Lababidi hopes to revisit these edifices and their authors in later editions. “I am still hoping to put more in later, she said, citing an example of Tariq El-Komi, designer of a bronze Umm Kulthoum statue in Zamalek, whom she was unsuccessful in tracing, and of whom she provided a brief biography.
“Those kinds of things are ongoing, she said, revealing the desire for a revised, future edition.
The book ends with a friendly note on “How to Clean a Statue. While Lababidi appreciates these are figures of the past, “they need to have a bath, too, she said, humorously.
Lababidi included the note as she was herself among the curious, observing the “movement of statue cleaners. Many youth take photographs, usually on mobile phones, that capture them clambering up statues. One such example of this common scene is provided in the book.
Another photo observes workers on scaffolding around the Saad Zaghloul statue, where “people themselves were almost statues, Lababidi noted.
On one of her walks, curious about the restoration taking place on a statue, Lababidi was invited to the restoration department, where she was “amazed at the exhibit there that showed part of the process.
Many roads can take you to your intended destination. And the beauty of Cairo Street Stories is that it allows the reader to take different routes, cover-to-cover, or to dip in, as one could with short stories, carrying a narrative alley and arriving at a chosen midan or gineina, understanding the paths that led to the Cairo in which we walk today.
“In the present, Lababidi said, “we have to take care of the past.
Cairo s Street Stories: Exploring the City s Statues, Squares, Bridges, Gardens and Sidewalk Cafes. AUC Press, 2008.
Lesley Lababidi works for NGOs dedicated to youth, such as The Roots Space in Lebanon and is founder of the Middle East North Africa Youth Leadership Initiative.