While novels tend to provide more raw entertainment to readers, non-fiction books can have much more to offer, expanding our realms of knowledge or forcing us to really think about everything, from life, to religion, to science. “Connected in Cairo: Growing Up Cosmopolitan in the Modern Middle East” is one such book, seeking to leave readers with a better understanding of the world around us.
While it may seem obvious after being pointed out, it takes this to-the-point anthropological analysis by Mark Allen Peterson to show us that the cultural and identity crisis in Cairo runs very, very deep. Peterson is not simply content to tell us this, he meticulously traces the origins of the multifaceted Cairene society, from infancy through adolescence to adulthood, exploring factors and variables that eventually decide whether spending weekends at the neighbourhood ahwa really makes one any more Egyptian than weekends in Tamarai.
The real heart of the book is how it is so relatable to most, if not all, Egyptians. The book does not have an intended audience apart from anyone interested in the inner workings of the Egyptian- Western dichotomy that embodies Cairo today, yet it is replete with references and observations that will give even the cockiest, most “confident-in-my-identity” reader pause for thought, from the great Pokémon boom of the late 90’s to the decades-old Samir magazine.
A product of Peterson’s time teaching anthropology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Connected in Cairo is not simply a surface examination tossed from an ivory tower in the clouds like so many recent news reports. Peterson explores multiple stratum of Egyptian society, from the cab drivers, to the half-Egyptians, to the college students paying thousands of pounds in tuition, to lovers of popular religious preacher Amr Khaled. His narrative belies a solid foundation of Egyptian history and culture, and he appears to have made good use of his time in the country garnering contacts and holding interviews to better tailor his analysis to the idiosyncrasies of the Egyptians.
The book is not just a boring academic read either, even casual readers will benefit from its flowing style replete with short anecdotes that inject liveliness and background into the sometimes sweeping generalisations Peterson makes. A personal favourite was the image of two young boys walking down the street, so coincidentally close, yet light-years apart culturally, as evidenced by their manner of dress, their choice of reading material and the schools they emerged from. The scene appears so innocuous and everyday, yet Peterson dissects it thoroughly and constantly refers to it throughout the rest of the book as an example of the amazing panorama of parallel cultural motifs Cairo contains within its boundaries.
To sum up, Connected in Cairo might at first seem a little too heavily laden with anthropological lingo and historical references for the casual reader, but sticking with it will prove worthwhile. Every strand eventually weaves together, however tenuously, to present a coherent tapestry that attempts to make sense of the intricately chaotic mosaic that is Cairene society.
The attempt is a valiant one and gains several secure footholds but, in my opinion, the koshary that is this culture, with its American, European and uniquely Oriental roots, will forever remain enigmatic and indecipherable.