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Cairo: City of Sand By Maria Golia
Published by Reaktion Books, in their TOPOGRAPHICS series
ISBN 1-86189-187-3 £14.95

Maria Golia"s book Cairo: City of Sand is packed full of observations of enduring worth most specially when Golan focuses her attention on language, its usage, its modifications and the vital importance of humour and Arabic song within Egyptian life in Cairo. She writes with wit and immediacy, intimacy and humanity. Jokes are "the dialogue between the people and the deaf realms of power"- all the more vital for the state censorship that grips every other form of communication. Even if a driver has no need of the tissues so energetically hawked by streets boys at the traffic lights, these kids will offer a joke instead and be listened to.

With half of Egypt still functionally illiterate, it is clear that ideas and feelings are still best explored in conversation rather than print. All too many of the literate within Cairo instinctively connect books and literature with unhappy memories of school, crammed note-taking for exams and dull, expensive text books. There is even a linguistic division between the language of power and that of conversation. The modern standardized classical Arabic is used by government officials, in the law courts, universities and state controlled media. While colloquial Arabic, constantly enriched by inventive borrowings from America and France, remains the language of pleasure, of cinema, popular music and theatre. It is against such a divisive social background that one begins to understand the absolute unifying power of Arabic music, where a great singer can freely become known as ³the celestial body" with ³her audience stretching out to embrace the ephemeral in a joy barely distinguishable from agony" and where the greatest communal event in Cairo"s recent history was the two million strong procession that escorted Umm Kulthum to her grave. On the penultimate page Golan observes, "It is wonderful to walk the streets in the late afternoon and hear many radios tuned to the same station· that plays classic recordings of singers·These are often melancholic, elaborately orchestrated poetic laments that mourn the loss of love, or speak of distance and pain of remembering."

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