The truth about travel guidebooks

The new edition of the Fodor’s Egypt guide is scheduled for publication next week and the main interest, for me and a few of my Egyptian friends, will be whether the words we wrote in the first edition thirteen years ago will continue to appear in the latest (fourth) edition, as they did in the third.

In the late-1990s, I was living in Cairo and just started out as a travel writer so I was, perhaps, naively enthusiastic when contacted by an editor in New York about writing a few Fodor’s guidebook chapters on contemporary Cairo and Alexandria.  A friend of mine named Rami el-Samahy (who has since gone on to international success as an architect) and Salima Ikram (now a respected Egyptologist) would also be contributing to the guidebook, so the venture seemed promising.  The contract was “work-for-hire,” which I only understood later — and, then, vowed never to agree to again — meant I would not have a legal claim of ownership as author, which is how my words can continue to be published by Fodor’s today without my name attached.

Still, it was travel writing and there seemed a kind of fantasy in that, being paid (though not much, as it turned out) to experience things I would ordinarily have to pay for myself.  In the years since, many people have told me that writing guidebooks is their dream job and I have felt oddly bashful about telling them that it is, in fact, the worst of travel over and over and over again: guidebooks consist almost entirely of service information (such as hotel facilities, train schedules, and restaurant addresses) that is no pleasure at all to track down.  What’s more, a tourist might only follow one itinerary through a destination but the guidebook writer needs to outfit them for every possible interest and eventuality, so the coverage needs to be mind-numbingly comprehensive.

This service information is the most subject to change, so — one hopes — it is the part that gets updated (or at least verified) with each new edition, though I have noticed that my favorite restaurants and bars from the 1990s never seem to get displaced by newer trends.  In addition, there are a handful of impressionistic essays — these are the only gratifying parts to write — and, as it happens, these are the parts of the guidebook that have been carried forward, edition after edition, largely unchanged for more than a decade now.  But we were writing the first edition, so we worked from a clean slate.  Here, then, is what I wrote about Cairo thirteen years ago, awaiting comparison to what the Fodor’s Egypt fourth edition has to say on the matter:

On first impression, there is hardly a superlative too vast to capture the epic scale of this city of twelve million (or fourteen, or sixteen, no one really knows for sure) that sprawls in all directions.  The traffic, the people, the chaotic rhythm of Cairo will all reinforce this impression, threatening to overwhelm you.  So take your time, relax over a mint tea in a cafe or wander the quiet back alleys, and a different world will be revealed to you.  In many ways Cairo is the proverbial overgrown village, full of little districts and communities that feel much smaller and more intimate than the city of which they are a part.  As a result of this juxtaposition of the monstrous and the humane, Cairo breeds an almost heart-wrenching partisanship among its residents, in which a two-hour lament about its failings and frustrations is always followed, without a hint of contradiction, by a testimony of undying love for the city.   Thus, if the first and most powerful impression of Cairo is that it is an unmanageable beast of a city, the second and more lingering one is that it bountifully rewards the patience and faith required to love it.

Like so much else in Egypt, Cairo’s charm is a product of its history, as the network of districts and communities are the physical remains of a thousand years of being conquered and reconquered by different groups.  The city did not really begin, as one might expect, with the pharaohs; they made their home in nearby Memphis and Heliopolis, which are areas that have only recently been incorporated into Cairo by urban growth.  Indeed the Pyramids at Giza, on the west bank of the Nile, mislead the eye in search of Cairo’s origins because this has always been an east bank city, albeit one that moved west as siltation caused the Nile itself to move west.  It has only been in the last forty years that the city moved faster than the river, leaping the banks and drawing in the endless new suburbs on the west bank.

No, Cairo’s history begins with a pre-Islamic trading outpost called Babylon (now known as Old or Coptic Cairo) at the mouth of an ancient canal that once connected the Nile to the Red Sea.  But it was the seventh century Arab invaders, fittingly, who can be said to have founded the city we know today with their encampment at Fustat, just north of Old Cairo.  Under their great leader ‘Amr Ibn al-As, the Arabs took over a land that had already been occupied by the Greeks, the Persians and the Romans, but they would not be the last.  In the millenium that followed Cairo was ruled by the Fatimids, the Mamlukes, the Ottomans and finally the Europeans.

But what makes the city unique is that each new ruler, rather than destroy what he had conquered, chose to add to it a new city which he built upwind from the old one.  Thus from a bird’s eye view high above the Nile you could follow the progression of the historic center of Cairo, cutting a question mark-shaped path from Old Cairo in the south, curving north through Fustat and east to Islamic Cairo and then west to the colonial district of downtown until you reach Midan Tahrir (Liberation Square) where it has settled for the moment.  But as the city continues to expand, the heart threatens to relocate again, perhaps to Midan Sphinx or Boulaq or somewhere in Giza.

These districts have changed, of course, since the time when they were founded and with ten million new residents pouring in since the revolution in 1952 many new districts have been added to them.  But each retains a distinct identity, not only in its buildings but also among its residents and their way of life.  Pre-Islamic Babylon is, to this day, a disproportionately Christian area, with more crosses visible than crescents.  And the medieval area of Islamic Cairo is still where families traditionally go during Ramadan to spend the night eating and smoking after a day of abstinence.  Indeed, one of the joys of Cairo is that its historic areas are still vibrant, living spaces that have not been converted into open-air museums.  So once you’ve experienced the city in full you’re sure to leave loving the place, all the more so for how overwhelming it first appears.

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One Response to “The truth about travel guidebooks”

  1. James Sie says:

    Thanks for the unique perspective! I can see why they’ve chosen to retain your essay; though the article does make me view guidebook with a slightly more jaundiced eye. Your whole website is beautiful to behold–congratulations.

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