Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control.
UNDERSTANDING CAIRO: THE
LOGIC OF A CITY OUT OF
(Cairo: American University in Cairo
Press, 2011), 304 pages.
Most of the drama of Egypt's Arab Spring transition from authoritarianism to democracy has played out in the megacity of Cairo--not just Egypt's capital, but the largest city in Africa and the Middle East, and arguably the cultural center of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
David Sims, an urban planner with three decades of experience working in Cairo, wrote Understanding Caira: The Logic of a City Out of Contral before Egypt's January 25 Revolution in 2011. Like the Egyptian protestors, Sims triumphs in demonstrating the Egyptian government's decades-old disconnect from the needs and desires of the majority of Cairo's population.
In Cairo, informal processes, those beyond the realm of government control, dominate. Almost two-thirds of Cairo's population live in informal neighborhoods, and almost half work in the informal sector. Even some means of transport, like the Indian-imported tuk-tuk, serve Egypt's population while remaining outside the realm of legality. The "serendipity" of it all is that these informal processes, guided by everyday Cairenes, actually work, making Cairo an efficient, functional city. Official development plans, on the other hand, like the establishment of far-flung desert towns, are shown to be "modernist delusions."
The strength of Understanding Cairo stems from the author's seemingly limitless knowledge of the city and his familiarity with relevant academic and journalistic texts, census data and Google satellite images. Tables, charts, photos and maps abound, complementing the book's content. The time Sims has spent in Cairo allows him to add anecdotes like the following: "In no sense are [informal areas] 'no-go zones,' except perhaps for those of Cairo's paranoid upper classes." Sims successfully challenges conventional wisdom throughout the book.
With Egypt currently moving in the direction of representative government, Sims's work has the potential to inspire new leaders to challenge existing assumptions and redirect Cairo's development to serve its industrious citizens.