This is a transcription of Episode 30 — Egypt.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to episode 30 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about Egypt,
Melissa: Another awesome place that we haven’t visited yet.
David: And once again doing the research has moved me from casually interested to very interested.
Melissa: Although you know what I realized when I was thinking about visiting Egypt? I think I secretly wish that I could time travel back to 1920s-30s Egypt. Not that it wouldn’t be amazing to visit it now.
David: Right? If you could.
Melissa: If I could.
David: In the same way that I would prefer to go to 1950s Las Vegas.
Melissa: Exactly. You feel me.
David: Or 1920s Paris?
Melissa: All right. Well, we’ll just keep working on the time machine and we’ll let everyone know when we’ve got it worked out good. First, get better at math.
David: So we can figure out the time thing? In the meantime, do you want to talk about Egypt?
Melissa: Ok, let’s get oriented. Visualize your world map, everyone. We are in Africa. Egypt is located in the northeast corner of Africa. It connects to Asia with the land bridge called the Sinai Peninsula.
David: Egypt is right next door to Asia.
Melissa: It is knocking. It touches both the Mediterranean and the Red Seas, and it shares land borders with Sudan, Libya, the Gaza Strip, and Israel, the capital of Cairo. And other cities that you may have heard of include Luxor, Aswan, home of the dam and Alexandria.
David: Named after Alexander the Great.
Melissa: Exactly. Egypt is about the same size as Texas geographically. But this surprised me. The population is 102.3 million. That is the same as the combined population of California, Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania.
David: Wow, that’s a lot of people.
Melissa: It’s a lot of people.
David: More than I would think.
Melissa: And 95% of those people live along the Nile and its Delta.
David: Wow. Really?
Melissa: So 95% of the people live in 5% of the land.
David: Now I’m having pictures of Manhattan levels of congestion right next to the hippos.
Melissa: Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it looks like. Fun fact: If you look at a map of Egypt shot from space, you can see this green ribbon snaking through the country. That’s the river, and that’s where all the people live.
David: The Delta.
Melissa: So it’s not really an exaggeration to say, even though I am prone to exaggeration, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Nile is the lifeblood of Egypt for animals, plants, and humans.
David: And has been for thousands and thousands of years.
Melissa: Ok, here’s a cool thing that I learned: The Nile Delta is a stopover place for millions of migrating birds. It’s like the bird vacation capital.
__David:__Bird Vegas. [laughter]
Melissa: Storks, cranes, pelicans, eagles, buzzards —
Melissa: All making their way from Europe to Africa. This is also where you go if you want to smile at a Nile crocodile or, as you’ve mentioned, see a hippo in its natural habitat. You could also go there to see my favorite crossword clue answer: ASP. Which is a poisonous river snake that may or may not have killed Cleopatra. Even though so much of Egypt is desert, in the south, there are also rainforests which again, surprised me and bananas, bamboo, and coffee all grow there. As well as the plant that is probably most strongly associated with Egyptian history and legend: papyrus.
David: Oh, right.
Melissa: Which brings us to ancient Egypt. Let me preface this by saying that when I Googled ‘timeline of Egyptian history,’ I got a timeline that started in 3100 BCE and had like, 60 lines of facts.
Melissa: So, obviously I’m not going to be able to dig too deeply into all of that, but I want to share the first entries because it’s really awesome. The very first thing on the timeline was ‘hieroglyphic writing is created.’
Melissa: That’s a big one.
David: That’s a good one.
Melissa: And then: ‘two dimensional imagery and symbolism are established.’ I mean, yeah, major. You got writing and art right there.
David: Really, if those were the only things you did, big props.
Melissa: Exactly. But we also got the awesome bob haircut from the Egyptians.
David: They weren’t just sitting around eating dates and walking sideways.
Melissa: They were, in fact, starting one of the world’s first civilizations. Five thousand years ago. Writing began with hieroglyphics on temple walls around 3100 BCE, and then about a thousand years later, is when they started writing on papyrus.
David: I like to think of hieroglyphics as a really long comic about a guy who’s got the head of a jackal.
Melissa: I mean, it’s a good story. As you’ve sort of alluded to, this is the time of the pharaohs and their pyramids and the Great Sphinx.
Melissa: At this point, Egyptians worshipped many gods, and two of the really important ones were the Sun God Ra and Amun, the God of Air. They eventually merged and you may be familiar with their new name Armun-Ra. Also very important was Osiris who was the God of the dead. And it was the belief in Osiris and the afterlife that led to mummification and building the pyramids and King Tut’s snazzy solid gold sarcophagus. And the 1978 super hit ‘King Tut’ by Steve Martin.
[music: ‘King Tut:’ Now when I die, now don’t think I’m a nut, don’t want no fancy funeral, just like like ol’ King Tut.]
David: Lot of obsession with death in the Egyptian culture
Melissa: Getting ready for it, being prepared for the afterlife. Taking all your favorite stuff with you.
David: Yeah, I feel like they approach death the same way I approach an airplane ride.
Melissa: That is a very apt description. [laughter] All of my books, all of my snacks and a couple of video games, just in case —
David: Some movies, you never know.
Melissa: Little blankie. Ok, all of that splendor came to a close in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt and founded Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile.
David: Quite a narcissist, that guy.
Melissa: After his death. A general named Ptolemy seized the throne. I feel like seizing the throne comes up a lot.
David: For the hundreds and hundreds of years, seizing the throne was definitely the way to go.
Melissa: The Ptolemies were super smarty pants. They spoke Greek, and they grew Egypt’s wealth and power and most relevant to our interests, the Ptolemies built the famous Library at Alexandria, which was the center of knowledge and learning in the world at the time. No one is really sure how many books were in the library, but estimates range from 20,000 to 700,000, it depends which account, you believe. It also had gardens, a zoo, and shrines for each of the nine muses.
David: Yeah, we talked a little bit about the library of Alexandria and their thieving ways back in our library episode.
Melissa: I halfway approve of thieving to build a library.
David: Yeah. Also thieving to build up a library brings up the idea of book pirates, and that’s just a winner right there.
Melissa: And then we get to the most glamorous ruler of all, Cleopatra. She was Greek, not Egyptian, and she was the last of the Ptolemies because she was defeated by the Romans in 31 BCE. Three hundred years later, Egypt became part of the Byzantine Empire, and three centuries after that, Muslim Arabs took over Egypt. The Muslim Arabs taking over Egypt is significant because that has shaped Egypt’s politics and history up until now. In the intervening years, however, there were Ottoman invaders, Napoleon Bonaparte, British defenders and British occupation, and then Egyptian independence, but with the Brits still sort of hanging around, nd then the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. And so now for the last several decades, there has been political tension and violence between religious conservatives and more secular thinkers. 2001 as the most recent revolution when President Mubarak was out and current President el-Sisi moved in. Unfortunately, according to Human Rights Watch, Egypt has been experiencing its worst human rights crisis in many decades under his leadership.
David: Yeah, they’ve been putting tens of thousands of people who don’t agree with the president in prison.
Melissa: So again, we have a country with lovely people and beautiful history and culture and politics that are pretty sketchy. So let’s talk about nice Egyptian people. According to all reports online, from people who’ve traveled to Egypt, the Egyptian people are super friendly. Go out of their way to make you feel welcome. Absolutely want you to love Egypt as much as they do. They are super passionate about their history and their culture,
David: And rightfully so, right? They have a lot to be proud about.
Melissa: They do. And countries need tourism right now. So let’s talk about what you could do when you go there. Obviously, there’s visiting the pyramids and tombs and mosques. Most people advise that you get out of Cairo pretty quickly.
David: Yeah, I don’t know if this is a good time to talk about it, but Cairo is a nightmare for traffic. Do you want to guess how many stoplights there are in Cairo?
Melissa: I feel like it has to be a really small number. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be remarkable. So I will say two?
David: It’s zero. There is zero stoplights in Cairo. [laughter]
Melissa: Ok, I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania that has one blinker light, and that was kind of the joke. Imagining a city as large as Cairo with no stoplights.
David: Yeah. Cairo is bigger than New York or Paris or London, and it has a zero stoplights and an equal number of lanes. And if you’re going to cross the street as a pedestrian, you take a leap of faith and you just walk across the street.
Melissa: So when you leave Cairo, you can go to Giza and see the pyramids, or you can go to Luxor and see the temple. A really nice way to see Egypt is to take a Nile River cruise, and I’m actually going to talk about this in one of my books today. But there are a few ways you can do it. You can go on a cruise ship, obviously. But how about Ajdabiya, which is a wooden houseboat?
David: Oh yeah.
Melissa: Or a felluca?
David: A felluca!
Melissa: Which is an Egyptian sailboat. There’s also the White Desert. I’ll put pictures in show notes. It has rock formations that look like something from a sci-fi movie, and you can go scuba diving in the Red Sea.
David: Before we flee Cairo. I would like to stop in to the Egyptian Museum, which I’ll be talking about at some length in a little bit, but that is a beautiful old museum.
Melissa: I feel like if I went there, I would want to cosplay as Evelyn the librarian in the movie The Mummy. And I would only be satisfied if I could somehow get into the archive and read some books.
David: The Mummy is one of the huge cultural touchstones for Egypt. It was shot in Morocco.
Melissa: [laughter] Of course.
David: Do you want to get into Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I’m ready.
David: As always, I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true, one of them is a lie. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. Statement number one: In 1967, a chain of 15 ships got stuck in the Suez Canal. They remained stuck there for eight years. Two: Cary Grant was denied entry into Egypt. The king thought he was too good looking.
Melissa: Oh, I want that one to be true.
David: And three: Ancient Egyptians invented plastic surgery. Want to go through them in order?
Melissa: Ok, yes. Suez Canal first, right?
David: So first statement: In 1967, a chain of 15 ships got stuck in the Suez Canal. They remained stuck there for eight years.
Melissa: That’s a lie.
David: Really? Of all three of them, that’s the lie.
Melissa: I stand by what I said.
David: That’s true. In June of 1967, Israel and Egypt took a run at each other in a conflict that we now call the Six Day War. During that war, Egypt blocked both ends of the Suez Canal.
Melissa: It was intentional.
David: The Suez Canal allowed boats from the Mediterranean Sea down to the Red Sea. It’s a little passageway between Europe and Asia. It is vital to international trade, and Egypt was like, ‘Nope, nobody is using this because they didn’t want Israel to use it. They were being petulant. They blocked it with scuttled ships and sunken bridges and junk and almost a million sea mines.
Melissa: I thought for a second, when you started making the sound, you were going to say sea monsters, and I was really excited about that. Almost a million sea monsters.
David: Yeah, no. Sadly, no.
Melissa: Mines are much worse.
David: Mines are way worse. Yeah. Fifteen ships were caught in the middle. They were from eight different countries, including the U.S., the U.K., West Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Most of them were forced into the widest part of the Suez Canal in a place called aptly the Great Bitter Lake.
Melissa: Oh my goodness.
David: The normally 12-hour trip down the Suez Canal became an eight year stay. And see, this is why I need to bring all my stuff on the airplane. The ships came to be known as the Yellow Fleet because of the sands of the nearby desert would blow up on the on the ship and stay there. In October, five months after they were trapped, the officers and crews of 14 ships met and they founded the Great Bitter Lake Association.
David: And they continued to meet and have social events and whole boat races and soccer games for the next eight years. One of the ships had church services. One of the ships served as a movie theater. They made a postal system. They handcrafted their own stamps. Egypt recognized their stamps after a while, so they were able to have international mail. Two years later, and I imagine it was a very long two yearsm in 1969, it became possible to reduce the number of crew on board, so they started a skeleton crew rotation every few months. In 1975, the canal was opened again for international transport. In May of that year, the two German ships finally reached their home port in Hamburg, where they were met by 30,000 people.
Melissa: Oh, that’s so nice. Yeah, that’s a crazy story.
David: Yeah, it really is. Next statement Cary Grant was denied entry into Egypt. The king thought he was too good-looking.
Melissa: Ok, that’s the lie.
David: To explore that we need to talk about King Farouk. King Farouk ruled Egypt from 1936, shortly after his father, the King, died, until ineteen fifty two when he abdicated. When he abdicated, the palace was surrounded by tanks. It was like that.
Melissa: There’s that seizing the throne thing we talked about.
David: Totally. So he was not ready to be King. Farouk like to party a lot. He took an entourage and they spent months touring Europe’s casinos and nightclubs. He eventually earned himself the nickname The King of the Night. Farouk liked to throw gold coins to the poor to win their favor. He would also drop ping pong balls from a plane that could be redeemed for candy. But he didn’t really enjoy the day job, part of being a national leader.
Melissa: To his credit, it sounds like he had fun with the being-rich part.
David: Yeah, it did. In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt and Chiang Kai-shek came to Cairo to talk about war plans against the Japanese. I don’t know if I can say that with any more weight. Farouk blew it off.
David: Yeah. At the time, he was in the British hospital flirting with nurses.
David: Priorities. He was ultimately deposed, in part because of his support of Nazi Germany. He thought the Nazis would be better occupiers than the British. He had a number of foibles. He was a kleptomaniac. He would routinely stay with the Egyptian elite and then take a painting or a piano with him on the way out.
Melissa: A piano?
David: He once pardoned a thief in exchange for teaching him how to pick a pocket.
Melissa: I’m not going to lie. I kind of wish I knew how to pick pockets and locks.
David: Yeah, well, and then King Farouk turned around and use that knowledge on Winston Churchill’s pocket watch. [laughter]
David: And he was a hoarder when he left the castle. He left behind collections of — and stay with me here: diamonds, dogs stamps —
Melissa: Live dogs?
David: Yeah. Stamps, rubies, Faberge eggs, medieval suits of armor, aspirin bottles, razor blades, paper clips, Geiger counters, 50 diamond-studded golden walking sticks. And one autographed portrait of Adolf Hitler. Wikipedia also reports that he owned, ‘one of the largest collections of pornography in the world. Hundreds of thousands of pornographic photographs, postcards, calendars, playing cards, watches, glasses, corkscrews and so on.’ And that statement that he had one of the largest collections of porn in the world suggests to me that somewhere somebody is tracking that stat. King Farouk was vain, celebrity-oriented, and capricious. But I made up the part about Gary Grant.
Melissa: Darn it.
David: Oh yeah. So that one was the lie, which means that the Egyptians invented plastic surgery. In 1862, an American antiquities dealer Edwin Smith bought a papyrus that turned out to be a medical treatise. It describes how to treat different injuries, fractures and wounds in hieroglyphics. And one of the things that it covers is rhinoplasty, how to change the shape of a nose. The document is dated to about 700 BCE, but historians think the knowledge is from Imhotep. Imhotep was an architect, priest, and physician from 2000 years prior to that. Important cultural note here, Imhotep is also the name of the villain in 1999’s The Mummy.
Melissa: Yes, it is.
David: The most amazing part of this papyrus is that it’s science based. It outlines a rational, empirical approach to medicine. I tried this. It works. Here’s how I think it works.
Melissa: Now you can do it, too. Let’s make everyone feel insecure about the shape of their nose.
David: If you would like to see the writings of a person who was 4000 years ahead of his time, you can find the papyrus at the New York Academy of Medicine on Fifth Avenue and 103rd in New York City. It’s open to the public by appointment.
David: Yeah, that’s two truths and a lie. Let’s talk about books.
Melissa: Let’s do it. My first book is The Visitors by Sally Beauman. This is historical fiction set in 1922, Egypt and England. And if I was writing the flat copy for this novel, it would say: A sprawling epic stretching from the desert sands of Egypt to the modern streets of London. [dramatic music]
Melissa: Yeah, it’s like that. This is 550 pages of drama, adventure, and a huge cast of characters, and it is glorious.
David: That’s fun.
Melissa: The story opens in 1922. Our heroine is Lucy Payne. She’s 11-years-old and she’s a little sickly because she’s just survived a bout of typhoid that killed her mom. Her father is a Cambridge professor, and he is way more interested in books and his career and his curvaceous new secretary than he is in this little daughter that’s now his sole responsibility. Lucy is kind of self-contained in a way that’s a little bit heartbreaking, and she narrates the story in the first person, so I was getting very strong Jane Eyre vibes from the beginning of this book. But instead of being handed off to a mean aunt, Lucy is sent to Egypt with an American governess named Miss Mack.
David: Miss Mack.
Melissa: Yes, she’s very prim and she is taken with details and she has strong ideas about proper behavior. Here is Lucy describing Miss Mack:
Miss Mack believed in timetables as well as pyramids. She was convinced regimes were therapeutic. So the day of our expedition was planned with zeal. 5 a.m.: The Pyramids at Giza. Departure prompt. Noon: Picnic luncheon at the Sphinx, in the shade of her paw. 2.30 p.m.: Return to Shepheard’s Hotel. Obligatory REST period. 4 p.m.: Tea on the celebrated hotel terrace. 5 p.m.: Attendance at Madame Masha’s legendary dancing class. Duration, one hour. Benefits, inestimable.
David: I mean, that sounds like a really good day to me.
Melissa: It does.
David: But does it sound like a good day to Lucy or is she —
Melissa: She’s affectionately teasing about Miss Mack. The lead-in says her perfect loopy handwriting, like Miss Mack, is just very much all of that. To her credit, she also has a mischievous streak that kind of pops up in other places in the story. That’s really fun. So in Cairo, Lucy and Miss Mack find themselves among the posh society of other foreigners. It’s a very clever mix of fictional characters and real people. So, Lucy becomes fast friends with a little girl named Frances. She’s the daughter of an American archaeologist, Herbert Winlock. He’s curator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Those are real people.
David: Oh, OK.
Melissa: The social circle also includes Howard Carter, the real-Life archaeologist who discovered King Tut’s tomb, and Lord Carnarvon, the aristocrat who financed Howard Carter’s work. Plus, there’s assorted wives and children, servants, posh friends, and it’s all very gossipy and British and gin soaked.
David: So this is the trip to 1920s Egypt you wanted to have.
Melissa: One hundred percent. The action travels from Cairo to Luxor and includes in no particular order — here we go — all the things. Ahouse boat ride up the Nile, picnics at the Great Sphinx and inside a pharaoh’s tomb, car chases across the desert. A garden party fraught with tension, drunken spats and revelations. And it’s all leading up to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the question that drives a big part of the narrative: When Howard Carter opened the tomb, he was supposed to wait for officials from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities before he went in. Did he enter the inner sanctum in the dark of night?
David: Did he?
Melissa: Did he? So the narrative moves between the past and the present. Lucy is now 90 years old, and she’s looking back on her life. A documentary filmmaker is investigating what Carter did and didn’t do at King Tut’s tomb, and he thinks Lucy knows.
Melissa: So we get to enjoy their verbal sparring while she reflects on her experiences in Egypt and her life afterward. So, things I loved about this book. There are a lot. The author, Sally Beauman, sets the action at real hotels of the period where the wealthy foreigners stayed. So the Grand Continental, the Shepheard, the Winter Palace, it’s all very glittering and luxurious. And some of those hotels still exist. They still look amazing. I’ll put links in the show notes. But to her credit, she contrasts this kind of romantic sheen on colonialism with a rise of Egyptian nationalism that was happening at the time. She does a pretty good job of showing what was happening with actual Egyptian people while telling the story of what’s happening with the British people.
David: Ok, so she’s recognizing colonialism and weaving it into the story.
Melissa: Yeah. And that’s why the question about whether or not Howard Carter went into the tomb and when he went into the tomb is such a big idea because it was completely disrespectful because the Egyptians were supposed to be there to make sure they weren’t running away with the treasures from the tombs.
Melissa: One of the other things that’s really sweet is that there’s a lifelong friendship between Lucy and Frances, the two little girls kind of at the heart of this story. They have the most amazing adventures in the desert. I mean, you can imagine being 10 or 11 years old with your best friend running around the tombs and the Sphinx, and the adults weren’t really paying attention to them. They got into all kinds of adventures and mischief. As you can probably tell, I really wanted to be able to jump into this book and hang out with these characters. They went to the Sphinx and had a picnic and they had pita bread, and they put it on the paw of the Sphinx so that it could get warm from the sun before they ate it. They hid behind a rock and spied on Howard Carter. They hid under a tables and eavesdropped on the grownups’ conversations.
David: Wow, that’s exciting. Yeah, that sounds great.
Melissa: So if you also want to do all of those things, I recommend The Visitors by Sally Beauman.
David: My first book is The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty. This is an action-packed fantasy book that starts in 18th-century Cairo. We meet a young woman. Her name’s Nahri. She’s a rogue.
Melissa: A rogue.
David: Yeah, she’s fiercely independent and defiant. She lives on her own. She’s never known her parents their long dead. She swindles Ottoman nobles for a living.
Melissa: I’m already firmly on her side.
Yeah, same. But she also has this other thing: Nahri a healer. She can heal people. She can see people’s illnesses. She doesn’t know how it works. There’s this nice line from the book: Nahri could no more explain the way she healed and sensed illness than she could explain how her eyes and ears worked.
Melissa: That’s really nice.
David: Yeah. And the healing thing means something to her. She has this dream of becoming a medical professional, which doesn’t seem that far away because she can heal people by touching them. But at the same time, she doesn’t have privilege or gravitas or whatever that is that makes a doctor or a doctor, I guess. She’s a street urchin. So why would people think that she could help? So she goes around and she reads palms, and she does these ritual chants called zars. Zar rituals are a real thing. They are a musical ritual that are done to cure behaviors and symptoms that people have. There are drums, there’s singing. Maybe we sacrifice a chicken, that kind of thing. They drive away spirits. They are still performed today.
David: Yeah. So one day Nahri gets a request to do a zar for a woman who is believed to be possessed. Nahri is skeptical. She doesn’t believe in possession, but she’s getting paid, so she shows up and she starts the ritual. And Nahri sings some of the ritual in a language that she knows, but she’s never heard anybody else use. She assumes it was her parents’ language, and that’s how she knows it. And Nahri she sings this ritual and there’s a pause, and then she hears a voice in her head. And the voice says, Who are you?
David: Yeah. Nahri finishes up the ritual and she walks home and she’s walking home past the City of Dead, which is a real place. It’s a vast necropolis in the middle of Cairo. I bring that up mostly because I don’t get to say necropolis enough. So she’s walking through the necropolis, and that’s where we meet Dara. Dara is a djinn. He’s got green eyes, he’s kind of sexy, he’s heavily armed and he smells slightly of smoke.
David: Yep. He appears in a flash of light and he is angry.
Melissa: Uh oh.
David: ‘Suleiman’s eye!’ he roars. ‘I will kill whoever called me here!’
Melissa: Did she accidentally call him there?
David: And that’s when the ghouls attack.
Melissa: [laughing] Amazing!
David: Yeah! So if you’re not up on your monsters, ghouls are humanoid creatures that hang out in graveyards and eat human flesh. Those appear and we’re off to the races. From there, the book kind of unloads from there. The story has shapeshifters and black and white magic and giant flying monsters and djinns who are sometimes loyal and sometimes not, flying carpets and a magical city hidden from human eyes.
Melissa: Sounds amazing.
David: That’s pretty great. And it’s also surprisingly political. One of the main plots in the book has to do with an oppressed group of half djinn and the pure blood nobility who detest them. Which, yeah, rings in this society. There’s a prince who wants everyone to be equal, but to get that, he’s going to have to betray his family. Through that we get a pretty good look at tribalism and how that hurts the vulnerable the most. The author of The City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty, is a Muslim woman who lives in New York City. This is her first book. She had a job in medical management, and she intended to go back to school to study medieval Islamic history, which she’d been interested in since she was in high school. But at some point, she started writing down our ideas about the djinn.
David: In an interview, she said:
In traditional belief, djinn are beings created from smokeless fire that live unseen alongside us. They’re said to have all sorts of magical abilities and live incredibly long lives and yet often get relegated to the sidelines in stories. They’re the anonymous wish-granter for our human hero, the mischievous devil to be cast aside. I never thought that very fair—they’re fascinating! Give me a character who’s seen the rise and fall of dozens of civilizations; the invisible lurker who’s overheard your secrets.
So, I dreamed up a world for them—the world that became The City of Brass—one I imagined djinn might have created by combining their nature and the influences of the particular human societies they lived amongst. It became a game with history and folklore providing the rules: I had to abide by what existed, but could imagine beyond that.
David: I am not alone in thinking this book is a good read. The Library Journal called it one of the best books of the year, as did Vulture and The Verge. This is the first book in a trilogy, if you like it, if it sounds good to you, the third book came out last year, so you can binge read the whole thing if you’d like.
David: If you are looking for an energetic flight through Egyptian history and folklore, it’s a good one. This is The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty.
Melissa: That book sounds really good, but I’m also a little bit mad at it.
David: Why is that?
Melissa: Because I had chosen a novel about the djinn as one of my picks for Egypt. And then when we started comparing notes,one of us had to sacrifice our book about the djinn. And so I did.
David: What’s your djinn book?
Melissa: This is A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark, and it’s a steampunk fantasy set in 1912 Cairo. The heroine of the story is Fatma. She’s the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. My dream job!
David: I know, right?
Melissa: There’s a secret brotherhood. There’s a diabolical villain. There is all manner of djinn and there’s a sexy girl sidekick. This is a huge adventure with a little bit of romance, and I really enjoyed it. So if you want to go on a djinn kick, you could read The City of Brass trilogy and then A Master of Djinn. P. Djèlí Clark also has other books in his djinn series, so you can just go all in on the djinn.
David: I love the idea of a djinn kick.
Melissa: Also, _The Golem and the Jinni, which is a book I’ve reviewed on our website but haven’t talked about in a podcast yet.
David: Yeah, that’s got a lot of New York City in it.
Melissa: Yes, that is a beautiful book. So all in on the djinn. I’m just going to keep saying that.
Melissa: My next book is A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib. This is a story about sisters and political revolution set in 2016. Much of the story takes place in Egypt and New York City, with a little side trip to West Virginia.
David: So this is a very recent release.
Melissa: It has an ensemble cast, and each of the characters plays a really vital role in the plot and gets their time as the focus of the story. So I can’t really say ‘our heroine’ because the characters kind of form a web with each of them being really important. But it all kind of starts with Rose. Rose is an Egyptian woman, and she’s married to an American man, and she works as an Egyptologist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Melissa: Yeah, that makes my eyeballs like hearteye emojis. And then there’s Mark her husband. He’s a reporter, and he’s a little slippery because he prides himself on his ability to be different versions of himself, depending on where he is in the world, what he’s doing, and who he’s talking to. Which is a really valuable talent when you’re trying to convince interview subjects to open up and tell you things.
Melissa: But it’s kind of problematic in your personal relationships. And then there’s Gameela. Rose has a sister named Gameela. And when the story opens, we learn she’s been killed in a suicide bombing in Cairo, which makes the other really key player in this drama the 21-year-old suicide bomber.
Melissa: And I would also argue that guilt is a major character in this story, but we’ll get to that. So when the story opens, it’s 2016. So this is after the Arab Spring and during President el-Sisi’s presidency who is the current president. Rose is at her parents home in Cairo just after Miller’s death, and they’re all in mourning. They’re all emotionally in pieces, as you can imagine. And Rose isn’t convinced that her sister’s death was simply her being at the wrong place at the wrong time. So she sneaks into her sister’s bedroom and she starts going through her stuff. She ties Gameela’s scarf around her neck, and she starts piling Gameela artifacts onto the bed to steal them and take them home with her: photographs, journals, newspaper clippings, a pile of unopened mail. And she feels a little oogey doing that. But she reassures herself that she’s being an archaeologist, not a grave robber.
David: But she’s putting together a murder board is what she’s doing.
Melissa: Basically, yes. Yeah, if this was a detective novel, this would be the beginning of this very suspenseful investigation into her sister’s death. And it is suspenseful, but this is a family story. So her investigation feels more like she’s trying to atone for something. In her mind, she has really good reason to need to make amends. The two sisters had been really close when they were young, but when they were teenagers, Gameela started rebelling against her family by becoming very conservative in her religious beliefs and practices. Rose describes her sister as being the only covered woman in the entire family. It kind of drives a wedge between them. When Rose decided to marry Mark, an American, Gameela was really angry and super disappointed. And when Rose pursued a PhD in New York, her sister chastised her for running away and accused her of going to America to study their heritage instead of staying where she belonged.
David: I can see the problem.
Melissa: So the divide between them got larger and larger and their intimacy just evaporated. So as Rose is picking through the stuff that she’s taken from Gameela’s room, she realizes she doesn’t really know who her sister is anymore. She finds out that Gameela had a secret lover, which is surprising both because it’s a secret man that she knows and because she’s so conservative in her beliefs.
Melissa: She finds out that Gameela quit her job a few months before, but hadn’t told anyone in the family. Which raises the question if she wasn’t going to work, what was she doing with her time? Like this is all set up. Like, this is the very beginning of the story.
David: Act one, yes.
Melissa: The story is told through an omniscient narrator, so the point of view moves among the different characters and through time to show us their interconnected fates. The details of Gameela’s secret life are revealed to us, and we see them through Gameela’s point of view, and we also see the suicide bomber before he was a bomber, when he was just a boy. And we see how he was basically radicalized into a terrorist.
Melissa: One of the things I found really moving with this book is that each of their stories is told with really great care and without judgment. The author has a real gift for showing us those scenes kind of through their eyes, and I felt really invested in all of them. I mean, it’s sorcery to make me feel empathy towards a suicide bomber. But she did that. This is a really powerful book. Her prose is really descriptive without being precious, so you get rich descriptions of food and culture and scenery without being distracted by it.
Melissa: And she knows what she’s talking about. She lives in the United States now, but she was born and raised in Egypt, and she lived there until she was 23. As you can probably tell, this book tackles really tough subjects and it’s very suspenseful, but it also has a lot of feelings in it and great conversations between people. Everything is handled with a really delicate touch. So even though some of the material is really heavy, it wasn’t overwhelming. This kind of story can’t really have a happy ending, but it had a very life affirming one, so it was very satisfying read. And I felt good when I finished it. Yeah, that is A Pure Heart by Rajia Hassib.
David: My next book is The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo by a bunch of people.
Melissa: A bunch of smart people.
David: A bunch of smart people.
Melissa: No, a bunch of dumb-dumbs.
David: I feel like this is going to be a hard sell for some people, but I’m going to persist. As you may have gathered from the title, this is a guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Why would you want a guide to a museum that you may never visit? I feel like some people won’t need an answer to that question? But let’s let’s start with that.
Melissa: Make your case, Dave.
David: Yeah, let’s start with the museum. So the Egyptian Museum is in Cairo. Some of the reviews on TripAdvisor say it’s a little dusty, a little old, but it’s also the world’s largest collection of ancient Egyptian antiquities.
Melissa: I like the word antiquities.
David: It is nice, yeah. Among the artifacts displayed, there are two statues of King Tutankhamun made of cedar wood and covered with gold, Funeral figurines that belong to the Nubian kings, and sarcophagi as far as the eye can see. Some of the artifacts are huge, like 12 feet tall statues. Some of them are small: coins and pieces of cloth or little statues. There are bits of notes written in ancient Greek and Latin and Arabic and Egyptian hieroglyphics. There are depictions of life 3000 years ago done in models that were buried with the dead at the time.
Melissa: Whoa, that’s cool.
David: Yeah. So you see a little carpenter shop or a man roasting a duck. There’s jewelry, earrings and bracelets and necklaces. It looks like a fantastic museum, and this book is a solid attempt to bring that museum into your home.
Melissa: I’m sold.
David: Yeah, it’s a 600+ page book. Wow, yeah. And it’s got photographs on nearly every page. Some objects are shown multiple times up close and maybe a full shot or a second angle. And there’s the text. So each item is described, and I love the writing. It’s like having a sort of a great guide sitting there with you, patiently walking through each item. As an example. On one page, there’s a picture of a statue of a of a falcon. It’s gold and silver. You get a brief description, title, size, where they found it. It says it’s 88 centimetres tall, which is just under three feet, so it’s pretty good size. And then the text reads:
This splendid item made from gold and silver attracts the attention of the museum visitor. The status seems imbued with the mystery of the god-falcon who is represented with a large sun disk on his head, a proud gaze, and talons solidly set. The difference in color of the metals used for the body and feet gives the creature elegance and lightness. The body is split in two so that it can contain the mummified body of a real falcon. In other words, it is a sarcophagus in the shape of a falcon.
David: And the text goes on to tell you that burying sacred animals was so popular that there are large necropolis created for that very purpose that people suspect that they were killed to send messages to the dead. That kind of thing. I find the text to be really soothing. It’s just got a nice rhythm to it. And for me, this is a browsing book. You can flip through it, find something you like and read up on it. The book’s been out for a while. It came out in 2001. You can find use copies of it for a very reasonable cost. You can also find a copy of this book on Archive.org so you can look through the whole thing before you commit, and we’ll put a link in, the show notes. This book is about to be outdated, and it’s going to be outdated because the Egyptian Museum is about to close permanently.
David: Yeah, it’s being replaced by the Grand Egyptian Museum. The Grand Egyptian Museum is a $1 billion complex that’s being built a short ride from the Pyramids of Giza.
Melissa: Whoa, that’s cool.
David: Yeah, it’s currently expected to open in November of 2022. When it opens, it will be the largest archaeological museum in the world. It will feature the entire treasure of King Tutankhamun. Many of those items will be shown for the first time, and there’s a 3200-year-old statue of Ramses that weighs 83 tons.
Melissa: Wow, cool.
David: They moved it, and then they built a section of the museum around it.
Melissa: I love stories about how museums come to be, particularly the detail where they have something and then create the building around it. Yeah, that happened at the Wasa Museum in Sweden, as well.
David: There’s also a really good story about how they moved Ramses because he used to be in the middle of Cairo on a traffic stop. They have already begun to disassemble the old museum. Recent visitors say there are crates in the old museum. They’re probably carting King Tut stuff as we speak. Honestly, I’d like to see both of them.
Melissa: Honestly, I’m a little worried about curses.
David: That’s fair. I’d like to see both of them, I’d like to see the dusty old shop and the shiny new complex.
Melissa: When you said it was described as dusty, it made it seem very appealing to me.
David: Yeah, there are TripAdvisor reviews where they’re like, It’s a dusty old museum and they were crates everywhere. And I’m like, Are you kidding?
Melissa: That sounds amazing.
David: I strongly suspect that this book is as close as I’m going to get to the old museum. And for that, I’m grateful it’s The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Melissa: That sounds like it would make an awesome holiday gift for curious kids or people who like to settle in on a Saturday afternoon with a blanket and a cup of tea and do some armchair travel.
David: Yeah, that sounds really fun. Speaking of which, I’m going to cheat now. I wanted to mention two other books I read. They’re both intended for children
Melissa: You’re stealing my cheating vibe.
David: Yeah, these are both intended for children, but I think we all know how I feel about that kind of ageism. It’s not right.
Melissa: It’s not.
David: It’s not right. The first is called How the Sphinx Got to the Museum by Jesse Hartland. This is a picture book intended for kids six to nine. It describes how the Sphinx that’s part of New York’s Metropolitan Museum came to be in the Metropolitan Museum. It’s got science, it’s got betrayal, it’s got drama, and it tells you all the hands that had a part in getting the ancient sphinx to the Metropolitan Museum.
David: Yeah, it’s really cool. It’s very charming. It’s How the Sphinx Got to the Museum by Jesse Hartland, and the second is Egypt Magnified by David Long and Harry Bloom. If you imagine the Where’s Waldo series, but with ancient Egyptian scenes, you’d be well on your way to picturing what this book looks like. Every double spread has a historically accurate but still somehow fun illustration of a bunch of ancient Egyptians doing stuff.
Melissa: Are they walking like Egyptians?
David: Some of them are. Maybe they’re holding a wedding or they’re building a tomb, and then you get prompts for things to spot. Some of those are historical, like find the man using the sickle. Some of them are fun. Like, find the farting hippopotamus. I really enjoyed that book. It is Egypt Magnified by David Long and Harry Bloom
Melissa: I feel like you left out a key detail about that book.
David: It comes with a magnifying glass.
David: Yeah, it does.
Melissa: My last pick is the book that I read as a last-minute substitution after you stole the djinn story out from under my nose. And I’m so happy that I did, because this is one of my favorite books of the year. It’s called The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas. This book is only 200 pages, but it combines elements of historical fiction, family saga, and a coming of age story, and I devoured it in one day. You probably remember Dave when I finished it. I read all afternoon under a blanket, and when I finished, I was just in a daze. Like, I’d been completely transported by this book and it was having trouble reconnecting to reality.
David: You were stupefied.
Melissa: That makes me sound like I’m stupid. Okay.
David: Charmed. Charmed by its wiles.
Melissa: That’s more accurate. The hero of the story is Joseph al-Raqb, and his storyline is set roughly now. He’s Egyptian, he’s half Muslim and half Jewish. So that should prick up your ears a little bit.
David: Because those people culturally don’t usually get along.
Melissa: And he is a grad student at Berkeley. When we meet him, his father has just died. It’s a real theme in the books I read for Egypt.
David: We meet people shortly after the death of somebody significant.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. Joseph has just received a mysterious inheritance in the mail. It’s an ancient-looking fragment of paper pressed between two panes of glass. There’s a note in the package that says, ‘Your father asked me to send you this. Please call if you ever find yourself in Cairo.’ signed Mr. Mosseri.
Melissa: Joseph does not know Mr. Mosseri, nor can he make out all of the writing on the scrap of paper. He doesn’t know what this thing is or why his father wanted him to have it. So he does the only reasonable thing you want to guess what he does?
David: Travels to Cairo?
Melissa: Exactly. He takes a leave from school and he heads to Cairo to reconnect with his family there
David: Once again, mystery is afoot in Cairo.
Melissa: Yes, he’s going to investigate this odd legacy from his father. Joseph’s relationship with his father was challenging. So there is a lot of emotional stuff to unpack there. But he also remembers how they bonded over stories when he was a kid. He says:
My father told stories about dragons and djinns, buried treasure, fishermen, and wayward princes. But his best stories were those drawn from our family history, stories about the long line of al-Raqb men who had, for nearly a thousand years, served as watchmen of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue.
Melissa: The first and most noble watchmen of the synagogue was Ali al-Raqb. He lived in Cairo a thousand years ago, and we get his story too. According to Jewish custom, this is real, according to Jewish custom, any paper with the name of God written on it can’t be destroyed. So the synagogue stores piles of documents in a secret room called the Geniza. Yeah, one night, while Ali, the first of the watchmen, is doing his rounds in the synagogue, he sees something mysterious and maybe magical. This has major repercussions for him. The geniza is also significant for two English ladies in 1897, and we get their story, too. They’re twins. Their names are Agnes and Margaret. They’re on a mission to find an ancient scroll that may be in the secret cache in the synagogue. So each of these characters’ stories is lovingly told with adventures and feelings and amazing character development, and eventually we see how they all fit together.
David: So we’ve got sort of three mysteries wrapping around each other.
Melissa: Yes! And here is the double layer of frosting on top of the already delicious layer cake: Each of the story threads has a slightly different tone. So the one sent in the 11th century about Ali, our first watchmen, has the tone of a fairy tale, and the thread about Agnes and Margaret in 1897 has the feel of a 19th-century novel. And then Joseph, who’s narrating the modern story, is told in the first person, and we’re hearing the words in his voice. So that has a much more modern feel.
David: Ok, so the stories are written in sort of time appropriate story language?
Melissa: Yes. And it’s all really subtly done. It is not at all gimmicky. I didn’t really notice it at first until I realized that when I would start reading a chapter, I would know which character and which setting I was in before anyone spoke. I could just tell from the style of the prose.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: Oh, so good. Other things I loved. Egypt is very richly described in a way that’s relevant to the plot because we see the same sights in each century. So we see how they’ve changed and how they stay the same and what they mean to people in the 11th century, the 19th, and the 21st. It also shows how Egypt was once a religiously tolerant place. Jews and Muslims lived and worked together and were friends and fell in love. There were not the divisions that we have now.
David: We’ve seen this a few times in different countries in Asia, where tolerance used to be common and now not at all so much.
Melissa: This story is also an advocate for all kinds of boundary-crossing relationships. I don’t want to give too much away because it’s really fun, but there’s a lot of things that might be considered taboo in different times just woven into the story. And as you pointed out, each of the story threads has a little bit of a mystery to solve. But these characters are not presented as amateur detectives. This is not a mystery novel. These feel like real people trying to understand themselves and the people that they care about. There’s a little bit of magical realism.
David: Oh, nice.
Melissa: There is a deep love of books and learning and history. It makes dusty documents very romantic. And the Cairo Geniza is real. This is a real cache of about 400,000 pages of materials from the Ibn Ezra synagogue. And it really was discovered by Agnes and Margaret and taken to Cambridge University, thanks to them.
Melissa: Yeah. I’ll put links and show notes about all of that because the real life story is pretty gripping. This is the highest praise I can give to this book when I got to the final chapter of each character’s story because they go in threes. So I knew how many chapters were left, so I knew I was on Ali’s last chapter, for example. When I got to the final chapter for each of these characters, I really got a lump in my throat and my eyes were stinging, not just because of what was happening to them, but because I was going to say goodbye to them. It was really, really awesome experience. I can’t wait to read it again. That is The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas.
David: Those are five books we love set in Egypt. For more on Egypt, including the books we discussed today, more book recommendations, and a whole bunch of other stuff, visit our website at strongsenseofplace.com, or you can follow the link to our show notes from your from your podcast player, probably. Mel, can you talk about the special blog post you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: We have a roundup of gorgeous photos from all over Egypt because there are so many fun things to look at. I’m doubling up on Food and Fiction this time because there are two really traditional Egyptian dishes that I want to try, and if we’re going to eat them, we may as well write about them. The first is ful medames, which is often eaten for breakfast. It’s fava beans with olive oil and spices, and then there are eggs and pita and vegetables on the side and sometimes french fries. French fries for breakfast is one of my favourite things.
David: Yes, I agree.
Melissa: And then the other is koshari, which is like a savory carbohydrate bomb. It’s rice, macaroni, lentils, and chickpeas with spices. And then it’s topped with a garlicky vinagery tomato sauce and fried onions. And there are restaurants in Cairo that serve only Koshyari, so those will be on the website in the next two weeks. And finally, the Library of Alexandria then and now, because there is a new Library of Alexandria and it’s beautiful.
David: Do they have a zoo?
Melissa: They don’t have a zoo.
David: They should get a zoo.
Melissa: And I don’t think the nine muses are there either. All of that will be on the website in the next two weeks.
David: If you like what we’re doing and you have not reviewed Strong Sense of Place online, let me take this moment to encourage you to do so. Also, if you have reviewed it, maybe spread the faith and tell somebody else, tell a reader that you enjoy the show and that would help us out immensely. So thank you for that.
Melissa: I would like to give a plug for the things we’re doing for Patreon in November and December.
David: We’ve got a couple of special things coming up for for those folks.
Melissa: We do. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.
David: It is.
Melissa: So we did something special for our patrons.
David: We recorded a little tiny short story called Home for the Holidays, which is the short story that inspired the Holly Hunter movie that came out a while back. It is a lovely story, and Mel, read it.
Melissa: My very first audiobook recording.
David: Yeah, and we’re going to put that online for everybody who’s part of the Patreon.
Melissa: And then for Christmas or our Accomplices, which is the top tier of our Patreon, we’re having an online holiday party.
David: Yeah, well, we’ll get together.
Melissa: One of the highlights of that party is that Dave is going to read us a story in real time.
David: Yeah, a little Christmas story.
Melissa: So it’s going to be really nice. We’re going to eat cookies. We’re going to talk about holiday traditions around the world. We’re going to hear a story. We’re going to toast and we’re going to settle in for the snuggly holiday season.
David: If you’d like to support us, you can get to that link. By going to strongsenseofplace.com/support and thank you so much for everything. Mel, where are we going to go for our next episode?
Melissa: We’re going to hide out in the trees of the forest.
David: That’s a weird place for us to be, just hanging out in the forest.
Melissa: I’m going to hang from my knees upside down like a monkey.
David: We will talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Dan Baciu/Shutterstock.
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