Cairo: A city known for its rich culture and education
Cairo is one of the first cities on my list because of its special influence on me and my generation and those preceding it.
The reasons are many and varied. First of all, Egypt held the foremost position in Arab culture and education. Our teachers of Arabic were mainly Egyptians because they were better educated, qualified and had the fundamentals of modern teaching which were lacking in the native teachers of much of the Arab world.
Add to this the spread of the powerful effect of the press and movies which were scarce and inferior in other Arab countries and one can appreciate the qualitative impact of Egypt on many Arab generations from Aden to Morocco.
The press was far more advanced than any seen in the Middle East although one cannot overlook the fine Lebanese newspapers, especially the weekly magazines that flowed from Beirut to every corner.
The movies were a spectacular source of entertainment which has survived from the beginning of the 20th century until today.
Practically all the leading heroes and heroines, tragic and comic had an Egyptian accent and of course, all the great jokes, dramas, songs and their singers originated in Egypt at a time when the rest of the Arab world lacked even the rudiments of a press let alone movies.
At the turn of the last century, while Egypt boasted such great newspapers as Al Ahram and magazines such as Al Hilal and Mussawar, the Arab press was still technically backward and the movie industry, non-existent.
Very soon the new generation from Morocco to the Gulf via Aden was speaking with an Egyptian accent and cracking jokes like them.
I vividly remember during the primary school level that I knew more about Egypt than I did about Aden and South Arabia in general; more Egyptian jokes and songs than other Arab ones.
The British recruited Egyptian teachers from Cairo. Most of our Arabic teachers were Egyptians while our English teachers were either Indian or British. But the whole culture was Egyptian and the British colonialists everywhere had to recruit them because they were qualified and worked for lower wages. The textbooks also came from Cairo although the quality of their print was poor.
Next to the colony of Aden was the hermit Kingdom of Yemen where movies were banned and there was no press. So millions of Yemenis would go to Aden every year to watch the wonders of movies and the spectacular scenes of Egyptian girls acting and dancing-especially belly dancing which was something unheard of in the rest of the Arabian Peninsula.
There were Indian films too but these were confined to Indian cinemagoers and were of course more conservative compared to their Egyptian counterparts. However, during the British Raj in India, Indian films were more daring than after the country gained independence.
Almost sixty-five years after liberation, kissing is still banned in Indian movies although they permit it in foreign language films shown in India.
It is bewildering why English and French moviegoers can watch such scenes inside an Indian theater and not be allowed to see similar acts in Hindi and Bengali movies.
Tourism between Aden and Cairo was one-way naturally because Egypt had much more to offer than Aden and the surrounding countries.
The same applied to education. Many of us went to Egypt for high school and university education but none came to our countries. For example my four elder brothers from a different mother and in their forties, went to Cairo and the American university for their degrees while I was sent to Mumbai and Columbia University in New York for my masters degree in journalism.
Cairo is one of the oldest cities in the Middle East and the richest in heritage and education. The Al Azhar Muslim University which is the oldest to date and some modern schools of higher learning were built by the monarchy. Mohammed Ali Pasha, and later Kings Fuad and Farouk who were very progressive leaders opened up schools and colleges as well as hospitals to all Arabs who could reach Cairo and donated many scholarships to the needy to study and graduate from there.
Nearly 10 million others living near Cairo commuted to the city in trams run by electricity like in Mumbai and other Asian and African cities. They were introduced by the foreign powers after they supplanted the Ottoman Turks. The trams were cheap and efficient and drove so slowly that you could board them even as they were moving like I used to do in my college days in Mumbai.
But the story of Cairo would not be complete without mention of its one time magnificent newspaper which was published before the July 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdul Nasser who died in l970. The publication had beaten every other press in the Middle East.
Before Nasser’s arrival and his unfortunate nationalization of the press, Egypt boasted the best dailies and weeklies in the region. Its famous Al Hilal monthly which has run for over 125 years still enjoys a wide readership.
It was established by Lebanese émigré George Zaidan and carried on by his two talented sons Amil and Shukri who were the real founders of the magazine industry until they were ousted and their publications seized without compensation.
“Lebanese” runs under government ownership and it was at one time Nasser’s own mouthpiece edited by his friend and confidant Mohammed Heikal who still survives. Egyptian papers and magazines used to be flown to other cities and lapped up by readers and quoted by the local press. For other Arabs Cairo is truly touristic. Apart from the pyramids and other relics, its cafes and nightclubs are a major attraction as well as its movie houses and its theaters where plays – especially comedies – are performed and still draw large crowds.
- Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah
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