Comma Press are known for their short story anthologies, especially those centred around cities. Previous collections include The Book of Istanbul and The Book of Tokyo, amongst many others. May 2019 sees the release of The Book of Cairo. As you might have guessed, this is an anthology of short stories which are all, in some way, connected to the Egyptian capital. One city is seen in a myriad of ways.
If you go to Cairo, whoever you are, you will find a thousand other people just like you. (Introduction)
The anthology features ten stories from authors like Hassan Abdel-Mawgoud and Hend Jaafar. The themes reach far and wide, from identity crises to social hierarchies to death and destruction. Each story provides a fresh and exciting glimpse into the city of Cairo. Interestingly, all of the authors featured in the anthology were born in the 1970s or 80s, thus capturing a contemporary Cairo. The city lives and breathes on the pages of this book.
He felt the world was conspiring to destroy his happiness, but his remaining determination to cling on to it forced him to think quickly… (“Whine”)
Although Cairo is a setting for each story, its geography does not seem to be a priority for most of the authors. Instead, each of these stories gives voice to the actual residents of the city. For example, “The Other Balcony” explores the complicated emotions of a schoolgirl whose crush moves into a neighbouring apartment. “Siniora” features a protagonist with an erotic addiction. “The Soul at Rest” is about an obituary writer who is plagued by a very specific request he once received. While Cairo itself is an important backdrop, it is the people inside the city we are really interested in.
As soon as he told me they’d be moving into the building facing ours, I began dreaming of what it would be like to be able to see him whenever I wanted. (“The Other Balcony”)
This isn’t the sort of book you read in one sitting. It’s more of a slow burn; each story is its own entity. The characters stand separately from one another with complex realities and backstories. The Book of Cairo is the sort of book you keep on your nightstand, for the evenings where you feel like a quick literary fix without investing in a full-blown novel.
How long had I lived in this neighbourhood? Maybe three years. The vast stretch of desert surrounding us had started to shrink. Buildings sprung up quickly, as if multiplying. The sounds of cement mixers, bulldozers and cranes had become my friends over the years, my companions in moments of loneliness. (“Into the Emptiness”)
The Book of Cairo is the second city-based anthology I’ve read from Comma Press. To me, the concept is outstanding. Though self-contained and moving stories in their own right, the tales make even more of an impact when compiled. Anthologies like this make you realise just how much places shape people. We are who we are because of where we are.
The Book of Cairo is published by Comma Press and is available here.
Edited by Raph Cormack
Reviewed by Alice Kouzmenko
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