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Cairo-Paris:The Urban Imaginary of the Self

  • Author(s): El-Sherif, Mona A.Selim
  • Advisor(s): Larkin, Margaret
  • et al.


Cairo-Paris: The Urban Imaginary of the Self


Mona A. Selim El-Sherif

Doctor of Philosophy in Near Eastern Studies

Professor Margaret Larkin, Chair

My dissertation Cairo- Paris: the urban imaginary of the Self, examines expressions of Egyptian modernity through the use of the urban experience as a paradigm for it. The dissertation uses the three different genres of the essay, the novel, and film, in order to examine expressions of Egyptian modernity in its urban context. The dissertation is divided into two distinctive parts; part one examines representations of nineteenth century urban culture by focusing on the city imaginary in the works of two major Egyptian intellectuals, while part two examines expressions of urban culture in two recent film productions that focus on Cairo and Paris as terrains for the experience of modernity.

Part one traces the emergence of the theme of al- tamaddun; urbanity, in the canon of Arabic literature and explains how it bound modern literary writing to modern citizenship. In analyzing the legacy of the nineteenth century literary expressions of al- tamaddun I aim to explain to the reader a multi- layered, multi-vocal reading of the nineteenth century texts focusing on the intricate relationship between these literary texts and the urban space which inspired them. Both Cairo and Paris appear as real and imaginary terrains around which new cultural aesthetics for modernity were weaved. To analyze expressions of urban culture of the nineteenth century I focus on the two genres of the essay and the novel I explain how urban factors such as circulation of commodities and texts, encounters, and the new culture of time and space which resulted from industrial modernity found expression in the literary works of nineteenth- century Egyptian authors.

Whereas the canon of urban literature has been focused on familiar figures such as the flâneur, the gambler, and the blasé, such urban types are too Eurocentric in their connotations and occlude essential qualities of the global nature of nineteenth century Paris which became the Mecca of modernity for modernizers from different parts of the world. In the context of Arabic literature the figure of the sheikh emerges as a central narrator of the global space of nineteenth- century Paris. By making use of Benjamin's methodological use of the figures of urban culture, I use the figure of the sheikh to elucidate the most salient cultural themes that resulted from Muhammad Ali's modernization program, which contributed to the Arab cultural renaissance known as al- nahda. Part one concludes by showing how the urban narratives of the modernizing sheikh raised a number of themes that bound discourses of Egyptian modernity to the rhetoric of citizenship in a new urban landscape that is predicated on a new sense of time and space that resulted from the use of technology.

The use of technology in media productions has led to significant cultural changes. Whereas in the nineteenth century essays, and novels appeared to be revolutionary media through which modernizers have explicated the experience of modernity, by the end of the nineteenth century film was introduced to Egypt only to become the most popular artistic form of expression. It was film that came to play a central role in articulating the aesthetics of the experience of modernity as it was conceived by the Egyptian modernizers. In part two, I examine the role of Egyptian cinema in performing the intellectual flânerie that began in the nineteenth century and how the recent depictions of Cairo and Paris act as commentaries on the nahda discourse of al-tamaddun.

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