A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, the Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt by Nancy Reynolds (review) Academic Article uri icon


  • Nancy Reynolds wrote an ultimate account on how new consumer culture in Egypt was intertwined with emerging Egyptian nationalism and narrated itself against the background of gradual decolonization from Britain. This meticulously researched book builds up a story of commerce and consumption in Egypt from late nineteenth century and into the middle of the twentieth century, which culminates in an analysis of the burning of Cairo’s commercial district in the Black Saturday of January 26, 1952. Such a diagnostic event and its various interpretations highlight local ambiguities toward mass consumption even when production and retailing of modern cloths and shoes, on which the book focuses, became prevalent in Egypt. Reynolds argues that “the specific materiality of the space of the colonial city [Cairo] and the goods purveyed there fostered a flexible and intimate culture of consumption in which local residents fluidly and even unpredictably moved through transitional spaces, combined items of sartorial style, and understood themselves to be Egyptians” (7). Her narrative, therefore, engulfs histories of retail enterprises, especially department stores, urban history of downtown Cairo, marketing campaigns, and commentary on changing local materiality in venues such as the press, films, and literary fictions. Chapter 1 surveys how modern commerce followed the development of Cairo as a colonial city since the late nineteenth century. In Reynolds’ narrative, such development evaded the all too familiar geographic-turn-cultural binaries “old” and “new” or “local” and “European” city. This was true for the city’s layout but also in the way inhabitants of Cairo from all walks of life shopped across the city. Chapter 2 studies how new shopping patterns and foreign commodities on offer corresponded with Egypt’s emerging territorial nationalism—Egypt as a place of all its inhabitants with its roots in pharaonic culture. Such understanding of nationalism facilitated participation of multiethnic business elites in Egypt’s emerging national economy. After World War I, Egyptian nationalism gradually changed (Chapter 3). Egypt won partial independence, not least through anti-colonial boycotts against British commerce. Since the 1930s, economic nationalism with its familiar bias toward buy local also gained strong presence on Egyptian national agenda, though not always in Egyptian shopping bags. In Chapter 4, Reynolds demonstrates how Egyptian marketers used conflicting metaphors of “foreign silks” and “local canvas” to promote Egyptian made. Such dichotomy, as she amply shows, was not in the kind of commodities on sale, which were increasingly international in design, and modes of production, and eclectic in wear (“modern” and “traditional” items worn together), but in who produced and sold them. New sartorial items and their promotion shaped bodies of male and female Egyptians and were central in developing genderdized Egyptian citizenry. Such items frequently appeared in contemporary discourse on class, social mobilization, and in educational/disciplinary suggestions on how to improve on the condition of lower-class Egyptians and seemingly incidentally sell expansive, long-staple Egyptian cotton. The post–World War II era (Chapter 5) coupled accelerated Egyptianization of the economy and heightened struggle to remove the British from the Suez Canal region. Decolonization also propagated local sociocultural debates over authenticity and national belonging. An important argument in this chapter and the book is that the advancement of mass consumption in Egypt, and the ambiguities that selling and buying new materials and fashions created, accentuated such debates. Moreover, sartorial materiality—a pair of shoes and nylon stockings—concurrently heightened debates over Egyptian male, female, and youth identities and served as metaphors in the unfolding of such public discourses. Chapter 6 minutely details Cairo’s fire that started as a protest against the killing of many Egyptian auxiliary police forces by British troops in the Suez Canal port city of Ismailia and ended with looting and burning of nightclubs, cinemas, and a significant number of commercial establishments in downtown Cairo. Ethnic minorities and foreigners owned many such enterprises, but so did Egyptians. Rioters targeted British residents but locals also suffered death and injury. In short, no simple explanation of national uprising could adequately account for the event. Some Egyptian commentators even saw the Cairo fire as an act of self-destruction that damaged Egyptian economy and society as well as Cairo’s urban fabric. Reynolds suggests a...

publication date

  • January 1, 2013