‘Uncommon’: Guides to Cairo and Dubai with Literary Aspirations

Isabelle Mayault is editor-at-large for Uncommon Guidebooks, which has just come out with an Uncommon Dubai and has an Uncommon Cairo in production. What makes these guidebooks less-than-common is that they take a more literary, anecdotal eye on their city-subjects:

Now this is a Cairo I can recognize. Photo credit: Maartje Alders.
Now this is a Cairo I can recognize. Photo credit: Maartje Alders.

ArabLIt: I read a few guides to the Emirates when I first stopped over in 2001 (I think they were on a bookshelf of the in-law I visited). Most of them were in this very generic “guidebook” style with horribly generic, un-memorable “guidebook” photos, which frankly could be swapped from any guidebook. Part of what’s fantastic about these is the real photos of real (non-supermodel) office workers, tourists, and laborers. In these photos, I actually recognize the Dubai and Cairo that I know.

Was it a conscious decision not to make the photos unrealistically “glossy,” but rather to represent real places as they would appear to a real visitor?

Isabelle Mayault: The idea behind the collection is precisely that: to get away as far as possible of maps, top 10s and postcards. We work closely with the photographers we commission and we seek out work already in existence that is bold and original.

AL: In the essays I read in the Cairo and Dubai collections, the issue of workers’ and non-Emiratis’ rights weren’t addressed. (Although of course there are many very real photos, for instance a Western-looking woman on a beach in a bikini juxtaposed with a worker in an orange jumpsuit.) Did I miss something, or are those issues outside the scope of a guide like this?

Sixth of October.
Sixth of October. Photo credit: Françoise Beauguion.

IM: What’s at the core of the editorial process is – how do the people who live in this city see the city? Not – how do the people who read western travel supplements see the city. When I visited Dubai last November, I had a chance to meet several Uncommon Dubai contributors, including Hind Shoufani a Palestinian filmmaker, poet and editor of Uncommon Dubai.

What I found very interesting is how aware of, and how obsessed they were with, the conflicting image emanating from Dubai. Naturally, the angle of the book became the following — if Dubai is such a contentious place, why do smart, creative people choose to settle there? Where does the attraction come from? The answers to those questions are not necessarily flattering, and that’s okay. As a guide book “formula,” we neither want to produce a “positive guide” nor a critical one, but we break the mold by asking a few simple questions: What would I want to know about this place? How can i navigate towards my own experience? And how can I enjoy myself here?

AL: I believe I read somewhere (?) that, when people travel, they’re looking for fewer “major landmarks” and more personal connections. That’s something this collection seems to work toward — making a connection between the reader and the real humans who inhabit this city. Is that one of the goals? If so, how does it inform how you choose your contributors and what instructions you give them?

IM: We have a very organic way of working. Both in the way our commissioning editors are chosen and how they, in turn, select the contributors. We decide to start working on a city or region because we have the “perfect editor,” according to our criteria. Not the other way around.

What makes a perfect editor? you might ask. It can seem vague from the outside, but it requires a particular profile. One has to have both a background in editing, in writing, ideally also in journalism, with hints of human sciences and broader artistic interests. Contributors usually are the same, they cumulate various fields of interest. They’re chosen because they have a specific relationship to a specific place. Many potential interesting contributors are discarded during the initial editing process because they lack this bond with a place, they don’t have one amazing story to tell.

AL: There are so many guidebooks about Cairo (although the only one I can remember reading — if it counts as a guidebook — is Max Rodenbeck’s City Victorious). How does the Uncommon guidebook distinguish itself? Other than being perhaps the only one with a feature on 6th of October.

We believe that there is no such thing as a total guidebook. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to cover all of Cairo, and not even all of its neighborhoods, in only 250 pages. The only way forward was to embrace subjectivity.

Dubai. Photo credit: Emma Mattei.
Dubai. Photo credit: Emma Mattei.

IM: First of all, Uncommon Cairo makes no attempt to be exhaustive, and the same goes for all Uncommon editions. Quite the contrary. We believe that there is no such thing as a total guidebook. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to cover all of Cairo, and not even all of its neighborhoods, in only 250 pages. The only way forward was to embrace subjectivity. We’re not saying: This is a book thanks to which you will know everything there is to know about Cairo, but rather: this a book where you will find 30 stories written by people who live in Cairo, or call it home. It’s about loving a place, even if that love might be conflicting at times.

Which takes me to my second point: Uncommon Cairo is a collective work. Thirty-five persons contributed to the book, either with a photo essay, a written chronicle, or an illustration. Each of them has been selected by the co-editors (Heba Habib and myself) for their particular relationship to a place, a landmark, or even a personality embodying the city. Sometimes, the relationship between place and person is obvious. For instance, our friend Tamer Fathy, who grew up on Muizz street, wrote about his childhood spent playing ball amongst 11th century mosques. Sometimes, we had to think for a while, but the question always remained: Who would be best to write a story about this building, that neighbourhood?

AL: In the excerpts I read, the collection isn’t afraid to break genre ranks — is it poetry? is it essay? who cares? Is that one of the hallmarks of the Uncommons?

And Dubai. Photo credit: Mohamad Badr.
And Dubai. Photo credit: Mohamad Badr.

IM: The last section of the book, which is entitled “Stolen notes from little black books,” is dedicated to our favourite tips and addresses. But this is the only section which remotely looks like any other guidebook. The rest is a mix of historical chronicles, family stories, routes, insights, and itineraries of a very personal nature. Some are closer to a typical essay, like when egyptologist Monica Hanna writes about the National Museum in Cairo, but Uncommon is also filled with nostalgia, ghosts, time spent, time lost, all of which can be perfectly embodied with poetry.

We also have room for humour, hobbies, and more practical aspects of a city, like food and transportation. In Uncommon Cairo, one story is a chronicle of a minibus ride between Faisal and Tahrir. It teaches the reader where to sit and how to interact with the driver to pay for the ride and get off when you need to.

AL: How would someone “use” these guidebooks? What sort of reader are you hoping to reach?

IM: We hope to appeal to both people who already live in the cities we’re writing about, and to the people who are planning to visit, but also to the people who might never make it there. For instance, people who think Cairo is too dangerous to travel to, or that Dubai is too ‘new’: we hope that they will read the book and travel, even if it is from the comfort of their armchair at home. Maybe they won’t change their opinion of a place, but we hope we can bring to the reader the authentic vitality of a place, and there’s no better way to do that than through a good story, well told.