Trade Paperback: £10.99
Genre: Memoir, travel
There's an old saying that goes like this: "Lucky in cards, unlucky in love", but Hugh Miles (freelance journalist and son of a British diplomat) manages to come up trumps in both, and in this part memoir, part travelogue he tells us of his love for Cairo, but specifically for a Cairene woman whom he later marries.
In "Playing Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City" , Miles recounts how he returned to Cairo after a short stint there as a freelance journalist because he wanted to get to know, Roda, an Egyptian woman. He started off as her card partner and end up as her partner for life.
Initially it was very difficult for Hugh and Roda to be alone (Egyptian society does not allow a man and a woman to socialize without a chaperon), so Roda organized card games at her home thus providing an Hugh and herself an opportunity to be hang out together, albeit with a group of other card players. As they played tarneeb (a form of bridge) about 3-4 nights a week at Roda's apartment, Miles became privy to the inside workings of Egyptian society, especially the lives of young women and the problems they face living in such a tightly-controlled society.
He regales us with the stories of the other tarneeb players: Nadia, whose husband beats her just because he can; Reem, who is suffering from the effects of a botched plastic surgery operation; and, most memorably, Yosra, whose life is so intolerable with a sick father and dominating policeman brother and a non-existent love life that she anesthetizes herself all day with prescription drugs. It is through the lives of these women that Hugh Miles makes us aware of the huge problems that the fairer sex must face in Egypt.
While I liked the novel's intense local focus, conveying the daily rhythms of life in Cairo's various neighborhoods, I think one of the book's main attractions is Miles' acute observations of Egyptian life,stresses and codes of conduct.... toxic stress arising from overpopulation and unemployment; severe religious control; repressive regime; torture prisons; rising prices; the refugee situation etc. ( desperate refugees and economic migrants continue to arrive from across Africa and Iraq. In January hundreds of thousands of Palestinians burst through the Gaza blockade, an event that could repeat itself at any time.)
Miles' book also functions as a window into the political, religious and cultural tensions under which women in Egypt live. Egyptian woman are burdened with preserving the honor of the family and as a result they have to keep their private lives hidden which results in an inordinate amount of stress, lies and deceit. To add to that, they face constant discrimination and sexual harassment both, in the work place and in their day-to-day lives.
Whether you're interested in Egypt from the point of view of traveling there or just as an observer of world cultures, this book is for you...do pick up a copy when you can.