Monday, July 21, 2008

Paying Cards in Cairo: Mint Tea, Tarneeb and Tales of the City by Hugh Miles

Trade Paperback: £10.99

Published 03/04/2008

Genre: Memoir, travel

An Abacus title

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.

"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 pick up a copy when you can.


Sanjay said...

Hey there Lotus! How are you? I am glad to see another wonderful post from you.
I have to say I liked this book, and mostly cos thru your review you have captured perfectly the heart of this book. I could pretty much feel the book unfold (at a real fast pace) as I read your post.
Do you think there is a part of this book that does not stand out? And there is the fact that there are plenty of books that shed light on the problems of women in the middle east. How is this different?
Speaking in broader terms granted that the issue does need to be highlighted but is it done with a western audience in mind, or do you think the book transcends that?
Granted that Hugh has a special window on things here given that Roda is his wife and he got to know the other women well.
What is truly remarkable that he was able to bridge that gap across gender and other differences.
That was tarneeb (a bridge) albeit of a different kind.
Was he the only man in the group?
How did other Egyptian men react to this?
Was it not seen as encroaching on their territory so to speak?

How did he convince Roda's family? Did he have to get their formal permission to marry?

I am glad that Miles does a wonderful job conveying the broad scope of the story that is Egypt. There is an article from the NYT that covers the issue of a choice b/t crops and water. link . The article talks about Egypt's problems as well.

Thank you for telling us about yet another wonderful book.
Talking about books. Check out this link from NPR about a book of short stories by Evan S Connell titled "Lost In Uttar Pradesh". Sounds interesting.

Take care buddy and have a great week ahead!

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanjay!

I do always appreciate you reading my reviews/write-ups and your comments.

Are you asking me if the book had some dull moments? I would say not. I think Miles whips up a perfect blend of travelogue, social commentary and memoir and presented in a nice, upbeat tone. I particularly enjoyed his interactions with the locals, especially the taxi drivers, and the reproduced conversations between the Egyptian women known to him although I couldn't help but feel that for the sake of good reading he had to embellish some of it! :)

Yes, there are many books that talk about the problems women in the Middle East face, however, Miles might have an advantage because he was an expat who, through his now wife Roda, had access to some very intimate conversations between Egyptian women...something most other writers are not privy to.

Is this written with a western audience in mind? For sure! But he does a great job educating the reader about Egypt!

Yes, to answer your question, Miles was the only male player in the card group...other males were not allowed because Egyptian men frown upon the idea of men and women mingling unless they are married to each other. The Egyptian men had no clue he was a part of the card group, if they had had a whiff of it, he would have been booted out of there and back to London! This is what I meant when I said that Egyptian women have to live their lives under a shroud of lies and deceit.

FInally, in order to marry Roda, he had to convert to Islam. There is a very interesting chapter about how he went about that...a worthy read for sure.

Thank you for the links Sanj! I am particularly looking forward to finding out what "Lost in Uttarpradesh" could be about!

Take care now and have a wonderful summer ahead!

equiano said...

I hadn't heard of this so thanks for the review (I've ordered a copy). Sounds like a non-fiction foil to Naguib Mahfouz's wonderful PALACE WALK.

Sanjay said...

Lotus, Thank you for your response. I learn so much new from your reviews and write-ups and I would not miss on those!
I am glad that there is an upbeat tone to this book. Do you think the upbeat tone jars somewhat with some of the serious issues he raises? They always say conversations with cab drivers in any place can be the most interesting.
How do you think he embellished? Sorry if you think you are giving away the book don't answer my q. :)
I did not realize that he had to convert to marry Roda. Does he come across as religious at all? Or was he converting to just marry Roda? Do they live in the west now?

You are welcome re "Lost in UP". The reviewer Alan Cheuse was raving about it. I wonder how different it is from other books of this kind.

Stay cool buddy and stay out of that summer heat!

The Pixy Princess said...

sounds like a great read. Must tell my friend about this one as she's currently living/working in the Middle East and often vists Cairo on business

Anil P said...

I've always been curious about Egypt, more from a everyday life point of view.

I wonder how their bazars must be like, the smells, the sounds, the constructs.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello, Equiano

I think you will enjoy Hugh Miles' impressions of Egypt. I felt very pleased to stumbled upon this book.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Sanj

You are so right about cab drivers being some of the most interesting people to converse with.

I for one am glad Miles didn't get too serious with some of the social issues, else it may have come off a tad academic, know what I mean? His style of writing is not "lectury" but as if he is having a conversation with the reader.

Oh, when I said he may have embellished some of the incidents he recounts I simply meant he may have exaggerated a little just to make it more readable, but hey, it could have been the actual conversations too...what do I know about Egypt or the Egyptians? :)

Nah, he did not strike me as religious, he definitely converted because it is a requirement of Islam. Infact, the chapter where he speaks of his conversion is a very interesting one indeed. Yes, I do believe they live in the West now or maybe in both places? A UK-Egypt run would be considered short haul I am sure.

WRT summer heat...I might be going from the frying pan into the fire actually, we're going to India,lol. Aren't you going away for the summer too?

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Nicola

I spent 12 years in the Middle East, but not in its cradle of civilization but in one of its brand new oil-rich states. I wish so much now that I had visited Egypt when I lived in the area..perhaps a trip there would have made me more appreciative of the Middle East. I think those of us that live in the Emirates or even Qatar, Muscat etc, don't get a true feel for the area.

Lotus Reads said...

Hey Anil

I'm sure Cairo will be a treat for the senses and what wonderful photo-ops too!

Sanjay said...

Hey there Lotus! Thank you for your response. :)

I can see what you mean now by saying that Miles conversational style.

I would surely be interested in reading this book, esp the chapter about his conversion.

My friend, how wonderful that you are going to India!! Please enjoy your trip, stay cool and have a safe trip.

Yes, I am going to India as well. It should be an interesting trip.

d SINNER!!! said...

Hmmm...I have admired Egypt from guess every point and from the time I was a small kid...

enough reasons to pick this one up...

A Reader from India said...

Lotus, "Paying cards in Cairo" sounds just the kind of book one can expect to see on your website - A book that provides a glimpse of life in a different world. I am going to check this out, thanks for the recommendation.

Um Naief said...

this book sounds fabulous... especially seeing that my MIL is Egyptian.

hope they have it in the bookstore!