This is a review of Playing Cards in Cairo by Hugh Miles. Abacus. 2008.
Hugh Miles, the son of a British diplomat, has a freewheeling approach to life that, by proxy, helps readers gain a better understanding of Egyptian society. This society is observed through the experiences of his female friends and Roda, an Egyptian woman who becomes his wife.
The book tells stories of Miles’ card-playing mates: Yosra, Nadia, Reem and, by extension, their relatives. The book also documents the blossoming of Miles’ relationship with Roda. Tough subjects, from family abuse to drug addiction, are tackled in this fascinating account.
The book reveals the failure of successive Egyptian governments since Nasser: the idea of secularization seems laughable in a place where millions of females suffer from family violence; the pledge for equality is a farce when one considers the levels of corruption within the state; discrimination against people of different class-backgrounds thrives in a society meant to be egalitarian.
The book also confronts the hypocrisy of stringent interpretation of Islamic law. For example, if pre-martial sex is not accepted, why is a contract marriage, urfi, permitted under Sunni Islam? (P.92-93)
Miles’ narrative is more heartfelt than some, because he is discussing his friends here. The contemporary problems of Egyptian society, lack of job opportunities for young people, lack of freedom of speech, the struggles of Muslims who want to leave their faith, feels more immediate.
Unfortunately, Miles does not really discuss the roots of many of Egypt’s problems. For example, he argues that “Cairo is a class-ridden society where people are expected to know their place…” (p.198) However, a curious outsider such as myself does not see him discussing why he thinks this is the case.
Miles is nevertheless right to question whether democratization will follow economic progress. The transformation of economy, in his eyes, “only [strengthens a] more authoritarian [Egyptian government]” (p.263) He has a point, based on other examples in the region.
Miles’ writing is not didactic. Through merely recounting the difficulties faced by his female friends, he retains enough objectivity to give readers their own chance to think about the status of Egyptian women.
“Today, Egyptian women are better educated than ever before, buy they are sill expected to do the child rearing and domestic chores…Though they can sometimes…choose a husband…family pressures are strong and their lives are blighted by discrimination, deprivation and violence.” (p.276)
Miles’ reserved tone is what really makes his writing resonate.