Visitors to Cairo probably come away with the same images stuck in their heads: the yellow air, snarled traffic, crumbling colonial architecture, trash piles, et cetera. These are all, of course, part of the contemporary urban reality of the largest city in Africa. Sims' new book, however, is the best--perhaps only--compact source that discusses the sides of the city visitors rarely have reason to see: the massive informal residential expansion and the new desert cities. A simple figure immediately alter one's perspective: already in 1996, 62% of the population was living in areas informally developed since 1950 (p. 69). That is, nearly 2/3 of the city lives in areas organically grown and not overseen by any government planning body. This is to be compared to the eight new desert cities, which have devoured massive amounts of capital and government attention (even attracting the new campus of the American University in Cairo to the city of New Cairo), and yet hold a population of only 610,000, <4% of the population of Greater Cairo, according to the 2006 census (p. 171).
The sections covering the informal city are perhaps the most conceptually useful sections of the book. Those of use who have visited Cairo immediately realize how little of the city we have seen. Tourists and students generally remain in the older urban core and are, as such, entirely unacquainted with the regions that house the majority of the population.
Apart from this, the single most welcome aspect of Sims' book is its ability to deftly disabuse the reader of his or her preconceptions. I include one example here. The number of cars in the city, ownership rates, and traffic are covered on pp. 234-39. As noted above and by a previous reviewer, traffic and congestion make a massive and immediate impression upon the visitor. It almost seems as if everyone in this city of nearly 20 million owns a car. Taking all of urban and peri-urban Greater Cairo into account, however, it emerges that only 11% of households own a private car, though this could easily double in several years (p. 235-6). Cars account for only 20% of daily trips, while private minibuses, the Metro, and public (mini)buses account for 64%. Motorcycles, scooters and bicycles account for a tiny fraction of vehicles owned, less than 1% (p. 237), although they too make a disproportionately large impression upon the visitor.
Sims' book is accessible and engagingly written, much more so than the pompous and ponderous volumes "Cairo Cosmopolitan" and Cairo Contested", which come in for some moderate rebuke on pp. 18-19. From the number of "tomb-dwellers" in the City of the Dead to the supply of potable water, Sims picks apart the myths and exaggerations plaguing popular or semi-academic writing on the city. Everything that we occasional visitors think we know about Cairo is at best misconstrued and at worst simply wrong.
As a student of water and environmental history I wish that there had been more discussion of the water supply to this desert city. Pp. 258-9 briefly touch upon the issue and are, despite the brevity, informative. Still, this is a small complaint about an otherwise highly successful and badly needed volume.