Homes, Mosques, and the Making
of a Global Cairo
Whoever built a mosque, Allah would build for him a similar place in paradise.
Prophet Muhammad, Sahih Bukhari
Beneath the discourses that ideologize the city, the ruses and combinations of powers that have no readable identity proliferate.
Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life
“Conquering the Beast” was the title of a recent article about Cairo in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (December 2–8, 1999: 6), an interview with the governor of Cairo, Abdel-Rehim Shehata. In the interview, Shehata states, “Cairo is the city of problems,” although he is also quick to declare that “our strategy is an all-out attack on those problems.” The governor describes the comprehensive plan formulated by the governorate to deal with Cairo's infrastructure, cleanliness, traffic, water and air pollution, and cultural and human development, and he emphasizes that “the most dangerous obstacle we are up against is people's behavior. No matter how much we do, without deep-rooted changes in society's attitude, all our efforts will be short-changed, and we will have little to show for them” (7). He adds, “People do not like to listen to the government.… I don’t know why. Old habits, I guess. They seem to doubt that the government is here to serve their needs” (6). According to the governor, this is why traffic congestion, crowded streets, dirty neighborhoods, and polluted air still exist. “The problem” he continues, “is that many of Cairo's inhabitants lack a feeling of belonging. Many do not
One often encounters remarks like the governor's about Cairo residents in the Egyptian public discourse. They convey a general feeling about peo-ple's practices and roles in the making of Cairo. These are usually invoked to rationalize the persistence of Cairo's problems but are rarely viewed as the source of the city's energy, liveliness, or vitality. This interview also illustrates that government officials still think of city management as a topdown endeavor. The government, its planners, and officials do the planning, and the people should follow their regulations. There is little room in the governor's view for dialogue between the government and the people or for people's participation. This interview recalls the fantasy of many planners and policy makers who have dreamed since the last century of controlling the city, its processes, and growth. From Haussmann, Le Corbusier, and Robert Moses to the current governor of Cairo, the vision of the city continues to be largely linked to rational planning, technological progress, and a “sweeping, rational engineering of all aspects of social life” (Scott 1998: 88). Despite strong criticisms by sociologists (Jacobs 1961; de Certeau 1988), anthropologists (Holston 1989), and political scientists (Scott 1998), the dream is still alive and well: if only we could implement our well-designed comprehensive strategies, and if only people would follow what we tell them, then all the city's problems would be solved and everyone would live happily ever after. Policy makers and planners still view laws formulated and enforced by government officials as the main ingredient for a vital and beautiful city. As Cairo's governor declared confidently, “There is no street in Cairo, even in the desert areas, which is not an open book to us. … Our only life buoy is law and order” (Al-Ahram Weekly, December 2–8, 1999: 7). How does this view relate to the practices of the ordinary dwellers of the city? Is it possible for government planners and policy makers to control how the city is made and practiced?
Living with the Beast
Since Sadat started his policies in the mid-1970s, Cairo has experienced many transformations. President Hosni Mubarak, who has been ruling since Sadat's assassination in 1981, continues to pursue a rigorous economic reform program. As described in Rodenbeck's recent study, life in
Al-Zawiya has been experiencing some of these rapid transformations. While until the early 1990 s, people had to wait ten to twenty years for a new phone line, currently the waiting time is much shorter (only one to two years if one has the needed fees). Telephones are proliferating in homes, coffee shops, bookstores, and grocery shops. If a family does not have a phone at home, there are also public phone booths, which emerged in al-Zawiya only in 1998, that can be used with a calling card. Many young men and women strongly desire mobile phones, but none of my informants could afford one. Recently, natural gas pipes started supplying the homes of Magdy's family and their neighbors with cheap means for cooking and heating water. A new bridge is being constructed to facilitate the traffic movement from the neighborhood to the rest of Cairo. Despite these changes, al-Zawiya, like many other areas in Cairo, still suffers from serious problems. Sewage leaks are daily occurrences, and garbage collection is still a serious problem. There is often a shortage of water, especially in the summer. The water pressure is often insufficient to provide families on the
Confronted by these hardships, people continue to build homes and mosques. In addition to the recent boom in the construction of apartment extensions similar to those described in the previous chapter, men and women in al-Zawiya are active in constructing and expanding mosques in different parts of the area. Pointing to one mosque in el-ahali, Um Hosni explained to me with pride that the mosque was constructed by the efforts and money of the residents. The youth, in particular, have been collecting donations from the people to finish the mosque, which started as one room with a reed mat for men only. The room was turned into a mosque with minarets, and a section is currently designated for women. Another mosque on the border between el-masaakin and el-ahali that Um Ahmed frequents for her evening prayers expanded and had a wall added that replaced the curtain used before to separate the two genders. Until recently, its identity as a mosque was recognized only through the inscription of God's name above its entrance. The simple room, inserted between the housing blocks, has been turned into an elaborate structure, and its identity has been physically marked by a tall minaret. This mosque is part of the many expansions that are taking place in adjacent blocks. Despite many differences between them, both these mosques (or Houses of God) and the additions of Magdy and his neighbors (houses of the people) display in visible forms the active role of the local population in the making of their neighborhood and Cairo at large.
Quiet Sounds, Visible Signs, and Moral Economies
The state is an ambiguous reality.
Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance
The previous chapters showed how, as active users, men and women in al-Zawiya have employed different strategies and tactics to transform the
It is tempting to label many of the practices described in this book as “resistance.” In many ways, these practices challenge the socioeconomic and political inequalities that place Hisham and his neighbors in a particular social space. They are part of their continuous struggle to secure a space for themselves in Cairo and to inscribe their presence on the “face” of a city, which, through state policies, pushed them out from its center. They integrate the group within the neighborhood and display its active role in the neighborhood's formation. They defy the fantasies of rational planning that divide housing units into enclosed entities and assign functions to specific spaces.
The thick contextualization of these practices, however, makes it hard to “fit them into a fixed box called resistance,” to use the words of Sherry Ortner (1995: 175). This concept becomes slippery, denoting many different, and at times contradictory, modes of action under its rubric (Maddox 1997; Bayat 1997a. 1997b). The concept of resistance also poses the thorny question of intentionality. Is resistance necessarily a conscious act, as some argue (Fegan 1986)? If so, how are we to account for the intentions of social agents? Are these intentions “inscribed in the acts themselves” (Scott 1986: 29)? If not necessarily a conscious act, is resistance any “experience that constructs and reconstructs the identity of subjects” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997: 19)? In its traditional sense, the label resistance does not account for the multiple meanings and consequences of the practices described in this book; neither does it do justice to the wide range of daily tactics and strategies that I have been analyzing. Who is Hisham resisting when he builds his apartment? Is Magdy resisting
More important, the label resistance does not capture the ambiguous and shifting relationships between these practices and the state plans and discourses. The spatial practices of Hisham and his neighbors are neither foreign to the state's organization of the city nor in conformity with it. On the one hand, the new expansions are attached to the old structures and are believed to strengthen the buildings that were erected by state planners. They are “planned” in that they are attached to the buildings erected by the state. They also require planning and coordination between neighbors. In addition, they are manifestations of people's aspiration to improve their housing conditions and their desire for modern housing. They are often justified by notions of beauty, modernity, and privacy that have been common in the state public discourse since Sadat started his open-door policy. On the other hand, these additions are not subject to “rational planning.” They are “unplanned” in that no official permits are obtained beforehand and no architects or planners are consulted. People dismissed my question as irrelevant when I asked about having an architect who might help in designing the new additions. “What for?” was the answer. “The contractor and the builder (usta) know what should be done.” It is this continuity and rupture between the plans of the state and the practices of the people that I have been trying to emphasize in this book.
At the same time, these enactments emerge from a specific sense of meaning, justice, and order. People recognize that these acts are “illegal,” and some excuse the government's attempts to restrict construction on state-owned land and the use of public spaces for unintended and unauthorized actions such as selling vegetables and goods on the sidewalk. One man, who himself has built two rooms next to his apartment, explained that the government should regulate the construction and usage of urban space. If the government did not effectively control who is building and where, the man argues, people would take over every inch of the city, and there would be no places for people even to walk. But such views, which are shared by others, are often followed by the argument “What else can we do? Shall we live in the street? Does the government want people to starve?” In many ways, these practices are “seen as natural and moral responses to the urgency of survival and desire for dignified life” (Bayat 1997b: 61).
While Magdy and his neighbors view the changes introduced to their
People also have a good sense of the “spaces of tolerance” (Foucault 1979: 82) allowed in the system of power. They, for example, know which additions are considered “nice” (usually those changes that leave positive impressions on others, especially government officials) and which additions are seen as ugly and therefore are most likely to be penalized. As a woman explained, she was very scared when she saw government employees checking changes introduced to apartments around hers and expressing their intention to destroy some of these alterations. She was worried because her family had just added a room to expand their one-bedroom apartment (on the ground floor). The large amount of money and effort they had invested in this room made her “heart jump to her throat” out of fear that the officials would order the removal of their room or fine them. She relaxed quickly, as she explained, when she remembered that only people who implement shacklike additions (‘ishash) are penalized (through fine or removal of the additions), while others, like her family, who invest a lot of money in making clean, wellpainted, and “nice-looking” changes, do not have these changes removed. In most of these cases, additions are saved by paying some money to government employees.
These tactics and strategies are also linked to people's views of the state and its roles. Men and women know the state through its public discourses (mainly circulated in the media) and through their direct interaction with its officials, institutions, and agents. As shown in chapter 1, the state has a remarkable ability to present a unified image of itself. Government officials used the same set of negative constructions to
Similarly, government officials in Cairo are differentiated actors with their own interests and visions of order and the modern city. They differ in their priorities and expectations. In fact, there is a system (referred to in the literature as “informal”) that allows government officials to use their positions and connections to increase their income and boost their symbolic power beyond the boundaries of their schools, offices, and police stations. Teachers in public schools, who are grossly underpaid, for example, “force” students to take private lessons—if they do not, they will not pass their exams. It is the money that teachers acquire from lessons, and not their government salary, that supports them and their families. A state bureaucrat may prefer to take some money rather than to charge a family for the unauthorized use of government electric connections. Many officials who interact with people seem to place less emphasis than planners and policy makers on ideas about order and beauty and choose to accept money to overlook various changes. A policeman is often more willing to supplement his little salary with some extra cash than to report or destroy new constructions. An officer may be more willing to get some fancy foods such as shrimp and fruits than to confiscate products or equipment that is used on the side of the street without a license from the authorities.
While this system allows some people to broaden their bargaining space and to negotiate many issues (from violation of land codes to traffic tickets), it also indicates to others, such as Hisham and his neighbors, that the government's apparatus is unjust and is not geared toward protecting their rights. Rather, it all depends on connections and money. People strongly believe that the rich, who have more money and better connections, enjoy more protection and secure access to various urban resources. In this context, the ability to manipulate state officials is highly regarded.
In his study of squatter settlements in Iran, Asef Bayat (1997a. 1997b) coined the phrase “the quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to refer to “a silent, patient, protracted and pervasive advancement of ordinary people on the propertied and powerful in order to survive hardships and better their lives” (Bayat 1997b. 57). Bayat's important phrase “quiet encroachment” captures several features of the practices that I have been describing. For one thing, Hisham and his neighbors are “calmly and quietly” moving forward to improve their lives (56). They are motivated by “the force of necessity—the necessity to survive and live a dignified life” (58). Similar to the actions of urban squatters in Tehran, these changes are also “significant in themselves without intending necessarily to undermine political authority” (58). The aim of people in al-Zawiya, for example, is not to mobilize to change the laws that regulate the use of space but rather to create realities that deactivate current laws. My analysis, however, departs from Bayat's in at least two important ways. First, although the additions I examined in al-Zawiya are implemented quietly and quickly so that they will not be seen or heard by government officials, as soon as they are finished, they become important visible signs that have
What interested me in this book was not to classify these practices as resistance and/or confirmative. In fact, I find this dichotomy to be unproductive in that it reduces the complexity of people's practices into rigid categories and ignores the multiple meanings and consequences of these practices. It also puts the researchers in the position of a judge who is evaluating and attaching positive (i.e., resistance) or negative (i.e, confirmative) meanings to these practices. One of the most interesting things about the practices I have been describing in this book is their effects and ability to transform plans, projects, spaces, and images. It is this power, I believe, that is significant in understanding the role of the ordinary practitioners in the making and remaking of the city. Focusing on this power allows us to go beyond viewing the city as a ready-made whole that is beyond the practices of Hisham and his neighbors. It is not sufficient to recognize these practices as adaptive or survival strategies and examine them in the city. Rather, they should be placed at the center of any theorization of the city and urban life. Vendors running with merchandise when they see the police, merchants struggling to use the street corner rather than limiting their activities to the bounded formal markets, young men visiting local coffee shops, women taking daily trips to the vegetable market, Muslim activists preaching in the city bus and reciting
Therefore, it is not enough to examine state policies and how they are translated into housing projects, schools, markets, streets, and green areas. The study of urban space must also include a close analysis of the global forces and discourses that inform national policies and plans. Above all, it has to conceptualize the central role of the spatial practices of the urban dwellers who continually remake the city through their daily activities and movement. These practices are central to an adequate view of urban space as always being in the process of formation and to the conceptualization of change not as an interruption in a steady flow of continuity but as a central feature of daily life and the production of urban spaces. The role of the ordinary practitioners of the city is especially important for a productive understanding of how local, national, and global forces are articulated in the formation of urban spaces and cultural identities.
The modern metropolis has always evoked feelings of alienation and disorientation, but it has equally been associated with new possibilities for encounter and solidarity.
Kevin Robins, “Prisoners of the City”
Ali, the shoe factory worker mentioned in chapter 5, has many dreams and desires that are largely informed by the movies he watches, the stories he hears from friends (who work or have relatives in other Arab countries), and the strolls he takes with his peers in upper-class areas. One of his dreams is to buy a villa in Switzerland for skiing during the winter, another villa in India where he would hire singers and dancers to perform for him as he has seen on videotapes, and a palace in Saudi Arabia to facilitate his performing the pilgrimage (hajj) every year. To travel in comfort to all these places, Ali dreams of buying a yacht that will enable him to get around far removed from the hassles of public transportation that he experiences daily. Meanwhile, Ali's mother went to Saudi Arabia to perform the omra (an abbreviated form of the hajj that may be performed at
I grounded my discussion of globalization in concrete examples and precise enactments to illustrate how global images, goods, and discourses are appropriated in the formation of spaces and identities. The framework that I presented in this book connects sites, practices, and feelings and shows how these connections are central to the continuous production of urban locality. Tracing the logic of flows through precise enactments allows us to follow individual and collective trajectories (which may take us to India, Saudi Arabia, or Switzerland) and to analyze how global flows are articulated, transformed, and resisted in different contexts and by various social groups. It therefore allows us to avoid limiting globalization to a geographically based concept that focuses only (or even primarily) on flows between the West and the Rest. Ali's dreams take him not only to Switzerland but also to India and Saudi Arabia. His mother's desires and religious devotion take her to Saudi Arabia. As I tried to demonstrate throughout this book, class and gender structure people's access to jobs and travel destinations as well as their appropriation of various global discourses and images. Magdy's aspirations take him to Kuwait, and his brother travels to Libya to acquire the money and goods he desires. While upper-class Egyptians travel with ease to and from the United States and Europe (for education, vacation, and treatment), cities such as Paris, London, and New York are largely offlimits to young men like Magdy. The West as a travel destination is so far removed from their reality that it is not even a dream. While there are “lucky” men like Magdy, who have managed to travel to the Gulf or Libya and to acquire the money needed to secure spacious and well-furnished homes, this market is getting tighter every day. Many young men, including Magdy's other three brothers, cannot find the jobs and the income they aspire for at home or abroad. Sadat's promise that young men would be able to own villas, drive cars, and acquire more consumer goods has not materialized for most Egyptians. Young men and women experience the frustration of
As I argued earlier, while the state public discourse has stigmatized the relocated group and the project has physically separated them from the rest of the neighborhood, religion in general and the mosque in particular have facilitated their interaction with other residents. Religion is also important in people's selective appropriation of modern discourses and images. In light of the tendency in sociological literature and popular media to equate Islam with fundamentalism, it is worth repeating here that the religious identity I have been discussing is situated between two extremes: the government, which since the early 1970 s has been showing a strong orientation to Western modernity, and Muslim extremists, who try to reject various modern objects and discourses. Just as the practices of Hisham and his neighbors transform and redefine notions of modernity embedded in the housing units allocated to them by the state, people's attraction to religion is part of their critique of the state's strong identification with Western modernity. At the same time, the religious identity of Nuha and her neighbors is constructed through their struggle against the extreme position of some Muslim activists who try to restrict people's appropriation of various aspects of modernity in their efforts to replicate the practices of the Prophet in the modern time. As discussed in chapter 5, religious identity is not defined in isolation from modern discourses and objects. The growing number of modern educational and health services that are being offered in mosques, the active use of the city bus by Islamic groups to communicate with people and “let them know,” and the increasing display of religious signs in homes, shops, and vehicles are indicators of both increasing modernization and increasing
Ali's dreams and his mother's trip highlight part of the structured globalization of Cairo. The huge gap between Ali's dreams and his family's realities is manifested in his mother's first and only trip outside Egypt. Unlike upper-class Egyptians, who can tour the world in jumbo jets, Ali's mother had to take a bus and a ferry boat to reach Saudi Arabia. While the trip by plane hardly takes two hours, Um Ali spent two whole days on the way in each direction. Her desire to perform the hajj forced her to stay away from her family and to live in hiding for almost five months. Just as trips to the mosque are linked with extra rewards that could contribute to the path toward paradise, the hardships confronted in performing the hajj are also invested with religious meanings and values. Ali's mother and others who take similar trips emphasize the rewards that they acquire by taking the long and arduous journey. While Islam structures Um Ali's daily life and interactions and helps her make some sense out of various hardships and inequalities, for her son and other young men, religion plays a more ambiguous role. Ali's desires and aspirations take him in different directions. He follows the struggles of Muslims in different parts of the world (from Bosnia to Chechnya) and talks about them as part of the same community. He also uses religion in his critique of government policies and actions and in his discussions of gender inequalities (especially when asserting the rights of men). Religion, however, is far from structuring his dreams and desires. Unlike his mother, who performs prayer on a regular basis, Ali rarely prays or goes to the mosque. He often refuses invitations to go to the mosque in favor of watching movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, attending local coffee shops, and smoking hashish with his friends. What will be the future role of religion for a young man like Ali, with his grand dreams and frustrated expectations?
Throughout this book, I have highlighted the uncertainty of the longterm
Religion, however, is an option that derives its power from its promise to address and resolve current daily problems associated with modernity and urban life. In one speech I attended in a mosque in al-Zawiya, the sheikh recited the following tradition (hadith): “There are four things that are the source of a man's happiness. These are a virtuous wife [mar’a saaliha], a righteous neighbor [ gaar baarr], a spacious house [daar fasiha], and a comfortable vehicle [markib hani]. And there are four things that are the source of a man's misery. These are a bad wife [mar’a taliha], an undutiful neighbor [ gaar‘aqq], a narrow house [daar dayyiqa], and a bad vehicle [markib sayyi’a].” The sheikh provided a detailed interpretation of this tradition, linking it directly to pressing issues in the daily life of al-Zawiya's inhabitants: housing, transportation, and relationships between spouses and neighbors. For example, he interpreted the markib sayyi’a as the current transportation system in Cairo and described riding the city bus or the otobis as the utmost insult (akhir bahdala). His interpretation also touched upon the many changes that continuously transform people's lives. A bad woman, he explained, is the wife who does
The linkage between happiness and space did not need elaboration. I was cramped with hundreds of other women and children in the section designated for us in the mosque. Many of these women are struggling to secure better housing options for their families. I was sitting next to Um Amal (the mother of the child whose story I included in chapter 2) and three of her young daughters who had insisted on joining us for Friday prayer. Compared to Hisham and Salah, Amal's family is unlucky. They live on the fifth floor and need the cooperation of all the neighbors who live in their block. Their one-bedroom unit is also close to the police station, which makes any expansion directly exposed to the gaze of the state. These two factors prevent them from expanding their apartment. After that sermon, Um Amal started trying to convince her husband to sell their current unit, hoping to secure enough money to buy a larger one even in the remote neighborhood of Hilwan, an option that is not preferred by her but seems to be the only one left. As far as I know, they are still searching.