3. Old Places, New Identities
Should the modern city wish to resume the old colloquy with the sacred Nile, and, in the interests of hygiene and beauty, push the industries of Bulaq o V to the outskirts, this quarter might undergo profound transformations but its soul would never be entirely changed.
(Fernand Leprette, Egypt: Land of the Nile)
A favorite topic for Abu Hosni, a driver in his mid-fifties, is the changes that have been transforming both his village of origin, Cairo, and Egypt at large. Women in the village are becoming “lazy,” he complains. “They do not even bake bread at home any more.” Television, he continues “is absorbing everybody's time. People do not visit each other, and farmers go late to their fields because they spend most of the night watching soap operas and movies.” Women and their practices are always central to Abu Hosni's accounts. “Look at women here in Cairo. They imitate el-mooda[fashion] without consideration to our social norms and traditions. They simply see some actress on television with a hairstyle or a particular dress, and the next day they blindly follow her.” One of his narratives focuses on his friend Mohammad, an Egyptian man who worked in the United States for a long time and ran a successful big horse farm. Over the years, Mohammad interacted with many American women, and he could have married any one of them in a “blink of an eye, as you know,” Abu Hosni pointed out, addressing me. Instead, Mohammad chose to marry a woman from his own country. As a faithful son, he rejected the “global
Mohammad found an apartment for the family in the popular (or sha‘bi) quarter of al-‘Abassiyya in Cairo. The apartment was big (a sign of wealth) but very dirty and without electricity or water. Abu Hosni, presenting himself as the savior of the family, persuaded the man to repair the apartment and install utilities before the arrival of the family. Mohammad told Abu Hosni that he was financially capable of providing a fancier place with all the modern facilities for his family but that he wanted to get back at his wife, who had forgotten her ’asl (origins). In a month, Abu Hosni went with Mohammad to the airport to pick up the wife and the children. It was very clear that they came against their will and resented being in Egypt. Mohammad continued his punishment of the wife by going every morning to a nearby restaurant to buy some ful (a traditional Egyptian dish made of broad beans) that became the family's daily breakfast. With time, the father took his son and daughters to show them different parts of Egypt, and he bought a car for one of his daughters when she started college. The three children got used to living in Egypt, and they all speak good Arabic now.
Such narratives that describe the interaction between “the local” and “the global” and that tend to depict women as vulnerable to changes brought about by the outside world are common in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. They are repeated in daily conversations, national newspapers, and weekly speeches in local mosques and on religious audiotapes circulated in the area. While these narratives celebrate men's economic success and their hard work to maintain religious and cultural traditions, they try to “localize” women and restrict their movement. Women are viewed as negatively influenced by traveling abroad, acquiring consumer goods, and consuming global images and discourses. Restrictions on women's movement are depicted as important to maintain the family solidarity and religious identity. Such multilayered narratives, I argue, should not be detached from their immediate context and simply conceptualized as a rejection of the West, the global, or the outside. Rather, they should be examined within the larger frame of the continuous struggle to define “local” identities and reinforce gender distinctions. The growing globalization of cultural signs, this chapter shows, challenges notions that structure people's interaction (even between a husband and a wife) and identifications. Mohammad could not control and discipline his family (especially his wife) while he was outside the local context that enables certain structuring principles (such as the notion of ’asl) to work effectively.
In the above narrative, Mohammad's struggle to maintain the Egyptian and Muslim identity of his family required several returns to various sites representing “the local.” It is important here to remember that as a theoretical concept, “the local” should not be confused, as Massey (1994) and Lash and Urry (1994) correctly argued, with the concrete, the empirical, the autonomous, or the spatially bounded entity (see also Urry 1995; Hannerz 1996; Tsing 1993). As indicated in Abu Hosni's narrative, the local shifted from Mohammad's village in Egypt to a mosque in the United States to a popular neighborhood in Cairo. Although geographical space is used as a point of reference for several local identities in Cairo, these different contexts share a set of social relationships and identities that include those who are like us (local people) and exclude people who are not like us (outsiders). Thus, when people identify the relocated group as “those from Bulaq,” they are trying to exclude them from another collective identity that includes people who have been living in al-Zawiya al-Hamra and identify primarily with it. This chapter first maps the identities that are attached to, and formed by, the relocated group to show how national policies and global processes
Dislocating the Local
To understand the local identities formed in the new area, it is important to remember, as discussed in the first chapter, that the project started by separating and stigmatizing the targeted population to justify the state policies that aimed to “modernize” and re-integrate them within the nation. Central to this process was the presentation of negative impressions of Bulaq and its population. The state's negative constructions of the group drew on Bulaq's ambiguous representation in the popular discourse and the media. Bulaq is usually represented as the real, authentic popular (baladi) neighborhood, whose people are seen as generous, brave (gid‘an), and kindhearted. It is also known for its role in resisting French and British colonization. In a competing representation, however, Bulaq is a “tough” neighborhood and a center for drug trafficking and other illegal activities (Early 1993: 32). Rather than drawing on the positive aspects of life in Bulaq, the state discourse homogenized the group, emphasizing the negative aspects of the area and its residents.
The people were represented as criminal, unhealthy, and isolated others who did not contribute to the construction of the mother country. These representations were part of the “symbolic violence” that the state used to justify the relocation project. In addition to physical force (manifested in sending the Central Security force or al-Amn al-Markazi to move the people), “symbolic violence,” which is “a gentle, invisible violence unrecognized as such” (Bourdieu 1990: 127), was central to the relocation process from the beginning. Presenting negative images of the group for itself and for others was important to secure the participation of the people and the legitimacy of the government's actions.
Such images have been internalized by the old residents of al-Zawiya al-Hamra and have structured their views of the relocated population. After resettlement, these publicized images fostered a general feeling of antagonism toward the newcomers. In addition to repeating the same words that were circulated in the media, such as qiradatia (street entertainers
Although some old residents of al-Zawiya think that members of the relocated group were “cleaned” (nidifu) or were developed and evolved (’ittawwiru) after relocation, they still believe that they are thugs (balta gia) and troublemakers (labat). Some even try to disassociate the relocated population from Bulaq and the positive qualities that are linked with its authentic identity as a baladi area and emphasize instead that most of them were newcomers to Bulaq. The old housing conditions are also used against the group in conflicts with others. It is said, in a negative way, that the group ’itmaddinu (became civilized). One woman, who lives in el-ahali but across the street from el-masaakin, described how her father-in-law feels very angry because “these people who used to wait in line to use the toilet in Bulaq became civilized after relocation. They are currently owners of apartments with separate bathrooms that they do not know how to use, which causes sewage to flow and leak into the houses of their neighbors in el-ahali.”
As I mentioned in the introduction, the importance and prevalence of these negative views became clear to me as soon as I started my fieldwork. Informants who lived in private housing (el-ahali) repeatedly warned me
Members of the relocated group contest these negative images and have different strategies to deal with them. For instance, they argue that in this group, as in any other, only a small number can be labeled as drug dealers and troublemakers. There are also those who separate themselves from the “bad” people by emphasizing that all the thugs, troublemakers, and thieves were moved to ‘Ain Shams. Others emphasize that members of the relocated group are skillful, strong, and brave (gid‘an) but that they are misunderstood by others. Other differences and hostilities are invoked to explain the reproduction of the stereotypes. “They do not like us because we [from Bulaq] are Sa‘idies[immigrants from Upper Egypt] and they [el-ahali residents] are Fallahin[immigrants from Lower Egypt],” a young woman who was born in Bulaq asserted. She added that Sa‘idies were “brave and do not accept being insulted. They prefer to take their rights with their own hands. They are real men who are ready to die, if necessary, to defend their honor and to protect their women.” On the other hand, the Fallahin were “opportunists, unattractive, boorish [rikhimin], submissive, cowards, guileful [kahiinin], and deceitful [makkaaren].” These Fallahin, according to the woman, could not understand the courage of the Sa‘idies but saw it as rudeness and viewed the Sa‘idies’ rejection of oppression and humiliation as troublemaking.
It is important to note that reactions to the negative images of the group are gendered, in that while women tend to resent and try to refute these images, men's reactions are more ambivalent. Young women in particular express frustration with these stereotypes that color their interaction with others, interfere in their friendships, and reduce their chances of marrying outside their group. Bulaqi men, however, as a young man explained, are “weak” in al-Zawiya and think that emphasizing their reputation as tough and willing to fight back ensures that they will not be challenged and threatened by others. This reputation became significant
The negative constructions of the relocated group are supported and perpetuated by the physical segregation of their housing project from the rest of the community. Their public housing is clearly defined and separated from the old housing project and private houses. It is referred to by others as masaakin el-Turguman (the first neighborhoods to be removed). As was mentioned in chapter 2, public housing is characterized by a unified architectural design (the shape and size of the buildings, the number of stories, and the colors of walls and windows). The unity in design and shape sharply defines and differentiates public housing from private houses; this makes it easier to maintain boundaries that physically and socially separate the relocated from other groups. Thus, neither the state's public discourse nor the shape and location of the housing project enhance dialogical relationships between the relocated group and other groups in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. After fourteen to fifteen years of resettlement, the relocated group continues to be stigmatized, and their interaction with the rest of the neighborhood is restricted.
Even newly established collectivities quickly compose histories for themselves that enhance their member's sense of shared identity, while solidarity is fortified by a people's knowledge that their communal relations enjoy an historical provenance.
James Brow, “Notes on Community, Hegemony, and the Uses of the Past”
Because of their stigmatization in the state's public discourse and the hostility that they encountered from the residents of al-Zawiya, the relocated population reimagined a common history and identification with the same geographical area. When people used to live in Bulaq, they identified
The attachment to the old place is not single or one-dimensional, and Bulaq is remembered and related to differently by gender and age groups. For men, its central location secured easy access to other parts of Cairo. They emphasize more changes in their relationship with the city and how relocation has altered their accessibility to work (many still go to work in Bulaq or places very close to it) and to other facilities such as entertainment centers and transportation stations. For women, the old location provided them with access to the corniche of the Nile, shrines, local markets, and cheap goods. Food, its superior quality and lower prices, in particular plays an important role in how women remember Bulaq. “The days of Bulaq are the days of el-hana[well-being and happiness],” one woman explains. “Those were the days of honey and sugar. We ate so much there.” In fact, food continued to attract women to Bulaq for years after relocation. Because the meat and fish sold there are perceived as fresher and tastier, for example, some women still go to Bulaq to buy meat for special occasions such as weddings. The smell of food is also used by women to signify important transformations in the relationships within the group. In Bulaq, one woman repeatedly emphasized, the food smelled much better. “When our neighbors used to cook something, you could smell from afar how delicious their food was. They used to either send us some or ask me to share the food with them. Here we do not
In addition to gender differences, there are variations between parents and their children in how they relate to the past and the current location. The older generation, who remember many of the difficulties they had in Bulaq, tend to have less interaction with other groups outside the mosque, while the younger generation have more opportunities to interact with other members of the community, especially in schools and workplaces. Although members of the former generation do emphasize their association with Bulaq, they tend to articulate their identities in terms of the new location. They try to focus on the positive aspects of the relocation and the similarity between Bulaq and al-Zawiya al-Hamra. The younger generation, who moved when they were a few years old but have been experiencing more the hostility and stereotypes of other groups, tend to emphasize more their strong attachment to Bulaq and highlight the differences rather than similarities between the old and the new locations. Sammer, a car tinsmith in his mid-twenties, moved to al-Zawiya when he was twelve years old. His work takes him into different parts of the city, and he is always happy when he meets a co-worker from Bulaq. They eat together and support each other against other workers and superiors. He states: “I am partial to [mitahayyiz] everything related to Bulaq. I always say that I am from Bulaq [min Bulaq] but live [ba‘ish] in al-Zawiya.”
Despite these differences, Bulaq is of great significance for most of the group in reimagining their communal feelings. Through recalling the past and emphasizing its positive attributes, the displaced people attach their belonging to the old place. For most of the population, especially the needy, Bulaq meant a sense of security and a support system that was formed through lifelong relationships. Being rooted in the same area provided them with social capital that they drew on for moral and material support. While people criticize the old housing conditions and generally see in the current apartments a big improvement, they highlight the positive aspects related to social life in Bulaq, especially the strong relationships between neighbors. When talking about Bulaq, many refer to how their units were organized so that they opened out into shared spaces, which created more interaction between the people. In al-Zawiya there is
The feelings of belonging to Bulaq are objectified in the name that connects them with the past: Ahali Bulaq (people of Bulaq) appears as signifying a collective reference to the group in signs that support the president, the National Democratic Party, and local representatives in the Neighborhood Council. At the same time, stores and coffee shops are named after Bulaq, and people express their strong attachment to it in songs and daily conversations. Other groups call them Bituu‘Bulaq (those who are from Bulaq) and call the housing project after one of the most stigmatized parts of Bulaq (masaakin al-Turguman). The relocated group's current connections with Bulaq are thus partially self-constructed and partially labeled by others.
Although relocation reordered relationships within the group and destroyed a major part of their social capital, the old neighborhoods still structure some of people's current interactions. The group still refer to the people who used to live in Bulaq as “min ‘andina” (from our place). This not only creates a common ground for identification but also indicates certain expectations and mutual obligations. Obligations are even stronger between people who used to live in the same hara. Work (especially in machine and car repair), marriage, shopping, and socialization still connect the relocated people with Bulaq. At the same time, Bulaq is the point of reference for their identification with those who moved to ‘Ain Shams, which is one hour by the city bus from al-Zawiya.
Symbolic Capital and Baladi Identity
Through relocation, the group lost, among other things, a major part of its “symbolic capital.” This is manifested in two important aspects related to the identification with the old location. First, Bulaq is located on the other side of the Nile, opposite to an upper-class neighborhood, Zamalek. This neighborhood, inhabited by foreigners and upper-class
Second, Bulaq is defined as a baladi area, and people perceive their relocation to al-Zawiya al-Hamra as moving down the social ladder. Baladi is a complex concept, and its meaning has shifted over time. According to El-Messiri (1978), before the twentieth century, ibn el balad (literally meaning “the son of the country”) was used to differentiate the indigenous Egyptian population from the foreign ruling class (Turco-Circassian) and other non-Egyptian groups (such as Sudanese and Syrians). During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, awlad el balad (plural of ibn el-balad) included Cairo's ‘ulama, merchants, and masses. This concept acquired negative connotations under the British colonization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and became used to refer mainly to lower classes. During this time, the Egyptian elite (previously considered part of awlad el-balad) identified more with the dominant Western lifestyle and distanced themselves from awlad el-balad. With the end of the British colonization and the 1952 revolution, baladi generally became used to indicate authenticity and traditionalism in opposition to afrangi or Westernized upper class (see Armbrust 1996; Early 1993; Campo 1991; El-Hamamsy 1975). Currently, baladi is an ambiguous concept. On the one hand, ibn el-balad is seen as “authentic,” generous, and brave. On the other hand, upper and upper middle classes associate baladi people with “ignorance, illiteracy and dirtiness” (El-Messiri 1978: 54). These views informed the negative constructions circulated in the media to legitimize the relocation project.
Despite the multifaceted associations of the term baladi, Bulaqis in al-Zawiya currently identify Bulaq as a baladi area (or hita) primarily in reference to a quarter that has been formed gradually over a long period of time. The rootedness of a group of people in the same place over many years creates familiarity between the residents and provides them with open social relationships and a sense of trust and security. The phrase “They eat in the street around the same tabliyya[round table] as one family,” is often used to describe the close bonds between the inhabitants of Bulaq and other baladi areas. In Bulaq, “people used to live close together separated only by narrow lanes,” several informants repeated, so “that even if one coughed, the neighbors could hear him.” This physical proximity and the need for moral and material support from others secured direct knowledge of neighbors, which fostered mutual support and guaranteed social control. This knowledge and social control was especially important for the movement of women and children within the neighborhood. As will be discussed in chapter 4, because parents used to know each other well, they allowed their daughters and young children to move relatively freely outside the house.
People's feelings of loss over their baladi identity are related to the strong relationship between identity and the place of residence. Generally, baladi as a cultural identity is associated with the residents of certain old neighborhoods such as Bulaq and old Cairo. “It is as if the quarter had a reality of its own that bestows on them certain values and patterns of behavior” (El-Messiri 1978: 77). Many examples can be found in how the media have represented those who leave their authentic popular quarters as abandoning their people, traditions, and identity. In Arabisc, a soap opera (starring Salah el-Sa‘dani and Hala Sidqi) broadcast during Ramadan in 1994, for instance, the people of an old quarter are celebrated as representing “authentic” Egyptians. When a young ambitious woman decides to leave the old quarter to pursue her career, she is criticized and attacked by her neighbors and relatives for “trying to wear a dress that is not hers.” By moving from that neighborhood, she becomes exposed to bad men and women who try to seduce and exploit her, and she brings misery to herself, her family, and the neighbors. A move back into the authentic neighborhood (just like the move back to Egypt made by Mohammad to save his family in Abu Hosni's narrative) is the cure for the problems that are created by leaving it. Similarly, in Kalam Rigalla (“Men's Talk”), actor Hamdi Ahmed (incidentally, a native of Bulaq elected as its representative in the parliament at the time the group was relocated), who plays the role of a civil servant, finds himself facing several
Social Capital and Local Identities
In contrast to Bulaq, al-Zawiya al-Hamra is a relatively new neighborhood. As stated in the introduction, it was mainly agricultural fields until the 1960s, when the area started to expand rapidly with the construction of the first public housing project. This project housed a big number of families from different parts of Cairo who could not afford to live in more central locations. Immigrants (mostly Muslims) from different parts of the countryside also moved into private dwellings in al-Zawiya. More displaced families from various parts of Cairo, including Bulaq, were relocated to a second housing project during the early 1980s. The heterogeneity of al-Zawiya's population is often used by its residents to indicate that al-Zawiya is not “an authentic popular quarter” or mish hayy sha‘bi’ asiil. Compared to the old usage of baladi, sha‘bi is a broader recent concept that has been used since the 1940s but that was only publicized by the 1952 revolution (El-Messiri 1978: 46). It was first used by the media and then penetrated the daily language. Sha‘bi is derived from the word sha‘b, which means “people” or “folk.” While the word hayy sha‘bi is used to refer to Bulaq, but always with the word asiil (authentic or real), bal adi is never used to refer to al-Zawiya al-Hamra.
Here we do not see the dichotomy between baladi and afrangi or raaqi areas as presented in the analysis of baladi identity (see, for example, Early 1993; Campo 1991). The baladi (and sha‘bi’asiil or authentic) and raaqi (upper class) are mediated by neighborhoods such as al-Zawiya. Al-Zawiya is seen as located between baladi and raaqi areas, which places it, as described by a male informant from Bulaq, in a tedious or annoying (baaykh) position. In short, people see al-Zawiya as missing both the authenticity and close relationships of baladi areas and the “modernity” and privacy of advanced (raaqi) neighborhoods. Al-Zawiya is thus geographically and socially marginal compared to Bulaq.
A key word for understanding the differences between what are seen as “authentic” baladi neighborhoods such as Bulaq and “less authentic” newer neighborhoods such as al-Zawiya is lama. Lama is from the root lamm, which means “to gather or collect.” Variations of the same root can also mean “to mix with people below one's status” (lamlim), “the crowd or mob” (lamma), and “the riffraffor rabble” (limaama). In al-Zawiya al-Hamra, the word lama refers to the rapid gathering of people with diverse backgrounds in the same area. People from different quarters, towns, villages, and religions are coming to live in the same neighborhood, hang out at the same coffee shops, visit the same market, and ride the same bus. These spaces are defined as lamin, compared to more “homogenous” places such as the village and the baladi quarter. The homogeneity of these places is not based on similar economic activities, a common place of origin, or the absence of differences among their inhabitants. Rather, it results from the familiarity or intimacy (ulfa) created through the gradual rootedness in a specific place over a long period of time. Cairo is lama compared to the village, al-Zawiya is lama compared to Bulaq, and el masaakin are lama compared to el-ahali. The familiarity between residents of a particular locality secures social capital that facilitates mutual understanding and the formation of many social relationships. This is a familiarity that is based on gaining knowledge of others—their current condition and previous situation. It is a familiarity that enables people to “place” each other (Stewart 1996: 201). Knowing others and being able to place them is central to vital economic and social processes such as forming savings associations (gami‘yyat) and arranging marriages. Marriage, for instance, is preferred between families who “know each other.” This means that the family of the bride is familiar with the economic conditions as well as the character, manners, and reputation of the groom and his family. This familiarity became critical for Abu Subhi when Hassan, a man from another neighborhood, proposed to his daughter. When Abu Subhi asked about the groom, Hassan's boss emphasized that he was “like one of his sons.” This reassured Abu Subhi and his family, who accepted the proposal and had a big engagement party. The family, however, had to break the engagement after they discovered that the groom was selfish, greedy, irresponsible, and a gambler. Gami‘yyat, which are rotating savings associations, are impossible between people who do not know each other. The leader of an association selects only people that he or she knows and trusts from his or her neighborhood and other areas. Mirvat thus formed a savings association that included neighbors from el-masaakin, her cousins in Bulaq, and ex-neighbors who currently live in Dar il-Salam in southern
The negative connotation of the word lama does not mean that people do not like company. To the contrary, people prefer streets, buildings, and neighborhoods that are wanas (abundant with life and activities) over quiet areas. This is clearly manifested in their attitude toward upper-class areas, which are seen as empty, quiet, and scary. Furthermore, spaces that are not inhabited or used by people (such as vacant apartments, streets at night, and uninhabited mountains) are seen as unsafe. These spaces are usually occupied by jinn and demons (ginn and ‘afarit), which make them potentially dangerous spaces. Such spaces can be transformed ritually by saying “Peace be upon you” (’s-salaamu ‘aleekum), repeating the name of God, and reading the Quran.
Lama, however, indicates the mixture of a heterogeneous population that brings good (el-hilw) and bad (el-wihish) together. The relocation of thousands of families simultaneously from different parts of Cairo (including Bulaq) to the same housing project makes it difficult to maintain social control, acquire enough knowledge of the people around, and recreate the social support and trust that existed in Bulaq. The history of Bulaq clarifies this point. Immigrants from the countryside continued to come to Bulaq over the years. Usually, however, they came in relatively small numbers and were already linked to relatives or people from their villages. Not only did this facilitate their immediate integration into the existing social network, but the presence of the relatives and village connections in Bulaq made it obligatory for the newcomers to abide by the rules of the community.
The same comparison applies to el-ahali and el-masaakin. While the former have continued gradually to attract residents from various parts of the countryside since the 1960s, el-masaakin were formed in a short time and have combined people from different parts of Cairo and Egypt. This difference is manifested in the labels used to refer to these two forms of housing. Masaakin sha‘biyya is the full expression that formally refers to the housing project and can be roughly translated as “housing for the folk or the people.” The word sha‘biyya, with its positive connotations that refer to authenticity and rootedness, was dropped from the name, and people use only the word masaakin (shelters or dwellings) to refer to the project—a word that simply refers to the physical structures of the housing units. In comparison, the term used to refer to private housing is biyuut ahali, which can be translated as “houses of the people.” The first word, biyuut (houses) is usually dropped, and ahali (people) is used to
Raaqi versus Sha‘bi Areas
The identities of Bulaq and al-Zawiya al-Hamra are usually constructed in comparisons and contrasts through time and space. Through time al-Zawiya is compared to Bulaq, and through space it is compared to other baladi as well as raaqi or upper-class areas such as Zamalek, Heliopolis, and Ma‘adi. Relationships between neighbors and commitment to the collectivity are central to the distinction between sha‘bi and raaqi (refined or upper-class) areas. Sha‘bi people see themselves as willing to sacrifice for the benefit of their neighbors and help the needy—a characteristic similar to what Weber (1978) called “common feeling,” which “leads to a mutual orientation” of the actions of social actors to each other (42). They are ‘isharin or sociable and fond of company. They would interfere to correct a misbehavior, stop a fight, protect a woman, or help in an accident. In contrast, il-wasalin (those who arrived) or awlad al-zawat (sons of the
Life in the street is central to the distinction between raaqi and sha‘bi areas. In the latter, the street is central to many activities, including weddings, death observances, playing, socializing, and selling various foods and goods. Similarly, the shared space between murabba‘at in el-masaakin is the site of extensive social interaction that ranges from women selling vegetables and fruits while taking care of their domestic animals to men conducting various economic activities in small workshops that spill out from the first floor of many residential units. In raaqi areas, “There are no people in the street, and nothing is sold there.” Women in particular expressed fear because they do not feel safe walking in empty streets. While upper-class neighborhoods are silent (huss huss), people in al-Zawiya prefer zeeta. The word zeeta literally means noise, but this usage signifies the noise that accompanies joyful atmosphere created by intensive interaction. “To have fun,” laugh, dance, sing and sit for hours cracking jokes are central to the daily life of al-sha‘byyin.
It is interesting to note that the differences between upper-class and sha‘bi areas, the United States and Egypt, al-Zawiya al-Hamra and Bulaq, and Cairo and the village are constructed in similar ways. While relationships between people in sha‘bi areas are intense, direct, and personal, relationships between upper-class people are seen as impersonal and superficial. There is a striking resemblance between how people imagine (largely based on information presented on TV and videotapes) raaqi areas and how they construct the United States, where each person fihaalhu (minds his own business) and does not help or care for any one else. Like American life, raaqi areas are desired and resented at the same time. The spacious villas and clean streets are liked, but the empty streets are feared, and the separation between neighbors is not appreciated. Young men more than women and older men have the chance to tour the city with friends and visit raaqi areas. These visits create expectations and dreams that are not easily fulfilled. Ali, a worker in a shoe factory, walks with his young male friends talking about their dreams and feeling happy while touring the city. It is only when they reach one of the rich neighborhoods such as Zamalek or Misr al-Jididah that they all “feel depressed” (binhis b’ikta’ab). “We cannot believe how different life is in these areas compared to al-Zawiya.” Gaining access to life in upper-class areas remains a frustrated dream. “We always imagine that one day while we are walking, an old woman will adopt us and bathe us. For some reason, we always think that she would first bathe us as if we were mangy [ garbanin].”
’Asl, Space, and the “Authentic”
To be modern … is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air.
Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air
Since Sadat started his open-door policy, Cairo has witnessed the introduction of new forms of communication, more emphasis on international tourism, an increasing importance of consumer goods, and a growing flow of ideas related to civil society, democracy, and political participation. These transformations have been shaping the lives and identities of people in al-Zawyia. The flow of information through various channels, especially television, and the experiences of rubbing shoulders with tourists and foreigners, working in oil-producing countries, and acquiring consumer goods are contributing to more awareness of the socioeconomic activities that differentiate social groups in Cairo. Describing the difference between al-Zawiya al-Hamra and upper-class areas, a male shop owner who works in al-Zawiya (but lives in another middle-class neighborhood) explained: “Here in al-Zawiya, you will not find Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Such places can never profit in areas like this. People are poor, and the money they would pay for one meal in one of these restaurants would feed the whole family for a week, if not more.” In addition to the presence of certain global restaurant chains, satellite dishes are spreading on the roofs of various buildings, another way to identify upper-class neighborhoods. Young men also identify upper-class neighborhoods by the consumption of whisky and heroin, comparing it to the cheap beer and hashish that low-income earners in al-Zawiya al-Hamra can occasionally afford. New symbols, desires, dreams, and expectations are continuously produced by the growing globalization of Cairo. All these changes challenge various mechanisms used to regulate relationships and structure identities. One example can be found in the notion of ’asl and how its role has changed in positioning people and structuring relationships.
In Abu Hosni's narrative, when Mohammad returned to Cairo, he tried to punish his wife because she “forgot her ’asl,” became like a foreigner, and accused her husband of backwardness when he tried to protect their children. Similar to its usage in Morocco (Rosen 1979), the usage of ’asl (origin) here refers to the process of upbringing (tarbiyya),
One's place of birth (a village, a town, or a neighborhood) plays a prominent role in shaping one's ’asl. Those who are born in the village differ from those who are born and raised in Cairo. A forty-five-year-old woman who was born in the countryside and has been living in al-Zawiya al-Hamra for more than twenty years, but who still thinks of herself as a “stranger,” explains that she prefers to befriend women who were born and raised in rural Egypt. She trusts them more than those who were born and raised in Cairo. Fallahin, according to her, do not play games; they respect traditions, are loyal to their friends, and can be relied on. “People in my village,” she emphasizes, “are honest. We do not know ilawwa‘[how to play games]. Women of Cairo act deviously and change colors all the time. You can never trust them.”
’Asl by itself is not always sufficient to organize practices. The social context is necessary to enable the individual to manifest his or her ’asl. Again, this can be seen in how people perceive the difference between the village and the city. In the village, the ’asl can be clearly detected and can indicate how a person is going to act. Kinship and direct knowledge of each other in the village make it difficult for individuals to escape social control. “In the village,” as one woman explained, “no matter where you go, you will find someone who knows either you or a member of your family. If you do something that violates the norms, someone is prone to report what you did to your relatives and neighbors.” In comparison, the anonymity of the city, especially in areas such as al-Zawiya al-Hamra, secures freedom for its inhabitants that makes it harder to control their actions and pressure them to conform to certain collective norms.
At the same time, ’asl is not fixed. As in the case of Mohammad's wife, and many other cases, people “forget their ’asl” and behave in ways that others do not think is appropriate considering their origin. It is because one can forget his or her ’asl that the move from one locality to another (village to city, Bulaq to al-Zawiya, or Egypt to the United States) is seen
A person without origin or ma-luush ’asl is not to be trusted. To be able to decode the information that is related to a particular ’asl, one should know well where the person is coming from. In Bulaq, the flow of information and direct interaction between neighbors ensured enough knowledge that enabled people to depend on the notion of ’asl in enacting marriages and building support systems. But relocation, as discussed above, divided neighbors, separated kin, and brought many strangers to live in el-masaakin. It became hard to accumulate the information necessary to judge a good husband, to trust a neighbor with one's savings, or to allow children to mix with others.
Relocation, one manifestation of global processes that have shaped the state's plans to restructure the urban space, is not the only force that is informing people's identities. While women are usually presented in the popular discourse, as indicated in Abu Hosni's narrative, as more vulnerable and susceptible than men to changes brought by global flows, there is more realization that every person and place in Cairo is exposed to various discourses and processes. Television, for instance, shapes peo-ple's practices and lives. Parents try (often unsuccessfully) to control the programs that their children watch. Wives struggle against husbands who try to play pornographic movies. Several women have succeeded in convincing their husbands that God will not accept their prayers or help their children in passing their exams if they play such movies at home.
All these various changes challenge notions such as ’asl and limit their role in providing the ground for social interaction and mutual trust. They create uncertainties about how people are expected to interact with others. When her daughter's wedding approached, Um Hilmi cried for hours to convince her husband and daughter that the consummation of the marriage should be baladi. The reason was that her daughter's mother
It is not incidental that women are usually depicted as more vulnerable than men to such changes. While the narratives of many men and older women celebrate the positive effects of the growing globalization of the city on men, women are often viewed as negatively influenced by traveling abroad, acquiring consumer goods, and appropriating global images and discourses. In the next chapter, I will examine how these narratives and other restrictions imposed on women's access to public spaces are part of men's attempts to reproduce their power and to reinforce gender distinctions. These attempts are motivated by a desire to control, not only women's bodies, but also their minds and the information that they may acquire outside the domain of the family and the neighborhood. The discussion will pay particular attention to how uncertainties brought about by relocation and other global forces are shaping people's views of various public spaces such as the coffee shop and the vegetable market.