“Being Here”: Returning to Academia
It is Being Here, a scholar among scholars, that gets your anthropology read …, published, reviewed, cited, taught.
Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives
In August of 1994, one day before going back to the States to start writing my Ph.D. dissertation, I visited one of my first and key informants. Over the two years that I spent doing my fieldwork, Abu Hosni, a man in his mid-fifties, took the role of directing my research and providing me with tips about various issues that ranged from interacting with others and using the city bus to my personal life and how I should treat my husband. During my last visit, he interrogated me about the chapters that I intended to write. I tried to avoid the discussion because I could not provide answers to his questions at that time. In fact, I did not want even to think about how I was going to organize the dissertation and what I was going to include in each chapter. As usual, Abu Hosni insisted on giving me some tips, in this case about how to write a “good dissertation.” His work as a driver and his relationships with Americans and middle-class Egyptians provided him with access to information not available to others, which he referred to when discussing various topics with his wife, children, and neighbors. He recounted his most recent experience when he had attended the defense of a master's thesis of the wife of one of his supervisors. He described how tough the committee had been on the “poor” woman and analyzed the situation, linking it to previous conflicts between the committee members. Then he shifted to discuss my committee and how tough I expected them to be. The key, he suggested, was my supervisor, whom I used several times as an authority figure to justify the need to work hard in the field or to leave my husband in Cairo while going back to the United States to write my dissertation.
He asked about my advisor's religion. I was puzzled and surprised by the question and did not really know the answer. After a few seconds of silence I picked my thoughts and decided to say with hesitation: “I think he is Christian.” I was sure that saying that he was Christian would be much better than trying to explain the complexity of the situation and what role religion might play in the life of Bob Fernea. Abu Hosni did not like the answer. “You think? What do you mean by ‘I think?’” Knowing my supervisor's religion, he proceeded to explain, was central to my success. “You should know his sect also.” He advised me to learn about these issues as soon as I returned to Austin, but in a subtle way. He said, “Look
Given that Abu Hosni is a good Muslim, one might be surprised by his willingness to deal with the situation through what could be considered a “compromising” of my religious identity. But through his advice, Abu Hosni was pointing to a central feature of the daily life and the importance of the “tactics” (de Certeau 1988) that enable the weak to gain victory over the powerful. A tactic is “a clever trick” that depends on time and involves waiting to manipulate emerging opportunities and “cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary power” (37). By quoting the Bible, I was not compromising my religion as much as I was “tricking” my supervisor into being more sympathetic while reading my dissertation. Working on the feelings of the other and making him or her supportive of your causes and demands is one of the main tactics that people employ in al-Zawiya al-Hamra when dealing with the powerful, especially state officials.
“Tricking” the powerful is done in various ways. People always tell stories that show their ability to trick parents, husbands, older siblings, merchants, teachers, employers, drivers, and policemen. Showing respect, “sweet talking,” pleading, making fun of others, and conning those in power are all skills celebrated by people in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. These skills signal courage and resourcefulness in responding to emerging challenges and crises. For instance, Huda had to find a way to locate her fiancé, Ahmed, who had disappeared after one of their frequent quarrels. Since they had become engaged two years earlier, Huda and Ahmed had been facing many problems. After one of their big fights, Ahmed threatened to leave Huda and allegedly stole el-qayma, the list that documents all the articles and household equipment that would belong to Huda in case of divorce. Huda tried to find him and visited his family in Bulaq,
This book traces similar tactics and examines their impact on the housing project and Cairo at large. It also examines some more formalized strategies that people use to transform social and physical realities. The study focuses on these strategies and tactics to illustrate how the city is made and remade through social actors who articulate the discourses and policies of the state and various global forces with their daily needs and cultural dispositions. I aim to go beyond the usual tendency to link the construction of Middle Eastern cities in general and Cairo in particular to planners and political figures. The focus is usually on the “series of grand political designs” (S. E. Ibrahim 1987: 87) that produce “the City” (with a capital C). We read about the strategies of the powerful and the role of ‘Umar Ibn al-‘Aas, Ahmed Ibn Tulun, Nasser, Sadat, and other rulers in the construction of Cairo (Abu-Lughod 1971; S. E. Ibrahim 1987). We continue to see the palaces, castles, opera houses, and grand mosques that preserve and remind others of the efforts of these leaders. We also hear about grand plans, economic systems, the international division of labor, global corporations, political processes, and colonial powers that have produced certain cities (Gottdiener 1985; Mitchell 1988; Rabinow 1989; Abu-Lughod 1990). In contrast, little attention is devoted to “the ordinary practitioners of the city” (de Certeau 1988: 93). While we often hear about the great achievements of the dominant group, the role of Cairo's dwellers is usually brought up only when discussing disorder and urban problems such as crowding, squatting, housing shortage, and informality (Nadim et al. 1980; Rageh 1984; Al-Safty 1983; Oldham et al. 1987; Shorter 1989). In such studies, the city is often viewed as a mere container for the practices of its residents, and such studies continue to be in the city rather than of the city. For example, women's practices are often viewed in the city. We read about the networks that women form (Singerman 1995) and about women's daily activities (Early 1993). But we rarely read about how these practices shape the city and the specificity of
In this book, I draw attention to people's spatial practices and analyze how they transform the state's efforts to construct a modern capital. I provide “thick contextualization” (see Ortner 1995) to explore the shifting meanings and multiple consequences of these practices. This contextualization entails examining how social agents articulate local values, national policies, and global forces in their daily struggles. To this end, I use a mixture of tactics and strategies that I learned in al-Zawiya to try to convey some of the mechanisms that structure daily practices and construct cultural identities. I provide stories, quotes from Abu Hosni and his neighbors, pictures, clips from local newspapers, plans of apartments, and analysis of different practices and processes. My purpose is to understand the logic of these practices (Bourdieu 1990) and to examine their transformative power in various contexts.
This is therefore a study of Cairo but from a very particular angle. It takes us, I hope, beyond the classical reductionist obsession with the role of religion in the production of urban space and the constitution of the “Islamic city” (Grunebaum 1955; Hourani and Stern 1970; Serjeant 1980; Hakim 1986). It does not, however, try to present a “holistic” view of the city (Basham 1978: 27). Nor does it try to convey the city as a pregiven bounded entity. It aims to draw attention to the role of social actors (such as Abu Hosni, Huda, a five-year-old girl, a young factory worker, and a labor migrant in Kuwait) in the creation of modern Cairo and the attachment of meanings to urban space. What are the structures that constrain and enable their participation in the production of their neighborhood and Cairo at large? How do they transform Cairo's private and public spaces? How do they invest these spaces with memories, dreams, and aspirations? How do they create and recreate homes and localities in a constantly changing world?