The State, the “Modern” City, and the Old Quarters
The identity of the modern city is created by what it keeps out. Its modernity is something contingent upon the exclusion of its opposite.
Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt
As part of Sadat's larger plan to restructure the local landscape and build “modern” Cairo, around five thousand Egyptian families were moved during the period 1979–1981 from Bulaq in Central Cairo to public housing projects (masaakin sha‘biyya) built by the state in two different neighborhoods: ‘Ain Shams and al-Zawiya al-Hamra (al-Akhbar, May 19, 1979: 1). Bulaq, once the site of the winter residences of the rich, then a major commercial port, and later an industrial center (Rugh 1979; Abu-Lughod 1971), had become unfit for the modern image that Sadat was trying to construct. This large area, which over the years had housed thousands of Egyptian low-income families, overlooks the Nile. It is adjacent to the Ramsis Hilton, next to the television station, around the corner from the World Trade Center, across the river from Zamalek (an upperclass neighborhood), and very close to many of the facilities oriented to foreign tourists (see Figure 2). Its old houses and crowded streets were not things that tourists and upper-class Egyptians should see. At the same time, the location became very valuable because Sadat's policies, as he proudly announced, increased the price of the land. The old crowded houses were to be replaced by modern buildings, luxury housing, five-star hotels, offices, multistory parking lots, movie theaters, conference halls, and “centers of culture” (al-Ahram, December 27, 1979: 3). Officials emphasized the urgent need to remove the residents of this old quarter because many international companies were ready to initiate economic and tourist investment in the area. Expected profits from these investments would contribute to national income and assist the state in financing new houses for the displaced population (9). The plan to build
FIGURE 2. Behind these modern buildings overlooking the Nile, including the grand building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the heavily guarded television station (in the middle), and the Ramses Hilton Hotel (in the far back), Bulaq still houses hundreds of thousands of Egyptian families. Photograph by Farha Ghannam.
FIGURE 3. A view of Bulaq from the Ramsis Hilton Hotel. Sadat hoped to remove the whole neighborhood, but his death in 1981 put an end to this idea. Photograph by Farha Ghannam.
These ideas were also shared by Egyptian architects and intellectuals (see Hanna 1978; Hamdan 1993). Milad Hanna (1978), a construction engineer and a member of a leftist party at that time, for example, described how the few big buildings in the old quarters that overlooked main streets functioned like “the golden peel that covers the surface,” hiding “the miserable conditions” of the popular areas (65). He described the pain and “terror that hits Egyptian intellectuals when passing with a foreigner through one of these streets where one sees the most amazing things and where housing is turned into a distorted image that makes the hearts of those who still have feelings bleed” (65). He emphasized that the population of Bulaq should be “relocated to the periphery so that the large space that they occupy can be replanned to become the second lung of Cairo's center in the next century” (67).
Similarly, relocation was seen in the state public discourse as “the scientific solution” practiced in many other modern countries (al-Ahram, December 29, 1979: 3). It was viewed as essential to solve the capital's housing crisis as well as to create a “new heart for Cairo” (al-Akhbar, December 27, 1979: 3; al-Akhbar, May 19, 1979: 1). Pictures and numbers
It is important here to note that this project and the state public discourse were based on what Foucault (1984: 8) calls “dividing practices.” They started by separating and stigmatizing the targeted population as an expedient rationalization for policies that aimed to modernize, discipline, normalize, and reintegrate them within the larger community. Not only were the housing conditions attacked by state officials, but the people themselves were stigmatized and criticized. Playing on the popular ambiguity toward Bulaq and its inhabitants (as discussed in chapter 3), the state discourse presented only negative images of the residents who were to be moved. The social scientific study mentioned earlier revealed, as stated by the Minister of Construction and New Communities, that the area of Bulaq had been a shelter for qiradatiyya (street entertainers who perform with a baboon or monkey), female dancers, peddlers, and drug dealers (al-Ahram, December 27, 1979: 3). Thus, the removal of these
Compared to the old conditions, the new settlement, official statements assured, was planned according to the “most modern lifestyle” (al-Ahram, November, 1979: 10). As in other modernist projects (Holston 1989), housing, work, transportation, and recreation were seen as central components of rational planning. In the words of the head of the section that designed and planned the project, the new housing promised to secure “healthy units” and “integrated social life” (al-Sha‘b, September 11, 1979: 12). The promised “modern” lifestyle was characterized by the construction of “good and beautiful houses” that would consist of separate apartments with separate kitchens and bathrooms. The new units would fit the demands of both “the Egyptian family” (assumed to be a nuclear family that would occupy its own separate apartment) and “modern life” (al-Ahram, November 27, 1979: 10). Modern facilities such as piped water, electricity, and sewage were to be installed before people moved into their new housing units. According to the plans, fifteen- to twenty-meter-wide streets were to connect the area with the rest of the capital (10). Officials promised to establish “green areas,” not available in the most “advanced” (arqa) areas in Cairo, that would “secure a healthy environment.” The new location was to include schools, playgrounds, markets, shops, clinics, religious buildings, and, perhaps more importantly, a police station.
All these modern facilities were going to produce more productive social agents who would be integrated into the nation and who would contribute positively to the construction of the mother country. “Thanks to President Sadat's backing of the project, those people will now enjoy a new and decent life” (Egyptian Gazette, December 27, 1979: 1). The move in space promised a leap in time that would bring prosperity, progress, and modernity to people's lives. In short, relocation was perceived as a necessary step to create “modern” subjects. They were to become productive, disciplined, and healthy citizens. Through relocation, Sadat's policies aimed at the construction of the Egyptian identity through “negation” (Stallybrass and White 1986: 89): they aimed at destroying an “image” that did not represent the “modern” Egyptian and at constructing “modern” houses as a basic part of the creation of the “modern” Egyptian identity and the constitution of new productive subjects.