Negotiating Modern Space and Daily Life in el-Masaakin
The modern apartment is an element in a system and, as such, it requires its occupants to adopt a certain life-style; it presupposes and calls for the adoption of a whole complex of practices and representations.
Pierre Bourdieu, Algeria 1960
In his analysis of public housing in Algeria, Pierre Bourdieu (1979) showed that the move to modern housing is not sufficient to produce “modern” practices and dispositions but that there are objective conditions that structure people's appropriation of the modern apartment. In this analysis, Bourdieu maintained a clear distinction between the more
Bourdieu's distinction between the different fractions of the working class and how they differently appropriate space should be taken into consideration in the study of urban space. This differentiation, however, is excessively deterministic in the Algerian study, since it assumes that the objective conditions (i.e., economic resources) of the social agent totally regulate how the modern space is used and appropriated. Even when people linked their dissatisfaction with the housing project to the fact that their units were different from the “European” apartments, Bourdieu saw in such statements mere attempts to escape their objective situation or to deny their cultural and economic shortcomings.
Although various issues could be examined in Bourdieu's interesting study of the Algerian rehousing project, here I limit the discussion to two points that are relevant to my study of el-masaakin in Cairo. First, Bourdieu's model works only if we accept a monolithic definition of modernity inscribed in cultural forms that dictate how they are to be used. In this framework, any deviation from the dictated pattern of usage reveals the inability of the actor to “adapt” to modern life. The inability to provide the necessary furniture and utilities for the “modern” apartment “appears as a sort of scandalous absurdity; it objectively testifies to the occupant's incapacity to take real possession of the space available, an inability to adopt the modern life-style which such housing offers” (Bourdieu 1979: 83). In contrast, I examine modernity as a contested set of discourses and images and argue that, as with any other cultural form, the meaning of a “modern” apartment is not stable but is continuously negotiated by different agents with different powers, capacities, and conceptions.
The second point draws on de Certeau's (1988) critique of Bourdieu's concept of “strategy,” a key concept that Bourdieu utilized to challenge the mechanical assumptions that were rooted in structuralism and to avoid the dichotomy between objectivism and subjectivism (Honneth et al. 1986). A strategy, Bourdieu (1990) argued, “is the product, not of obedience to a norm explicitly posited and obeyed or of regulation exerted by an unconscious ‘model’ ” (15), but of a “practical sense of things” (Lamaison 1986: 111) that enables “agents to cope with unforeseen and ever changing situations” (Bourdieu 1977: 3). His usage of this concept aimed to show that “actions can be goal-oriented without being consciously directed towards them or guided by them” (Honneth et al. 1986: 41). A strategy thus is not a conscious or calculated action but the “intuitive product of knowing the rules of the game” (Mahar et al. 1990: 17).
Bourdieu's use of the term strategy has been criticized by several authors (see, for example, Jenkins 1992; de Certeau 1988) because, among other things, it limits the options available to social actors and ignores other forms of action. De Certeau (1988) presented a useful distinction between strategies and tactics, which Bourdieu's work did not address. A strategy assumes a proper place and serves as the basis for generating relations with an “exteriority composed of targets or threats” (de Certeau 1988: 36). A tactic, in contrast, is “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (a spatial or institutional localization) locus” (xix). It is “a clever trick” that depends on time and waits to manipulate any emerging opportunities in a system of domination. Tactics and strategies are distinguished by the kinds of “operations and the role of spaces” (30). Thus, while strategies can create, arrange, and control spaces, tactics can only use, maneuver, and invert these spaces.
The distinction that Bourdieu made between the privileged and less privileged segments of the working class corresponds with a distinction that can be made within the relocated group in Cairo. Although the latter is heterogenous in terms of occupation and income, the majority of its members are low-income earners who work in local factories, small crafts, low-level government services, and petty trading. Some members of this group work as skilled or semiskilled laborers in Cairo or in oil-producing countries. This segment enjoys more income and stability in the job market than the rest of the group. Neither the petty trader nor the skilled worker, however, has accepted the “modern” apartment as allocated to them by the state. They both have introduced various changes to the housing unit. I analyze the practices of both of these fractions in al-Zawiya al-Hamra as “strategies” and “tactics,” employed to articulate their
Later in this chapter, I will also discuss gender, an important dimension that was not addressed by Bourdieu's analysis of housing in Algeria, as vital to the understanding of the appropriation of modern housing. Women are key agents in dealing with the Egyptian bureaucracy; they followed the paper work through government offices, answered questions posed by researchers and officials who visited them before the relocation, and bargained for a larger unit or a better location. Women also resist the limitations imposed on them by their economic conditions. They manage the budget, negotiate the family's needs, save money to introduce physical changes to the unit, and cooperate with neighbors to form savings associations (gami‘yyat) to secure enough money to buy many of the consumer goods (such as color TVs) that are becoming signs of distinction. In short, women take care of their family's apartments, alter how they are used, and organize their spaces. Women's views of modern life, therefore, are vital in shaping the housing project in al-Zawiya.