Struggles over the Modern
If we think of modernism as a struggle to make ourselves at home in a constantly changing world, we will realize that no mode of modernism can ever be de finitive.
Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air
The new apartments have brought many changes to people's lives, such as the promotion of the nuclear family, a redefinition of relationships within the household, increasing restrictions on interaction with neighbors, more separation of work from residence and private from public space, and the introduction of new ways to organize and use space. People do not accept all these distinctions and changes that were embedded in the housing project but instead try to reconstruct their individual dwellings and negotiate the use of shared spaces with neighbors and others. Many feel that the new units are superior to their previous housing in Bulaq. Only some financially capable families, especially ex-owners who “could not stand living” in the housing project, have managed to buy apartments or houses outside the project. The majority of the population, however, have not had any alternative but to continue to live in the housing units allocated to them by the state.
Over the past fifteen years, residents of the project have been actively trying to accommodate themselves to the new apartments and to transform several aspects of the new units to meet their needs and visions. In fact, people's willingness to conform to the modern units began even before they were moved. They expected that they were moving to superior housing units and tried to prepare themselves for the move. Those who could afford it bought new furniture and replaced many of the objects that they had, while others repainted their old furniture and fixed the broken parts. They were preparing for a new life. As one woman explained, even the governor and his men were surprised when they saw the new furniture that people were packing. “They thought that we were just a bunch of beggars, but they quickly discovered that we had nice and good things. They even stopped paying the money that they promised to support the needy. They said, ‘Look at what they have. They are not poor and do not deserve the support we planned to give them.’ They came with many policemen supported by the Central Security force [al-Amn al-Markazi] because they expected us to resist, but we did not. We simply took our belongings out, placed them in the truck we rented, and moved.”
People's active appropriation of the housing project as a collectivity is manifested in their usage of new concepts to describe their housing units after relocation. Words such as bilook, saala, and murabba‘, which were not used in Bulaq, are used currently in daily conversations and cultural expressive forms (such as jokes and songs). The people, however, are not passive actors who have absorbed uncritically the new organization of space. One example can be seen in how they have collectively redefined state attempts to introduce a new way of designating housing units. Each new bilook was given a number that is still used for mail and some other government-related purposes such as paying the rent and utility charges. These numbers, however, are rarely used in daily life. People gave new names to each murabba‘. One is called murabba‘al-mi‘iiz (goats square) because its residents have many goats, another is called murabba‘ al-itikeet (whose people identify themselves as polite and dress nicely), and still another is called murabba‘al-is‘af (the square where the first aid unit is stationed). These names are used to identify the different murabba‘at, and then names of the family members are used to identify the specific block and apartment.
Individual units have also been appropriated in various ways that were not intended by the state planners as indicated in the design and division of the housing units. Since the modern apartment is not total and finished, people always find methods and ways to redefine the internal and external design and to transform how it is used. Before I discuss these changes, a