The Housing Unit in Daily Life
The centrality of the housing unit to the reproduction of the family as a physical and social unit is clearly manifested in marriage arrangements. The apartment enables the couple to engage in sexual intercourse and to start having children. While a couple may be married legally, the marriage is not consummated and socially acknowledged until they have their own space, whether their own apartment or a separate section of an apartment shared with parents. According to Campo (1991), the word dukhla (the word commonly used to refer to the consummation of the marriage) means that the groom enters the bride and that the bride enters a new house, both of which take place at the same time.
Generally, families prefer that newlyweds live in their own separate apartments. Not only is available space limited, but sharing the residential unit with in-laws is perceived as threatening to the stability of the marriage and deprives the bride of her own furnished space, which is a major source of her pride. A newly married woman enjoys guiding her female guests throughout the apartment to show them the furniture, the appliances, and the clothes that she has accumulated. Gender distinctions are embedded in spatial organization from the moment when the parents arrange a marriage. The groom, who is the wage earner, is the one who should secure the apartment and provide the furniture of the bedroom where sexual intercourse takes place. The bride's role as a homemaker is highlighted by her responsibility to furnish the living room, the center of social interaction, and to obtain most of the kitchen utensils.
Women in particular are sensitive to the importance of the housing unit in the presentation of the self in everyday life. The apartment, its physical features and furniture, embodies messages that manifest the family's financial abilities. If one knows how to read spatial signs, it is possible to learn many things about the unit's residents, such as their religious identity and socioeconomic status. Blankets or clothes that women hang outside the apartment's balcony, for instance, are read by other women as indicators of the family's ability to invest in accumulating household goods, and they update the neighbors on the latest changes in the family's private life, such as the arrival of a family member from abroad, the birth of a child, or the marriage of a daughter. The apartment is not only
SIGNS OF DISTINCTION
The housing unit is thus important for the representation of the self and for showing the family's distinction. As “active users,” people have employed various strategies that have transformed the standardized spaces into personalized homes and diversified the homogenous housing project. These strategies localize change in durable forms so that it is easy for the eye to observe and measure the financial ability of the housing unit's occupants. At the relocation time, all the apartments were identical in the shape and division of space when the people moved to them. They did not manifest the socioeconomic differences between the people. For instance, several ex-tenants and ex–house owners moved to apartments similar in size, number of rooms, design, and location. This similarity made it crucial for financially capable families to signal their social distinction through other means. In addition to consumer goods such as
These physical changes introduced to the individual unit include adding balconies, removing and adding walls to expand the living room or to separate it more from the kitchen, adding windows and doors, rearranging and replacing the old washbasin with a ceramic one, renewing sewage connections and replacing the old toilet with a porcelain one or with a flush toilet, remodeling the kitchen and adding wood cabinets, installing water heaters, and repainting the apartment using oil paint. Here, it is meaningful to note that people use the word hadad or demolition to describe many of these changes. This word indicates that people saw certain aspects of the internal design of the apartment as so unfitting for their needs that they had to be destroyed. Before and after “we demolished” become two distinct stages in the history of the apartment and the life of the family in the unit. People also refer to the apartment that has been changed as muwaddaba (arranged), and its price increases substantially compared to other apartments of the same size but without the same changes. Due to the complexity and diversity of these changes, I will discuss as an example the changes introduced to the balcony, which are the most common and visible to the public and express the socioeconomic status of the family.
ON THE BORDER BETWEEN THE PRIVATE
AND THE PUBLIC
The “eye” is a product of history.
Pierre Bourdieu, Distinctio n
The balcony, which overlooks the public land in the middle of the square, has been changed in various ways over the last fifteen years. In the original design, it was open to the outside, and a wall separated it from the living room. Over time, capable families removed this wall and covered the balcony with heavy wooden or metal shutters (see Figure 5). More recently, families who could afford it have shifted to a more expensive
FIGURE 5: Better-off families remove the wall that separates the balcony from the living room and install new glass shutters. These shutters become signs of distinction that convey to others the financial means of the family.
The social significance of these changes becomes clear if we examine the role of the balcony in daily life. The balcony is a “stage” (Goffman 1959) that is used to communicate with others and to present the self in public. Women often read the news of other families, such as the birth of a child or the arrival of a family member from abroad, from the objects and clothes displayed on the balcony's laundry ropes. On the balcony, young men and women subtly exchange love messages. They whistle, signal with hands, and communicate verbally to arrange meeting with one another. The balcony is also the stage where neighbors exchange standard insults when fighting. From her balcony, a woman, Um Sabri, follows the news of her daughter, Hanan, who defied her family's will and eloped with a neighbor and then moved to live with her mother-in-law. Um Sabri tries to provoke Hanan's mother-in-law by using a tape recorder to
The alteration not only expands the living room but also allows a new way of observing and seeing others. From the vantage point of the couch, which is usually placed in front of the glass shutters, men and women engage in various popular activities in al-Zawiya al-Hamra: socializing with others, listening to music, or watching television (which is always placed in the living room) while observing what takes place in the middle of the murabba‘ and other apartments. This couch is the preferred seat that family members compete over and the one that is usually offered to guests. Moreover, the alteration gives more flexibility in controlling who sees whom and when. The new glass-fronted balcony in combination with curtains allows those inside the apartment to see others without being seen or without showing more than their eyes or face. Such an arrangement is not available to families who cannot afford to change their balconies. The moment they step onto the balcony, they are under the gaze of others. So rather than providing a platform for scrutinizing the community, the balcony, which remains separated from the living room, gets used for storing some household items or keeping domestic animals. This is one of the main reasons why Majda (whose family could not afford such alterations) used to go to her neighbors’ apartment to communicate with her boyfriend without being seen by others in the murabba‘. As Gilsenan (1982) argued, “Seeing without being seen is knowledge, perhaps even power” (190). Hence, the new glass shutters not only express the financial ability of the family but also reinforce the symbolic power that the balcony secures for its members. At the same time, a certain resistance to being exposed to the gaze of others is manifested in balconies that have been covered with wooden shutters that do not allow passersby to peek inside the unit (see Figure 6).
While the better offuse relatively expensive material, needy families resort to clay, old wooden boxes, and other cheap materials. Some families, for instance, build small shacklike rooms (especially when living on the ground floor) to sell some groceries to the neighbors or keep their domestic animals. Others turn the lower part of the staircase into a small shop to provide services such as ironing or to sell groceries and candy. Alternatively, such items may be sold from a kiosk placed next to a block. In these cases, the sellers have to negotiate such changes with neighbors
FIGURE 6: The original design of the balcony can be seen on the second and fourth floors (the left side of the photograph). The most expensive alterations are on the third and fifth floors. Notice that to ensure visual protection, balconies on the ground floor are covered with wooden shutters. Photograph by Farha Ghannam.