But What Shall I Do with My Chickens?
Last night, I had a dream. We went back to Bulaq. I was very happy and said, “Now I can buy some chickens.”
(Um Hassan, a fifty-five-year-old woman who was relocated fourteen years ago, reporting on a dream of hers in 1994)
As is clear from the previous discussion, women are the main daily users of the housing unit. They spend much more time than men in the apartments and are responsible for decorating, cleaning, and arranging their housing units. As manifested in Amal's story, cleanliness is highly regarded and socially rewarded. The time and effort that women invest in cleaning and organizing their housing units is related to the social prestige attached to their units and their role in maintaining them. The attention paid to the cleanliness of the apartment increases drastically when people expect visitors. This is especially noticeable during certain occasions such as the two Eids (Muslim feasts), when every corner of the
Women are main agents in negotiating the requirements of the modern space with their families’ economic realities and daily needs. The water heater at Um Magdy's apartment was paid for by her son who works in the Gulf. The heater increased the electricity cost and necessitated more bargaining with the unmarried sons who live with her about how to pay the bill. Um Magdy tries to monitor the monthly expenditure closely and seeks to control when and for how long the heater is used. When the charges increase, Um Magdy refuses to pay the whole bill and insists that her working sons contribute. Rather than allowing the expenses of the new apartment to grow, women also employ several tactics to reduce them. Thus, they use the gasoline burner to heat water for laundry and to cook foods that take time and that require women to stand for lengthy periods. This is the case when they fry fish and potatoes or when they prepare ruqaq (thin bread that is used in cooking for the Sacrifice Feast). These practices are not seen as being in contradiction with modernity. On the contrary, they are viewed as “smart” practices that express the skill of the woman and her ability to save some money for the family and to physically relax, by sitting on the floor, while cooking. Women are also active in physically transforming the structures of their apartments. A woman usually saves the money, finds a contractor, and helps in the performance of the work. She also takes care of the “privatized” land under the control of her family, waters the plants, and looks after the domestic animals.
Women, however, greatly miss many of the spaces in their old neighborhood, such as the rooftop, the narrow lanes (too narrow for cars), the open area around the public tap, the corniche of the Nile, and the local shrines, which were important sites of socialization and where women used to “eat together,” a signal of closeness and strong relationships. Spaces that were used to raise domestic animals not only represented sites for economic investments but were also the locus of interaction between women. Raising poultry and sheep at home not only provided meat,
Many women complain about the time needed and the restrictions on mobility that are imposed by raising domestic animals (for example, women need to provide food and water to the poultry on regular basis). But they still choose to continue raising poultry and refer to this process as “tasliyah” (entertainment). “It is nice to raise chickens and ducks on the roof and sit under the sun while watching the poultry,” Um Khalid comments. “You can feed them the leftovers so that you secure meat and eggs for the family.” In addition to its economic and social roles, raising chickens and ducks is rooted in an ideology that assumes that baladi (or locally produced) food products are tastier and better for the health and the body. Women insist on serving such products to new mothers and to sick people to strengthen them. Some even believe that non-baladi (farmgrown) chicken is not pure (taher) because it is fed fodder (‘alaf). Freshness, a highly regarded quality of food products, is also secured when domestic animals are kept at home.
The freshness, goodness, and purity of baladi products are all behind the efforts, time, and creativity of women in finding spaces to raise poultry. Such spaces range from the area under the bed, rooftops, and balconies to a small shack attached to the apartment (when living on the ground floor) or a balcony that is added specifically for this purpose (when the family lives on other floors), and the garden in the middle of the murabba‘. The use of these spaces is not only informed by women's experience in Bulaq but also reinforced by the prevalence of this practice among people in el-ahali in al-Zawiya.
It is important to note that members of the same family understand and react differently to the modern apartment. Young women tend to prefer more privacy in their future homes and like the idea of being separated from others so that their activities will not be scrutinized. They endorse having separate entrances to kitchens and bathrooms and disapprove of their current apartments, where the saala is in front of the kitchen and the bathroom so that the latter is usually accessible only by going into the former. Such an arrangement means that strange men who need to use the bathroom have to enter the kitchen, while women have to pass in front of the saala on their way to the kitchen and the bathroom. This is why several families use a curtain or add a wall or a door to the kitchen to separate it from the saala. Another example can be found in the
As a result, mothers have to negotiate their desires with the preferences of husbands and children. Um Hassan, who described her dream in the beginning of this section, brought many chickens and ducks when she moved to her new apartment. They were big and healthy. In Bulaq, she had had plenty of space on the rooftop to let the chickens and ducks eat and move more freely. After relocation, she would throw the chickens from the balcony of her apartment on the fourth floor, and they would land in front of the apartment and spend the whole day outside in the open space around the block. The chickens would return only in the evening to sleep on the small balcony, adjacent to the kitchen. When she bought new chicks, they did not grow because they were locked inside a cage kept in the apartment. Um Hassan shifted to pigeons, but soon her husband and children started complaining about the dirt the pigeons left over the place. Little by little, Um Hassan slaughtered all the chickens and pigeons that she had brought with her, and her family members refused to allow her to keep any more poultry on the balcony after they repainted the apartment and remodeled the kitchen. The mother still dreams of going back to Bulaq. The first thing that she would do upon her return would be to buy some chickens to keep on the rooftop. She and other neighbors could not convince the widow who lives on the top floor to open a hole that would give them access to the roof. Given this, Um Hassan was planning to add another balcony to the back of the apartment adjacent to the kitchen. The new balcony, she hoped, would be used for her chickens.
Meanwhile, she managed to successfully negotiate with her children a place in the kitchen to keep the sheep for the Sacrifice Feast (Eid al-Adha). To save some money, determine how fatty the animal should be, and secure its “purity,” the mother decided to buy a small sheep two months before the Eid. She would feed and take care of it until it would be slaughtered during the feast. When the decision was taken to buy the sheep, the children started complaining about the smell, the noise, the dirt, and the work needed to care for it. The mother promised that she would take the
Figure 7: Domestic animals are kept on rooftops, in shacks in front of buildings, and in cages on balconies. During the two months before the Sacrifice Feast (Eid al-Adha), some families keep sheep in the kitchen during the night and in the shared space in the murabba‘ during the day. Photograph by Farha Ghannam.