Privacy and Modern Housing
Men have, through modernity, established a firmer claim on urban space but the city is ultimately possessed zonally, X eetingly and some times randomly and not by a particular gender, group or tribe.
Chris Jenks, “Watching Your Step”
According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, privacy is defined as “the quality or state of being apart from company or observation,” “freedom from unauthorized intrusion,” “a place of seclusion,” and “secrecy.” Like some other societies, people in al-Zawiya do not have a specific word that designates the English meaning of “privacy.” Similarly, Arabic-English dictionaries such as al-Mawrid tend to present a limited sense of the meaning of privacy, which is translated as ‘uzla (seclusion and solitude) or sirriya (secretiveness), while the Oxford English-Arabic dictionary adds to the meaning the words wihda (loneliness) and khalwa (retreat). Not one single word indicates a desired, positive temporary separation of the self from others. No one in al-Zawiya would ask, “Do you want to be alone?” No one would say, “You invaded my privacy” or “I need some privacy.” Stories often describe how Egyptians did not understand the need of their foreign visitors to be alone, especially when they were sick (see, e.g., Rugh 1984). In fact, people feel sorry for those who live on their own. I was pitied because I was childless and did not have company when my husband was at
The absence of an equivalent Arabic word for the English concept of privacy does not mean the absence of concern about family life, domestic affairs, and bodily functions in al-Zawiya. This concern was manifested in the state public discourse and continues to be central to how people conduct their daily life. As discussed in the first chapter, the state discourse placed great emphasis on the need to separate nuclear families and conduct intimate actions related to the body, such as bathing, in designated areas away from others. Children should not see their siblings bathing or their parents engaged in sex. At the same time, each nuclear family was to occupy its own separate unit. The contracts given to families when they were relocated make a clear distinction between the spaces that are controlled by the individual family and other spaces that are to be collectively used. The enclosed space of the apartment belongs to the family, while spaces outside the units such as the staircase and the rooftop are to be jointly managed. The contracts call upon people to form an owners’ union (itihad mulak) to regulate the use of these spaces. The project created a dichotomy between the domain of the family and the rest of the community. For instance, rather than seeing the rooftop as an extension of the whole building and viewing it as open to all the residents, the current view is that the rooftop belongs to the families who live on the top floor. They have the right to use and regulate who has access to it. As reported for the Algerian housing project discussed in chapter 2, “The outside now corresponds exactly to the opposition between the family nucleus and the neighborhood, between the apartment and the rest of the building” (Bourdieu 1979: 89). With the absence of the previously shared spaces such as the roof and the bathroom, many (especially the better off) can afford staying apart from their neighbors for days. This absence features prominently in narratives about the past and the current lack of cooperation between neighbors and decrease in exchanges of goods (especially of food) and services. The new apartments, and their doors, make it possible to have little interaction with others and to avoid neighbors.
OPEN DOORS, CLOSED HOMES
I was only seven years old when we were relocated. I remember a Christian friend of my mother who described how happy they were with the new housing units that they moved to in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. We all were so excited about moving. My friends and I used to talk for hours, imagining how life was going to be in the new apartments. We used to picture the new bathrooms and count the number of showers that we would take in the morning and evening. We were very happy while we were helping my mother pack our belongings. It was only when I saw them removing the door of our room that I felt deep sadness, pushing me to weep very hard. Without realizing it, I found myself holding the door tight screaming, “I do not want to leave, I do not want to leave,” but of course my parents and siblings would not allow me to stay. We all were crying when we moved.
A twenty-two-year-old woman describing her feelings when her family was relocated
The “door,” as noted in chapter 1, had a special significance in Sadat's infitah, or “open-door policy.” This policy, as stated by Sadat (1981) himself, aimed to “open the universe … open the door for fresh air and remove all the barriers and walls that we built around us to suffocate ourselves by our own hands” (12). While Sadat's policies aimed to open the door to the outside, at the local level doors were utilized to enclose and separate nuclear families from each other. The modern family was perceived as a nuclear family that occupied its own separate apartment and had a door that enclosed its activities and defined its separate boundaries. Doors have a special significance in how people depict attachment to the old location and current interaction in the new project. As the above narrative reveals, the door mediates the relationship between the social actor, the housing unit, and the larger community. The door is recalled when people remember the past and point to how space connected them in Bulaq while it separates them in al-Zawiya. Many used to live in rooms that opened on a common hallway (fasaha), and the building (bayt) had one door that enclosed them as a unit. The statement “We did not use to close our doors” is made to signify a complex set of relationships, manifesting security, closeness, trust, and honesty, that is said to have characterized the old location. In comparison, el-masaakin are formed of residents who come from different parts of Cairo and various Bulaqi alleys. The security that was guaranteed through long-formed relationships was disrupted, and the basis for leaving doors opened was shaken. Simultaneously,
Since relocation, the door has become more important in mediating the interaction between the family and others. It has become the entrance to the family's life, its exit to the outside world, and the gate that is used to communicate with others, establish or restrict relationships with neighbors, and express solidarity with the rest of the community. In short, it is the “gate” that regulates the inclusion and exclusion of others from the family's life. This is not to say that the gate is rigid. In fact, because the rules that regulate this gate are flexible and change according to the context, the door becomes the locus of tension with others. Closing the door can be translated as separating your world from others when there is tension between neighbors, especially in el-masaakin. The door symbolizes and reinforces the distinction between “us” and “them” when there is tension between neighbors.
The special importance of the door is revealed on a daily basis because it functions like a thermometer that indicates the fluctuation of the relationship between neighbors. The families of Um Mahmmod and Um ‘Emmad are two of the few families that continued to live next to each other after the relocation. Their memories of their life in Bulaq have created a sense of closeness between the two families and openness between their apartments that is not common in other blocks. The two women think of themselves as sisters, a fact that is manifested in how the children of each family call the other woman khalti (mother's sister). Although physically the two apartments are separated and have their own wooden doors, there is a continuous flow of news, objects, and people between the two units. The doors are usually open (especially in the summer) from morning until late at night. This changes, however, when there is tension between the two families. The number of visits decreases rapidly, and some members who are directly involved in a conflict may stop talking to each other. In this context, the door gains more significance. How one opens and closes the door signals feelings of anger, disrespect, and frustration. When a young woman of the two families slaps the door hard while one of the neighbors is passing, she is making a clear statement about her anger. If she closes the outer door of the apartment while her neighbor's door is open without looking and asking for permission from
The door and the ability to enclose the family's life introduce a new definition of privacy. Families’ reactions to this new possibility vary depending on their members’ education, economic status, and religious views. There is especially a marked difference between the better offand the needy. The needy (such as Um ‘Emmad and her family) see in the door and the growing separation from their neighbors not a positive change that protects the family but a barrier that reduces interaction and cooperation within the community. The relatively better-offfamilies (such as Um Mahmmod's) see in the door a welcome development and tend to introduce physical changes to their units that secure more visual protection. This can best be exemplified by the wall that has been introduced to create a space that mediates the interaction between those who are standing at the door and those who are inside the living room.
SEEING AND PRIVACY
As mentioned in chapter 2, the living room is the main space where family members interact with each other and with visitors. They eat, drink tea, and watch television in this room. Like the maglis in Lebanon (Gilsenan 1982) and the mafraj in Yemen (Gerholm 1977), the saala is on the border of the private and public. During daytime, it is public and open to visitors (both men and women), while at night it is privatized and used as a bedroom for family members. Both men and women tend to secure their privacy in this space by dressing modestly. In addition, when the doors of opposite apartments face each other, families who can afford it have added a new half-wall that separates the living room from the kitchen and creates a space called turqa (corridor or hallway). Without this wall, the saala is exposed to the eyes of the neighbors when the door is open (see Figure 8). The new turqa makes it possible for the person who
FIGURE 8: Families who can afford it add a new half-wall that separates the living room from the kitchen and creates a space called turqa (corridor). This wall blocks one's view of the living room from the apartment doorway or from other rooms in the apartment and provides visual protection for family members, especially when they sit on the floor to eat.
Central to the regulation of the relationship between the self and others is the control of what, when, and how the self is to be seen by others. Here it is important to point out that regulating acts of seeing does not mean a total shielding from the eyes of others, as argued in relation to “the Islamic city” (see Abu-Lughod 1987). Rather, it is the attempt to control who sees whom and under which conditions. Thus, while young women are encouraged, and in many cases required, to wear the scarf to have access to the workplace and other public spaces, they are allowed to dress in fancy clothes, wear full makeup, fix their hair, and dance in front
At the same time, sharing a bed with a sister, a mother, or a female visitor is accepted. Daughters may prefer to sleep in the same bed with their mothers in winter to keep warm or simply because they feel lonely when sleeping in separate beds. But, the apartment, which may be the most private space, becomes more “public” for women at night. Female members wear pants under their long dresses (galaliib) because the rooms where they sleep are accessible to their male relatives, and mothers describe how the presence of children prevents them from wearing revealing nightgowns or using makeup. The body becomes the most intimate space that should be protected from the gaze of others. Similarly, sexual relationships change to a large extent after the birth of the first baby. Since children are not required to ask for permission before entering their parents’ room (when the parents have their own separate room), intimate relationships between couples are exclusively limited to nighttime and only after the children are completely asleep. Many women reported that they have not seen their husbands’ naked bodies for fifteen to twenty years. The body in this context becomes the most intimate space that should be protected and regulated. This protection is central to the meaning of privacy in al-Zawiya.
Rather than a separation between two domains, this notion of privacy rests on regulating encounters between the family and outsiders as well as among its members. This regulation is crucial to the negotiation of changes that people introduce to their units and that threaten to violate the privacy of others. This can be elaborated through revisiting the changes that people introduced to the main balcony, briefly examined in chapter 2. Over the last fifteen years, this balcony, which overlooks the public land in the middle of the square (murabba‘), has been changed in various ways that enable family members to see what happens in the center of the murabba‘. Because these balconies open on the middle of the murabba‘, they are not seen as violating the privacy of other families. No negotiations are required between neighbors to implement such changes. The situation is different when one family opens a new window that may expose the bedroom or the kitchen of another family. In this case, negotiations are needed, and families who are threatened by the gaze of the neighbors can prevent such changes. “Our neighbors allowed us to open
Privacy is a relational concept that is context bounded rather than a rigid dichotomy between two separate domains. Privacy here indicates all the actions that should be protected from the gaze of others (whether family members, neighbors, or officials). This makes it important to examine the role of social actors in negotiating and redefining the meaning of privacy. For example, domestic violence is considered “public” in that people are expected to step in to stop a fight between family members. Neighbors who fail to do so are blamed. Tension may escalate and relationships may be temporarily severed because one family did not interfere to mediate a conflict in the next-door apartment. This was painfully expressed in a story told by a female informant. One man used to beat his wife, but as soon as she started screaming, the neighbors rushed to help her. To avoid this interference, the man shifted to removing all his clothes before beating his wife. In this way, the man “privatized” an action that is considered public and managed to prevent others from helping the wife. Using his naked body, which should not be seen by others, the man managed to discourage others from helping his wife.