Quiet Sounds, Visible Signs, and Moral Economies
The state is an ambiguous reality.
Pierre Bourdieu, Acts of Resistance
It is tempting to label many of the practices described in this book as “resistance.” In many ways, these practices challenge the socioeconomic and political inequalities that place Hisham and his neighbors in a particular social space. They are part of their continuous struggle to secure a space for themselves in Cairo and to inscribe their presence on the “face” of a city, which, through state policies, pushed them out from its center. They integrate the group within the neighborhood and display its active role in the neighborhood's formation. They defy the fantasies of rational planning that divide housing units into enclosed entities and assign functions to specific spaces.
The thick contextualization of these practices, however, makes it hard to “fit them into a fixed box called resistance,” to use the words of Sherry Ortner (1995: 175). This concept becomes slippery, denoting many different, and at times contradictory, modes of action under its rubric (Maddox 1997; Bayat 1997a. 1997b). The concept of resistance also poses the thorny question of intentionality. Is resistance necessarily a conscious act, as some argue (Fegan 1986)? If so, how are we to account for the intentions of social agents? Are these intentions “inscribed in the acts themselves” (Scott 1986: 29)? If not necessarily a conscious act, is resistance any “experience that constructs and reconstructs the identity of subjects” (Gupta and Ferguson 1997: 19)? In its traditional sense, the label resistance does not account for the multiple meanings and consequences of the practices described in this book; neither does it do justice to the wide range of daily tactics and strategies that I have been analyzing. Who is Hisham resisting when he builds his apartment? Is Magdy resisting
More important, the label resistance does not capture the ambiguous and shifting relationships between these practices and the state plans and discourses. The spatial practices of Hisham and his neighbors are neither foreign to the state's organization of the city nor in conformity with it. On the one hand, the new expansions are attached to the old structures and are believed to strengthen the buildings that were erected by state planners. They are “planned” in that they are attached to the buildings erected by the state. They also require planning and coordination between neighbors. In addition, they are manifestations of people's aspiration to improve their housing conditions and their desire for modern housing. They are often justified by notions of beauty, modernity, and privacy that have been common in the state public discourse since Sadat started his open-door policy. On the other hand, these additions are not subject to “rational planning.” They are “unplanned” in that no official permits are obtained beforehand and no architects or planners are consulted. People dismissed my question as irrelevant when I asked about having an architect who might help in designing the new additions. “What for?” was the answer. “The contractor and the builder (usta) know what should be done.” It is this continuity and rupture between the plans of the state and the practices of the people that I have been trying to emphasize in this book.
At the same time, these enactments emerge from a specific sense of meaning, justice, and order. People recognize that these acts are “illegal,” and some excuse the government's attempts to restrict construction on state-owned land and the use of public spaces for unintended and unauthorized actions such as selling vegetables and goods on the sidewalk. One man, who himself has built two rooms next to his apartment, explained that the government should regulate the construction and usage of urban space. If the government did not effectively control who is building and where, the man argues, people would take over every inch of the city, and there would be no places for people even to walk. But such views, which are shared by others, are often followed by the argument “What else can we do? Shall we live in the street? Does the government want people to starve?” In many ways, these practices are “seen as natural and moral responses to the urgency of survival and desire for dignified life” (Bayat 1997b: 61).
While Magdy and his neighbors view the changes introduced to their
People also have a good sense of the “spaces of tolerance” (Foucault 1979: 82) allowed in the system of power. They, for example, know which additions are considered “nice” (usually those changes that leave positive impressions on others, especially government officials) and which additions are seen as ugly and therefore are most likely to be penalized. As a woman explained, she was very scared when she saw government employees checking changes introduced to apartments around hers and expressing their intention to destroy some of these alterations. She was worried because her family had just added a room to expand their one-bedroom apartment (on the ground floor). The large amount of money and effort they had invested in this room made her “heart jump to her throat” out of fear that the officials would order the removal of their room or fine them. She relaxed quickly, as she explained, when she remembered that only people who implement shacklike additions (‘ishash) are penalized (through fine or removal of the additions), while others, like her family, who invest a lot of money in making clean, wellpainted, and “nice-looking” changes, do not have these changes removed. In most of these cases, additions are saved by paying some money to government employees.
These tactics and strategies are also linked to people's views of the state and its roles. Men and women know the state through its public discourses (mainly circulated in the media) and through their direct interaction with its officials, institutions, and agents. As shown in chapter 1, the state has a remarkable ability to present a unified image of itself. Government officials used the same set of negative constructions to
Similarly, government officials in Cairo are differentiated actors with their own interests and visions of order and the modern city. They differ in their priorities and expectations. In fact, there is a system (referred to in the literature as “informal”) that allows government officials to use their positions and connections to increase their income and boost their symbolic power beyond the boundaries of their schools, offices, and police stations. Teachers in public schools, who are grossly underpaid, for example, “force” students to take private lessons—if they do not, they will not pass their exams. It is the money that teachers acquire from lessons, and not their government salary, that supports them and their families. A state bureaucrat may prefer to take some money rather than to charge a family for the unauthorized use of government electric connections. Many officials who interact with people seem to place less emphasis than planners and policy makers on ideas about order and beauty and choose to accept money to overlook various changes. A policeman is often more willing to supplement his little salary with some extra cash than to report or destroy new constructions. An officer may be more willing to get some fancy foods such as shrimp and fruits than to confiscate products or equipment that is used on the side of the street without a license from the authorities.
While this system allows some people to broaden their bargaining space and to negotiate many issues (from violation of land codes to traffic tickets), it also indicates to others, such as Hisham and his neighbors, that the government's apparatus is unjust and is not geared toward protecting their rights. Rather, it all depends on connections and money. People strongly believe that the rich, who have more money and better connections, enjoy more protection and secure access to various urban resources. In this context, the ability to manipulate state officials is highly regarded.
In his study of squatter settlements in Iran, Asef Bayat (1997a. 1997b) coined the phrase “the quiet encroachment of the ordinary” to refer to “a silent, patient, protracted and pervasive advancement of ordinary people on the propertied and powerful in order to survive hardships and better their lives” (Bayat 1997b. 57). Bayat's important phrase “quiet encroachment” captures several features of the practices that I have been describing. For one thing, Hisham and his neighbors are “calmly and quietly” moving forward to improve their lives (56). They are motivated by “the force of necessity—the necessity to survive and live a dignified life” (58). Similar to the actions of urban squatters in Tehran, these changes are also “significant in themselves without intending necessarily to undermine political authority” (58). The aim of people in al-Zawiya, for example, is not to mobilize to change the laws that regulate the use of space but rather to create realities that deactivate current laws. My analysis, however, departs from Bayat's in at least two important ways. First, although the additions I examined in al-Zawiya are implemented quietly and quickly so that they will not be seen or heard by government officials, as soon as they are finished, they become important visible signs that have
What interested me in this book was not to classify these practices as resistance and/or confirmative. In fact, I find this dichotomy to be unproductive in that it reduces the complexity of people's practices into rigid categories and ignores the multiple meanings and consequences of these practices. It also puts the researchers in the position of a judge who is evaluating and attaching positive (i.e., resistance) or negative (i.e, confirmative) meanings to these practices. One of the most interesting things about the practices I have been describing in this book is their effects and ability to transform plans, projects, spaces, and images. It is this power, I believe, that is significant in understanding the role of the ordinary practitioners in the making and remaking of the city. Focusing on this power allows us to go beyond viewing the city as a ready-made whole that is beyond the practices of Hisham and his neighbors. It is not sufficient to recognize these practices as adaptive or survival strategies and examine them in the city. Rather, they should be placed at the center of any theorization of the city and urban life. Vendors running with merchandise when they see the police, merchants struggling to use the street corner rather than limiting their activities to the bounded formal markets, young men visiting local coffee shops, women taking daily trips to the vegetable market, Muslim activists preaching in the city bus and reciting
Therefore, it is not enough to examine state policies and how they are translated into housing projects, schools, markets, streets, and green areas. The study of urban space must also include a close analysis of the global forces and discourses that inform national policies and plans. Above all, it has to conceptualize the central role of the spatial practices of the urban dwellers who continually remake the city through their daily activities and movement. These practices are central to an adequate view of urban space as always being in the process of formation and to the conceptualization of change not as an interruption in a steady flow of continuity but as a central feature of daily life and the production of urban spaces. The role of the ordinary practitioners of the city is especially important for a productive understanding of how local, national, and global forces are articulated in the formation of urban spaces and cultural identities.