MODERNITY IS LIKE A KNIFE
There are different Arabic words such as hadith, ‘asri, and madani that refer to the notion of modernity. The common word that people in al-Zawiya use to refer to modernity is tamaddun, which was also repeated in the state discourse. Tamaddun indicates a process of becoming modern, civilized, or sophisticated. This word is from the same root as mad ina (city), and al-tamaddun is often related to the possibilities that are allowed by life in the city. Access to schools and health facilities and the use of new technologies, furniture, and buildings are aspects of tamad ddun and urban life that are positively perceived, desired, sought, and embraced. Similar to the Western notion of modernity (see Giddens 1990; Berman 1988), tamaddun indicates progress or the movement from one situation to another. This movement is often perceived as positive. The move from Bulaq to al-Zawiya is seen by many people as part of tamaddun and tatawwur (development). The new apartments are seen as more modern than the previous housing units. A young woman explains that in Bulaq it was hard to have modern appliances such as refrigerators and washing machines. This was due to the absence of electricity and piped water and the fact that landowners did not allow tenants to acquire heavy appliances that threatened the shaky buildings. Some areas are also seen as more modern than others. Al-Zawiya is seen as more modern than
While women tend to emphasize technological changes as central components of modernity, men (especially older men) tend to focus more on the negative aspects of modernity that threaten moral values and social relationships. The words of Abu Hosni summarize the general attitude in al-Zawiya: “El-tamaddun is like a knife with two edges; if not handled carefully, it can kill.” Rather than the conventional opposition between tradition and modern, this metaphor presents a distinction between positive and negative aspects of modernity. There is a strong belief in the possibility of combining Western technological advancements with Muslim religious values and traditions. Abu Hosni emphasizes the need to appropriate modern technologies and facilities such as TVs and cars. But for him, the other edge is of special importance because it is threatening to the community. This includes the weakening of solidarity between neighbors as well as the growing interest in accumulating money and acquiring consumer goods. Alienation and individualism are all seen as negative consequences of the project of modernity. Central to this threat, according to Abu Hosni and other men, are women's attempts to “blindly imitate” (taqlid‘ama) Western dress codes, makeup, and hairstyles. The practices of young men, such as wearing golden chains and listening to disco music, are also seen as negative aspects of modernity. Similarly, in previous chapters we saw how people welcomed the housing units but had to struggle with the social and cultural consequences of this process. Just like the knife, relocation cut across the social networks that structured relationships in Bulaq, divided the group into two parts, and rearranged relationships between neighbors. As the woman in chapter 3 described, “In Bulaq, people used to cooperate and their hearts were together. They used to ask and care for each other. Here it is like a prison. Every person is limited to his or her own cell.” The relocation of thousands of Egyptian families from different parts of Cairo to the same housing project created uncertainties about others and how to place them.