Young men like Magdy are desirable future husbands. Like many other young women, Magdy's sisters dream of marrying men who work in oilproducing countries. They explain that, in a relatively short time, a man who works in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia will have enough money to secure the apartment and its furniture, both of which are essential social requirements for marriage. So when Magdy proposed to Laila, a twenty-three-year-old woman who lives in el-ahali but works as a secretary in a middleclass neighborhood, she and her parents accepted immediately. Besides his good looks and pleasant manners, they knew that he had been working in Kuwait for years and that he could fulfill Laila's dreams. Although Magdy did not have the chance to know his fiancée well, he trusted the judgment of his mother, sisters, and neighbors. In their opinion, Laila is beautiful and comes from a good family. After meeting her a couple of times, he decided to ask for her hand in marriage. He bought her the customary golden jewelry (shabka) and had a big engagement party. Like many other engagement and wedding celebrations, their party was videotaped, and his family and fiancée replayed it for me several times.
Once Magdy was engaged, finding an apartment became even more important. Magdy, however, did not manage to find a suitable unit before going back to Kuwait. So he left the money in a bank account under his sister's name. He chose Nisma not only because she had a more flexible schedule than her working brothers but also because, as he knew, she would not spend any of his money without his instructions and permission. His older brothers had gone through repeated financial crises that had forced them to borrow part of the money that Magdy sent to his mother. Nisma kept her eyes open for vacant apartments. Within a few months, she heard that
Even before the search began, it was clear to everyone that Magdy's apartment would reflect his income and status. His younger brothers were forced to consider renting or buying units in satellite cities outside Cairo, an option that they did not like but that still might be the only one available given their incomes. From the beginning, his family took it for granted that Magdy could afford to buy an apartment near them in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. While his younger brothers were searching for onebedroom apartments, it was assumed that Magdy could afford at least a two-bedroom unit. Compared with the apartments of his married siblings, the unit that Magdy bought is much larger. The original structure of Magdy's apartment consisted of two bedrooms, a living space, a bathroom, and a relatively spacious separate kitchen. This apartment was identical to his family's apartment, where, until recently, ten to twelve individuals lived (see Figure 11). Meanwhile, his older brother Fahmi, a driver in his mid-thirties, lives with his wife and an eight-year-old son in a one-bedroom apartment. Although Fahmi and his wife were lucky to find this unit ten years ago, given that it is close to both of their families, the apartment is considered very small for them. In addition to the bedroom, there is a small hallway, but there is no separate living space that can be used to receive guests. A couch, placed in the hallway next to the entrance, is used to seat visitors (see Figure 12). This area is so small that if two or three people visit simultaneously, the place becomes uncomfortably crowded. Fahmi's wife is especially unhappy with the fact that her “kitchen,” which consists of a sink and a gas stove occupying the corner of the hallway, is exposed to visitors who are seated on the couch in the opposite side of the hallway. Since I met her in 1993, she has been dreaming of saving enough money to install a metal balcony, part of which she can use as a kitchen.
The changes that Magdy is introducing to his apartment increase the
FIGURE 11. The apartment that Magdy bought was originally identical to his family's apartment, where, until recently, ten individuals lived.
FIGURE 12. The apartment of Magdy's brother. A couch, placed in the hallway next to the entrance, is used to seat visitors. This area is so small that if two or three people visit simultaneously the place become uncomfortably crowded.
Magdy's family and his future in-laws collectively produced a tape that in detail explained to him the plan and the money needed. Magdy approved of the proposal and sent the required money to his family. His siblings, his fiancée, her father, and some of Magdy's close friends supervised the implementation of the expansion. Currently, Magdy's apartment has two bedrooms, one living room, a dining room, a spacious kitchen, two bathrooms, and a large balcony (see Figure 13). Communication with Magdy has continued through tapes, letters, and phone calls to discuss minute developments related to the shape and structure of the additions and the furniture. Magdy, Laila, and their families discussed the choice of door for the kitchen (a beaded curtain or a swinging door) and the bathroom (metal, wood, or glass), the color of the ceramic tiles, and electrical and water installations, taking into consideration expected purchases of appliances such as a water heater and an automatic washing machine.
It is interesting to note that Magdy's migration has brought his family closer to his friends and future in-laws. His apartment in particular has become a link that brings his family closer to his fiancée and her parents. In his absence, his mother and siblings are expected to visit Laila during major religious holidays and to offer her gifts on special occasions. Still, the apartment created another need to communicate with her on regular basis. Currently, the unit represents a blending of Magdy's ideas, the expectations of his family and friends, and the opinions of his fiancée and
FIGURE 13: Magdy's apartment after the latest additions. Currently, the unit has two bedrooms, one living room, a dining room, a spacious kitchen, two bathrooms, and a large balcony.
Magdy's travel allows his fiancée more freedom in shaping their future home. Although women are active in organizing, cleaning, and decorating their apartments, they usually assume this role after marriage. The bride is rarely involved in preparing her future home until the final stage, when she and her sisters (or female friends) arrange the furniture that she buys (normally for the living room and the kitchen) and organize her belongings in the bedroom. In contrast to this general tendency, the role of Laila and her family has been central to the changes introduced to Magdy's apartment. Laila decided on various issues related to the unit, such as the color of the ceramic tiles, the kind of bathtub, and the paint of the unit. She is also taking initiatives in the organization of the unit. She helped in supervising the work and in removing, with the help of Magdy's sister, the debris left behind by the workers. She also went with her father to their village of origin, two hours by bus from Cairo, to see a carpenter whom he knew and recommended. She showed the carpenter her favorite design of kitchen cabinets and asked him to duplicate it. She and her father visited the carpenter several times to check on his progress and to make sure that he was the right person to hire to make the bedroom furniture. After these visits, she went to her future mother-in-law to inform her about the kitchen, the wood they are using, and the color they will select to paint the cabinets.
Unlike most brides, Laila is also participating in decisions related to her future bedroom. While a bride participates in the selection of the furniture of the living room and kitchen, the furniture of the bedroom, which is closely linked with sexuality, is the responsibility of the groom and his family. In Magdy and Laila's case, she is the one who is deciding on these issues. To be able to select the most fashionable and beautiful furniture, Laila watched TV, looked through magazines, and visited various newly married women to see their bedrooms. After deciding on a style, she sent a picture of the furniture she liked to Magdy to solicit his opinion. She said that Magdy liked the design of the room and suggested a white color. Laila, however, prefers black and wine-red colors. According to her, the white is very common and dated, while the black and the winered are newer and more fashionable. After discussing her preferences with Magdy over the phone, he told her to choose the color that she prefers.
In addition to the structure of the housing unit, people expect Magdy to display his wealth in the furnishings of the apartment. Compared with his siblings and other men of his generation, he will be buying furniture
At the same time, the desired home of Magdy and Laila is constructed by images transmitted via television programs and visits to other neighborhoods. The manner and style in which Magdy has chosen to remodel and furnish his housing unit also reflect his experience outside his neighborhood. Items such as the water filter, the kitchen fan, and the vacuum cleaner, which he purchased in Kuwait, are not common in al-Zawiya al-Hamra. He also decided to invest money in building both a full bathroom and a separate guest restroom (with a toilet and a sink). Among the many apartments that I visited in the neighborhood, Magdy's unit is the only one that has two bathrooms and the only one that has a bathtub.