Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo / Edition 1

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In an effort to restyle Cairo into a global capital that would meet the demands of tourists and investors and to achieve President Anwar Sadat's goal to modernize the housing conditions of the urban poor, the Egyptian government relocated residents from what was deemed valuable real estate in downtown Cairo to public housing on the outskirts of the city. Based on more than two years of ethnographic fieldwork among five thousand working-class families in the neighborhood of al-Zawyia al-Hamra, this study explores how these displaced residents have dealt with the stigma of public housing, the loss of their established community networks, and the diversity of the population in the new location.

Until now, few anthropologists have delivered detailed case studies on this recent phenomenon. Ghannam fills this gap in scholarship with an illuminating analysis of urban engineering of populations in Cairo. Drawing on theories of practice, the study traces the various tactics and strategies employed by members of the relocated group to appropriate and transform the state's understanding of "modernity" and hegemonic construction of space.
Informed by recent theories of globalization, Ghannam also shows how the growing importance of religious identity is but one of many contradictory ways that global trajectories mold the identities of the relocated residents. Remaking the Modern is a revealing ethnography of a working class community's struggle to appropriate modern facilities and confront the alienation and the dislocation brought on by national policies and the quest to globalize Cairo.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520230460
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 9/19/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 226
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Farha Ghannam is Visiting Assistant Professor at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

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Read an Excerpt

Remaking the Modern

Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo
By Farha Ghannam

University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-520-23046-9


Researching "Modern" Cairo

If you manage to find a taxi driver who will agree to drive you from the center of Cairo to al-Zawiya al-Hamra, the trip may take only thirty minutes. Most taxi drivers, however, are not willing to go to this neighborhood, located in the northern part of the city. One driver explains that the road is "very bad" and that his car will be damaged if he drives there. Another insists on determining the fare before you get into the cab and then charges more than for similar rides to other parts of city. Other drivers simply do not "feel comfortable" going to al-Zawiya. It is cheaper to take the state-operated city bus (otobis). But to do that you have to be skillful and know how to use it. You need to know how to jump when it slows down as it nears your station. You also have to know how to jump into the bus before it speeds up and joins the flow of traffic. But above all, you need to learn how to fit your body among the masses on board while paying close attention to your belongings. In addition, you need to acquire the skill not only of quickly grabbing any vacant seat but also of sharing it with young children and older people. A good way to avoid the hassle of either the relatively expensive taxi or the overcrowded cheap city bus is to take the metro to Hadayiq al-Qubba and then get into one of the small privately owned buses. These seat around fifteen passengers, and you can usually manage to find a spot. But many people in al-Zawiya put up with the annoying city bus because it is cheaper. While the trip in the city bus (otobis) costs ten piasters (around three cents), the trip by the metro and the "micro-bus" (as people call it) costs around fifty-five piasters. To ride the micro-buses, you need to learn at least two skills. First, you need to learn how to find the doorknob. Most often the inner knob is broken and you have to stick your hand out the window to the outer handle to open the door quickly. Second, you need to know how and when to ask the driver to stop: "next to the mosque ya usta," "at the corner of the street," or "in front of Ragab" (a local restaurant). You have to call upon the driver in a voice that is higher than the loud music and at the right time-that is, before you reach your stop but not too early so that you do not irritate him or end up walking to your destination.

My daily trips from al-Tahrir Square to al-Zawiya al-Hamra (see Figure 1) over more than two years usually combined these different means of transportation. I often took the metro in the morning, when I knew that it was impossible for me to get inside the city bus. I preferred to take the latter at night, however, because it was less crowded and took me directly to al-Tahrir Square. During the first nineteen months that I spent studying al-Zawiya, learning how to use these different vehicles was an important achievement. I became confident not only about finding the doorknob and talking back to the screaming driver but also about collecting the fare from the rest of the passengers and passing the money to the usta. Interestingly, it is learning such skills that gave me a sense of familiarity and knowledge of life in al-Zawiya al-Hamra and the daily struggles of its inhabitants.

Al-Zawiya al-Hamra attracted my attention when I planned to study how modern discourses are articulated in the production of urban space. This neighborhood seemed the right choice because it housed part of the five thousand Egyptian working-class families who, during 1979-1981, were moved from Bulaq (in the center of Cairo) to public housing in al-Zawiya al-Hamra and {ayn}Ain Shams. The relocation project was one of President Sadat's attempts to rehabilitate the city center and "modernize" the housing conditions of Cairo's poor as well as to build a global metropolis that would meet the demands of tourists and foreign investors. My review of the state public discourse circulated in national newspapers revealed an intriguing utilization of modern images and discourses in justifying the relocation project. Notions such as hadith (new or modern), {ayn}asri (contemporary or modern), and madani (civilized or refined) were widely used to justify the project. Moving the urban poor to "modern" housing, the state discourse promised, would transform them into more productive agents who would be active in the making of their country. To further legitimize this project of "modernity," state officials depicted members of the group as drug dealers, criminals, and troublemakers and viewed relocation as crucial for disciplining, normalizing, and integrating them into the nation. Theoretically and methodologically, al-Zawiya seemed the right place to examine how state planners have translated notions of modernity into physical forms and how ordinary men and women appropriate and physically transform these forms.

I focus on this relocation project as one concrete example of how global forces (such as investments and tourism) are articulated in national policies and people's daily practices in the making of urban spaces. Studies on resettlement in different parts of the world have documented the socioeconomic consequences of relocation (see, for example, Perlman 1982; Hansen and Oliver-Smith 1982; Cernea and Guggenheim 1993; Shami 1994). As suggested by such studies, the project reordered relationships among the relocated population and rearranged their links with the city. Their economic insecurity was exacerbated by the disappearance of old neighborhood relations and the assurances provided by direct and long-lasting personal bonds. Those who depended on close personal relationships in their business were hit hard by relocation. For example, women who used to buy cheap fabric and clothes from local markets and sell them to their neighbors for a small profit lost this source of income when some of their customers were moved to {ayn}Ain Shams, some were dispersed in the new housing project, and the rest remained in Bulaq. This book, however, is not about the economic consequences of relocation. Rather, it examines the spatial practices of the relocated population and the cultural identities that they are constructing for themselves and that are being attached to them by other residents in al-Zawiya.

A View of al-Zawiya

[Al-Zawiya al-Hamra] is one of the bleakest landscapes in Cairo as few roads, amenities, or services interrupt tract after tract of apartment buildings. Public housing suffers from all the unfortunate aspects of contemporary, inexpensive "modern" architecture where identical cubicle-like buildings rise out of the dusty roads and lack any influence from indigenous architecture.

-Diane Singerman, Avenues of Participation

Although the trip from the city center to al-Zawiya is relatively short, the social distance that separates it from upper- and middle-class areas is huge. Not only for taxi drivers, but also for many other Egyptians, Al-Zawiya al-Hamra is constructed as "the Other." It is often perceived as remotely located, and its people are viewed as drug dealers, criminals, troublemakers, and, most recently, fundamentalists and terrorists. For many, it is a reminder of the 1981 sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians (discussed in chapter 5), which, as indicated by one young man, placed the neighborhood "on the map." Middle- and upper-class people perceived my work there with mixed feelings, usually of surprise and uneasiness, expressed by describing me teasingly as "ra{ayn}na" (headstrong, but also with a touch of foolishness), as a well-known Egyptian sociologist once did.

Al-Zawiya is not attractive to tourists, and you rarely see it on Cairo's maps, for it lacks the "authenticity" of Old Cairo and the luxury of upper-class quarters. It is not attractive to researchers either. While baladi neighborhoods such as Bulaq, Bab al-Sha{ayn}riyah, al-Gamaliyya, and al-Musky have attracted the attention of researchers (El-Messiri 1978; Rugh 1984; Campo 1991; Early 1993; Singerman 1995), newer neighborhoods like al-Zawiya are often considered by researchers to be "less authentic" and thus outside the scope of academic interest. The concepts and perceptions of baladi people are depicted as the "most representative of the post-colonial Egyptian Muslim Identity" (Campo 1991: 96). In the words of an Egyptian writer, "the old alleys" are "the real Cairo" where one finds the "authentic Egyptian life ... the Egyptian whose attributes did not change over thousands of years" (Muharram 1989: 5). These groups are considered the holders of the "present and the future of Egyptian society, as well as its definition of what Islam is and will be" (Campo 1991: 97). In contrast, neighborhoods such as al-Zawiya, which are located on the outskirts of Cairo, are considered to be outside the urban landscape and are viewed as part of the "rifi subculture," which is based on "attachment to local custom, family honor and solidarity, and the land" (Campo 1991: 90).

This construction of al-Zawiya and similar neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city is largely based on their recent history. Al-Zawiya, currently a densely populated area, was mainly agricultural land until the early 1960s. The oldest inhabitants were agricultural workers. They cultivated corn, rice, and vegetables and lived in clusters of mud-brick houses. The situation changed drastically after the 1952 revolution. Land was redistributed to many of the families who used to work as agricultural laborers. At the same time, the state began constructing roads, and the area was soon connected with the rest of Cairo via a tramway. Many new immigrants (Muslims and Christians) who came from Upper and Lower Egypt found cheap housing in al-Zawiya. They constructed or rented rooms in red-brick houses that are called biyuut ahali (private houses). In the early 1960s, the neighborhood expanded rapidly with the establishment of the first public housing project (el-masaakin el-qadima). This project was part of Nasser's policy that aimed to provide housing for low-income groups. It is located to the west of the main street. Many of those who moved to this project could not afford housing in the center of the city, had lost their housing units through urban clearance, or were immigrants from other cities and villages. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the second or the new housing project (el-masaakin el-gidida) was established on the east side of the main street at some distance from the old project. El-masaakin el-gidida houses part of the population moved from Bulaq, the main focus of this book. The project also houses families who moved from the city center seeking cheaper housing or who were moved by the state from other parts of Cairo.

The social and physical distinctions between public and private housing are significant in this neighborhood. Private and public housing differ in many aspects, such as size, color, architectural design, division of the unit, and use of space. Although their residents have similar socioeconomic backgrounds, differences between private and public housing are highlighted and invested with many social meanings. These differences are signaled, for instance, in the labels used to refer to these two areas. Masaakin sha{ayn}biyya, usually translated as "public housing" or "housing for the people," is the full expression that formally refers to the housing project. Currently, the word sha{ayn}biyya, with its positive connotations (as discussed further in chapter 3), has been dropped from the name. Only the word masaakin, which simply refers to the housing structures, is used to refer to public housing. In contrast, biyuut ahali is the full expression used to refer to privately constructed houses. The word biyuut, or "houses," is dropped, and ahali, or "people," which has positive connotations related to life there, is used to refer to the private housing. Following the people's usage, I use the word masaakin to refer to the public housing project and ahali to refer to private housing.

Life in both el-masaakin and el-ahali is diverse. This diversity is manifested first in the activities that people are engaged in. There are petty traders, vendors, plumbers, metal and construction workers, shoemakers, factory laborers, craftsmen, mechanics, drivers, waiters, low-level government employees, teachers, and owners of small businesses (such as a barbershop or an iron shop). There are families with relatively high income, especially those with members who are skilled workers or who work in oil-producing countries, and there are unskilled workers with little income who can hardly sustain their families. Many men work more than one job to meet the needs of their families. A man may, for example, work during the day as a teacher in a professional school where he earns around one hundred Egyptian pounds per month and work in the evening as a house painter, which earns him more than two hundred pounds. Young women are usually factory workers, sales people in local shops (especially clothing), or secretaries (inside or outside al-Zawiya). But they tend to quit after securing enough money for their trousseau. Most stop working outside the home after marriage, but many become engaged in various economic activities around the housing unit.

The population in al-Zawiya al-Hamra consists of groups who migrated from various areas at different time periods. There are migrants from villages in Lower and Upper Egypt, from other cities, and from various neighborhoods in Cairo. While most of its residents are Muslims, it is estimated that 12 percent of the population is Christian (Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics 1986: 343). The diversity of the residents not only has implications for the generalizations that can be made about al-Zawiya. More importantly, as discussed in chapters 3 and 4, it contextualizes and shapes how the relocated population views al-Zawiya compared to other areas in general and Bulaq in particular.

I Was There

In my experience, fieldwork is, above all else, surprising.

-Candace Slater, "Four Moments"

This book is based on more than two years of fieldwork. Most of the research was conducted during 1993-1994 and 1997. I also visited the area during 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. Letters, cards, and occasional phone calls still connect me with my close informants. My data are derived from diverse sources: participant observation, interviews with people in and out of al-Zawiya, novels, newspapers, and television serials. Participant observation, in particular, was very valuable in acquiring intimate knowledge of people's feelings and reactions to the project, their current dreams, and future aspirations.


Excerpted from Remaking the Modern by Farha Ghannam Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Introduction: Researching "Modern" Cairo
1. Relocation and the Creation of a Global City
2. Relocation and the Daily Use of "Modern" Spaces
3. Old Places, New Identities
4. Gender and the Struggle over Public Spaces
5. Religion in a Global Era
6. Roads to Prosperity
Conclusion: Homes, Mosques, and the Making of a Global Cairo



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