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Anthropological Quarterly 75.4 (2002) 793-800

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People, the State, and the Global in Cairo

Donald P. Cole
The American University in Cairo

Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo. Farha Ghannam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002; 214 pp.

Life in Cairo in 1971, when I moved there to teach anthropology during the first year of Anwar Sadat's presidency, differed significantly from that of the recent past described and analyzed with great insight and sensitivity by Farha Ghannam in Remaking the Modern. Egypt was in a state of war with Israel and Cairo was blacked out at night. The sons of rich and poor served long periods of their youth in the armed forces. Expression of class distinctions was muted. Salaries were modest and wages low, but the cost of living was not high. Few foreign products were locally available, but Egyptian industry and agriculture provided most basic consumer items at affordable prices. Housing was subject to strict rent controls vigorously enforced. Small numbers of Westerners lived in Cairo, but there were thousands of East Europeans, including many from the Soviet Union.

Uniformed police were hardly visible, but state power was perceived to be, and I think was, very strong. Public schools, state universities, the bureaucracy, the army, and the official state party (the Arab Socialist Union) generally functioned as they were formally supposed to. These state institutions were respected and their personnel, at least as a category of people, were highly regarded. Egyptian people across the class spectrum saw themselves as part of a nation-state society greater than the sum of its clans, villages, neighborhoods, [End Page 793] and cities. What weighed heavily on almost everybody was the disaster of the June 5, 1967, defeat by the Israeli military. Sadat promised a "year of decision" but seemed to dither until October 6, 1973, when Egyptian forces crossed the Suez Canal and broke through Israel's "impregnable" Bar-Lev line. Sadat soon declared victory, Egyptians felt vindicated, the lights began to come back on in Cairo, and the price of Arab oil quadrupled. Farha Ghannam's study deals with what came afterwards.

Janet Abu-Lughod's magisterial Cairo: 1001 Years of The City Victorious, published in 1971, was a study of the city that focused on social history and urban ecology and used census-based data for a sociological analysis of Cairo's diverse districts and trends of change. More recent anthropological works (e.g. Wikan 1980, Early 1993, Hoodfar 1997) have been studies in the city. Ghannam boldly addresses herself both to a study of the city and to an analysis of how working class Cairo families craft modernizing changes introduced by the state and by global forces to meet their own self-perceived housing, economic, social, political, and religious needs. Ghannam raises intriguing questions about what constitutes "modernity" in a Third World city of seventeen million citizens and tends to find modernity more in people's everyday actions, often considered "traditional" or "backward," than in the self-proclaimed modernity of the state.

Fieldwork for this urban ethnography was conducted in 1993-94, 1997, and during shorter visits until 2000. The Cairo people, who are its focus, come from among 5,000 families who were forcibly removed in 1979-81 from the centrally located working class district of Bulaq on the banks of the Nile. They were relocated to a public housing project in al-Zawiya al-Hamra, a new urban area, in what was then Cairo's far northeast desert periphery. The expulsion of these citizens was part of state-sponsored plans for urban renewal and global tourism development following the Sixth of October 1973 War. Sadat envisaged the creation of a "modern" face for Cairo, and that required "cleansing" low class people from the Bulaq corner of the city center. This transformation was never fully implemented; but the people of this ethnography were both its "victims" and its "beneficiaries" in the sense that they were forcibly uprooted from an old cherished neighborhood and relocated into new...


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