- Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo
There is good news in the appearance of a sensitive ethnographic study of some (unspecified) number of residents living in two adjacent (but unspecified) subareas of an outlying district of Cairo, Zawiya al-Hamra’. The recent work most comparable to this one is Diane Singerman’s Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics, and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo (Princeton University Press, 1993), which deals with a more “conventional” site, a baladi quarter in the “old city,” for which some case studies by Egyptian scholars already exist. Both books focus chiefly on poor women and their struggles to survive and thrive under difficult conditions. But Ghannam’s breaks new ground, not only by virtue of its connection to current urban theory but, what is more important, by virtue of her “semi-insider” status.
Despite her sophisticated knowledge, her long industrious fieldwork, and her grasp of the literature, Singerman’s ability to gain full admission to her community and to interpret (and respond to) its cultural codes was limited. As an outsider (an American of Jewish origin), she never fully penetrated the world view of her “informants.” Hers remains an etic, albeit sympathetic, view. As a semi-insider (a Muslim Palestinian raised in Jordan preparing a doctoral dissertation at an University of Texas), Ghannam was better situated to grasp and interact with the cultural perspectives (emic view) of her informants—one is almost tempted to say “friends” she made. Not only could she communicate more fluently in Arabic, follow Egyptian newspapers, hear sermons, watch soap operas, eavesdrop on buses, help write letters to male relatives working abroad, etc., but she better grasped (instinctively?) their meanings and expectations and fulfilled the reciprocal obligations incumbent on a trusted guest.
Nowhere is this more evident than in their relative discussions of the range of roles Islam plays in day-to-day life. Ghannam’s best chapters (4 and 5), to my mind, deal with this in a highly nuanced and credible way, treating religious practice respectfully while acknowledging its deep functions in social as well as spiritual life. (Contrast the multiple entries to religion in the index of Ghannam’s short book with the absolute absence of this category in Singerman’s index.) This does differentiate their books. A second difference grows out of how the two inserted themselves into their communities. Even though Singerman rented a room in her neighborhood (for part-time occupancy), which should have given her an advantage, whereas Ghannam had to commute regularly, with some inconvenience, to her distant field site, the latter turned this necessity to productive use. As any researcher is aware, identification with a “landlord” places one within a matrix of preexisting affiliations and intra-communal tensions, often blocking the chance to expand one’s contacts to other social networks. Since one of Ghannam’s research objectives was to investigate the potentially conflictual or at least problematic relationship between residents of the “settled neighborhood” and the adjacent public housing project, being a commuter gave her more freedom to move between the two settlements and to explore how and when residents crossed the putative boundaries. And in compensation for not establishing a “home” in her site, Ghannam disclosed more of her “other life.” She invited some of her contacts to visit her home (thus giving food for gossip while also fulfilling her obligations as their guest), whereas insofar as I can determine, Singerman, when not “researching” her area, simply disappeared. Ghannam also argues that she learned a lot by commuting by cheap crowded public buses, sharing their camaraderie, as well as empathizing with poor people who live far from city center.
In short, this is a rich ethnography filled with important insights, written in a personal way by a person for whom one comes to feel respect and affection—for her measured and nuanced conclusions and her modest claims for them. It therefore distresses me to say that her book could have been more logically...