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  • Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt by Farha Ghannam
  • L. L. Wynn (bio)
Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt
Farha Ghannam
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012
222 pages. isbn 9780804783293

Editors’ note: Live and Die Like a Man won honorable mention in the 2014 Association of Middle East Women’s Studies Book Award competition.

Until recently gender studies was almost synonymous with women’s studies. Over the past two decades, however, a contingent of Middle East scholars—including Marcia Inhorn, Paul Amar, Joseph Massad, Wilson Chacko Jacob, Khaled Fahmy, and Madawi Al-Rasheed—have led the development of masculinity studies in the region. Farha Ghannam’s book is part of this vanguard.

Ghannam’s key argument is that masculinity in Egypt is “a collective project” (3). She describes masculinity as complex and contested, both a social and an individual project as people debate what makes a man and what makes a good man. Over a lifetime men cobble together identities from competing ideologies: a man must respect his elders, but he must also assert himself. He must be gentle but must enforce his will through violence. Masculinity is above all fluid, defined through successes and failures, and socially produced as much by women as by men. Men are judged by multiple audiences at home, in the workplace, and in streets, schools, mosques, and police stations.

The ethnography is set in Al-Zawiya Al-Hamra, a “popular” (poor) neighborhood of Cairo, where Ghannam, an anthropologist, has been doing research for over twenty years. The book is structured as a series of chapters that each explore a different stage of the “masculine trajectory.” It offers an account of how little boys are socialized to be men, how they explore public space (and evade the state security apparatus) as youths, how they select wives and take on the roles of husbands and fathers, and how they grow old and infirm and die. One chapter examines how women produce masculinity by guiding and [End Page 337] judging male behavior, financially and socially supporting male relatives, and accepting kinsmen’s control over their mobility. Another chapter is dedicated to understanding how violence is structured, performed, and evaluated, paying close attention to how Egyptians in Al-Zawiya decide whether a man is a “thug” or gadaʾ, glossed as honest, brave, and capable (201).

The trajectories of several boys and men over two decades through dramatic life changes demonstrate the particular insights gained through long-term participant observation. The narrative is given current relevance by its discussion of recent political changes in Egypt. When men demonstrated in Tahrir Square or formed vigilante groups to defend their neighborhoods amid the chaos of revolution, they were “materializing norms and values that already existed” about men’s roles as protectors and providers (20).

Ghannam attributes the lack of scholarly attention to the ways that men inhabit their masculinity to a broader trend of “disembodiment” of men. The scholarly gaze is influenced by cultural norms that associate men with intellect and public life, while women are seen as more bodily, emotional beings. Case in point, she tells us, is the fact that the world fixates on female genital cutting in the Middle East but directs little attention to male circumcision. Writing against the Orientalist fixation on Arab men’s sexuality that pervades the literature on Middle East masculinity, Ghannam reminds us that sexual competence is “not always central to how manhood is defined and presented.” She shows how grooming, navigating public space, providing for the family, and knowing how and when to use violence are equally important components of the masculine project (24).

Ghannam draws on and critiques a number of scholars. She argues that Pierre Bourdieu’s formulation of the concept of bodily hexis does not show the extent to which it is open to multiple interpretations by different members of society. In contrast to Saba Mahmood’s arguments, Ghannam notes that piety is not central to being considered a “real man” and rarely allows men to transcend class. Suad Joseph’s emphasis on the subordination of sister to elder brother neglects the extent to which men...


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pp. 337-339
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