Itfaddalu ma‘ana,” Umm Ibrahim shouts across the alley to the next roof, “please eat with us.” “Shukran, Allah yikhalliki,” promptly comes the answer from Abu Samia and his wife, “thank you, may God keep you.” It is a sunny Friday afternoon in December, and both families have decided to eat lunch on their rooftops where Umm Ibrahim and Umm Samia keep their chickens. [1] Behind Umm Ibrahim’s house, two palm trees sway in the breeze, many neighbors are napping and the children, who often fill the alley with their games, are quiet. As the afternoon progresses, the sun sets behind one of the upscale 25-story apartment blocks further down the street.

It is December 1995 in the middle of Cairo — more precisely, in central Giza on the west bank of the Nile. [2] In this metropolis where dramatic spatial and visual juxtapositions are plentiful, the quiet coexistence of this tranquil rooftop landscape of leisurely lunchers and cackling chickens with the “overtowering” 25-story apartment blocks is deceptive. Such surfaces mask layers of history often poorly in tune with each other.

In the late nineteenth century, Giza was a rural area with villages interspersed with the royal palaces of the children of the Khedive Ismail Pasha. These palaces, some private villas, the nascent tourist infrastructure around the Pyramids and a few newly established industries and government institutions formed the starting points for the unfolding of “modern” central Giza. By the first decade of the twentieth century, a thin grid of streets and tramways was attracting more investment and new residents. Giza’s villages and hamlets were caught in this grid and engulfed slowly by expanding Cairo. Some villages disappeared; others became urban lower-class neighborhoods. While Umm Ibrahim’s and Umm Samia’s community, al-Tayyibin, has survived, it is surrounded today by upper middle-class residential buildings.

While the public rhetoric of urban authorities and elites designates the Giza villages as distinctly rural and out of date, they have become heterogeneous, internally stratified urban neighborhoods. [3] Al-Tayyibin and its upper middle-class neighbors are part of the same city, products of decades of negotiated coexistence. In a complicated process of merging older Giza forms and practices with incoming modern urban ones, the poor have maneuvered around and exploited the structures set up by the state. Communities have maintained their collective identity while participating in the larger environment. These adaptations have not taken place between equals. Urban and national authorities have largely backed the “new” city. The villagers, increasingly seen as outside the ordering schemes of the modern nation, have been assigned to the residual category of the “urban poor.” By definition the “urban poor” are marginal, unable to adjust completely to modern urban life and citizenship, and hence constitute a “problem” requiring official attention. Such attention has little to do with issues of communal rights and demands; it is essentially a normalizing effort from above.

Claims by state representatives and the popular media that the physical structures of the villages are “obsolete” or “inadequate” are but one superficial argument in a struggle of larger social forces. First, urban and national authorities want to “upgrade” Cairo’s facade to make it “truly” representative of the modern Egyptian nation. Equally important, the transformation of “villagers” into modern urban citizens is seen as requiring a thoroughly “modern” environment, i.e., the removal of the older communities. Last but not least, the villages occupy prime real estate. [4]

Instances of al-Tayyibin life and history illustrate these processes of negotiation, and the ensuing adaptations or compromises. In the long run, however, the villagers have been the losers in Giza’s urbanization. Their traditional lifestyles have been rapidly altered or have disappeared altogether. Nonetheless, the villagers have insisted on their continuous presence in organizing urban life and their surrounding spaces.

Abu Salah lives a short distance from Umm Ibrahim and Umm Samia. A middle-aged man whose wife died a few years ago, he quickly decided to remarry. As a public-sector worker with a stable income and the expectation of a pension, Abu Salah’s position is one his younger neighbors can only dream about. His relatively good financial position and ownership of a small two-story house formed the basis for negotiation of his second marriage. Eventually he married a woman much younger than himself. The arrangements of and the differences between Abu Salah’s successive marital homes illustrate the changing ideas of domesticity during the last 25 years.

Abu Salah’s first wife’s “home” consisted of a bedroom and a multi-purpose room (used as bedroom, living room and kitchen). Both rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs connected by an open-air stairway, were modestly furnished (beds, three-door plain wooden wardrobe, a refrigerator in the corner and a television). This household — if slightly more prosperous — was like many others 20 or more years ago in the community.

For his second marriage, Abu Salah tried to approximate the more recent dream of the marital shaqqa (apartment) rather than the older house of his first marriage. A shaqqa is divided into separate, single-function rooms (bedroom, living room, kitchen) and furnished as such. Abu Salah commissioned an immense white-and-pink bedroom set for the upstairs bedroom and purchased an elaborate set of couches for the downstairs room. Lacking a “proper” kitchen, he converted the large landing of the stairs into a kitchen by installing cupboards, a stove and a refrigerator. Except for the anomalous open-air stairway connecting the rooms, Abu Salah’s former house was thus turned into a 1990s lower middle-class shaqqa. In a curious mixture of petty bourgeois etiquette, sense of privacy and Islamic observance, Abu Salah’s new wife was not seen in the alley for weeks after she moved into the house on her wedding day. Having created a “different” space, Abu Salah insisted that his wife behave “differently” and not sit and chat with the other women in the alley.

Without resettlement or other official intervention, Abu Salah reconstructed his material environment in a manner consistent with “official” imagery of the modern citizen. Abu Salah is not an isolated example. Many similar — if less prosperous — examples of “modern” domesticity have been realized in al-Tayyibin.

The influences of larger urban and national environments on Giza villagers are many. Their reciprocal influences on the networks and practices of the modern city, though more difficult to trace, do exist. By the late 1950s, al-Tayyibin was separated from the newer neighborhoods (including the “modern” neighborhood of Shari‘ al-Tawil, which developed in the 1940s) by fields and orchards. Umm Muna was a midwife in al-Tayyibin from the early 1950s until the early 1990s when her health began to fail. Though she learned her vocation from her aunts, themselves midwives with decades of experience, she also obtained an official license in the 1950s in accordance with government regulations. Thus, Umm Muna could practice within both the new legal framework and customary village networks. Throughout the years, Umm Muna received calls from the women of Shari‘ al-Tawil and crossed the fields from al-Tayyibin to assist them in giving birth. She brought services rooted in the practices and networks of the earlier Giza landscape to a clientele forming part of “modern” Cairo and its new infrastructure thought to have long abandoned such services in favor of hospital delivery or the care of “modern” midwives.

Umm Muna’s ties to and influence in the new neighborhood of Shari‘ al-Tawil might be considered a transient phenomenon since no one from the community took over her position after she retired. There are, however, other instances of al-Tayyibin asserting its urban place and role. Having lost their fields and orchards, the villagers persistently claim even the tiniest green (and often not so green) spaces as places for public, informal gatherings, even if simply for sitting outdoors in the evenings. Such claims extend to the green strip separating a six-lane street and, until very recently, a sparse triangle of not more than 15 square meters at the junction of three minor streets. These are not heroic reclamations of former territories, but attempts to adjust to an overpowering urban surrounding. The mere continuing visibility of the villagers in the newer urban spaces proclaims, in the face of opposition from government officials and urban planners, the villagers’ ongoing participation in the life of the city on their own terms. As massively as the new city has interfered with and altered the everyday practices of the Giza villagers, so too have they, within the limited scope of their powers, reshaped urban practices and forms.

Over the past 100 years, the larger central Giza landscape has created its own forms and practices of “modern” urban living. In this process, the vast cultural distance between the early twentieth-century residents of conspicuous Nile-front villas and their village neighbors has narrowed even as the economic “fences” around the villages have grown higher. Despite their participation in the shared larger and heterogeneous field of urban life, most villagers have been confined by economic exclusion to their communities and their more recent “satellites” — the informal neighborhoods west of Sudan Street immediately across the upper Egyptian railways, such as Boulaq al-Dakrour, Mu‘tamadiyya or Zanin.

The paradox of the former Giza villages is not that they are “outdated” entities alien to their modern, urban surroundings. It is rather that decades of intensive interaction with and participation in that “modern” environment have served to deny these communities equal access to urban wealth and a creative voice in spatial, social and cultural processes. As was the case 50 years ago, villagers still marry within the older village networks (and newer satellites), not into the new neighborhoods or across the street into the 25-story apartment buildings. Some village women who once participated in modern city and state institutions, and earned school diplomas, once more are now, like their grandmothers, cleaning the apartments of their wealthy neighbors. For many, their dreams of becoming a secretary or government clerk will never materialize.

Author’s Note: I am grateful for funding by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) administered through the Institute of Cultural Geography, Freiburg University, Germany. My work was further facilitated by a research fellowship in the Department of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo. My personal debts are to Mohammed Tabishat, for his support and inspiration; and to Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind.


[1] All names of people and the community are pseudonyms. Details of people’s lives have been slightly altered to ensure anonymity.
[2] Central Giza here refers to the area east of the Upper Egyptian railways or Sudan Street and stretching from Giza al-Balad in the south to Imbaba in the north.
[3] In the following, I use the terms of “villages” and “villagers” simply to refer to the spaces and the people who live in them with no analytical implications in terms of a theoretical rural-urban dichotomy.
[4] As an interesting example of government housing projects to which some villagers have been moved, see Farha Ghannam in this issue. This is a vast and complicated subject and varies from community to community, largely depending on the mode of ownership of land, private or waqf being the most important ones.

How to cite this article:

Petra Kuppinger "Giza Spaces," Middle East Report 202 (Spring 1997).

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