Sahar was only ten years old when her family, along with almost 5,000 Egyptian working-class families, was relocated from her neighborhood in the center of Cairo to a public housing project in al-Zawiya al-Hamra, in northern Cairo. The relocation project was part of Sadat’s open-door policy (infitah), which strived to “modernize” the country by accelerating economic growth, promoting private investment, attracting foreign and Arab capital, and enhancing social development. [1] Sadat’s new policy brought about many changes in the urban environment aimed at creating a “modern” city to meet the emerging demands of investors and tourists. Sahar’s family was occupying a piece of land in the center of the city that became valuable because Sadat’s policies, as he proudly announced, increased the price of the land. The old, crowded houses were to be replaced by modern buildings, luxury housing, five-star hotels, offices, multi-story parking lots and “centers of culture.” [2] Families were to be “extricated” from “inhuman” housing conditions that did not “fit the image of Cairo as the capital of Egypt” to more suitable housing that fit the Egyptian people and “modern” life.[3]

Married ten years later, Sahar was lucky to find a housing unit in the same project next to her family. Nevertheless, she complains that her one-bedroom apartment is too small for her husband and four-year old son. Sahar is particularly unhappy with her “kitchen” — a sink and a gas stove in the corner of the hallway, which is exposed to any visitor sitting on the couch on the opposite side. She plans to add a covered balcony along the bedroom and the hallway to create an area to separate the kitchen from the living space. Her plans have not materialized because her family cannot afford it. She joined a savings association, however, with her neighbors, which secured enough money to install a ceramic floor in the bathroom. Despite her husband’s objection, Sahar had the floor installed, hiring a local worker to do the job. While showing the new ceramic floor that replaced the cement floor, she explains that this change reduces the time and effort needed to clean the bathroom. Like most of her neighbors, Sahar has altered and reconstructed the “modern housing” that was erected by state planners.

Public Housing

Public housing in al-Zawiya al-Hamra is divided into identical blocks of five-story apartment buildings. Every 12 blocks constitute a murabba‘ (square). Each murabba‘ has a piece of public land that is often controlled by some residents who use it for a wide variety of activities such as raising animals, gardening, socializing, weddings and funeral receptions. Each building is divided into individual apartments with separate entrances. The smallest units (like Sahar’s) — a single bedroom with a hallway — are very small and lack a separate room for receiving guests. [4] The most common units have one bedroom and a living space while the largest and least common are two-bedroom units with a relatively large living space that can be divided into a sala (living room) and a third bedroom. These apartments usually have one small bathroom with a shower and a separate kitchen.

Reconstructing “Modern” Space

The new project introduced many changes in the lives of those who moved into them. Such changes included the promotion of the nuclear (as opposed to the extended) family, a redefinition of relationships within the household, a decrease in the level of interaction between neighbors, an increase in the degree of separation between work and residence and the private and public spheres. Rejecting these changes, many have tried to reconstruct their individual dwellings and negotiate the use of shared spaces with neighbors.

Touring the housing project in al-Zawiya al-Hamra one cannot but notice the many new metal and cement balconies of various colors and shapes which hang on the sides of the buildings. Small rooms are attached to apartments on the ground floor; carts and glass-fronted cabinets, used for selling cooked foods, are stationed next to housing units; staircases are used for everything from ironing to selling groceries; chickens and ducks are housed in ‘ishash (shacks) on rooftops and in front of blocks; and public spaces between buildings are fenced and turned into gardens or places to keep livestock. Family members negotiate and work together to secure the money needed to make the changes in the housing unit. Neighbors cooperate on the use of shared spaces and when state officials try to penalize families who initiate such changes.

Women and the Use of Urban Space

Women play a central role in negotiating family needs and cultural dispositions with state policies regarding the new housing units. They spend much more time than men in the apartments; are responsible for decorating, cleaning and arranging them; and introduce many physical changes to the housing unit. Since the start of the relocation plan, women have been the main agents in dealing with the Egyptian bureaucracy; they answered questions posed by researchers and officials who visited them before the relocation, followed the paperwork through government offices and tried to bargain for larger units or better locations. Women like Sahar continue to be the primary agents in using and transforming the state-allocated space.

Despite the fact that many women welcomed the new apartments and consider them superior to their old housing, they miss many of the spaces such as the rooftop, the narrow alleys, the open area around the public tap, the corniche of the Nile and the local shrines where women would eat together. [5] Spaces used to raise domestic animals, for example, represented not only sites for economic investments but were also spaces for interaction between women. [6] Many women recall how such spaces facilitated in resolving conflicts between neighbors. While caring for their livestock, women would meet on the rooftops to discuss daily affairs, the latest gossip of the neighborhood, national and international news. Even though some complain about the time needed for raising livestock, they continued raising poultry and refer to this process as tasliya (entertainment).

In addition to its social role, the raising of chickens and ducks is also rooted in an ideology that assumes that baladi (local) food products are tastier and healthier. [7] Spaces used for raising poultry range from the area under the bed, rooftops and balconies to a small ‘isha (shack) attached to the apartment (on the ground floor) or a balcony that is added specifically for this purpose, and the public land in the middle of the murabba‘. One woman used water containers to fence in a corner in the kitchen that she uses to keep some chickens. She uses the balcony to keep the sheep that she is fattening for the Feast of Sacrifice (‘Id al-Adha) and, under the bed, she has created a space for her pigeons.

In cooperation with men, mothers, sisters and wives use the public space in the middle of the murabba‘ for socializing and gardening. They also use the empty land next to each murabba‘ to sell cooked foods, sugar cane, roasted corn, fresh vegetables and fruits. Women also use this space to conduct and promote some of their seasonal home-based industries. Some women, for instance, set up ovens on the side of the lanes between the murabba‘at to bake ruqaq (thin bread) that is widely used during the Feast of Sacrifice. Through this utilization of space, women publicize their activities and interact with others.

By integrating the work place with residential areas, family members, especially women, cooperate in caring for their investments and property. Adding a small shop to the housing unit, for instance, enables some women to take over while their husbands are outside the neighborhood. These additions enable women, especially married women whose work outside the home is viewed negatively, to participate in the economic activities of the family and provide them with the chance to socialize with others and expand their social networks. These additions also provide a safety buffer for the family when the working male relative is unemployed due to illness or unemployment.

Sahar and her husband, ‘Ali, resorted to this option when he was diagnosed with diabetes, legally preventing him from resuming his previous work as a bus driver. He managed to get the approval of his neighbors and a permit from the local authorities to place his batrina — a glass-fronted cabinet and some shelves to store and exhibit his merchandise — next to the entrance of his neighbors’ block that faces the bus station. In addition to candy, chewing gum, chocolate bars and biscuits, ‘Ali sells various cold juices prepared by his wife in their apartment during the summer, while chick peas are boiled and sold hot in the winter. Recently, he got a job as a driver for an upper-class family in another neighborhood and Sahar took over the batrina. ‘Ali’s new job is not guaranteed. Sahar’s role is thus vital for the future survival of the family. She not only adds to the family’s income but she also maintains the right of her family to the space and the batrina. If Ali loses his new job, he can reclaim the batrina and resume his work there.

The metal balconies, the carts and glass-fronted cabinets, the shacks on rooftops or in front of blocks, and the gardens in public spaces are all transforming the homogeneous project, crossing the boundaries between private/public and residency/work. In their attempts to satisfy the needs of their families, Sahar and her neighbors are not only changing their individual units but they are also transforming the housing project and the construction of urban space by the Egyptian state.


[1] K. Ikram, Egypt: Economic Management in a Period of Transition (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); and John Waterbury, The Egypt of Nasser and Sadat: The Political Economy of Two Regimes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983).
[2] Al-Ahram, December 27, 1979.
[3] Al-Ahram, April 23, 1979.
[4] People suggest that Sadat may not have known about these small and disliked units. Many emphasize that he assumed all the units were two or three rooms each.
[5] According to the contracts given to people, the apartments are to be rented to men for 15 years, after which ownership will shift to occupants. The monthly rents vary between $1-3 depending on the size of the unit. This low rent, in addition to promised ownership, especially with the lack of affordable housing in Cairo, is considered a big advantage. The rent is usually paid at a local office every three to four months.
[6] Raising poultry and sheep at home not only provides meat, eggs and milk for the family, but also secures a surplus to exchange with neighbors and provides gifts for the sick and new mothers.
[7] The definition of baladi food, usually in reference to animal-related products, is flexible and not limited to a geographical locality. Rather, it depends upon a conceptualization of the relationship between what is considered “natural” on the one hand and the taste and the nutritional value of the product on the other hand.

How to cite this article:

Farha Ghannam "Relocation and the Use of Urban Space in Cairo," Middle East Report 202 (Spring 1997).

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