New Internationalist

No place like home

January 2009

For those living ‘informal’ lives, a sense of belonging is as wide and as long as the Nile, as Maria Golia discovers.


An Egyptian friend of mine once described the rapport between Cairo, its people and Egypt, saying: ‘The whole personality is interwoven… As a child I believed that if I laughed in the morning, the laughter would travel up and down the Nile and reach everyone by evening.’ There is a sense of belonging and entitlement to which no Cairene, however disenchanted, is entirely indifferent; but I would add that tears and anger travel swiftly too. As the year crosses the finishing line, Cairenes would agree with the rest of Egypt, and probably the world, that 2008 was not great. The city bears the scars of its passage, including the recent collapse of a massive cliff-face, burying alive hundreds of sleeping occupants of multi-storey slum dwellings.

Had the catastrophe occurred in a middle- or upper-class neighbourhood, the rescue efforts would have been more rigorous. Under the circumstances, one family trapped beneath the rubble reportedly begged for assistance for two excruciating weeks by cellphone, only to die, one by one, an unthinkable death. Housing for Egypt’s poor is not a state priority; more than half of the capital is composed of shanty towns, impromptu brick boxes piled haphazardly atop and beside one another. When the ones beneath the Muqattam cliffs were crushed, the state’s belated and meagre rescue operation, alongside the suppression of information regarding the number of victims and their identities, sent a familiar message – that those people shouldn’t have been there, and their lives were not worth saving.

For those born in so-called ‘informal’ neighbourhoods, a shoddy approximation of a home, a school, a job, is the closest they’ll get to the ‘formal’ thing. But people content themselves, working hard for years to acquire the necessities (four walls, a bed, a refrigerator and stove) that will allow them to marry and have children. In order to optimize scant earnings, everyone joins savings pools (gama’iyya) with their colleagues or neighbours, whereby members of the pool contribute a portion of their monthly salary and have the right to take turns at the kitty every few months. This gives access to relatively large sums once or twice a year for important purchases.

People prefer to save with each other because it’s the only way they can lay their hands on small loans, but also because they don’t trust the banks. Of course, they’ll never own their homes – less than 10 per cent of all Egyptians hold the deeds to their property – but legal ownership is less important to the poor than a place to lay their heads.

Denied the expression of citizenship via property, or a voice of any sort in politics, excluded from these essentially symbolic institutions, Cairenes invest more interest and attention in each other, in real life, so to speak. A premium is placed on character, which translates as the ability to shoulder one’s burden lightly. Cairenes are stalwart at the prospects of poverty, sickness, death and even apocalypse, yet tenderly hopeful in a collective future. The 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun described the concept of asabiyya, meaning solidarity or group feeling. African culture has something similar, ubuntu – what Desmond Tutu calls ‘the essence of being human… my humanity is caught up, bound up and inextricable in yours’.

I have lived in many cities, and observed the pride of place that people feel for them; but nowhere else have I experienced Cairo’s peculiar brand of camaraderie. It runs strong at times like these, around the New Year, or at religious feasts like the celebration of group survival that follows Ramadan’s month of fasting.

TV and radio broadcast feast-themed programming, and quiz shows are popular, especially the one that currently offers contestants the chance to win a brand new flat. On the radio, callers that correctly answer quiz questions sometimes earn no more than a chance to dedicate a song to a loved one. But the winners rarely single out a lover or parent, and even if they do, given the opportunity publicly to express a desire heard up and down the Nile, they nearly always say: ‘This one goes out to all Cairenes and all Egyptians – god protect us, give us peace and good health.’

Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction book Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004).

This column was published in the January 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 419

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