Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem. 2015. the Architecture of Home in Cairo: Socio-Spatial Practice of the Hawari's Everyday Life

Academic journal article African Studies Quarterly

Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem. 2015. the Architecture of Home in Cairo: Socio-Spatial Practice of the Hawari's Everyday Life

Article excerpt

Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem. 2015. The Architecture of Home in Cairo: Socio-Spatial Practice of the Hawari's Everyday Life. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. 349 pp.

A reviewer commended the medieval scholar Steven Runciman for giving obscure emperors and generals "their mansions in history." Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem has done the same for Cairo's old neighborhoods or hawari (singular: harah). His work consists of three sections: sociological and anthropological definitions of "home," a history and description of the remaining old neighborhoods of Cairo from the pivotal invasion of Napoleon (1798) to the present, and finally thoughts on what direction contemporary architects might effectively take in preserving the city's several old districts and cautiously building anew in them.

Laymen often find themselves adrift when trying to navigate the books of architects, puzzled by examinations of engineering aspects of building homes and public buildings, while at the same time marveling at the designs of some of the creative minds of our age. In the first section of Abdelmonem's work, however, we have the rare spectacle of an architect uneasily attempting to the marshes of sociological and anthropological theories of home, not all of which coexist peacefully together. While the author no doubt believes these theories provide a necessary theoretical foundation for what follows, I suggest most readers merely scan this section of the book and proceed to the history of the hawari and Abdelmonem's description of his fieldwork, which form the heart of the narrative.

When the Arabs arrived in already-ancient Egypt in 641 CE, preferring "the sea of the desert" to the Mediterranean, they made an entirely new start with capitals in al-Fustat (in the environs of modern Cairo) and later Cairo (founded 969 CE), turning away from the Alexandria of the Ptolomies, Cleopatra, and the Eastern Roman Empire. What did they do with this new beginning? Modern Cairo has sprawled to encompass the pre-Arab Roman citadel of Babylon (no relation to the city in Iraq) and even the pyramids at Giza, but Abdelmonem wishes to steer clear of all these prior Egypts and concentrate on the extant old neighborhoods east of the Nile. He describes hawari characterized by high population density, a strong sense of community extending across centuries, architectural forms which have evolved (from large mansions to multi-family units, from forms accommodating the seclusion of women to a world where the woman has emerged from the home) but not been obliterated, and socio-spatial practice stressing the use of local public spaces as part of "home," where wedding receptions, funeral gatherings, and daily social interaction take place. …

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