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New Texts Out Now: Farha Ghannam, Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt

[Cover of Farha Ghannam, [Cover of Farha Ghannam, "Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt"]

Farha Ghannam, Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Farha Ghannam (FG): The study of gender in the Middle East has been largely approached through the question of women. While this focus has been very productive in that it generated a rich body of literature that countered many simplistic assumptions about women as passive and powerless, little attention has been paid to men as gendered subjects. Masculinity was often left assumed and invisible rather than problematized and interrogated. At the same time, I was struck by how we continue to equate the woman with the body and the man with the mind. Even after feminists have forcefully questioned how patriarchy identifies the woman with the body, men are usually disembodied, and we know very little about how their bodies are managed, regulated, and shaped by social norms, class positionality, religious discourses, and political processes.

Coupled with this is the fact that Western media, especially after 11 September, has been complicit in dehumanizing Middle Eastern (often equated with Muslim) men and lumping them together as terrorists, suicide bombers, and violent predators who oppress women and children. In the face of this, I wanted to offer an ethnography of working-class Egyptian men and their daily lives, aspirations, and dreams as well as the structures (particularly class and gender) that shape their subjectivities, bodies, health, and death.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

FG: Live and Die like a Man draws on studies of gender, intersectionality, performativity, and embodiment to analyze masculinity as a contextual process that is shaped by multiple forces, agents, and discourses. While I focus on how individual men come to embody masculine identity, my ethnography shows that masculinity is a collective project that is negotiated through interactions between the private and the public, men and women, young and old, and neighbors and strangers. The ethnography traces specific “masculine trajectories” and how they shift over time to account for important structures, especially gender and class, which intersect in powerful ways to shape the process of becoming a man. While directed (but not fully determined) in its path by expected and collectively defined social expectations (such as getting married and having children), a masculine trajectory may be fashioned by emerging and unexpected encounters, such as a demonstration in the street, a ride in the bus, or an encounter with a police officer. My book accounts for the continuities and discontinuities in a masculine trajectory and shows that the process of becoming a man is not as a linear temporal progression, but a continuous and contextual one, a process of making that continues even after the death of the individual.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

FG: My first book, Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo, was a study of how ordinary citizens remake city spaces from multiple locations. I looked at how the state aimed to inscribe a specific notion of modernity in physical forms and explored how men and women in a low-income neighborhood in northern Cairo appropriated, challenged, and remade this notion in their daily life and uses of public and private space. My new book, Live and Die like a Man, is based on twenty years of fieldwork in the same neighborhood and builds on my deep interest and previous work on urban life and space. While my earlier work looked at urban space and how it is produced by national polices, global forces, and daily practices of the city dwellers, my new book looks at the male body as a space that is produced by social norms, economic activities, religious discourses, and political systems.

My focus on embodiment has moved my research into new areas such as labor, violence, health, and death. At the same time, the city features prominently in my new book. I show how the construction of masculinity is closely linked to urban forces and Cairo’s spatial and social landscape. One’s reputation and standing as a man is linked to one’s ability to know the city, enjoy its offerings, manipulate its possibilities, manage its disciplinary powers, and avoid its risks. Embedded in city spaces, mobilities, and interactions are possibilities and limitations, inclusions and exclusions, expected and unexpected encounters, and the “judges of normality,” to use Foucault’s phrase, that occupy different areas, venues, and spaces. Taken together, these factors open up new ways of being and doing, posing new challenges to men and how they embody gendered norms. In short, the book shows that urban dynamics and gender dynamics are strongly linked and influence each other.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

FG: This book compliments current studies about gender in the Middle East, which largely focus on women, and I hope it will be of interest to scholars and students of gender, masculinity, and embodiment. In writing this book, my goal has also been to reach out to a broader audience. Thus, I wrote in an accessible way, offering vivid stories of specific individuals, whom I got to know over a long period of time, such as the story of a young boy and his family as they teach him about his future as a man. Having met this boy when he was one year old and having traced his life until he turned eleven in the summer of 2012, I elaborate on the many errands that he was charged with, such as buying bread, a time consuming and often difficult task in his low-income neighborhood; the spaces that he was expected to master, such as the main busy street and how to cross it; the skills of negotiating the multiple and competing demands of others; and the important ethos such as bravery, productivity, decency, and generosity  that his family saw as key to the making of a proper man. Other cases include the story of a forty-year old single man and his attempts to find a wife; the murder of a man in his thirties and how people react to the use of violence; the life and death of a thirty-eight-year old worker, who died suddenly while working in Saudi Arabia; and a sixty-two-year old man, who died in Cairo after a long illness.

While I hope that the accessibility and rich descriptions of my ethnography would invite a broader audience to engage with my work, I would be curious to see if ordinary readers will be interested in a book about Egyptian men and their daily struggles. I could be wrong, but my sense is that there is a context that welcomes specific types of books, particularly those about the “oppressed” Middle Eastern woman, but that tends to resist other studies that could destabilize and problematize taken-for-granted assumptions about gender in the region. In any case, along with humanizing men in popular discourse, as a feminist and an Arab woman, I hope that this book will generate new ways of thinking about patriarchy and gender distinctions in the Middle East. Through exploring how men are shaped by patriarchal structures and norms, I hope to broaden the way we think about the commonalities as well as the differences that connect yet separate men and women, and open up discussions about new spaces for social and political change.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

FG: I am currently working on several papers and a main research project. One of the papers is focused on the social life of balconies in Cairo; a second one is focused on the gender of martyrdom, while another is about different modalities of fatherhood in Egypt. The main research project that I am pursuing is a comparative study of food, the senses, and urban life. This project looks at culinary traditions in Egypt and Jordan and aims to explore food as a cultural and social marker that signals collective identities, reflects and reconstitutes class inequalities, articulates gender distinctions, elaborates generational differences, and indicates religious piety and devotion. In particular, I am interested in how class and gender structure the making, presentation, circulation, and consumption of food in urban areas.

J: Does this book help us understand recent political changes in Egypt and how things have evolved since January 2011?

FG: This book was conceived and researched largely before the January 25th Revolution. However, much of it was written during and after the recent protests in Egypt and other Arab countries. My ethnography accounts for the social and economic frustrations that affect men’s lives, particularly unemployment and low paying jobs, political marginalization, corruption, and the brutality of the police. All these economic and political hardships strongly resonated with the calls of the protestors during the January 25th Revolution for bread, freedom, and social justice.

Yet my interlocutors did not automatically or immediately embrace the activists and their calls for political and social change. My analysis shows that to better understand the Egyptian revolution, we need to look closely at the overlaps, redefinitions, and contradictions between existing cultural forms, meanings, and values and emerging political projects, goals, and movements. For example, my discussion of the categories used to classify, regulate, and evaluate proper versus improper uses of violence framed the attempts of ordinary citizens to make sense out of the protests and changing events that have been profoundly shaping Egypt’s political and social landscapes. Notions such as “baltaga” (thuggery and bullying) and “gad’ana” (decency, bravery, reliability, willingness to help others) help us see how localized understandings shape the interpretation of significant events and the shifting feelings and views of ordinary Egyptians, many of whom came to strongly support the protests. These notions, and how they shift over time, also show the impact of national policies, struggles, and transformations on localized understandings that regulate the use of force in daily life.

Most recently, my knowledge of the social views of what constitutes a proper man—that is, a man who is strong, productive, and assertive but also kind, affectionate, and caring—helped me understand the feelings of my interlocutors in the summer of 2013 when they expressed fervent negative feelings towards ex-president Muhammad Morsi and strongly supported Abdel Fattah-el-Sisi, the current Minister of Defense. While Morsi was often seen as kindhearted (tayyib), most people came to see him as lacking the strength, assertiveness, and skills needed to rule the whole nation and to establish security in Cairo and the rest of the country. In contrast, Sisi was seen as assertive, firm, and strong but at the same time as caring, compassionate, and reliable. Many saw him as holding the promise of effectively addressing their daily hardships, especially the serious problems of food, transportation, fuel, cleanliness, and security. In particular, he was seen as capable of protecting the country and re-establishing security in Cairo. I think it was largely his ability to materialize some of the key norms that define manhood that earned him tremendous popularity, today making many excited about voting for him if he runs for the office of the president.  

J: What was most challenging about writing this book?

FG: Unlike what many might expect, my main challenge was not in having access to men and women and discussing various topics with them. Instead, my main challenge was in communicating my knowledge of my interlocutors and their daily realities into a text that can be read by people in other places. While this is a challenge that faces all anthropologists, it becomes especially problematic in the context of the anthropology of the Middle East, an area that has a complex and turbulent relationship with the US and Europe. The fact that there are so many simplistic ideas, negative assumptions, and damaging stereotypes about the region and its people that are common in the media, policy circles, and some scholarly work made the writing process particularly difficult.

For example, when writing about masculinity and violence, I had to negotiate my interest in a thick description of the gendered nature of violence with current dominant stereotypes about the “aggressive” and “domineering” Arab man. When writing about sickness and death, I had to struggle against the powerful discourse that generates a divide between the “culture of life” associated with the West and the “culture of death” associated with Islam. How to write, I asked myself continuously, in a way that is intellectually honest and politically responsible? How to write to humanize but not to romanticize or idealize? One way I found productive to deal with this challenge was by tracing specific masculine trajectories and offering rich contextualization of the inequalities that structure the interaction between male and female, young/old, government/citizen, and individual/society. I told stories of specific individuals and tried to account for the multiple struggles they have to engage in daily, as well as the powerful structures (particularly gender and class) that shape their bodies and practices.

Excerpts from Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt

From Chapter Two: “Plans and Stands: The Challenge of Being Single at Forty”

If you had the chance to ask Samer when he was a single man in his mid-thirties about the meaning of ruguula, he would have said “ar-ruguula mawqif” (manhood is a position, or a stand; plural mawaaqif) and then list several mawaaqif when others judged his conduct as reflecting the standing of a man.[1] Most of the examples he would have offered would show his body as mediating his relationship with others. It is by working, moving, taking risks, fighting, rescuing, and protecting (especially women and children) that he asserts his agency as a man and materializes norms of courage, toughness, and fearlessness. The examples he provided were often moments and experiences from his youth. He vividly narrated a time when he rushed to help when a fire started in a nearby housing block. He described the scene of billowing smoke, chaos, and screaming. Of all the men standing at the entrance (including firefighters), it was he that a woman grabbed and begged: “Samer, my child is upstairs and nobody can get him but you. Please help him.” Without a second thought, Samer pushed his way through and went up to the fourth floor, snatched the boy and took him downstairs. He then went upstairs again to the third floor, the site of the fire, and brought down the ambuuba (a cylinder of butane gas), which could have exploded and destroyed the whole building.[2] When he relayed this story, Samer always noted how many people asserted that he was a “real man” (raagil bi saheeh) and commended his courage and gad’ana.


His other examples included the fights that were imposed on him or in which he felt compelled to get involved to help someone or correct a wrongdoing. One of his favorite examples occurred when he was nineteen and riding the city bus with two of his friends. They noticed a young boy who was crying, trying to retrieve his watch from a young man, whom I will refer to as Bilia. The boy had received the watch as a gift from his father, and Bilia had somehow managed to convince him to exchange it for a much cheaper plastic watch. When the boy realized that he had been tricked, he started crying and pleading with Bilia to give the watch back. Samer and his friends supported the boy and tried first to persuade and then to pressure Bilia to give the watch back. In a few minutes, Bilia had mobilized several of his own friends (who were scattered on the bus) to help him confront Samer and his two friends. Fearing getting caught in a fight involving pocket knives (mataawi),[3] the other passengers moved away from the brawl and the bus became like a saaha (a fighting arena). Throughout the fight, though Samer suffered two stabs in his leg and was bleeding heavily, he made sure to protect his face. For him, scars on the leg are rarely seen by others but the face is a “mirror” that everybody looks at. As “bodily hexis,” facial scars could be interpreted by others not only as signs of defeat but also as signs of criminality and trouble making. [4]

Samer would describe how scared members of his family were when they saw his injuries but would also talk about the pride he sensed in their reactions and in their telling and retelling of the events to neighbors and relatives. He knew that even when they clearly disagreed with his quick interventions that could cause him bodily harm, they were still proud when others complimented him and recognized his ruguula. Indeed, his relatives always stressed Samer’s bravery but criticized his hastiness, complaining that he often did not think before interfering in risky and potentially dangerous situations. Nonetheless, one of his sisters commented proudly that even when he was a young boy, people often referred to Samer as agda’ min raagil (more capable than a man). Such testimonies, as he himself emphasized, were central to the formation of his masculine trajectory. They endorsed, consolidated, and celebrated his conduct and the stands he took. However, the criteria for people’s judgments and reactions are not always clearly defined, fixed, or easily learned. As Samer once told me, “one does not really know if what he is going to do will be viewed by others as the manly thing to do. I just do things without thinking about them and then hear people’s reactions to what I’ve done.” It is this interplay between the doing and the judging, between the act and the meaning given to it, between bodily hexis and its interpretation, between recognition and misrecognition that is the focus of this chapter.

From the Conclusion: “Masculine Trajectories and National Paths”

Rather than representing distinct masculinities, the trajectories I have traced in this book are ways of materializing the hegemonic norms that define a proper man. As argued by Hearn, “analyzing multiple masculinities brings dangers of relativism, and infinite regress of multiple permutations.”[5] This idea also implies the existence of discrete types of masculinity that can be “selected” and performed.[6] To avoid these assumptions, my analysis has aimed to maintain the strong connections, tensions, mismatches, and overlaps between a set of loosely defined social norms and enactments of manhood. I have endeavored to account for the promises and gaps between the expected and the possible, conduct and judgment, the desirable and the achieved, and the ideal and the actual. The masculine trajectories I have described show that few (if any) are able to fully exemplify the norms that define a proper man. This inability should not be viewed as failure. Rather, it is an inherent part of the social logic that sustains gender distinctions. The promise to measure up to the norm engages individuals’ feelings and desires and ensures that they spend time and energy working on themselves and helping others to master norms that define the ideal man (and woman). There is a process of “normalization” that both homogenizes, hence we have the category of the “real man,” and individualizes, hence we have techniques and agents who continuously observe, instruct, measure gaps, correct, and (at least occasionally) coerce men, especially boys and young men, to make sure they master certain norms and refine their conduct.[7]

This oscillation between homogenization and individualization and the central role others (especially women) play in defining and recognizing proper men leave me unconvinced of the “generalized instability” and unlimited fluidity of gender identifications emphasized by some scholars.[8] Even though recent approaches have broadened our horizon beyond the binary oppositions (body/mind, individual/society, and nature/culture) that shaped earlier approaches to gender and opened spaces for us to see competing forms of masculine identification, I believe that the number of possibilities is not infinite, especially in working-class contexts. As argued by Connell, “the idea of generalized instability of categories seems to have arisen in the global metropole, and perhaps captures something important about social life in the neoliberal rich countries.”[9] One should also add that this view might be true for specific classes in neoliberal affluent societies but does not capture how gender is constructed across different national spaces and class formations. My research shows how fluidity and fixity, instability and stability, the emerging and the established, ambiguities and clarities, uncertainties and certainties all shape a masculine trajectory. Without recognizing how these contradictory tendencies coexist and how they are negotiated in daily life in various situations, we would not be able to understand how masculine identifications are produced, challenged, and legitimized. We as analysts may be eager to account for flexibility, instability, and incoherence, yet for our interlocutors a sense of coherence, stability, and continuity has to be nurtured and sustained over a masculine trajectory to secure the social recognition and credibility that defines a real man. A proper man is produced through an elaborate process of differentiation between various modes of doing and being. Thus, our ethnographies should elaborate on the flexible as well as not-so-flexible and the durable as well as not-so-durable aspects of the construction of gendered identifications and how their interplay shapes masculine trajectories.



[1] I have known Samer since 1995, when he was twenty-five years old. This section draws on conversations we had when he was thirty-six. Later in the chapter, I draw on his life experiences before and after this age and then focus on the challenges that faced him at the age of forty.

[2] According to him and his family, even the firemen did not want to go upstairs to bring the cylinder down.

[3] As opposed to older men, young men often carry a pocketknife but rarely use it. Displaying the knife and the threat it poses is often all is needed to assert one’s power. As explained by an older man, the click made by the pocketknife of his youth was often enough to scare an opponent.

[4] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977) 93.

[5] Hearn (2011: 91).

[6] As argued by Petersen, both research and the media continue to reinforce the idea that “gender identity is a matter of ‘consumer choice’…[a view that] serves to divert the attention from the social structures and values that shape (although do not determine) individual beliefs and actions” (2009: 210).

[7] Foucault (1979: 184).

[8] Raewyn Connell, Short Introductions: Gender, Second Edition, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2009) 90. See also Todd Reeser, Masculinities in Theory: An Introduction (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2010), and Elwood Watson and Marc Shaw, eds. Perfoming American Masculinities (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2011).

[9] Connell (2009: 90).


[Excerpted from Farha Ghannam, Live and Die Like a Man: Gender Dynamics in Urban Egypt, by permission of the author. © 2013 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. For more information, or to order the book, click here.]

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