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The Promise of the Wall: Reflections on Desire and Gated Communities in Cairo

[Dreamland Egypt. Image by Author.] [Dreamland Egypt. Image by Author.]

“Gated communities,” which started to emerge in the US in the 1980s, have quickly spread around the world and became “a global commodity and cultural icon eagerly consumed by urban elites world-wide” (Genis 2007: 771). Since the mid 1990s, dozens of these communities have spread around Cairo. Most of these developments target the rich and present themselves as alternatives to the hectic, polluted, congested, and crowded Cairo. In their attempts to explain the increasing popularity of these spatial forms among the upper and upper middle class, scholars have highlighted fear and the “myth of risk” (Denis 2006), conspicuous consumption, retreat of the elite from the city and its problems, and emerging neoliberal rationalities (Mitchell 1999, Kuppinger 2004, Adham 2005, Denis 2006, Singerman and Amar 2010). While appreciating the valuable contribution of these studies, my essay aims to shift the attention to the desires that these entities cultivate and promise to fulfill. Although it is clear that fear and risk management create and reinforce boundaries, they do not fully account for the creation, celebration, and legitimatization of gated communities in Cairo. At the same time, while these studies have highlighted a strong link between neoliberalism and gated communities, we have little sense of how this link is materialized through the interplay between affect and desire on the one hand and the organization of space, the making of bodies, and the disciplining of minds on the other hand.

To understand this interplay and the broader appeal of these entities, I have conducted textual and visual analysis of ads, websites, brochures, documentaries, and other promotional material produced by and on several gated communities. My focus in this essay is on materials produced and circulated in 2010. The following discussion looks closely at the images, words, and promises that structure their presentations to potential consumers. As argued by anthropologists of the media, such materials not only reflect social values and norms but they also create new realities, expectations, subjects, and bodies. They do not only aim to sell a particular product but they also introduce new ideas, feelings, and experiences. As Cherif El-Mansy, marketing director for Sodic, the company who planned several gated communities, emphasized in an interview with Egypt Today: “In our ad campaigns, we are not selling so much a house as a concept, a certain way of life, a life where your son goes to school on his bike, for example, because all of the streets have a special bike lane. That’s our target market: people who desire this alternative life in a clean community away from Cairo” (emphasis added.)

It is the constitution of such a desiring subject, I believe, that should be central to our analysis of gated communities. Ads are not simply responding to demands, but they also cultivate desire, constitute new subjects, and create demands for new procedures, products, and technologies. Rather than merely excluding, separating, and protecting, this essay argues that it is also (and perhaps more importantly) the possibility of producing and creating that is central to the promotion of these communities. More specifically, the promise of creating healthy bodies, educated minds, and freely-mobile subjects features prominently in most promotional materials of walled communities and should be central to our understanding of their constitution and legitimization.

Gated Communities in/around Cairo

While promotional materials sometimes use Arabic names in projects that are geared to the middle class (Kuppinger 2004), upscale gated communities usually have English names and craft strong associations to specific American and/or European recognized sites. Some of the most famous gated developments are Beverly Hills City, Dreamland, Gardenia Park, Katameya Heights, and Hyde Park. These names signify specific historical and spatial connections. They are symbols and signs of distinction that are used to market not only the physical spaces and housing units, but also a style of living that is “Western.” Videos, both visually and orally, emphasized associations with American and European ways of doing and being. This is, in a way, the key promise of these developments: the ability to lead a European/American lifestyle on Egyptian land. Historically, upper class areas like Zamalek and Garden City are no longer able to offer the space and quality of life desired by Cairo’s old and new rich. The new gated communities around the Egyptian capital promise to build from scratch an integrated and exclusive way of living that could be found only in a clearly defined and bounded space that is capable of including desirable people and excluding undesirable others who could contaminate or threaten this new style. 

 [Dreamland Egypt. Image by Author.]

 
[Al-Rehab City Food Court, Cairo. Image by Lollylolly78 via Wikimedia Commons.]

So the first thing that gated communities promise is a sense of exclusivity. Here is an example of how one project was promoted:

Intelligently designed to ensure you enjoy your exclusive lifestyle, Hyde Park offers: A garden setting with lush greenery, the main park is exclusively for the residents of Hyde Park and has garden pavilions, gazebos, comfortable benches, an amphitheatre and multi-purpose open grass field. A pedestrian friendly neighborhood with up to 7 kilometers of walking and jogging trails that wind throughout the park…. Spread across 4 million square meters, Hyde Park is the most exclusive villa development with Detached and Attached Villas nestled with a 1 million square meter landscaped park, the biggest private park in Egypt. Designed to suit multi-cultural tastes, the villa designs range from the Neo-Classical, Italian-Country to California-Spanish styles. Set atop beautiful vistas and surrounded by Egypt’s natural beauty, your home will be amidst striking landscapes and beautiful water features. A gated community with several entrances, 24-hour security and controlled entry, living here is designed to give you total peace of mind and privacy.[1]

There are several issues that could be addressed in relation to this quote and how promotional materials market gated communities in Egypt, but here I would like to focus on three issues that the exclusivity secured by walls promises to deliver: the ideal body, the educated mind, and the speedy circulation of bodies and vehicles. These three areas are interlinked with the cultivation of a specific taste and cultural capital (in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense) that mark class distinctions as well as the production of “flexible subjects” who are both locally and globally connected.[2]

The Body As A Project

Advertising present gated communities as central to healthy living and the production of desirable bodily forms. In addition to offering adequate health services, fresh air, cooler weather, and green areas are also underscored. Dreamland, for example, highlights its location 180m above sea level, which provides “a pleasant, pollution-free atmosphere that is 3 degrees cooler than Cairo all year round.”

The promotional materials also emphasized the availability of gyms, spas, sporting facilities, swimming pools, playgrounds, and tennis, basketball, and squash fields all of which are for the exclusive use of members. There were also long walking and jogging tracks. Images were shown of strong men playing golf or tennis, beautiful women using exercise machines at gyms, and kids happily biking or swimming. They all looked healthy, strong, and fit. Women were usually slim, often with blond hair and blue eyes. They were shown in bikinis or fashionable outfits that extenuate their slim figures and bodily contours. Both the facilities and visual images promised to further the body as a project and present different sports and techniques that would produce desirable bodily forms. In this context, body size and shape has increasingly become a signifier of class distinctions. The emphasis, for example, in promotional material on specific sports such as golf, squash, and tennis promised not only to enhance the social capital of the residents of these areas, but also to produce a specific desirable body, strongly linked to discipline, refined taste, and distinction.

As argued by Pierre Bourdieu (1984), the body is one of the most powerful materializations of class dispositions and is central to the manifestation and reproduction of socioeconomic inequalities. The foods we eat, sports we enjoy, and clothes we prefer all reflect our class and gendered positionalities. In this context, eating, shopping, and exercising become especially important areas to manage and regulate. Ads for gated communities highlighted the presence of multiple shopping centers, fancy restaurants, and friendly exercise facilities. In this context, it was not accidental that thin women, who are becoming global icons of beauty, femininity, and attractiveness, were highly visible in the promotion material. They were displayed swimming, exercising in gyms, receiving massages, relaxing in spas, and attending beauty salons. Class and gender thus intersects in powerful way in the promises made to produce thin and beautiful bodies for women, and strong and muscular bodies for men.

Education, Children, and Cultural Capital

Children also featured prominently in promotional materials, depicted as happily and freely playing, swimming, and biking. But they were especially visible when describing the distinguished schools and the excellent education the new communities promised to offer. There were pictures of young boys and girls working on computers, conducting experiments in labs, listening with care and delight to their lessons, and being pampered by their caring and loving teachers.

It is important to remember here that schooling and education are central to the life of all Egyptians, rich and poor. The typical family allocates a large share of its income and time to educate its children and ensure that they accumulate the cultural capital necessary for economic success and social mobility. While most low- and middle-income families depend on public schools, which are paralleled by a costly informal tutoring system, the rich are able to send their children to Cairo’s expensive private schools. Almost all gated communities highlighted the presence of excellent schools on their premises (or very close by). International schools (including American, British, Canadian, French, and German), which have great symbolic value in Egypt, figured prominently. Such schools permit the accumulation of the types of knowledge (especially the mastering a foreign language), which is expected to allow today’s children to succeed in tomorrow’s global economy.

Not only the schools on their vicinities, but also the proximity of other educational facilities and universities (such as the American University in Cairo) became part of the promotion of gated communities.[3] This emphasis offered a link to the future that parents strive to guarantee, not only a college education for their children, but also their quick movement between home and school.

Mobility and Circulation

Circulation and mobility are increasingly becoming central to class divisions and connections to local and global economies (Ohnmacht et al 2009). These abilities are particularly important in megacities like Cairo, which is notorious for its traffic jams, crowded streets, absence of sidewalks, and the mixing of cars and pedestrians. The fancy cars of the rich have to compete with millions of other vehicles. Having to negotiate with other drivers, policemen, and pedestrians from different backgrounds, the rich, regardless of the price of their cars or the strength of their engines, have little control over the speed of their mobility in the city proper, especially during rush hours. Yet, the slower traffic becomes[4], the more moving easily and quickly becomes central to the differentiation between classes and speedy movement, inside and outside the city garners prestige and distinction. In an age when predictability, efficiency, flexibility, and control are key to the global economy, securing unhindered movement between different spaces and places becomes key to one’s success and distinction. Thus, quick and smooth traffic becomes highly desirable and vital for keeping the rich connected locally, nationally, and internationally.

Ads for gated communities repeatedly emphasized mobilities, both real and virtual (through quick and reliable communication technologies such as fiber optic cables), which provided the residents with telephone services, broadband Internet, and satellite television. Wide streets, enforcement of regulations, and the availability of sidewalks for pedestrians and accessible parking insured mobility inside the developments. The marketing emphasized the location of these settlements near major roads (such as the recently-constructed ring road), which would enable residents to reach downtown Cairo in a short time and to travel to other parts of Egypt (especially the popular coastal areas) and the world (by being close to Cairo’s international airport).

Thus, gated communities promised exclusivity and enclosure as well as circulation and mobility. While promotional materials emphasized privacy and seclusion in relation to daily life they also highlighted the ability of children and parents to move easily and quickly both inside the community and to travel to other parts of the country and the world at large. They promised to keep them connected to global flows of capital, people, goods, and information. This ability to select when to be connected and when to be detached is central to the production of flexible citizens who are both locally grounded and globally connected.

Conclusion

It is important to note that I have been using the word “promise” in this essay to highlight my interest in the desires that are constituted and circulated in the promotional materials on and by gated communities. My focus has been on the possibilities and potentialities attached to these new settlements not their materialization in real life. How men, women, and children experience living in such communities is indeed an important topic that deserves full scholarly attention. My goal here has been limited to accounting for key discourses and images that aimed to constitute a desiring subject, who would find in gated communities the possibility to actualize him/herself and their children in a classed and gendered way. As my discussion shows, the promotional materials of gated communities played on the desires of men and women to have ideal bodies, healthy and educated kids, and the ability to be mobile and connected. In a neoliberal context, these possibilities become “choices” that responsible parents make for themselves and their children. My discussion shows that it is the promise of gated communities to create rather than just negate, to connect rather than just separate, and to permit rather than just prevent that are important for us to analyze to capture how urban walls are erected, accepted, and legitimized. To better understand how new spatial forms are an integral part of neoliberal policies and rationalities, we ought to closely examine how desire and affect are cultivated and strongly linked to the production of specific bodies, disciplined minds, and mobile subjects.[5]


[1] Note that even a controversial concept like “gated community” is used as a sign of distinction when describing the project and its appeal. For a recent discussion of the relationship between “gate” and “community” circulated in promotional material, see Almatarneh and Mansour (2013). See also http://www.internationalpropertydirectory.com/

[2] See Ong (1999) and Kanna (2010) for a discussion of neoliberalism and flexible citizenship. See Mark Peterson (2008) for more discussion of the global connections the Egyptian elite seeks to establish.

[3] You might want to take a look at the partnership between the company SODIC and the British International School in Cairo. The website www.sodic.com features several functions that involve activities, which connect the company and the school, including Christmas celebrations and the establishment of “a nature garden.”

[4] Studies show that the speed of travel in Cairo has dropped to twelve kilometers per hour.

[5] An earlier draft of this essay was presented at the 109th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, New Orleans, November 17-21, 2010. Many thanks to Jane Abell, Hiba Bou Akar, Mona Harb, and Sierra Eckert for their valuable help.

 

References

Khaled Adham, “Globalization, Neoliberalism, and New Spaces of Capital in Cairo,” TDSR 17, no. 1 (2005), 19-32.

Rana Tawfiq Almataneh and Mohamed Mansour Yasser, “The Role of Advertisements in the Marketing of Gated Communities as a New Western Suburban Lifestyle: A Case Study of the Greater Cairo Region, Egypt,” Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 28, no. 3 (2013), 505-528.

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).

Eric Denis, “Cairo as Neo-Liberal Capital: From Walled Cities to Gated Communities,” in Diane Singerman and Paul Amar (eds.) Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010), 47-72.

Serife Genis, “Producing Elite Localities: The Rise of Gated Communities in Istanbul.” Urban Studies 44, no. 4 (2007), 771-798.

Ahmed Kanna, “Flexible Citizenship in Dubai: Neoliberal Subjectivity in the Emerging `City-Corporation,” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 1 (2005) 100-129.

Petra Kuppinger, “Exclusive Greenery: New Gated Communities in Cairo,” City & Society 16, no 2 (2004) 35-61.

Timothy Mitchell, “Dreamland: The Neoliberalism of your Desires,” MERIP 210 (1999), 28-33.

Timo Ohnmacht, Hanja Maksim and Manfred Max Bergman (eds.) Mobilities and Inequality. (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).

Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Duke University Press, 1999).

Mark Allen Peterson, Connected in Cairo (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010).

Diane Singerman and Paul Amar (eds.) Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010).

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