Sarah El-Kazaz, Politics in the Crevices: Urban Design and the Making of Property Markets in Cairo and Istanbul (Duke University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sarah El-Kazaz (SK): This book grew out of my PhD dissertation research and was motivated by two strands of inquiry. First, I was gripped by an interest in the makings of inequality during my formative college years on the American University in Cairo's downtown Cairo campus that was impossible to shake off. Graduate studies then exposed me to a rich scholarship on inequality, redistribution, and class politics in the neoliberal moment that both fascinated me, especially in the ways it grappled with the modalities of the market, and frustrated me, with its insistence that these modalities worked in tandem to enable a unidirectional wealth-extracting class project. I wondered if we would see more dynamism to these class politics if we were to explore them from less familiar sites to the study of redistribution.
The second was a fascination with searching for the political where you least expect it. Early on during my graduate training I became drawn to the lens that geographers, especially via urban and infrastructure studies, were bringing to how we understand the political. One of the first texts that took me down that path was Eyal Weizman’s work on the politics of verticality, and from there the political was lurking in sewage networks, trans-oceanic container shipping, malarial larvae, telecom satellites, garbage dumps, internet cables, and so on. I became convinced that a four dimensional lens (3D + time) would bring something new to how we think about class politics and inequality, and I went to the spaces of the city’s built environment to start digging.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SK: The book travels to six neighborhoods in central Istanbul and Cairo in the throes of large-scale urban transformation projects in the 2000s to explore how redistributive politics were shifting in a neoliberal moment. Rather than witnessing the uncontested triumph of a dispossessive corporate-capitalist class transforming the city into a playground of wealth accumulation, I found a variety of international and local actors fighting both to secure affordable housing and corner real estate markets for a luxury clientele. This battle for housing was not raging in traditional political arenas, however. Rather than agitate for familiar redistributive policies like housing subsidies, exclusive land grants, or rent controls, urban protagonists were relying on the subtle, quiet machinations of urban planning and design to redistribute and restrict access to the city’s housing. Careful urban design was expected to transform how property was valued in a neighborhood to intervene in how property was moving on “freely” traded real estate markets. This book thus asks what happens when the battle over protections for vulnerable populations shifts from pushing back and contesting the boundaries of the market to finding ways of operating within it? How do we come to understand and locate the workings of the political when battles over the distribution of a city’s resources operate from within the logics of the market?
In tackling these questions, the book engages several literatures. Within critical political economy, the book complicates the directionality of political projects enabled through neoliberal market logics. Building on an incisive scholarship on the work that goes into making neoliberal markets (for example, Elyachar, 2005; Çalışkan and Callon, 2010; Searle, 2016), I was most interested in interrogating how market logics operate and their dynamism. Seeing how urban planning and design becomes deployed to intervene in the workings of property markets, I argue that it is through a struggle over how value is defined, claimed, and lived that a variety of paradoxical political projects seep into the workings of markets.
Tracing these political projects then brings us to the question at the heart of the book: where do we locate the political in a neoliberal moment? There the book engages scholarship in political theory that has often almost defined neoliberalism as a project of de-politicization. I argue instead that neoliberalism has displaced the locus of the political onto the design of intimate, invisible, and private spaces where value is contested by varied political projects. A polity’s most intense political struggles pulsate to the surface through the quiet, unsuspecting, and fragmented crevices of the city.
The book also speaks to a number of debates in urban studies. I was particularly inspired by geographers’ attention to the politics of scale, the agency in urban human-non-human assemblages, and the affective politics they produce. Amongst other interventions, the book entangles forces/actors that sit on opposite sides of the top-down/bottom-up binary to de-romanticize the figure of the urban dweller, and grapple with the agency of what I term “self-reflexive experts,” trained in critical urban studies, whilst attentive to the systemic pressures within which they operate.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SK: Since this is my first book, it builds its theory from fieldwork that I undertook during my PhD and since. In its writing and theory-building, I sought to enact interventions I have made in published pieces on the politics of scale, de-exceptionalizing Middle Eastern cities, and adopting a four-dimensional lens to the political in tackling the questions from critical political economy that I care deeply about. An early version of theory-building for this book appeared in Comparative Studies in Society and History.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SK: The book is primarily written to a readership in critical political economy and political theory invested in the machinations of neoliberalism and the political projects and realities it breeds. It also speaks to a literature in political geography and urban studies that interrogates the nature of urban neoliberal transformations and especially how property terrains are shifting in contemporary cities. The choice of Istanbul and Cairo as the sites for that interrogation is purposefully meant to de-exceptionalize how we study the two cities, and in fact the entirety of the Middle East as a region, as marginal at best and most often entirely exceptional to how we understand these phenomena. The book is thus re-centering the sites of inquiry from which to see the layered nature of the neoliberal project and how it operates as a globally connected phenomenon.
Having said that, the book is also written for a readership directly interested in studying Cairo and Istanbul in particular, and by extension Egyptian and Turkish politics as well as urbanism in the Middle East more generally. Part I of the book is written as two chapters that take a longue-durée view for tracing the making of property markets in Cairo (chapter 1) and Istanbul (chapter 2). The two chapters re-read a large secondary literature on each city through the lens of my ethnography to trace the contested making of “value” around property, in order to set the scene for the contemporary redistributive politics we see unfold in Part II. I think deep down I also wrote these two chapters as odes to the cities with the hope that those most intimately connected to Istanbul and Cairo would come to see their cities a bit differently after reading them. I also hope that my readership will ultimately give the spatial-material-affective transformations of a city and its crevices far more space in our theorization of class and its politics.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SK: I am currently working on two projects. The first and larger one explores the political economy of digital infrastructures in the Global South, particularly the Middle East and Africa. The project builds on my interests in critical political economy, science, technology, and society studies (STS), and geography to explore the politics of Cloud infrastructures as they manifest physically and materially in those geographies but also in how those technologies are being deployed to engineer a re-imagining of the economy and its limits (or limitlessness).
The second project is an even more direct outgrowth of the first book. I am following the Turkish construction and real estate industry that I studied as transforming Istanbul in the first book as they embark on a major project of exporting infrastructure to Africa. In a way, both projects take me to a new geographic interest in studying the connectedness of Africa and the Middle East.
J: What were the challenges and opportunities of conducting a multi-sited ethnography?
SK: One of the first things I was asked whenever I started a conversation with new interlocutors in either Cairo or Istanbul was: “Where are you from?” In Cairo, my home city, I understood the question, as did my interlocutors, to be referring to the neighborhood in the city where my family and I lived and were long established. In Istanbul, however, when my local research associate was asked or asked the same question, interlocutors meant the town or village the family historically hails from in larger Turkey. Reflecting on this difference, I was struck by how Cairene neighborhoods carried strong class connotations, while information about towns/villages prioritized a geography of ethnic/linguistic/kin networks over strictly class-based identities that colored many of the meaning-making processes I encountered in the two cities. For example, these distinctions came to the fore in the rumor campaigns that neighborhood dwellers waged in suspicion of outsider forces transforming their neighborhoods (discussed in chapters 3 and 4) to dramatically shape howrumors came to life in each city. Without a multi-sited ethnography illuminating these contrasting dynamics across the two cities and neighborhoods, it would have been difficult to see some of the meaning-making processes that came to light. Of course, conducting a multi-sited ethnography was quite ambitious, not just during fieldwork but even more so as I sought to make sense of the mountains of information I was accumulating across the six neighborhoods. However, it was through reading the sites together that I got to see the variety of political projects that burden and seep through a city’s crevices in neoliberalizing polities.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-4 and 8)
Haga Samia and her ailing mother have lived in an apartment in Historic Cairo that borders a seventy-four-acre garbage dump for decades. The apartment occupies the top floor of a three-story Mamluk-style building in Darb El-Ahmar neighborhood, and for years Haga Samia’s family could see the heaps of rubbish from the living room windows, its putrid smells wafting over every time wind gusted in from the east. The building had also been unmaintained for decades, and when an earthquake shook Cairo to its core in 1992, its structure started to fracture. After living with the fear of impending collapse for half a decade, the family’s fortunes took a decided turn in the late 1990s. A developmental organization based in the Hague, the Aga Khan Foundation, had taken an interest in this corner of Cairo, embarking on two urban projects in Darb El-Ahmar that would wholly transform how Haga Samia experienced her home. Initially in 1995, the foundation embarked on a project that would excavate the garbage dump and transform it into one of central Cairo’s largest green spaces, Azhar Park. Then in 1997, the foundation initiated a home restoration program that would eventually restore 120 buildings in Darb El-Ahmar. Haga Samia’s home was selected for the pilot phase of the program and offered a grant that would cover 90 percent of the costs of restoring the building from the inside out. When I visited Haga Samia in her restored home in 2011, she took me up to the building’s rooftop (see chapter 4) to show me with joy and pride the view of the park that had replaced the garbage dump. We then turned to see, from the west side of the building, a breathtaking view of Historic Cairo’s many minarets.
During that visit, Haga Samia and I spent hours discussing every detail of the restorations. When the discussion turned to plumbing, the joy on Haga Samia’s face dissipated. Working hard not to seem ungrateful, she explained that the plumbing system that the Aga Khan team had installed was more difficult to use than the original. Whereas each apartment had its own water supply before the restorations, the foundation’s engineers installed a shared water pump in the building. Haga Samia now had to negotiate with her neighbors about when she would be able to pump water up to her apartment, because only one apartment could use it at a time. The pumping system struck me as strange too, and I filed it away, along with other oddities, as intriguing designs that I would ask the engineers about. At that point, though, I assumed that there would be a straightforward technical logic to explain them.
When I did ask the foundation’s engineers about the odd designs, their explanations were anything but technical. They were decidedly political. Samy, an urban planner on the foundation’s team, explained the shared water pumps as follows:
Our purpose was that you learn to coordinate with your neighbors. So, for example when we installed water pumps we would find that, in a building with six residents, each of the residents wants to install their own water pump. We would refuse such requests because if they can’t resolve issues around using a water pump, then there is no sense in them restoring the house altogether. In other words, they have to talk to each other.
Pumping water up building pipes wasn’t the only work expected of the water pump the foundation had installed in Haga Samia’s building. Working quietly from within the invisible crevices of building walls, water pumps were expected to engineer collaborative “community,” as neighbors were forced to discuss sharing the water being pumped up to their floors. The Aga Khan team was designing the intricate features of restored homes to perform the work of societal engineering. Samy then placed that sociopolitical work within a larger vision, saying, “The idea behind the project wasn’t that we fix Darb El-Ahmar. Darb El-Ahmar has more than 5,500 residential buildings and we fixed little over 100 of those. It’s a drop in the ocean . . . housing [rehabilitation] was a tool towards something bigger. It was a step towards ensuring the existing community didn’t leave.” The foundation was working to reverse the displacement of Cairo’s most vulnerable populations from the city’s core districts as the deregulation of property markets worked with several other forces (see chapter 1) to push them out of Cairo’s core. Engineering collaborative community through the careful design of housing restorations would strengthen the bonds residents had with their neighborhood and how valuable they saw their property, producing a counterweight to the highly capitalized forces pushing them out of the center. The foundation was intervening in the workings of Historic Cairo’s real estate markets.
As my research progressed, I realized that Samy and his team at the Aga Khan Foundation weren’t the only ones turning to unorthodox methods to fight for affordable housing in the city. Through a multisited ethnography in Istanbul and Cairo of six neighborhoods undergoing large-scale urban transformation projects, I found a battle for housing raging in both cities. A variety of state and nonstate actors were fighting to secure affordable housing on the one hand and to corner real estate markets for a luxury clientele on the other. This battle was not raging in traditional political arenas, however. Rather than agitate for familiar redistributive policies like housing subsidies, exclusive land grants, or rent controls, urban protagonists were relying on the subtle, quiet machinations of urban planning and design to redistribute and restrict access to the city’s housing. In Istanbul, a group of urban activists turned to the heritage industry to secure affordable housing along the Golden Horn by reframing private residences into globally valued heritage (chapter 3). Meanwhile, the Turkish state appropriated a grassroots environmental movement seeking protections for the city against natural disasters, especially earthquakes, in an attempt to devalue affordable housing in the city’s center—claiming it was prone to collapse and a hazard to the city—and ultimately transfer that property to developers (chapter 2). Back in Cairo, a corporate developer worked to corner downtown’s real estate market not through corruption but by mobilizing building aesthetics, a topography of hidden alleyways, and the “Egyptianization” of commercial culture to render property “exclusive,” secure, and valuable to luxury clientele (chapter 4). Time and again, urban protagonists were deploying the careful design of the urban built-environment to do the work of restricting and redistributing access to housing. In particular, careful urban design was expected to transform how property was valued in a neighborhood so as to favor particular groups over others on “freely” traded real estate markets, fostering what I conceptualize as “particularistic value.” In a neoliberalizing Cairo and Istanbul, the battle for housing had shifted away from familiar extra-market political machinations to processes that operate from within “the market” as a practice and logic. This book asks: What happens when the battle over protections for vulnerable populations shifts from pushing back and contesting the boundaries of the market to finding ways of operating within it? How do we come to understand and locate the workings of the political when battles over the distribution of a city’s resources operate from within the logics of the market?
When our protagonists deployed “community,” heritage, and disaster prevention to perform redistributive work, the technical and logistical decisions experts were making about the design of the city’s built environment became layered with the responsibility to carry out redistribution. Time and again in the coming chapters, experts will expect the city’s built environment to perform work similar to the sociopolitical work Samy expected of water pumps as they churned away in building shafts. Sociopolitical expectations riddled the design of clotheslines, electrical wiring, rooftops, store signage, balconies, bathrooms, façade paint colors, and many of the most private and intimate crevices of people’s homes. The dismantling of traditional, redistributive political forums has come to burden the city’s most intimate and private crevices with the weight of redistributive politics.
Redistributive work and the class-based politics that fuel it did not disappear with neoliberalism. While a corporate-capitalist class project may have fueled a systemic neoliberal shift (and I trace how those corporate-capitalist efforts transformed property markets in Cairo and Istanbul in chapters 1 and 2), its agenda had not successfully captured the workings of neoliberal machinery and the market rationales they valorize. Market logics are, in practice, malleable enough to be reappropriated by a variety of political agendas rather than just “accumulation by dispossession.” The fact that markets don’t organically or automatically commodify “goods” and assign them agreed-upon values opens up the space for a variety of actors to compete over defining that value in ways that engineer particularistic value to skew markets for the benefit of some groups over others. Class-based redistributive politics are still manifesting within a neoliberal order, but they have been displaced from traditional political forums onto the city’s most private and intimate crevices. Some of the city’s most pressing class politics are materializing as battles over the design of clotheslines, water pumps, and balconies rather than being fought through political party campaigns or contentious town halls.