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Liminal Publics, Marginal Resistance: Learning from Nubian spaces

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Abstract

In 1964, indigenous Nubians were displaced from their original land-the land between what is now Egypt and that of Sudan-to modernised settlements built by the Egyptian state. The Nubians dissatisfaction with the novel built environment translated into transgressive public spaces. One of the most common transgressions was the addition of an external bench called Mastaba. Since power relations between men and women have changed, the built environment now acts as a catalyst in the exclusion of women from formal public spaces such as conventional coffee shops and squares. Mastabas function as liminal spaces, spaces which blur the boundaries between public and private spheres. As these spaces do not suit the formal understanding of public spaces, we investigate these liminal spaces in order to reveal the spatial tactics of the marginal. We argue that the existence of these spaces raises issues of spatial justice and spatial resistance. The behaviour of liminal public spaces varies; they have the ability to transform adjacent spaces. This research investigates the role of the Mastaba in opening up the public space for women, thereby giving them the ability to contribute to the writing of their social contract. We base our analysis on extensive fieldwork, consisting of auto-ethnographic observations and participation, informed by a feminist epistemology. We use tools of spatial analysis to explore an alternative public space offered by liminality. To question the binary notions of private and public space, we ask ourselves: where does that space start? As spatial professionals, we also wonder: can we contest the hegemonic definition of public space and contribute to spatial resistance? Drawing lessons from the case of the Mastaba, we propose contingencies for designing the liminal that serve the marginal. Disclaimer: Due to the methods used in this research, the research team wishes to clarify the use of personal pronouns in this text, especially those referring to one of or both the researchers. The use of I, my, mine, myself and me refers to the first author, Menna Agha, and often appears within auto-ethnographic notes and narrations. Plural personal pronouns such as we, us, our, etc. are used to refer to both Menna Agha and Dr. Els De Vos, in order to elaborate on arguments, proposals and convictions that were produced by both authors.
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Liminal Publics, Marginal Resistance: Learning from
Nubian spaces
Menna Agha and Els De Vos : University of Antwerp, Belgium
ABSTRACT
In 1964, indigenous Nubians were displaced from their original land – the land between what is now Egypt and
that of Sudan – to modernised settlements built by the Egyptian state. The Nubians dissatisfaction with the novel
built environment translated into transgressive public spaces. One of the most common transgressions was the
addition of an external bench called Mastaba. Since power relations between men and women have changed, the
built environment now acts as a catalyst in the exclusion of women from formal public spaces such as conventional
coffee shops and squares. Mastabas function as liminal spaces, spaces which blur the boundaries between public
and private spheres. As these spaces do not suit the formal understanding of public spaces, we investigate these
liminal spaces in order to reveal the spatial tactics of the marginal. We argue that the existence of these spaces
raises issues of spatial justice and spatial resistance.
The behaviour of liminal public spaces varies; they have the ability to transform adjacent spaces. This research
investigates the role of the Mastaba in opening up the public space for women, thereby giving them the ability to
contribute to the writing of their social contract. We base our analysis on extensive eldwork, consisting of auto-
ethnographic observations and participation, informed by a feminist epistemology. We use tools of spatial analysis
to explore an alternative public space offered by liminality. To question the binary notions of private and public
space, we ask ourselves: where does that space start? As spatial professionals, we also wonder: can we contest the
hegemonic denition of public space and contribute to spatial resistance? Drawing lessons from the case of the
Mastaba, we propose contingencies for designing the liminal that serve the marginal.
Disclaimer: Due to the methods used in this research, the research team wishes to clarify the use of personal
pronouns in this text, especially those referring to one of or both the researchers. The use of I, my, mine,
myself and me refers to the rst author, Menna Agha, and often appears within auto-ethnographic notes and
narrations. Plural personal pronouns such as we, us, our, etc. are used to refer to both Menna Agha and Dr. Els
De Vos, in order to elaborate on arguments, proposals and convictions that were produced by both authors.
INTRODUCTION
This paper is a narrative of places and peoplehood. We look at the Mastaba — that cuboidal bench
— from a critical perspective to learn tactics of marginal placemaking within the shadow of the
spatial system. While the narration is focused around my home settlement in New Qustul, Lower
Nubia, the Mastaba has been regarded as simple street furniture by the Egyptian government and
scholars alike. Here, we explore the subtle acts of rebellion performed by a Mastaba.
Although the recommendations in the literature on Nubian displacement offer solutions regarding
policy and development strategies, they fail to engage with the personal spaces of marginalised
Nubians. The lack of research at micro level is par tly because the state forbids long-term and
human-oriented research. Geographer David Harvey argues that it is intrinsic for research to
bridge the knowledge gap between the micro-scale of the body and the personal, and the macro-
scale of the global so as to understand issues of justice.1 In this research, we will show that it is
fundamental to link the political, personal and spatial dimensions on the macro and micro scales
to study the dynamics of power structures from the position of the marginal, in order to explore
the ways in which an understanding of political and global factors helps in comprehending the
hegemony of the space. Further, this approach addresses a need to engage with micro resistance.
The purpose here is to investigate the liminality of the Mastaba as a spatial tactic used by Nubians,
in order to learn its roles in the act of resistance against spatial injustice.
HISTORICAL ANCHORS
When I was 9, on a winter break from school, I sat at the Mastaba of our house like
every day. My grandmother was telling me, and children from our street, stories about
our homeland: a land that is drowned and whose people were forced to come here.
She emphasised that the place where we sat, did not come close to the beauty of
our original villages and that this Mastaba was not even half as spacious as her original
home’s Mastaba.2
This paper draws upon research on spatial injustice caused by involuntary resettlement, a form of
displacement induced by the development of mega-projects. The economic ambitions of certain
states during the last century have had a drastic effect on people. Resettlement colonies have
become the by-product of large infrastructure projects. The building of dams alone is responsible for
the dislocation of ten million people annually, most of which are rural and indigenous populations.3
My people were a part of those millions, as they were affected by the Aswan High Dam in Egypt.4
My grandparents, like all Egyptian Nubians, were moved by the state from their thousand-year-old
land to state-built settlements in Kom Ombo Valley. By 1964, all remaining Egyptian Nubians were
moved from the Nile valley to a housing project called ‘New Nubia’. This project was planned
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and executed by the Egyptian state according to British principles of modern planning. The plan
conveyed values of a productive and functional ruralisation.5 Planning thus depended on the
fundamentals of amenity, order, and efciency, 6 to offer villagers optimised and functional dwelling
units, central services and public venues. 7 After a decade of displacement, evaluations and surveys
showed that the project had failed to offer Nubians the promised prosperity. 8 Most studies
attributed problems that occurred to organisational and policy causes, 9 but gave little attention
to the role of the built environment and its aggressions that were inscribed into the cultural and
economic displacement of Nubians.
METHODS AND TOOLS
This research relies on a single case method, namely the settlement of Qustul, named after the
original village that was submerged in 1964. In order to nd spatial resistance, we have drawn
an informal map of Qustul. This map includes all the spaces that were not approved or designed
by state agents. It also indicates activities that violate spaces or disrupt their allocated functions.
Furthermore, all the Mastabas — the external benches in mud that were added by Nubians to the
houses they received from the state — are explicitly drawn. They emerged everywhere, at every
house all over the settlement, and facilitated other uses of the outdoor space. As such, they were
the most effective transgression in the settlement, as we will argue further.
We employ methodological reexivity throughout the process 10 in which I position myself as a
scholar, a Nubian, a woman and a feminist. More specically, I engage in self-critical and sympathetic
introspection as a researcher. Researchers generally embrace a morality of care, by regarding people
encountered in their research as relational. Philosopher Virginia Held’s ethics of care appreciate
emotions and relational capabilities that enable morally concerned persons in actual interpersonal
research.11 Such interpersonal relations develop sensibilities, which allow the detection of subtle
spatial phenomena, spatial stigmas and gender roles. I used an auto-ethnographic toolkit to collect
data and analyse places that I have experienced rst-hand. Through the use of knowledge stemming
from long-term situations, and observations of different phenomena repeated over the years, the
rendered data have depth of eld. Being an insider has also allowed me to access the shadow
economy and its activities easily.
I incorporate my body into the narrative. I regard my clothing as my second skin and the space
around me as a third skin.12 By marking my body, I use my subjectivity as a source of data, but more
importantly, I prevent my role as a researcher from inscribing power to the ‘institutional scholar’
to dominate the space or dictate the narrative.13 I noticed that during what I labelled ‘narrative
sessions’ that took place when I was sitting on the Mastaba and soliciting stories from people, a
relative asked me to get her something from inside the house whilst she continued her story. As a
result, I missed certain parts of it. Thankfully, I could rely on the mobile phone recorder, which we
had all forgotten about. I also mark my biased position as a Nubian who grew up subscribing to the
meta-narrative of Nubian displacement, in which Nubians see their story as being removed from
a paradise by the river. I acknowledge the rooted feelings in me and the constructed imaginations
that jump to my mind when hearing stories about the old land.
It is worth mentioning that feminist scholarship strongly inspires research efforts and sources in
this paper. It offers an understanding of institutional problems, spatial phenomena and gender roles.
We base our understanding of gender on Judith Butler’s theory of performativity.14 She denes
gender as a performed social construct: a construct dictated through social contracts, which are –
in themselves – a result of political interest. Consequently, we look at performed gender roles in
public spaces as symptoms of power politics, to indicate the presence and the span of the effect
of different power structures in public spheres.
Above
Figure 1: An informal map of Qustul, showcasing the repetition of the Mastaba..
Drawn by Menna Agha.
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NOTIONS OF PUBLIC SPACE
Public spaces in New Nubia are located in the central area of
each settlement. They offer ‘public’ functional spaces such as a
Mosque, commercial spaces and a support centre for agriculture,
in addition to what the state labelled ‘modern spaces’ (such as
a community centre and youth sports facilities). However, they
are all designed and occupied by men, and they facilitate (or
perform) activities that are foreign to Nubian indigenous culture,
in a culturally instructive spatial organisation with a spatial agency
that Sandercock labels as 'spatial police'.15 Ernesto Laclau and
Chantal Mouffe argue in their book Hegemony and Social Strategy
that the creation of modern ‘public spaces’ is not carried out in
the form of true democratisation but through the imposition of
new forms of subordination.16
People in Qustul had an essentialist notion of space and made
essentialist connotations, like many other Muslim African cultures,
such as the Kasena in Northern Ghana 17 or the Berbers in
Kabylia.18,19 Nubians associate women with the domestic sphere
and men with the non-domestic sphere. Nubian women were
managing ‘the human’ around their houses, while men were
working in ‘the natural’ environment. However, historical evidence
indicates that Nubian women had a strong presence in the public
sphere,20 which overlapped with the domestic space. This fact
refutes the exclusion of women from the public sphere (and from
public life in general) as a Nubian tradition. Women ventured into
public spaces and participated in public life from inside and outside
the house. This means that the current understanding of the
‘domestic’ as ‘private' and the ‘female’ is not indigenous to Nubians.
It is instructed by the design of the built environment, by state-
commissioned architects and planners, generating an Aristotelian
separation between the men and the polis, and the women and
the household.
In her book Feminist Morality, Held offers an understanding and
critique of these Aristotelian constructions. Based on her theory
of ethical morality, Held explains the discount/reduction of
female activities around the household. She refers the exclusion
of women from public life to the understanding of women as
The state offered what it called ‘optimised dwellings’, with narrow
courtyards, functional services, and minimum standards for the
surface area for each function, denoting modernist theory of
design. 27,28 The house was hence reduced to a dwelling. Ironically
but characteristically, ‘dwelling’ was the same term used in formal
documents to describe the housing units. The design of dwellings
included supercial and diluted references from the original
house, such as the small courtyards. However, the dwelling design
did not recognize the fact that a Nubian house was not only a
‘dwelling’ but also a place to gather and organize all kinds of
communal activities.
SPATIAL TACTICS OF RESISTANCE
It is in this context that the Mastaba emerged. The Mastaba is a
traditional element of the Nubian home culture. It is a cuboidal
attachment to a house’s main façade. It functions as a simple
bench attached to the house and associated with its household.
Nubians felt a shortage of space for cer tain communal activities.
By building and adding a Mastaba to their new house, they were
able to improve their living conditions. However, it did more than
just improve: it was also an act of disagreement, of resistance even.
As a way of showing their resentment, Nubians refuse to refer
to the Kom Ombo resettlement area as ‘New Nubia’, the title
used by government agencies and ofcial bureaus. Instead, they
use the Arabic term El-Tahjir, meaning ‘the place of displacement’,
29 which is also the term I use when referring to the place I was
born. Furthermore, Nubians showed their resentment towards
the built environment by transforming virtually every possible
aspect of the latter. Architecture professor Yasser Mahgoub
notes that by the 1980s, virtually all Nubian households had
performed some kind of change to their houses.30 Through these
transgressive changes to the settlements, we nd Nubian women
to be the main instigators, after having suffered the biggest
spatial losses in the domestic and public spaces – which often
intersected.
The addition of the Mastaba is a way to extend the inside out
and the outside in, giving Nubian matriarchs a metaphorical
biological beings who cannot transcend their animalistic nature.
They bear children, breastfeed, raise children, all of which are
considered natural and not political or even voluntary, and
therefore are conned to the household.21 The problem,
according to Held, is the injustice perpetuated by the exclusion
of women from the making of the social and the political spheres,
and dismissing the area situated and formulated around the
domestic sphere from being recognized as a part of the public
sphere. The same argument is raised in feminist architectural
theory, where this naturalized connection of women with the
home and domesticity is problematized, as the female element is
mostly repressed. 22,23
Nubian houses used to accommodate social gatherings that
varied from weddings to courts. The government dwellings only
offer areas between 100 and 240 square metres, 24 which is at
least ve times smaller than a traditional Nubian house. This
drastic shrinking of interior spaces moved large gatherings of
people from interspaces to central public spaces. Furthermore,
Nubians had a tradition of only locking their homes when
travelling. 25 That being so, all house doors were left unlocked for
passers-by to enter. When inhabitants received doors that locked
from the inside, they poked a hole in the door with a string to
enable people to enter from the outside. When I was growing up,
I often pulled such a string to get into my house without having
to knock.
We argue that the built environment of government settlements
has played a great part in stripping the Nubian household of
its transformative political powers, therefore stripping Nubian
women from their place in the public sphere. The surface area
and the accessibility of Nubian traditional houses allowed the
house to be the most complex typology in Nubian architectural
heritage. Indeed, most economical, social and cultural activities
had relevance to parts of the house, which rendered it the most
attractive element to study among Nubian architectural scholars.
By looking at the average surface area of Nubian houses before
the resettlement, we nd vast spaces of between 500 2000
square metres. 26 Such large areas were not just used for dwelling,
neither were they conned or inaccessible to the public.
throne. This space is dominated mainly — but not exclusively
— by women, despite being described otherwise in most of the
literature. For example, Urban researcher Wael Salah Fahmi, in
his 2004 book on Nubian resettlement, 31 describes the Mastaba
as a space for men. I could justify his remarks with the fact that his
body dictated his experience as an outsider and a male employee
from the government. Fahmi’s existence around the Mastaba
caused women to retreat to the inside of their houses. This view
is also shared by Mahgoub, who describes his experience: ‘As
we walked between the houses, women who were sitting by
themselves on the Mastabas disappeared inside their houses
when the crowd approached them, while those who were
accompanied by men stayed and looked at us curiously. 32
Above
Figure 2: Women Preparing food for cooking around their Mastaba.
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Most of the literature also sees the Mastaba as a way Nubians
coped and accepted their new settlement. We here strongly
disagree with the accepted scholarly view on Nubian resettlement
because we see the Mastaba as a tool of spatial resistance against
the hegemony of the settlement. We want to challenge the
common narrative in the academic literature on Nubians, which
regards the role of the Mastaba as passive/reactive, to seeing it
as an expression of the active marginal whose powerlessness had
— and still has — the ability to transform a built environment. 33
We want to promote a discussion about the active, resisting, and
dynamic marginal that is able to innovate and develop tools to
reside and sustain itself.
To understand the role of the Mastaba in making a post-
displacement home, we must rst look at the original Mastaba
and its relationship to the old house.34 Historically, the Mastaba35
was a prominent feature of old Nubian houses. They were
used as typographic negotiation in the construction process;
their form changed according to the slope and other geological
factors of the land. This complexity created outdoor places and
facilitated outdoor situations while connecting a household to
the outside, especially with the river. As in Old Qustul, the main
façades of most houses — and consequently their Mastabas
— were oriented towards the river Nile, 36 inspiring a poetic
image of buildings performing an ancient prayer. In addition to its
structural utilities, a Mastaba is the Nubian’s rst encounter with
the outside world, as it is a child’s rst playground. There, they can
play under the supervision of their grandmothers. The Mastaba
was always a social space, where people gathered and formed
commons. Evidence of this is found in ofcial documents and
grey literature, as well as in Nubian folklore. In the late Hamza
Eldin’s iconic ballad ‘A Wish’, 37 he keeps repeating the verse
‘we always sat together side by side’. By this, Hamza refers to a
conguration of human gathering commonised and dictated by
the form of the Mastaba.
Although the Mastaba can be seen as an illegal violation of the
street prole, the government allowed its construction. According
to most Nubians, that had to do with the fact that the process
of resettlement caused numerous problems, ranging from an
Protocols and politics around the Mastaba follow a distinct spatial
constitution that derives its morals from the indigenous cultural
institution, therefore challenging the functions instructed by the
state, as it lies between the dwelling unit and the street, both of
which are designed and owned by the state. Indeed, all dwellings
and public facilities in resettlement were given to Nubians under
a legal status of usufruct. 39 To this day, Nubians do not own their
dwellings, neither do they have a contract to sell their usufruct
privileges. In the Nubian social contract, a Mastaba is a common
domain in which its owners cannot prevent people (or stray
animals) from using it. They are also private venues for daily
house chores, sleeping and eating, while dening themselves as
being in their house. During all the phone calls I witnessed while
on a Mastaba during my observations, when the caller asked the
owner where he or she was, the person answered: ‘at home’.
More tellingly, people occupy/use the Mastaba in their home
gowns and pyjamas, and they also clean their Mastaba as they do
their home. In fact, practices of cleaning are considered as ways
of appropriating one’s home. 40
A Mastaba is neither private nor public in the Aristotelian sense,
but can host activities that are conventional to both. It serves
the inside (personal) space and the outside (common) space,
in a manner that blurs the line between the ‘in’ and the ‘out’
instructed by design. The spatial blur destabilises the dichotomy
in our discussion about public/private or interior/exterior. It acts
as a countervailing force that opens up the private space and
reopens a space to contestation. 41 It is a phenomenon that
evokes the concept of spatial liminality.
An explanation of the liminal position appears in philosopher Luce
Irigaray’s work.42 Architect Peg Rawes (2007) draws particular
links between Irigaray’s work and the spatial realm in her reader
Irigaray for Architects. In her concept of thresholds, Irigaray describes
the liminal as continuously and simultaneously moving inside and
outside, the threshold between the inside and the outside of
the body. 43 She considers liminality a diagonal line between the
inside and the outside. Consequently, it undermines theories that
consider space to be discrete and uniform. In its ‘deconstructive’
role, the diagonal line becomes a gure that disrupts the binary. 44
increased infant mortality rate to an immediate loss of wealth,
which in turn, made the state less inclined to prosecute land-use
violations. Moreover, they probably considered them as distractions
for the inhabitants. Besides, as the Mastaba is an element of the
traditional Nubian culture, it was likely seen as a way of re-evoking
that folkloristic building culture. It was not seen as something
hostile and threatening but rather as something inherent to
those people. Moreover, the fact that academics 38 consider the
Mastaba as an adaptation to the novel environment (or even as
an approval, an acceptance of the new housing) conrms the idea
that the Mastaba is rather seen as merely an innocent element of
traditional street furniture more than as an illegal violation of the
street. In short, they were seen as part of cultural heritage rather
than elements of transgression and resistance.
The Mastaba in new Qustul is not an exact replicate of the
traditional Mastaba. Rather, it is a transgured version of the
historical one. The new Mastaba is not integrated into the building
of the house, nor is it oriented towards a body of water, as the new
site is not located along an important river. It is a superimposed
element to the façade of dwelling units and is less organic in
shape than the old one. While the displaced Mastaba recalls the
iconographic value of the old element (shape and position), it also
summons up the spatial agency of the Nubian cultural institution.
In this research, we argue that the new Mastaba transcends its
old form, not only by re-enabling indigenous Nubian activities, but
also by conveying latent political and structural abilities. The new
Mastaba dees the designated land use plan. It also deconstructs
binary understandings imposed by that plan.
The post-resettlement Mastaba performs a similar social role
in bringing people together, giving children their rst outdoors
playground and connecting the household to the outside. It is
the rst social space in the village that did not serve a direct pre-
planned economic or religious purpose. People who were born
in the mid-60s and the early 70s say that they grew up to nd
it there. This indicates that Mastabas were built in the rst few
years of the resettlement, making it a priority compared to other
construction efforts. Yet, it was seen by state informants as an act
of beautication and embellishment.
To understand the Mastaba in the context of spatial resistance,
the literature on architecture suggests transgression, however
minor, in everyday life activities. Architectural theorist Michael
Hays 45 speaks of architecture that is ‘resistant to the conciliatory
operations of a dominant culture and yet irreducible to a purely
formal structure disengaged from the contingencies of place and
time’.
To further our understanding of the liminal disruptive capacities
of the Mastaba, an examination of spatial patterns (on and around
it) is necessary. The following stories illustrate common situations
of usage. I look at them through a personal lens while citing
personal memories and experience, in order to nd the realm
of conscious and unconscious speculation. Further, I question the
‘zone’ where concrete things and ideas intermingle, are pulled
apart and reassembled; where memories, values, and intentions
collide. In this situation, we examine the spatial strategies of
domestication, internalisation, and publicness. 46
Mastaba in street No. 347 : The domestication
There she was, as expected, sitting on her Mastaba,
picking out small stones from dry rice that she planned
to cook for lunch. My great-aunt, who after the death
of her older sister, became the matriarch of our family.
She scolded me for being late and missing breakfast
when everyone has expected me to come. By
‘everyone’ she meant the elderly women who resided
on Street number 3, they routinely sat outside during
meals, but then they had gone back inside their houses
to cook. At 5:00 pm, the women came to sit together at
the entrance of the street adjacent to the Mastaba of
my grand aunt, to dine together as usual and tell me
stories about the old land. 48
The Mastaba here becomes a spatial reference to their house (their
space), through which these women could gradually expand the
surface area of their domestic sphere. With their simple everyday
domestic activities, they mark the street as their territory, turning
it into an open-aired addition to their houses. By occupying the
street, these women also redene the utility of the street. They are
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disrupting its designated functions by forcing trafc to reroute. They are utilising Nubian morals that
grant them status and respect, due to which a driver (usually a man) would be ashamed if he forced
them to move or disturb their comfort in another way. Women on Street 3 take the street every day
and gaze at the movement of life around their houses. Their gaze is a powerful tool through which
they observe behaviours, judge morality, and conserve ethos. Their presence allows them to activate
the transformative moral abilities. For them, this outside presence is indispensable: it means they can
see and are seen.
Mastaba in street No.17: Challenging the wall (Interior exterior)
This is the rst eld survey as a mother. Bahr, my baby girl, is visiting her village for the rst
time, and our family has been here to meet her since the morning. After the attention
was gone from Bahr, and members of the family started to cluster for different activities,
some remained sitting on the Mastaba, conversing and watching the children, while others
were in the Mandara, the room adjacent to the Mastaba, watching TV or joining the
conversation with those on the Mastaba. One of the children was standing on our Mastaba
while leaning on a window sill to watch TV from outside. At that moment he was not on
the outside, but he was in one big, open, and connected space. 49
Here is a showcase of the internalisation ability of a Mastaba. It is evident that a Mastaba can extend
qualities of commonality to adjacent rooms inside the house. A feature that appears intentionally
is that of rooms adjacent to the Mastaba. Indeed, they always contain furniture that mirrors the
Mastaba from the other side of the wall, whether they be wooden benches or beds or in some
cases masonry benches. 50 Nubians also add an external window above their Mastaba, which is
quite peculiar if you take into account that external windows are very rare and do not appear in
any other exterior wall. We believe that the Mastaba introduced these windows in order to create
a relationship with the inside.
This liminal element has partially deactivated the separative ability of the wall, rendering its bordering
duties obsolete. This conguration also helps to retrieve some qualities of the multi-environmental
spaces that were common in traditional Nubian houses where spaces were semi-closed, including
both the open air and a shaded area, all incubating an activity to offer different enveloping experiences
without separating the occupants. The multi-environmental space was a sophisticated feature of the
Nubian house that was not incorporated in the dwelling design of New Qustul. The Mastaba evokes
a temporary version of this feature, namely when the windows between the spaces are open in a
spontaneous contact between inside and outside, which is encouraged.
Mastaba in street No. 9:
I always thought that my late grandfather slept nights on his Mastaba to avoid the heat
inside. I discovered recently that it was the other way around, he slept inside in the
winter because it was too cold outside. He was not alone, as his mother used to move
Opposite top
Figure 3 : Illustration of women in street no.3 during lunch.
Opposite bottom
Figure 4 : Plan of street no. 3.
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her bed to the street next to their Mastaba and join
him._Then they would talk for a long time before
going to sleep, and sometimes a neighbour would join
them._The view of wooden beds on the side of the
streets was not a strange sight in Qustul. 51
Nubians took pride in the safety of their settlements in comparison
to other Egyptian communities. They considered their ability to sleep
outside with open doors an inherited privilege. The Mastaba thereby
plays the role of a cultural agent that facilitates the performance of
this privilege. In this case, not only the normal spatial structure is
challenged, but also its assigned function. In addition to using the
street as an open-air bedroom, the exposure of sleeping bodies
of men and women is against the acceptable norms of modern
Egyptian culture. The Nubian sleeping culture is, therefore, challenging
the normative notion of the ‘private’ and the ‘private interior’. It also
facilitates the performance of the Nubian gender contract in which
women’s sleeping bodies do not carry a stigma.
We learn from these stories that, in its everyday use, a Mastaba
is a place to perform culture: one that was not included in the
design of the settlement and one that can provide a platform
for counter-hegemonic practices. Moreover, it is its marginality
and liminality that enables its resistance, despite its marginal
position.52,53 The liminal space offered by the Mastaba has carved
a place for indigenous cultural institutions. Its marginal position
has allowed it to nd a place in the cracks of the dominant
institution. As such, we describe the liminality of a Mastaba as the
source of its subtle rebellious powers. However, this marginality
also carries a vulnerability. For example, a Mastaba facing the
mosque would not offer a place for women, especially if men
(non-Nubians) were occupying the outside space. The walls of
the houses facing a mosque do not contain a Mastaba. For these
houses, the Mastaba is added to another façade.
LEARNING LESSONS FROM THE MASTABA
In conclusion, we must credit the resilience of a Mastaba to its
simplicity, its powerless appearance, and its ability to facilitate
both resistance and withdrawal. The folklorist aura that surrounds
it protects the Mastaba from vilication. In fact, the Mastaba has
carved a place for Nubian culture within the power structure.
It was necessary for the Mastaba to be disruptive, transgressive
and constitutive to be able to serve and conserve the culture,
which is against ‘the Modern’ and ‘the Egyptian’. As Edward Said
says: ‘We can read ourselves against other people’s pattern, but
since it is not ours, we emerge as its effects, its errata, its counter-
narratives. Whenever we try to narrate ourselves, we appear as
dislocations in their discourse’. 54 Nubians could only enact their
spatial identity if they were against the settlement. Their counter-
narrative emerges in the shape of a Mastaba, a simple element.
We also believe that the Nubians’ resistance is born from them
understanding their own vulnerability and marginality and their
acknowledgement of the institutional relations shaping their
everyday life.55 Because in these relations they are disenfranchised,
they seek to change and challenge them.56 Their proclamation of
self-marginality is integral to the dynamics of effective resistance.
What Nubians teach us is that employing subtle disruptive tactics
opens a space of contestation. In the liminal, they found a place
of immense opportunities. By means of activating the physical/
social/political capacities of the liminal, people can reshape and
contest rigid spatial structures. This makes the liminal an effective
vocabulary among resistive spatial lexicons. When we reect
on these lessons and then reect on our position as spatial
professionals, we cannot but wonder: how do we design a liminal?
How can we be part of the process of resistance? And how can
we use it against spatial injustice? Here we draw from the Nubian
practice to propose contingencies for an effective practice when
designing the liminal, and to bring to the forefront the potential
for activism in spatial professions and the practice of placemaking.
The rst contingency is the position of the designer. As we learn
from Nubians, they activate their marginality to subvert the
hegemony of authority. Therefore, if spatial professionals wish
to contribute to the process of resistance, it is critical that they
are part of the margin. They should consider new practices that
encourage them to position themselves within the margin, to
practice everyday life from the margin while acknowledging it as
a margin. We argue that design requires an inner understanding
of the margin’s discomfort. One way to do so is by employing
a moral structure of care and relationality. Subsequently, they
should avoid the lure of becoming a saviour to others, who will
rescue the marginal with the power of his or her formal training
Above
Figure 7 : The Mastaba car ving a space for indigenous culture
Opposite top
Figure 5 : Illustration of the relationship between the Mastaba and the Mandara.
Opposite bottom
Figure 6: Illustration of sleeping arrangement next to my house in Qustul.
100 101
IDEA JOURNAL 2017 DARK SPACE _ the interior IDEA JOURNAL 2017 DARK SPACE _ the interior
— training that often stems from the same power institutions
that perpetuate hegemony over the margin.
The immersion in the exercise of making the liminal is the second
contingency. By making and not only designing, we can be successful
in carving the liminal. As spatial professionals, we are empowered to
construct hypothetical realities, relying on our institutional training.
However, space-making from the margin is an immersive process,
as Nubians have taught us. Also, liminality is often associated with
dynamics that evoke the ideas of spatial tactics and techniques
of praxis. This is because the process of creating resistant, critical
and liminal spaces requires us to challenge a static design process,
which is disconnected from the process of making . 57
Finally, spatial professionals must respect the shadow, the blind
spot of dominant institutions, where we nd the economies and
ecologies of the marginal. In the shadow, the cracks and loopholes
of the system are made visible. Only in these cracks is an effective
liminal (such as the Mastaba) possible, challenging the normative
and deconstructing its control. We must appreciate and seek to
operate away from conventional rules, not only the legal rules
but also rules of normative processes of spatial production. It is in
the shadow that we operate a spatial vehicle of subtle resistance,
and carve out a place for a counter-narrative, while unnoticed.
NOTES
1. D. Harvey, Spaces of Hope (University of California Press, 2000), 51–52.
2. From the auto-ethnographic notes of Menna Agha.
3. C. Cook, Involuntary Resettlement in Africa, The World Bank, 1994.
4. Nubians were partially displaced by dams several times before, due to
the Aswan low dam. The high dam, however, had the most effect on Nubians in
Egypt and Sudan.
5. Timothy Mitchell states the role of urban planning as a colonising tool;
he also argues that British installation of planning instruments within Egyptian
bureaucracy has inuenced postcolonial Egypt. Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts:
Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (University of California Press, 2002).
6. O. Yiftachel, ‘Planning and Social Control: Exploring the Dark Side,’
Journal of Planning Literature 12, no.4 (1998): 395–406.
7. Y. Mahgoub, The Nubian Experience: A Study of the Social and Cultural
Meanings of Architecture, University of Michigan, 1990.
8. H. Fahim, ‘Community-Health aspects of Nubian resettlement in Egypt
Nubian Encounters: The Story of the Nubian Ethnological Survey, 1961-1964, (2010), 81-89.
9. In the notes of anthropologists Elizabeth and Robert Fernea, they
wrote about the hardships Robert had to endure with the Egyptian state, and
their refusal to issue him a research permit, to the extent that they sent police
ofcers to monitor his visits to his Nubian friends, forbidding him from collecting
information about the state of resettlement. The police hold over journalists,
researchers and foreigners in general was not eased until the 2000s. E. Fernea and
R. Fernea, Nubian Ethnographies, 1991.
10. Verta Taylor, ‘Feminist Methodology in Social Movements Research’ in
Qualitative Sociology 21, no. 4 (1998): 357–379.
11. V. Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global, United Kingdom:
Oxford University Press, 2005.
12. L. Weinthal, Towards a New Interior, New York: Princeton Architectural,
2011, 72.
13. Laura L. Ellingson, ‘Embodied knowledge: Writing Researchers’ Bodies
into Qualitative Health Research’ in Qualitative Health Research 16, no. 2 (2006):
298–310.
14. J. Butler, ‘Gender Trouble, Feminist Theor y, and Psychoanalytic
Discourse,’ in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (New York and
London: Routledge,1990), 325-341.
15. L. Sandercock, Towards Cosmopolis: Planning for Multicultural Cities (New
Jersey Wiley, 1997), 53.
16. Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a
Radical Democratic Politics (New York: Verso 2001), 163.
17. A. Cassiman, Stirring Life: Women’s Paths and Places among the Kasena
of Northern Ghana, (Uppsala: Uppsala University Press, 2006).
18. Pierre Bourdieu, ‘La Maison Ou Le Monde Renversé’ in Esquisse D’une
Théorie de La Pratique (Paris, Droz, 1972), 45–59.
19. A. Loeckx, ‘Kabylia, the House, and the Road: Games of Reversal and
Displacement’ in Journal of Architectural Education 52, no. 2, 87-99.
20. C. Gilmore, ‘A Minor Literature in a Major Voice’: Narrating Nubian
Identity in Contemporary Egypt’ Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, no. 35 (2015):
52–74.
21. V. Held, Feminist Morality: Transforming Culture, Society, and Politics
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 45-46.
22. C.H. Greed, Women & Planning – Creating gendered realities (London
& New York: Routledge, 1994), 41.
23. J. Rendell, “Introduction: ‘Gender, Space,’ in Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner,
& Iain Borden, (eds.), Gender Space Architecture. An Interdisciplinary Introduction
(London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 101–111.
24. Mahgoub, Y. The Nubian Experience, 48–59.
25. The Nubian lock is an iconic element in Nubian tangible heritage; its
door-wide size and large ornaments had the role of informing people from long
distances that the house was empty and spare them long walks.
26. O. El-Hakim, Nubian Architecture, The Egyptian Vernacular Experience
(California: The Palm press, 1999).
27. M. Stam, ‘Das Mass, das richtige Mass, das Minimummass’ Das Neue
Frankfurt 2, (1929).
28. A.R. Tzonis & Liane Lefaivre, ‘The Mechanical Body versus the Divine
Body: The Rise of Modern Design Theory,Journal of Architectural Education 29, no.
1 (1975): 4–7, https://doi.org/10.1080/10464883.1975.10758004.
29. Y. Mahgoub, The Nubian Experience, 79.
30. Y. Mahgoub, The Nubian Experience, 44.
31. W. Fahmi, The Adaptation Process of a Resettled Community to the
Newly-Built Environment: A Study of the Nubian Experience in Egypt (California:
Universal-Publishers, 2014), 360.
32. Y. Mahgoub, The Nubian Experience, 44.
33. S._Sassen, ‘Strategic Gendering as Capability: One Lens into the
Complexity of Powerlessness’ in Columbia Journal of Gender and Law 19 (2010): 179–
200.
34. P. Boccagni, ‘Migrants’ Home as a Political Issue’ in Migration and the
Search for Home (Berlin: Springer, 2017), 87–104.
35. Mastaba in not exclusive to Nubian architecture; it is found in different
forms in other Arab and African contexts. Mastaba is an Arabic word used now by
Nubians; its original name in Nubian is ‘Togo’.
36. Nubians revered the Nile throughout their history; it was to them the
main vein of life. There is evidence of Nile worship in pre-Christian Nubia.
37. ‘Discography Escalay,’ accessed November 4, 2017, http://www.
hamzaeldin.com/disc_wish.html.
38. M. Gauvain, Altman, I. & Fahim, H. ‘Homes and Social Change: A Cross-
Cultural Analysis,’ in Environmental Psychology: Directions and Perspectives, eds
Nicholas R. Feimer & E. Scott Geller (Praeger, New York, 1983), 180–219.
39. Usufruct is the right to use a proper ty without owning it, in the case
of Nubians in Egypt, the state owns their houses, they do not posses contracts, yet
they sell them informally among each other.
40. J. Atteld, Wild Things: The Material Culture of Ever yday Life (United
Kingdom :Berg, 2000).
41. N. Duncan, Bodyspace: Destabilising Geographies of Gender and Sexuality
(United Kingdom : Psychology Press, 1996).
42. P. Rawes, Irigaray for Architects (United Kingdom: Routledge, 2007).
43. Luce Irigaray, Marine Lover of Friedrich Nietzsche (New york: Columbia
University Press, 1991).
44. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman. (New York: Cornell
University Press, 1985).
45. K.M. Hays ‘Critical Architecture: Between Culture and Form’, Perspecta
21 (1984): 15–29.
46. F. Koetter, ‘Notes on the In-Between,’ Harvard Architectural Review (U. S.
A.), 1(Spring 1980): 62–73.
47. Street names at resettlement villages are numbered by the state,
these numbers may change over the years for reasons unknown to Nubians,
who neither had linear streets, nor the practice of street names, in their tradition;
therefore, did not engage in the process of informally naming the streets.
48. Menna Agha’s Field notes, Qustul, 28 Dec. 2016.
49. Menna Agha’s Field notes, Qustul, 29 Dec. 2016.
50. In a few cases, people abandoned their units — or didn't receive one
— and rebuilt an entire house, in which they reproduced traditional design and
had masonry furniture.
51. From the auto-ethnographic notes of Menna Agha, 12 Jan. 2017.
52. B. Hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Chicago: Pluto Press,
2000),
53. C. Smith, ‘Looking for liminality in architectural space’ Limen, 2001,
http://limen.mi2.hr/limen1-2001/catherine_smith.html.
54. R. Ferguson, ‘Introduction: Invisible Center,’ in Out There: Marginalization
and Contemporary Cultures, eds. R. Ferguson M. Gever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, C . West
(New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art & MIT Press, 1990), 9–14.
55. MP. Smith, Marginal Spaces (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1995).
56. C. Smith, ‘Looking for Liminality in Architectural Space,’ Limen, 2001,
http://limen.mi2.hr/limen1-2001/catherine_smith.html.
57. C. Smith, ‘Between-Ness: Theory and Practice within the Margins of
Excess,’ IDEA Journal (2003): 131–144.
BIOGRAPHIES
Menna Agha is a doctoral researcher in the architecture program
at the University of Antwerp, she works under the umbrella of
Henry Van der Velde research group. Menna holds a Bachelor
degree in architecture from Egypt and a master’s degree in Design
from Germany, her research looks at the architecture of marginality
within the context of involuntary resettlement. Ms Agha has work
experience in elds of academia, development and architecture
practice. She was a lecturer at the German University in Cairo, in
addition to collaborating on several projects with development
agencies. Menna is a third generation displaced Nubian (Fadikka),
her research record shows a clear focus on Nubian and gender
issues. In addition, Menna Agha Identies as a third wave feminist.
She is also a mother of an 18-month-old girl named Bahr.
Els De Vos is associate professor at the faculty of Design Sciences at
the University of Antwerp, where she lectures at the architecture
and interior architecture programs. She is a founding member of
the research group Henry van de Velde. Her PhD dissertation on
the architectural, social and gender-differentiated mediation of
dwelling in 1960s–1970s Flanders has been published with the
University Press Leuven (in Dutch). She has co-edited several
volumes in the eld of architecture, including Theory by design
(2013) on the nexus between architectural design, research and
education. She was awarded the BWMSTR label 2016 by the
Flemish Government Architect together with Kimoura Hauquier
and Jonas De Maeyer for a project on housing for newcomers in
the city. She published in several national and international journals
and is a member of the scientic committee of the new open
source magazine Inner – The interior architecture magazine.
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