What Word Is This Place? Translating Urban Social Justice and Governance

Sherief Gaber

Alongside the political transformations that Egypt has witnessed since 2011, there has been a concomitant transformation within Egyptian cities and a wealth of civil society initiatives seeking social justice in the urban environment. Architectural and planning practices, local NGOs and rights groups have sought new languages and new terminology to deal with the phenomena on the ground and to intervene in shaping the new landscape. Issues of language arise particularly clearly in attempts to translate new concepts in urbanism into Arabic, concepts such as the right to the city, participatory planning and budgeting, and various descriptions of public space and rights to access. Public space is often described in Egypt as ‘state land’, resting ownership and control within the government, with detrimental effects. Direct translations of ‘public space’ are unwieldy and lack resonance. At the same time, Arabic terms often have no ready equivalents in English. These terms have older histories and roots within Egyptian culture, and many are now attempting to deploy them to advance contemporary social justice demands. This chapter seeks to examine some of the nomenclature around urban social justice and urban governance in Egypt, looking both at the challenges of translating contemporary international concepts into Arabic, as well as the opportunities for unique activism afforded by words and concepts that are specific to the Arabic language.

Sherief Gaber is a researcher and urban planner living in Cairo, whose work focuses on housing and the right to the city. He has worked on and with projects such as the Egyptian Right to Housing Initiative, creating documentary videos on housing rights, and the Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative, looking at informal upgrading schemes and neighbourhood-level activism. He is also involved in research related to issues of public space, community planning and governance, looking at everything from the role of street vendors in the Egyptian city with CLUSTER (Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research) to the informal systems of governance and management that are exerted over city spaces. Sherif’s work has appeared in the Cairobserver, Mada Masr and other outlets on urban and Egyptian issues. In addition to his work in urbanism, he is a founding member of the Mosireen independent media collective.