Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: The Egyptian Uprising and a Sufi Khidma


University of Toronto

The taxi driver hesitated for a moment when asked to let me out by the narrow staircase leading down into the City of the Dead. “Are you sure? Here?” I sensed worry mixed with a hint of contempt. Why would a foreign-looking woman be so foolish as to wander into Cairo’s cemetery-city in which over a half-million people live in and amongst tombs? In the urban imaginaries of many, the area is off-map, dangerous, and full of robbers or worse. By the summer of 2011, security had become a central concern across Cairo and rumors were running wild. Things were said to be—and often felt—unsafe. This was also a time when many Egyptians had begun to deeply worry about the fate of the revolution. Uncertain and increasingly skeptical, those still protesting continued repeating three central demands—“bread, freedom, social justice” (‘aīsh, hurriyya, ‘adāla igtimā‘iyya)—yet with more and more friction around what these demands meant and mounting concern that they might have become empty slogans.

To overcome, or at least bracket, this pervasive sense of uncertainty, all I needed to do was take the narrow staircase, step over feces and syringes, and push open a large metal gate on which is written Allāh karīm (“God is generous”). No need to call beforehand; no need to come at a certain time of day or day of the week. The gate is always open, even at two or three in the morning. It leads into a khidma, which literally means “service” and in an Egyptian Sufi context refers to a space, often close to a saint’s shrine, where food and tea are served and guests find a place to rest or sleep.1 Khidmas are most noticeable at mawlids, celebrations of saints’ birthdays or death days that can last up to a week. Individuals, families, and Sufi orders set up tents, put out carpets on the sidewalk, or rent apartments to offer free meals and a resting place. Other khidmas are open all year round.

Though less than five-kilometers away from Tahrir Square, throughout 2011 the khidma in the City of the Dead seemed largely unaffected by what was happening downtown—by ongoing protests, sit-ins, clashes, violence, and deaths. Life at the khidma is about sharing a meal, drinking tea, and telling or listening to stories about the Prophet’s saintly descendants (ahl al-bayt). It is about being enmeshed in relations of giving and service to God. And yet, while seemingly far removed from the revolution, daily life at the khidma in 2011 continuously reminded me of stories many Egyptians were telling about Tahrir Square during the eighteen decisive days of protest—stories that open up a space for imagining alternative forms of relationality and modes of being in the world.2

In the hope of initiating an unlikely conversation, I show in this article how the khidma can help illuminate what people found so extraordinary about being at Tahrir Square in early 2011. What characterizes both the khidma and the square during that time, I argue, is an ethics of immediacy. I use this term to refer to a range of embodied practices that revolve around attending to those in front of us, those around us. At the khidma, this ethics finds expression in the simple act of serving food to whoever walks through the door. Stories of Tahrir Square similarly highlight acts of sharing along with an openness toward people one might have never talked to in one’s previous life. Egyptians took to the streets to fight for a better future but, according to many, the protests and sit-ins themselves turned out to be more than a means to an end: they also offered a taste of alternative modes of togetherness.

While I highlight a resonance between the khidma and Tahrir Square, I simultaneously point to tensions between an ethics of immediacy and political calls for social justice. An ethics of immediacy is radically oriented toward the present. Social-justice discourse, by contrast, may fluctuate between different temporal horizons: sometimes it seeks to address present need at a societal level; other times it calls for long-term structural change and economic growth. Because of its malleable temporal orientation, social justice as a goal can coincide with the call for bread but can also be highly critical of food distribution—a seemingly shortsighted and ineffective response to structural inequality. Below I dwell on such different temporal horizons and their implications. I call for a critical rethinking of the continuous orientation toward the future by highlighting the ethical and political potentials inherent to traditions of giving, sharing, and hospitality that are fundamentally oriented toward the present.

I focus on the khidma and Tahrir Square not because these are the only spaces in which food is shared in Egypt but because they epitomize a particular kind of giving and togetherness. Generally, as soon as you enter someone’s home in Egypt, tea is offered, and making eye contact with someone who is eating will result in the invitation to join in (itfaddal/i). Many Egyptians cite a hadīth (prophetic saying): “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbor to his side goes hungry.” Though food is shared widely in Egypt, the kind of giving that is practiced at the khidma differs from everyday acts of hospitality in that, I argue, it runs counter to the logic of reciprocity. As such the khidma exemplifies an alternative mode of relating to Others, of living an implicit form of justice. At the same time, I hope that ethnographic glimpses of the khidma can more broadly alter our view of the simple, seemingly apolitical acts of sharing food and space. I suggest that the Egyptian uprising (along with similar ruptures elsewhere) invites us to think anew about the political potentials of seemingly apolitical spaces and practices.3 Conversely, I hold that, though disinterested in long-term social, political, and economic change, khidmas invite an “anthropology of the otherwise” (Povinelli 2012, 10).

This article draws on fieldwork in Cairo between 2010 and 2012, and is part of a larger project that examines Islamic practices of giving against the backdrop of the Egyptian uprising. At the heart of the article lies the khidma to which I return throughout. Interwoven with the ethnography are reflections on the temporalities of giving and different articulations of social justice in Egypt. Although I problematize a broad tendency towards abstraction and temporal displacement in many political visions of social justice, my critique is primarily directed at the ways the term has become subsumed within the call for economic growth and individual productivity. I propose that a close look at everyday practices of giving can point to alternative—obscured and emergent—meanings of justice. Last, I turn to stories about Tahrir-as-utopia to highlight resonances between khidma and square.

By bringing these three elements into conversation—the political call for social justice, a Sufi khidma, and stories about Tahrir Square during the uprising—I hope to invite a rethinking of giving in relation to social justice. In doing so, it is not my intention to argue against the hope of, or desire for, a better tomorrow and a revived Egyptian economy. Nor do I seek to undermine the fight for structural transformations. Rather, by tracing how an exclusive focus on the future can obscure present need, I seek to make space within social justice for the here and now. Such a reorientation and opening is all the more critical at the current moment—a time of frictions, exclusions, and violence in Egypt, and a time when older structures of inequality continue to be rewritten as well as transformed.4


Stepping through the large metal gate in the City of the Dead, guests enter a spacious courtyard with two doors on the side leading to rooms that offer blankets and a place to sleep. On warm days, they sit on a reed mat in the courtyard, often surrounded by cats who, too, never go hungry at the khidma. On hot or cold days, guests enter the main building, a house with high ceilings, its walls partially painted green. Inside the house are six bedrooms; the largest is reserved for female guests. Whenever guests arrive, Nura disappears into the kitchen and reappears shortly thereafter with a large tray filled with food: vegetables, rice, mulūkhiyya, cucumbers, bread; a complete meal.5 A bit later Nura, one of her children, or one of her long-term guests serves tea.

Figure 1. Nura’s khidma. Photo by Mona Hein.

Now in her late forties, Nura has lived in the City of the Dead most of her life. She inherited the khidma from her mother who originally started it because all her newborns died. Nura’s parents performed dhikr (recitations praising God and the Prophet) to ask God for help, repeating particular phrases hundreds of thousands of times, splashing cold water onto their faces to stay awake longer to keep reciting. Nothing helped. Then a shaykh instructed Nura’s mother that it is not enough to pray to God: you need to do something; you need to give. He told her, “Open your home, give food to people, give them something to drink” (iftahi baytik, akkili, sharrabi). The mother followed the shaykh’s advice, started the khidma, and ended up with thirteen healthy children. When I asked Nura why she, and not one of her siblings, has taken over the khidma, she explained that this is fate; it comes from God. She knew from early on that it would be her because she had seen it in a dream-vision.6

Since the day, seven years ago, when her mother had a stroke and became partially paralyzed, Nura has been fully in charge of the khidma. She cooks for her guests every day. In the morning, she might offer beans, cheese, falafel, and bread. Later in the day, she might serve pickled eggplants, bread, and green beans, or, on a different day, rice and white beans or potatoes in tomato sauce. Sometimes there is meat. If a guest arrives with a cold, Nura serves peppermint tea with cumin. Regardless of what time of day it is, guests are always served tea, lots of it. Like many Sufis, Nura takes the practice of giving food (it‘ām al-t‘am) to be the very core of Islam. As one guest at the khidma put it, “Lu’mat ‘aīsh ahamm hāga fi-l-islām” (“A bite of bread is the most important thing in Islam”), or, as another guest noted, citing a hadith: “Feeding a hungry person is better than building a mosque.”

Nura’s attention to the here and now affected me too. I recall a hot Friday afternoon at the khidma. We are sitting inside the house. Nura’s cell phone rings; she answers. I use the opportunity to briefly close my eyes. It has been a long day; we’ve been chatting for hours, with my recorder resting between us, going over details of the khidma’s sixty-year history. I lean my head against the wall, dozing off. As Nura shuts her phone, she turns to me: “Amira, I want to show you something. Follow me.” She takes me by the hand, leads me into a room with two beds and tells me to lie down. My craving for a nap overrides my desire to keep going with the interview. I accept the offer. Nura says, “Al-sarīr yas‘ad bīkī,” which roughly translates to “The bed is delighted by your presence.” I smile and close my eyes. Over time I learned in the khidma to stop at least for a short while worrying about the future and my own productivity.

Nura’s attention to the present (and those present) does not mean that she never thinks about the future. She hopes for a place in paradise, and occasionally she wonders about the khidma’s future in this world. She assumes that Hussain, her son, will eventually take over. Although Nura also has a daughter (and although Hussain, twelve years old at the time, told me that he wants to become a police officer), Nura says that, when Hussain could barely speak, he told her the khidma would grow one-hundred-times bigger, and she has seen in a dream-vision that he will eventually be in charge. Thus, the future figures at the khidma, but relating to the future here means trusting in God and being in a continuous relationship with Others.


Spaces of food distribution are often subsumed under the label “charity,” although in the case of khidmas, this framing is misleading.7 As I will show shortly, the khidma does not divide the world into those able to help and those in need. Nura does not understand her daily work as charitable. Nevertheless, the khidma is one of the places in Cairo where people can turn for free food and shelter. When situated within a broader landscape of giving, soup kitchens and khidmas exemplify a radical orientation toward the present. Food differs from gifts given with an eye to the future—gifts understood by many to be more effective.8 Although arguably we live in an “age of compassion” (Berlant 2004; Bornstein 2011; Fassin 2012) that has brought about a renewed appreciation for instant aid and relief, development agencies and philanthropists worldwide tend to insist that a good gift is one that creates productive, independent citizens. As in many other places, in Egypt, the Chinese proverb is often cited: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”9 Critics might say that Nura does nothing but give a few men a few fish.

Whereas food is generally a present-oriented gift, microloans are the quintessential neoliberal gift—closely tied to efforts to turn the “shadow economies of the poor” into spaces of enterprise (Roy 2010). In Egypt, NGOs, international players such as USAID, and the Egyptian government for years have been encouraging Egyptians living in slums to start small enterprises (Atia 2012; Elyachar 2005).10 In line with the neoliberal ethos of individual responsibility, microloans are expected to create jobs and entrepreneurial citizens. They displace but also subsume the hopes tied to development.11 Although it continuously places the future out of reach, neoliberalism is a deeply utopian project (Harvey 2007).12

Many NGOs in Egypt have followed the shift from present-oriented to future-oriented forms of giving. Instead of distributing alms or food, they now offer microloans or fund development projects. Scholars have interpreted this shift in Muslim NGOs as part of a broader neoliberalization of Islam (Atia 2012; Hafez 2011).13 To receive a microloan, petitioners need to fulfill certain conditions and prove that they are, or are willing to become, productive citizens. Taking a microloan can be risky. A number of women living in Cairo’s slums told me that, unable to pay back their loans, they now live in fear of arrest and imprisonment. More broadly, neoliberalization has led to a “shift away from the needs of the poor … to the responsibilization of the poor for their impoverishment” (Atia 2008).

Attention to the future and productivity is neither exclusively modern nor is it always subsumable within a purely capitalist logic. A number of Egyptian NGOs, concerned with long-term transformations, have turned to resources from the Islamic tradition, and not only to craft industrious citizens. Some NGOs seek to revive the concept of waqf, religious endowments, which aim to benefit future generations by building schools, hospitals, or wells. Others encourage donors to give alms in the form of sadaqa gāriya, literally “running charity,” which provides lasting benefits by planting palm trees or providing poor families with a milk-producing animal. While the gaze to the future is not new, it has arguably become more pervasive in the eras of national development and neoliberalism. Even almsgiving, traditionally understood as a response to immediate need, is increasingly reconfigured so as to prioritize the “long run” (Guyer 2007). Thus zakāt, obligatory alms, can now also be channeled into development projects. A 2011 fatwa (non-binding legal opinion) issued by al-Azhar, the authoritative institution of Sunni Islam, asserts that, “Using zakāt and sadaqa [obligatory and voluntary alms] money to build big projects that will help with the economic recovery is permitted with conditions. The money may go to building factories that will create jobs, to institutions that directly engage with the needy, to hospitals (in the form of medical equipment, medicine) that offer free services to the poor, to schools, mosques (also in the form of supplies, etc.).”14

While concerns with sustainability, job creation, and free healthcare resonate with most progressive political sensibilities, focusing attention on future aims can lead, if inadvertently, to the neglect of the present. The more emphasis is placed on strategic giving and increased productivity, the more stigmatized the simple act of giving food to a hungry person becomes. The detrimental effects of a continuous displacement of the present in favor of the future are highlighted by Elizabeth Povinelli (2012), who shows how late liberal imaginaries tend to justify current suffering through reference to a future anterior: “It will all have been worth it.” Erica Bornstein (2012) traces tensions in New Delhi between a future-oriented, strategic kind of philanthropy and what she calls an immediate “impulse to give.” As she points out, in discourses of human rights and social justice, an abstract notion of society or humankind sometimes obscures, or takes priority over, immediate need and suffering.

The tension between present and future also figures in the call of Egyptian protesters for bread, freedom, and social justice. The demand for bread points to present need. Bread (‘aīsh) in Egyptian Arabic literally means life. Bread is a staple food in Egypt that has been state-subsidized for decades. International Monetary Fund–enforced cuts led to bread riots in 1977, and rising food prices are today often associated with the looming danger of a “revolution of the hungry” yet to come. At the same time, while symbolically calling for bread, activists in Egypt often dismiss food distribution as “anti–social justice.” Many claim that Egypt’s widespread “culture of charity” is in fact the primary reason why a revolution did not happen sooner. The argument is familiar: Handouts allow the poor to get by and keep them quiet but will never lead to true change. In this sense, the prioritizing of the future has affected not only the work of NGOs but also shaped (and narrowed) visions of social justice.

Figure 2. A woman ripping up bread for a dish at a khidma in Alexandria. Photo by Hala Nammar.


The concept of social justice emerged in the late-eighteenth-century as the child of the industrial and French revolutions. Originally it had a strong distributive meaning in that it “explicitly aim[ed] to redistribute resources to those disadvantaged by a market distribution” (Jackson 2005, 358). In its “willingness to submerge individual wants, needs, and desires in the cause of some more general struggle” (Harvey 2007, 41), social justice seems to run counter to the neoliberal celebration of individual responsibility. Unsurprisingly, however, the term has come to absorb all kinds of meanings and ideologies. When protesters at Tahrir Square called for ‘adāla igtimā‘iyya (a literal translation of “social justice”), they were calling for many different things. Socialist, communist, liberal, neoliberal, and religious trajectories converged in their demand, along with others for which we might not yet have a language. Just as “justice” is not a monolithic, unambiguous term in Western traditions (MacIntyre 1988), in Egypt, “social justice” evokes multiple histories and genealogies. In the tradition of the left, the communist movement, and Nasserism, social justice has a distributive meaning, related to ownership of the means of production. A more neoliberal understanding foregrounds the value of equal opportunity, rendering one’s life chances into a personal responsibility. In the writings of Muslim thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb, social justice stands for an alternative to both capitalism and socialism.15 Most significant about the use of the term during the 2011 protests was its malleability and openness. The demand for social justice was effective precisely because it worked on so many different registers.

Since the uprising, the concept has been recycled across the political spectrum. The National Salvation Front, an alliance of parties coordinated by Mohamed ElBaradei, noted that “social justice is built on equal opportunities and an increased minimum wage to afford a decent life for all Egyptians.”16 The Muslim Brotherhood, which held nearly half of the seats in parliament and whose candidate, Mohammad Morsi, won the 2012 presidential elections (but was ousted in July 2013), declared as one of its key goals, “structuring a comprehensive social justice system that will provide the different social classes with equal opportunities in residence, work, medical treatment, and in exercising their political rights.” The constitution passed in December 2012 states that the national economy shall be organized in accordance with a “comprehensive, constant development plan,” which shall “establish social justice and solidarity, ensure equitable distribution … and safeguard the rights of workers” (Article 14). Although most of these formulations seem to point to the future and address present need, many activists have criticized the constitution’s approach to social justice, pointing out, for instance, that it links rising wages to production but not prices.17 The Revolutionary Socialists attacked the Muslim Brotherhood more broadly, claiming that “the words ‘social justice’ are not even in your dictionary. You’ve forgotten the minimum and maximum wage. You’ve raised prices and left the poor eating mud.”18 The former presidential candidate Khaled ‘Ali accused all political parties of “forgetting the poor.”19 The large anniversary protests on January 25, 2013, were organized under the same banner as the protests two years earlier—“bread, freedom, social justice”—and when activists and media channels began mobilizing citizens against Morsi in June 2013, his failure to have brought about social justice was a central claim of their campaign.

Infused with multiple meanings, social justice continues to be a pressing and unfulfilled demand in Egypt. What I want to highlight here, however, is not the failure of the post-uprising governments to achieve social justice but rather a narrowing of what social justice is taken to mean. There have continued to be protests and strikes calling for minimum and maximum wages and against privatization, yet for the most part, the goal of social justice has become subsumed within the push for economic growth and productivity in the discourse of almost all political parties.

At the same time, on the ground, many Egyptians continue to engage in distributive practices that do not mesh with the logic of neoliberalism, microenterprise, and productivity.20 Individual believers go into slums or low-income neighborhoods to hand out food, money, or blankets; many give their alms directly to the poor. And Nura continues to cook every day. Not only are these practices integral to social and economic life in Egypt, they also can bring to light what is obscured in a continuous orientation toward the future. In everyday acts of distribution an implicit form of justice is lived and embodied, even if this is not the language the practitioners themselves would use. Extending Johannes Fabian’s (2007, 117) insistence that “anthropology’s present and future task is to become a human science of presence,” we might ask what khidmas can teach us about being in the present—and being present to Others.

The giving of food is not immune to being subsumed within the capitalist market’s concern with productivity. Companies like Google and Facebook provide free lunches to allow employees to socialize and generate ideas, and NGOs justify food distribution through a language of calories and energy needed to craft industrious subjects.21 Yet when development-oriented NGOs in Egypt hand out food, they are generally reluctant to do so, acknowledging the reality of “basic needs” but ultimately considering this act to be shortsighted: a bandage but not a solution. In khidmas, by contrast, the logic of sustenance and productivity is absent. Here food is connected to baraka, divine blessings, and sharing food means becoming enmeshed in social relations and spiritual communities. The food that is shared is neither regulated nor calculated. It is about the here and now, not a better future. In this sense, the khidma and its mode of giving can help elucidate a different meaning of justice—one that “relate[s] to and stem[s] from human practice” rather than eternal truths (Harvey 2009, 15). Justice here does not mean that the rich ought to give to the poor but rather proceeds from acknowledging the profound dependency and interdependency of humans.


Marcel Mauss (1967) famously argued that no gift is truly free. Each gift demands a counter-gift, enwrapping the recipient (and donor) in a relation of reciprocity. Like her mother, Nura is seemingly enmeshed in a relation of reciprocity with God. Yet, she also emphasizes that one’s fate in the afterlife depends on God’s mercy (rahma), not one’s deeds.22 In this sense, giving at the khidma is a way of emulating God’s generosity rather than a way of attracting God’s generosity. Nura draws on a Qur’anic ethics according to which believers ought to try to imitate God who “made a gift of his surplus (fadl) and sustenance (rizq), without ever expecting it to be returned” (Bonner 2005, 392). The problem with our “traditions” (taqālīd), says Nura, is that people invite you because you invited them: they feel obligated. “What we do here is very different. We don’t expect anything in return. We do all this for God, li-llāh.” Ultimately oriented toward God, in her everyday interactions Nura gives without any conditions or expectations. Thus, whereas many other Egyptians, too, share food with neighbors, relatives, and beggars, the khidma implies a different kind of giving—one that disrupts the logic of reciprocity and obligation.23 At the same time, Nura’s giving highlights our profound dependency.

While food is central to the khidma, hunger (as physical need) is not Nura’s main concern. When I asked her whether she thinks that most of her guests are poor and hungry, she pointed out that being in need (miskīn) does not mean lacking possessions. We’re all in need (masākīn), she says, and means that we all long for the Divine. Faqīr and miskīn are among the eight categories listed in the Qur’an (9:60) as legitimate recipients of alms. Faqīr is usually translated as “poor”; miskīn as “in need” or “destitute.” Some Muslim scholars take the terms to be synonymous (Al-Qardāwī 2006, 556). According to others, faqīr refers to the “passive poor, those who ask for nothing,” whereas miskīn refers to those who beg. Others hold that faqīr refers to the “inner poor,” those whom we know, whereas miskīn refers to “the unsettling, ambiguous poor whom we may or may not know” (Bonner 2005, 339, 402).

In Egypt today, the category of “the poor” is largely understood through an economic, material paradigm. Employees at charity organizations define faqīr as someone unable to earn a living (e.g., someone with a physical disability) and miskīn as someone who merely lacks the resources to earn a living (e.g., someone unemployed). Often, internationally recognizable standards are evoked: Someone who makes less than three dollars a day is faqīr.24 Nura draws on a different Qur’anic understanding according to which poverty refers to the human condition more broadly. One Qur’anic verse (35:15) calls humans those “in need of God” (literally, “poor toward God,” al-fuqāra’ illa Allāh), whereas God is rich and self-sufficient (al-ghanī). Nura insists that it is not economic need that drives people to the khidma. Rather, her guests are drawn to the place because of its high level of spirituality.

Walking into the khidma differs drastically from turning to charity organizations for help. To become a registered recipient at a charity organization one needs to perform one’s poverty, present stacks of papers, and answer many questions. A successful applicant will receive about fifty Egyptian pounds (US$7.50) per month or, at a different organization, might be offered a microloan to start a small business. Nura, by contrast, serves food to whoever walks through her door. She expects nothing in return, not even gratitude. A retired army general who runs a khidma in Sayyida Zaynab, a low-income neighborhood in Cairo, explained it this way:

The main role of a khidma is giving food to whoever asks. Regardless of who he is. [A large charity organization] came here once with clothes that they wanted to distribute, and they wanted a place here in Sayyida Zaynab. They told me “we sell our clothes to specific people, with a reduced price, so for example if someone in a car came down to buy something we would not sell it to him.” I told them I do the exact opposite: Anyone who comes and asks me for a plate, I’ll give it to him. I don’t ask him whether he is an engineer or a doctor or whatever. It is enough for me that he tells me “give me [food] because I’m hungry.” So I feed him.

Although Nura backgrounds hunger, she, too, never asks where her guests come from or why they do not work. Everyone is welcome.

Many of the people who come to eat at Nura’s house are dervishes, people who have left their home, dedicate their lives to a spiritual path, and often only own a couple of gallābiyyas and maybe a cell phone.25 Dervishes visit khidmas to eat, sleep, and smoke shīsha (and sometimes hashish). Many middle-class Egyptians look down upon dervishes because they do not work, and friends repeatedly warned me not to talk to “people like that.” Nura devotes most of her time to cooking and caring for such people.

Figure 3. A regular at Nura’s khidma: a self-proclaimed dervish, illiterate, seventy-eight-year-old, previous owner of a coffee shop. Photo by Mona Hein.

The dervishes at the khidma are joined by guests from the countryside who are visiting saint shrines in the city. Others have a home in Cairo but enjoy spending time at the khidma because it is a place of dhikr, devotion to God. Sometimes guests stay for weeks. The most long-term guest Nura ever had stayed for twenty-five years. “And then?” I asked. “Then he went home (rawwah),” said Nura and shrugged her shoulders. Nura never lays claim on her guests. They can come and go as they please.

Whereas charitable giving is often criticized for perpetuating structural inequalities, encouraging laziness, and placing the recipients in an inferior position (e.g., Corbett and Fikkert 2012; Lupton 2012),26 Nura’s insistence that we are all in need (masākīn) implies radical equality. Along with the obligation to reciprocate, Nura does away with the distinction between donor and recipient. “We are all in need” means that everyone is dependent. In Nura’s view, moreover, when we give, the gift does not come from us but from God. Both the donor and the recipient are mediums for divine distribution, obviating the very structure of reciprocity. Allāh karīm, the writing on the gate, reminds visitors of who is really providing: “God is generous.” Nura grows zucchinis and lemons in her garden, raises chicken and pigeons in an interior courtyard, and uses her father’s pension to pay for part of the khidma’s expenses but ultimately, she says, she relies on God. She never worries about what food she will serve the following day. When she runs out of supplies or money, she trusts that God will provide, concretely in the form of one of her guests bringing fruit, vegetables, bread, cigarettes, or tobacco to the khidma. Other guests bring tapes with inshād music by Sufi performers that everyone will then collectively listen to in the courtyard. Others clean the bathrooms or sweep the floors. Some help when a room needs to be renovated. Whenever food items are brought to the khidma, they are immediately used and offered to guests. The embodied ethics that is put to work at the khidma does not negate the importance of addressing structural inequalities but throws into relief the deeply ethical (and political) potential inherent to the simple act of serving a meal to someone who is hungry—or someone who is simply there.


Guests at the khidma eat, sleep, and drink tea. They talk. Often they tell stories of miracles and divine interventions. How no birds can fly over the Kaaba. How an astronaut saw two beams of light from space, one extending out from the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and one from the Kaaba: he converted. Frequently, in stories about saints, their generosity is highlighted, offering a model for emulation. One guest told me that Hassan and Hussain, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons, “did exactly what [Nura] is doing. They had a house, gave out food, offered people a place to sleep. For three days in a row they gave food away to people without having anything to eat for themselves.”

Yet saints and miracles are not the only conversation topics. Inevitably, in the months following the uprising, guests at times also started talking politics. They were, without exception, highly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and worried about the effects of Wahhabi influences on their religious practices.27 During the second round of the presidential elections in 2012, many people at the khidma expressed their strong support for Ahmed Shafiq, former commander of the Egyptian Air Force, a veteran of the Mubarak regime, and at that point the only rival candidate to Mohammad Morsi. Sometimes at the khidma, the revolutionary and the miraculous merged. Many of the dervishes emphasized that the 2011 uprising was God working through the people. Others spoke of dream-visions they had seen before or during the uprising that reveal its spiritual dimensions. At other times, the political discussions were this-worldly and pragmatic.

Whenever Nura’s guests talked politics (sometimes extensively and loudly), she remained silent. She never voiced an opinion on the revolution or the elections, and when I asked her whether she had been to any of the protests, she shook her head. Da mish magālī; magālī al-akl wa-l-shurb. “That’s not my field; my field is food and drink.” Nura’s practices do not aim to undermine class distinctions or to bring about structural change. Her mode of being in the world is not oriented toward society but toward those who walk through her door.28 And yet, the kind of giving that Nura practices and cultivates at the khidma resonates with what people found so extraordinary about Tahrir Square during the uprising: mutual care, sharing, openness, generosity, and an attunedness to Others. Stories about Tahrir Square and everyday life at the khidma are less about economic growth and more about a mode of togetherness in the present.

Tahrir—located today somewhere between nostalgia and utopia—is difficult to capture in words.29 But a number of Egyptians from different class backgrounds and age groups, male and female, spoke to me in the summer of 2011 about feeling completely transformed by the protests and feeling connected to others in entirely new ways.30 Many recall acts of sharing and solidarity: how people unable to join the protests delivered food, water, and blankets to the square; how women from the countryside distributed onions to help protesters recover from tear-gas attacks; how doctors volunteered their labor at field clinics; how young people swept the streets; and how, if someone ended up with a sandwich in her hands, she would share it with whoever was around her. An Egyptian psychiatrist and activist commented to me on the irony of how questions that endless panel discussions and academic debates had been unable to solve—such as the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy, or how to build a pluralistic society—were resolved (or dissolved) at Tahrir: people lived the answers. Hamid, an activist in his thirties, told me that for him, Tahrir is a “state of mind” and that he hopes that people will soon return to “living Tahrir.” Many noted that at Tahrir they were getting a taste of the kind of society they were fighting for.

Tahrir Square has continued to be a site of protest until recently, but its revolutionary potential has gradually become overshadowed by violence, frictions, sexual harassment, rape, and increasing polarization.31 Over the months, the square has been witness to protests by different factions: Muslim Brotherhood supporters, liberals, and in July 2013, those cheering on the military. During the violent clashes in August 2013, Tahrir Square was eerily empty. The experience of openness and togetherness at the square today seems a distant memory. Many have come to think of the original protests as “exceptional and singular”; a “moment out of the ordinary” (Schielke 2012b, 201). Nura’s day-to-day practice invites us to imagine a reversal: What if the togetherness practiced at Tahrir were the norm, not the exception?

According to Hanan Sabea, the experiences at the square enabled the imagining of “other modalities of being—in this case of the political and the social.”32 In the context of the Occupy movement, the street has similarly been theorized as “a space where new forms of the social and the political can be made, rather than a space for enacting ritualized routines.”33 Central to the Occupy movement was the coming together of bodies “as both an effective protest tactic and a model of an alternative, directly democratic world” (Juris 2012, 268). The new social and political forms that were being imagined—and made—at Tahrir Square seem to have to do, at least partially, with a new kind of togetherness, solidarity, and community beyond divisions related to class, age, gender, geographical background, religious affiliation, and lifestyle. Concretely, the being-with at Tahrir Square found expression in the simple act of sharing food with, and attending to, others. And yet, the Tahrir spirit was quickly erased after Hosni Mubarak’s fall in February 2011. Hussein Agrama notes that the Egyptian uprising “opened up a space for people everywhere to actively imagine different possible futures and a new range of democratic possibilities. It is interesting then that despite the unprecedented nature of the Egyptian protests and the enormous shake-up that they effected, Egypt’s possible futures became so quickly circumscribed within a highly conventional, and narrow, narrative framework.”34

In the context described by Agrama, a narrow framework imposes the question of whether Egypt will be a secular or religious state. A similarly narrow framework reduces the protesters’ call for social justice to the call for a welfare state or economic growth. To redeem the sense of possibility, Agrama draws attention to what he calls an “ethos of democratic sensibility,” which encompasses “mutual care, attunement to pain and distress, concern for truth, nonjudgmental disposition, and a tendency toward inclusion.”35 In trying to establish such an ethos, Agrama suggests, one should be careful not to reinscribe the state’s monopoly on politics but instead listen carefully to what the revolutionary moment can teach us. Building on, and extending, this invitation, I suggest that the khidma articulates an ethics of attunedness through practice. Intimately related to this attunedness is an ethics of immediacy.

While Nura’s practice of giving does not sit easily with calls for economic growth or the return of a welfare state, it resonates with the Tahrir utopia. In suggesting such resonances, I do not mean to imply that the Egyptian uprising was inherently or secretively Islamic (or that Nura is a revolutionary without knowing it). Nor do I want to revive the stereotypical notion of an all-encompassing Egyptian (or Arab or Muslim) culture of hospitality.36 I am here less interested in the origins of Sufi khidmas than in their effects—in what they do and offer in the present: the resources they can provide for reimagining.

Sufi khidmas have limitations too: their disinterest in structural inequalities, for instance, or the fact that not everyone knows that such spaces exist or where to find them. Many middle- and upper-class Egyptians would never set foot in a khidma, let alone the City of the Dead. Sufism is often dismissed as “lower-class” and “not true Islam.” Dervishes are dismissed for not working. Nura at times seemed to narrow the openness of the khidma by suggesting that only those spiritually pure enough are directed to her home. The differences Nura highlights here are not tied to material concepts of wealth or productivity, and they are generally not discernible. Regardless, the khidma is not for everyone but whoever shows up is welcome. More abstractly, an ethics of immediacy is limited because it is by definition not about society (or humanity) as a whole. The khidma is thus not about a perfect utopia per se but about a practice of care and mode of togetherness that resonates with Tahrir-as-utopia.

Significantly, I do not predict that khidmas will become spaces of political mobilization. My point is rather that practices that occurred long before, during, and after the uprising can offer us resources for reflecting on the bounded experience of Tahrir Square, as well as on similar experiences at Occupy or, more recently, Taksim Square. Some of what Tahrir Square called for—togetherness in difference, justice, sharing, openness, possibility—already existed and still exists in spaces such as the khidma.


A few months after the ouster of President Mubarak, mysterious banners in black, white, and red appeared all over Cairo. They announced in English (and less frequently, Arabic), “From Egyptian to Egyptian: Work is Our Only Solution.” Some bloggers compared the banners to Nazi propaganda, recalling a line inscribed over the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp: “Arbeit macht frei!” (Work will set you free).37 Although no one knew who had put up the banners, they echoed a common sentiment. Almost without exception, Egypt’s political parties in 2011 were emphasizing the importance of work, stability, economic growth, and foreign investments. Many activists agreed that work is the only solution as only work could help Egyptians reclaim their dignity. Numerous Egyptians had first joined the protests to demand the right to work and make a decent living. Yet the call for work also came to be used by those wanting to quell the protests, most poignantly in demanding that the protesters should be working or looking for jobs instead of protesting. When I pointed out that the large protests usually happened on Friday, a day off for many, I was told that even then these people should volunteer their work at factories instead of lingering at Tahrir Square.

Tracing a similar emphasis on productivity in social justice discourses, I have suggested that what prevented the Tahrir utopia—and an according ethics of immediacy—from proliferating after the uprising was in part that visions of social justice had become too suffused with, or usurped by, a neoliberal ethos of individual empowerment and the call for economic growth. Looking at the uprising from a Sufi khidma reminds us that an emphasis on productivity can distract from questions of distribution. Focusing on the future can distract from the present. Spaces such as the khidma point to alternative temporalities, communities, modes of giving, and embodied practices of justice. They are helpful resources for a reimagining, especially at a time when “the prospects of achieving that which ‘Tahrir’ stood for may seem precarious and under attack, and yet the cracks, the potentials and the imagination are even more important in Egypt today, much as they are world-wide.”38

Recall, then, that Nura aims for a giving that demands nothing from the recipients. Recall that she invites, and allows, others to participate in this giving. Recall that she never asks the dervishes why they do not work. This does not mean that Nura is against work. She, too, works when she cooks, and her guests work when they help her clean the space, chop garlic, and arguably even when they tell miracle-stories. Yet the work that is performed at the khidma occurs outside of the market economy and is not understood as a sacrifice for the sake of a better future. The cooking, cleaning, and sharing are rather the very stuff of which the khidma is made. Whereas many in Egypt insist that economic growth has to come before justice, Nura gives today without worrying about tomorrow. Justice, let alone social justice, is not the language she would use to describe her practices, and yet justice is embodied in her very practice of giving.

The kind of gifting enacted by Nura is provocative because it evades the logic of reciprocity so often highlighted in the anthropology of the gift. While Marcel Mauss (1967, 66) called for a society in which “the rich should come once more, freely or by obligation, to consider themselves as the treasurers, as it were, of their fellow-citizen,” Nura’s embodied ethics is even more radical by refusing the very distinction between rich and poor. To her the point is not attending to the Other as an Other, but being enmeshed in social and spiritual relations. Underlying the ethics of immediacy at the khidma is the recognition that no one is autonomous and everyone is in need. By emphasizing that ultimately God gives through us, Nura decenters the goal of building a society composed of self-sufficient, autonomous, productive individuals, or one divided into donors and recipients. Giving is not based on an endless growth of the market but relies on God’s generosity (baraka).

I have taken the liberty of bringing Nura’s practices into conversation with Tahrir-as-utopia. Admittedly, many middle- and upper-class Egyptians would be reluctant to turn to khidmas for political-ethical inspiration. And yet the conversation that I have set up—between non-revolutionary spaces and the revolution—resonates with a line of exploration pursued by at least some Egyptian activists. Hamid, the activist who hopes people will return to “living Tahrir,” at first was drawn to a language of development, rebuilding, and entrepreneurship but subsequently found this language too pre-scripted and began looking for alternatives. Since the uprising he has been traveling throughout Egypt to learn about local customs, art forms, and modes of storytelling. He and his friends have begun thinking about how local practices might contribute to imagining a different kind of society. Hamid was deeply impressed by the hospitality that he encountered in places such as Aswan and the Siwa oasis. When I told him about Nura and her always open doors, he was delighted to learn that such spaces exist in Cairo too. It might be precisely in the seemingly most apolitical spaces that we can hear an echo of the openness resounding in the protesters’ original calls for social justice—an openness, not yet confined by party programs, calling for something altogether different.


Acknowledgments Field research in Egypt on which this article is based was supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. The Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto supported the writing of the manuscript. Naisargi Dave, Laura-Zoe Humphreys, Katie Kilroy-Marac, and Xochitl Ruiz, as well as audiences at Johns Hopkins University, Queen’s University, and Memorial University provided critical feedback. I owe special thanks to Alejandra Gonzalez Jimenez and Julia Elyachar. Last, I am grateful to editors Anne Allison and Charles Piot, as well as Cultural Anthropology’s anonymous reviewers, for their constructive suggestions and encouragement.

1. Whereas khidma (in the broader sense of service) is also central to Coptic Christian communities, this article focuses on Muslim—and particularly Sufi—practices of giving. Sufism is often translated as Islamic mysticism. In the Egyptian context it refers to a range of practices centered on love for the Prophet Muhammad and his saintly descendants. Sufism is widespread in Egypt through and beyond Sufi orders but is also widely dismissed as “not true Islam.” Historically, Sufi orders have run various spaces of hospitality, sometimes only for their members but often also for travellers, students, or the general public. Names for such hospices or lodges in different geographical contexts include khanqa, zāwiyya, and takiyya.

2. Tahrir Square is not simply the physical location in Cairo where many key protests took place between January 25 and February 11, 2011 (and after that). Tahrir is also a “state of mind,” as a young Egyptian activist put it, and was evoked at protests elsewhere, such as when Trafalgar Square was performatively renamed London’s Tahrir Square. For anthropologists’ reflections on Tahrir Square from other locations, see Winegar (2012), Abu-Lughod (2012), and Ghannam (2012).

3. Saba Mahmood (2005) widens our understanding of politics by describing the political efficacy of an Egyptian piety movement generally considered apolitical. Asef Bayat (2009) argues that practices of “quiet encroachment”—such as squatting and other attempts to acquire the basic necessities of life in unassuming, illegal ways—for a long time were politically more effective in the Middle East than unions, political protests, or social movements. The khidma is neither linked to a social movement nor is it a form of quiet encroachment. Yet, it too points to an “art of presence” (24) with ethical-political consequences.

4. I completed this essay in late August, 2013, after the military had ousted President Mohamed Morsi and killed over eight-hundred pro-Morsi protesters.

5. Nura is a pseudonym. I do not use the real name to honor the understanding that giving is best done in secret. Mulūkhiyya, one of the food items listed above, is a staple food in Egypt. It is a vegetable similar to spinach and is usually served in soup form and eaten with rice or bread.

6. I use the term “dream-vision” to translate the Arabic ru’yā, which can refer to waking visions or divinely-inspired dreams. On the importance of dream-visions in Sufi circles and beyond, see Mittermaier (2011).

7. More broadly, many Muslim thinkers reject the label “charity” and highlight differences between Islamic responses to need that understand alms as the “right of the poor” (haqq al-faqīr), and Christian models of charity that evoke the connotation of caritas, love, and generosity. Nevertheless, the term charity is used widely in academic literatures to refer to Muslim NGOs, the practice of almsgiving, and the actual alms that are given.

8. Bourdieu (1977) and Derrida (1994) draw attention to the interval between gift and counter-gift. I highlight the temporal vector inherent to the gift itself—whether it is given with an eye toward the present or the future.

9. This Chinese proverb is cited widely in Egypt to justify future-oriented, strategic modes of giving. Despite its gender bias, in actuality much strategic giving is geared toward women in Egypt.

10. On different neoliberal processes in Egypt, see Dennis (2006), Elyachar (2012), and Hanieh (2012). Notably, some called the Egyptian revolution a revolution against neoliberalism (Armbrust 2012); others pointed out that protesters themselves used a neoliberal language (Maya Mikdashi, “Neoliberalism’s Forked Tongue,” Jadaliyya, May 17, 2011,

11. To the extent that it dictates deregulation, the restriction of public spending, and the erosion of the welfare state, neoliberalism seems by definition opposed to national development (Edelman 2013). As Julia Elyachar (2002, 494) points out, the critique of development is accordingly no longer the exclusive domain of anti-globalization activists. By the year 2000, the World Bank had itself taken on an anti-development stand and turned its attention to microloans, which function as the “inverse of development.”

12. In their reflections on a “millennial capitalism,” Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (2000) describe a seeming shortening of time brought about by high-speed transactions, the disruption of long-term strategies of capitalist accumulation, and the seemingly magical emergence (and disappearance) of wealth.

13. See also Yasmin Moll, “Building the New Egypt: Islamic Televangelists, Revolutionary Ethics and ‘Productive’ Citizenship.” Hot Spots (blog), May 23, 2013, Cultural Anthropology online,

14. Dar al-Ifta’s online fatwa collection, “In support of the Egyptian economy which is currently facing difficulties,” September 20, 2011, My translation.

15. See Qutb (2000) and Shepard (1996). More recently, the theologian Yusuf al-Qardawi (2006, 900) notes that the point of obligatory alms-giving in Islam is “not to provide a temporary solution to poverty but to achieve just distribution.” Other Muslim thinkers explicitly advocate an Islamic socialism: see chapter three in Tripp (2006).

16. Provisional program of National Salvation Front, April 2013, p. 14. My translation.

17. For example, see Haytham Mohamad, “Egypt Two Years after the Revolution: Social Justice … Poverty is Still the Same,” January 21, 2013, My translation.

18. Statement by Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists, “No to dictatorship, no to trading on the revolution and the martyrs,” November 26, 2012, Translation by Anne Alexander. On the Revolutionary Socialists’ views on differences between liberal, Islamic, and socialist understandings of social justice, see Dina ‘Umar, “The Concept of Social Justice and the Conceptions of the Political Forces,” June 24, 2001, My translation.

19. Mustafa ‘Arisha, “Khaled ‘Ali: The idea of social justice among the revolutionaries only means bringing back to trial the symbols of the previous regime,” April 2, 2013, My translation.

20. Soup kitchens, along with other informal spaces of distribution, can themselves be subsumed within the analytical framework of neoliberalism—as the inevitable effect of, and as complicit with, the state’s increasing withdrawal of social services. Reading such practices through the lens of neoliberalism, however, erases the complex ethics at work—ethics that might be partially shaped by, but also exceed, the current historical moment.

21. On Google, see James B. Stewart, “Looking for a Lesson in Google’s Perks,” New York Times online, March 15, 2013,

22. On the pervasive idea of working one’s way into paradise, found in other contexts in Egypt, see Mittermaier (2013) and Schielke (2012a).

23. Comparatively, for discussions of dan as a non-reciprocal gift, see Bornstein (2012), Laidlaw (2000), and Parry (1986).

24. On the making and management of “poverty” as a category in Egypt, see Mitchell (2002) and Elyachar (2005). For histories and ethnographies of poverty in Egypt, see Sabra (2000), Singerman (1995), and Wikan (1996).

25. A gallābiyya is a loose, full-length gown with wide sleeves, worn by working-class men and peasants.

26. See also Slavoj Žižek’s critique of charity, “RSA Animate: First as Tragedy, Then as Farse,” RSA website, August 4, 2010,,-then-as-farce.

27. Wahhabism is a conservative, literalist reform movement, originating in Saudi Arabia and spreading throughout the Muslim world. Emphasizing the oneness of God (tawhīd), Wahhabi reformers tend to denounce Sufi devotion to the Prophet and his descendants.

28. Housewives and parents might similarly say their care is not oriented toward society as a whole but toward those in their home. The difference is that Nura’s ethics of immediacy extends to guests and strangers. This kind of care is not clearly gendered in Egypt. Men as well as women run khidmas.

29. See Reem Saad, “Reflections on the Egyptian Revolution.” Hot Spots (blog), April 23, 2013, Cultural Anthropology online,

30. I draw on conversations, from the summer and fall of 2011, with Egyptians who participated in the uprising. Many of these conversations took place at Tahrir Square, which was re-occupied in July and for part of August. Interlocutors told stories while strolling through the square, as if inspired by the space and the memories it holds.

31. In other words, the emphasis on communitas at Tahrir should not blind us to (later) frictions and exclusions. See the reflections by the Egyptian blogger Sandmonkey, “Tahrir: An Exercise in Nation-Building,” Rantings of a Sandmonkey (blog), July 16, 2011,

32. Hanan Sabea, “A ‘Time out of Time’: Tahrir, the Political and the Imaginary in the Context of the January 25th Revolution in Egypt,” Hot Spots (blog), May 9, 2013, Cultural Anthropology online,

33. Saskia Sassen, “The Global Street Comes to Wall Street,” Occupy Movement (blog), November 22, 2011, Possible Futures website,

34. Hussein Agrama, “Asecular Revolution,” Immanent Frame (blog). March 11, 2011,

35. Ibid.

36. The Arab culture of hospitality has become a token in guidebooks and is evoked in philosophical and Orientalist writings. See, for instance, Derrida’s (2001) discussion of Massignon.

37. See Margaret Litvin, “‘Work Is Our Only Solution!’” Send Down the Basket (blog), October 3, 2011, and Elaine Ursula Ettmueller, “Egyptian to Egyptian: Work Is Our Only Solution!” Egyptian Letters (blog), September 24, 2011,

38. Sabea, “A ‘Time out of Time.’”


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