Real Estate Fata Morganas: Cairo’s Urban Futures as an intersectional Mirage
This blogpost uses the phenomenon of the fata morgana – mirage – to illustrate the dynamics of real estate advertisements for exclusive housing developments in Cairo. In doing so, we investigate some of the ways in which public media and advertising create a display of the urban that does not reflect the lived social, spatial, and economic reality of the majority of the population. At the same time, this urban visual is produced and shaped by the intersectional dynamics of embedded societal norms.
In contemporary cities, media plays a strong role in communicating urban visions and agendas. The wide distribution of real estate advertisements with images and renderings of new developments and towns demonstrates the degree to which governments and developers have sovereignty over not only real but also symbolic manifestations. However, for most of the urban population, the urban imaginary created via public media in many cities does not match their lived reality. This is particularly the case in Cairo. A large portion of the Egypt’s state budget is put into constructing new cities, and these new cities dominate the attention of academia, planning offices, media, and billboards in public streets (Hendawy, 2022). Despite their omnipresence in media narratives and the urban realm (Figure 2), these newly constructed cities in Egypt succeeded in attracting only around 2% of the Egyptian population.
A fata morgana is an environmental and literary phenomenon that often relates to something mysterious and hard to approach – a mirage. Semiotically, the term fata morgana is an Italian name for the witch Morgan le Fay in the Arthurian legends. In the figurative sense, it refers to a phenomenon of an optical illusion that was associated with Morgana’s magic. In specific circumstances in the ambiance, distant objects are reflected onto the horizon. As Stefan Andrews summarizes, a fata morgana indicates a “superior mirage, meaning that the image appears above the actual object, which can actually take multiple distinct forms. Even when the vessel in the mirage does not seem to be dangled in the air, it still looks odd and out of this world” (Andrews, 2017, para. 4). It becomes hard to tell which parts of the visual impression are real and which are not. Christopher Pinney alluded to the fata morgana’s associations with architecture based on the writings of Colonel James Tod (1782-1835), stating that “Tod wittily alludes here to the Fata Morgana’s often elaborate architectural forms, frequently imagined as palaces or cities in the sky where one could indeed obtain ‘a night’s lodging’” (Pinney, 2018, p.13). Figure 3 shows a depiction of a fata morgana based on a painting published in the book by Georg Hartwig (1881) titled ‘The Aerial World: a Popular Account of the Phenomena and Life of the Atmosphere’.
A fata morgana is often related to something mysterious and hard to approach which echoes the way public media create an urban visual of an imagination that does not reflect the lived reality of the majority of the population, as the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes in his poem titled “Fata Morgana” (1873):
So I wander and wander along,
And forever before me gleams
The shining city of song,
In the beautiful land of dreams.
But when I would enter the gate
Of that golden atmosphere,
It is gone, and I wonder and wait
For the vision to reappear.
Part of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Poem ‘Fata Morgana’
The fata morganization of real estate
The real estate sector is one of the largest investment sectors in Egypt, with it being one of the largest contributors to the country’s GDP (Al-Aees, 2021). However, according to Delmendo (2021), “the price of the cheapest social housing units has risen by 14% per year over the past decade, while average incomes only increased by 1% per year over the same period”. At the same time, the promotion of exclusive real estate has increased across the country’s public streets and media channels. Most of these new urban developments around Cairo and the new government districts are built into the desert (see Sims, 2014).
In our earlier research (Hendawy and Stollmann, 2020) we found that advertisements for exclusive real estate targeting wealthier segments of society are accepted to a similar extent by the general public from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Even those respondents who knew that it was almost impossible for them to ever buy or live in the advertised gated compounds showed the same degree of acceptance of the advertisements as those who were primarily targeted by them. This finding formed a critical turning point in our research revealing that the “general” public is attracted to these exclusive real estate ads in a similar way one may be drawn to a mirage or a fata morgana, in many cases without questioning this attraction. The lack of resistance and dislike we saw among the diverse survey respondents indicates indirect support and consumption of the idea of the exclusive real estate industry.
The phenomenon of the fata morgana is known locally among Egyptians as a desert-related phenomenon – the illusion one sees in the sky when driving early in the morning. Within the same everyday experiential realm of passing the city by car or bus, real estate fata morganas produce a virtual space the public is drawn to, something they aim to reach or fantasize about. In fact, one of the gated compounds in Egypt is named Mirage City (Figure 1)
The phenomenon of real estate fata morganas is not exclusive to the Egyptian context. As a result of global capitalism, neoliberal urbanism has been considered a driving force that has been adopted and practiced all over the urbanized world. Within these dynamics, the media have played a crucial role in communicating and constructing (illusionary) urban visions. Other indicators that also support the comparison of real estate advertisements with fata morganas are the work of media and visualization agencies neglecting socio-cultural and environmental contexts and conditions. In the many communicated urban visions and visualizations circulating among planners or between planners and others in education, policy, or practice (Hendawy, 2022) hardly any humans or animals are displayed. Similarly, 3D-renderings and billboards exaggerate the use of greenery in dry climate areas (see Abotera & Ashoub, 2017; Zaidan & Abulibdeh, 2020). In relation to mega urban projects, such as those in Doha, Qatar, Rose et al. argue that “instead of approaching [the computer-generated images] as images situated in urban space, their digitality invites us to understand them as interfaces circulating through a software-supported network space” (2014, p. 386). The authors argue that these circulating images have real world percussions, enrolling politicians, investors and the general public in the production of speculatory urbanism.
Intersectionality is a concept that describes the interdependency of issues such as class, gender, race, etc. in producing injustice (Crenshaw, 1989, see also Coaston, 2019). We claim that this concept can also be useful when looking at the production of urban visions in real estate advertisements in Egypt. There is a whole genre of TV and online advertising videos whose storylines and imagery are themed by romance, weddings, and marital life. Interpreting the public reaction towards these ads, we have argued that the real estate sector is highly gendered, class-dependent, and affected by societal norms (Hendawy & Stollmann, 2020). The acquisition of a new home is not only a question of gain in social status in Egypt, especially for couples about to marry. Even if the expensive homes advertised on the billboards remain a far-fetched dream for most Egyptians, they consolidate societal norms that put pressure on all classes and confirm prevailing gender stereotypes. Patriarchal norms make it more obligatory for the groom and his extended family than for the wife to purchase a new house after marriage. This pressure may impact the choice of potential partners and segregate income groups socially and spatially. Even though we observed a slowly growing discontent with the pressure of societal norms and expectations, the social act of marrying one’s partner is still very tightly linked to the potential acquisition of real estate. As these norms prevail, we argue that the ‘intersectional injustice’ of a segregated city is not only a top-down effect of neoliberal governance but to a certain extent co-produced by the majority of the population. To disentangle the social, political and economic forces that produce real estate fata morganas, the lenses of intersectional injustice, class identity and gender are highly relevant and demand further inquiry.
Thanks to Emān Zied, Sarah Abd El Naby, and Doaa Amr Shawky for sharing their thoughts with regards to highlighting the relevance of the term ‘fata morgana’ in Egypt. Sincere thanks as well to Sevana Topalian for her research assistance in the initial version of the article. Special thanks to Eng. Ahmed S. Abouelsaad, and Nitish Kumar for their support and research assistance as a part of their internship at Impact Circles e.V. We also thank Eng. Amal Nagi Ezzat for drawing the Fata mornaga image as a part of her internship at Impact Circles e.V.
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Dr.-Ing. Mennatullah Hendawy is an interdisciplinary urban planner working on the intersection of cities and technology toward equitable and sustainable (smart) cities. Hendawy is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Urban Planning and Design, Faculty of Engineering, Ain Shams University in Cairo and is also affiliated with Impact Circles e.V and CAIS in Germany.
Jörg Stollmann is an architect and Professor for Urban Design and Urbanization at TU Berlin. His work focuses on cooperative and collaborative design tools, on mediatization and digitalization of planning and urban everyday life, and on the urban as a common good. He taught at ETH Zurich and UdK Berlin. He is currently co-heading the CRC 1265 subproject B03 “Smart People. Queer Everyday Life in Digitalized Spaces” with Martina Löw.