CAIRO â€" Aisha's family has tried everything to cure her of the crushing headaches that ruin her days and the violent, swirling images that haunt her at night.
â€œAt first, we went to the doctor, but he was unable to help," says her brother, Ahmed El-Said. "He prescribed her pills but, if anything, they made her worse. After some time, we came to the conclusion that her problem must be spiritual, so we took her to the mosque.â€
Aisha and her family sought the help of a sheikh. When they found him to be of no help, they visited another. But he was also of little use. â€œWe have decided that all these sheikhs are fake. We have been to different ones and they all said the same thing. They all took our money and they did not help us,â€ her brother explains.
With all options exhausted, the family took a more extreme step: they brought her to the Church of St. Samaan the Tanner in one of Cairoâ€™s Coptic neighborhoods, hoping to benefit from the spiritual treatment on offer.
The Church of last resort
Every Thursday, Father Samaan and his team provide exorcisms to the worshippers in attendance. Father Samaan, 74, built the church in the 1970s. It has continued to expand since then and is now the biggest cave church in the world. And for decades, Father Samaan has been performing exorcisms for anybody who requests it.
Outside this famous church in Moqattam, a growing crowd gathers in wait for Thursdayâ€™s evening service. Most of them are local residents of Zabaleen, or â€œGarbage City,â€ the unofficial recycling center for Cairoâ€™s trash. In the seated waiting area outside the church, children play while the adults cheerfully chat away with each other.
The Said family are clearly marked as outsiders by their Islamic dress, if not their palpable anxiety. But they are not the only ones. Sporadic groups of Muslim visitors sit detached from the familiar crowd.
Like Aisha and her family, the majority of them have never visited a church before, but have come today out of desperation. They suffer from a range of issues, from mental health problems to infertility, and all hope to find a cure from the service provided free of charge every Thursday.
Another visitor, Hany, waits with his wife. The couple has been married for seven years, but has so far failed to conceive a baby. They first visited a doctor, who ran tests to prove that he was fertile. But after the doctor was unable to help him further, Hany turned to a sheikh.
â€œThe sheikh couldnâ€™t do anything,â€ said Hany. â€œBut he told me that somebody had put a curse on us. Her womb has been possessed, and in order to get pregnant she would need an exorcism.â€
â€œGood. Now, I feel goodâ€
As the sun begins to set over the pigeon lofts and minarets to the west, the exorcist attendees are led into the 20,000-seat church, to sit in a special section at the front. The regular worshippers file in to the amphitheater above them and the service begins. The session lasts over an hour. All the while Aisha and her family wait.
As the service is concluded, and the regulars begin to leave the church, Father Samaan now turns his attention to the visitors seeking exorcism, who line up to get onto the stage and receive their treatment.
Ahmed Said stands alone in the pews above, watching on with wide eyes as his sister awaits her turn. One by one, the attendees are greeted by Father Samaanâ€™s team, who lead them to the bearded priest, armed with an ornate crucifix and a bottle of holy water. As the Father holds the cross up to them, and violently whips water across their faces, the recipients react unpredictably. Most let out screams of anguish. Many cry. Some even faint.
As her turn approaches, Aisha starts to tremble. She is led to the priest and sits down on a pew in front of him. As the priest throws the holy water over her, she lets out an agonizing cry. Tears stream down her face as Father Samaan completes the ritual.
Following her ordeal, Aisha is led to a quiet pew and given some calm advice by the team, under the anxious gaze of her brother in the stands. When she finally finds the strength to stand she is still shaking but appears calm. When asked how she is feeling she replies, â€œGood. Now, I feel good.â€
As the exorcisms are concluded, Father Samaan is escorted out of the church and into a car, which waits for him in the tunnel that leads out from the cave. The tunnel is quickly filled with the echoes of screaming from one attendee who has not felt the benefits of the treatment she had hoped for. She begs the priest to do something for her, and the priestâ€™s staff are forced to intervene to protect the priest. Father Samaan offers her the spiritual guidance that he can from the passenger seat of his car, but after spending 15 minutes with the woman, he is eventually forced to leave her sobbing in the walkway. Aisha and her family leave quietly, confident that their long hardship is over.
Problems in the public health system
But Dr. Basma Abdel Aziz, of the General Secretariat of Mental Health, is worried this may not be the end of it. â€œHer symptoms sound like that of psychosis,â€ she says. â€œWe see this a lot. For different reasons, people prefer not to come to the hospital; there is still a stigma attached to it. For this reason, there is still not enough awareness about mental health issues in Egypt.â€
Dr. Abdel Aziz is concerned that spiritual exercises like this may be counter-productive. â€œSometimes there is nothing physically wrong with the patient,â€ she says, â€œand in these cases they might get some comfort or reassurance from visiting a sheikh or a priest. But often there is a serious underlying mental condition, and it can develop in the time it takes for them to come to us. Often people only come to us as the last resort, and too often it is too late.â€
She sees some of the roots of these problems in the public health system itself. â€œWe do not have enough facilities,â€ she says. â€œThe private system has a lot more but there arenâ€™t nearly enough hospitals and clinics in the private system. We need more and we need to be more integrated in the community. There is plenty of room for improvement, but there will also be things that we cannot help with.â€
A week after the exorcism, the Said family are in still in good spirits. â€œI have slept properly for the first time in years,â€ says Aisha. â€œI suffered such terrible headaches, stomach aches, and vivid dreams of rape and violence, but now I am so happy it is over. I hope I will never have to go through it again.â€
Aisha and her family remain hopeful that this is the end of her ordeal. But for her, like so many others, only time will tell.
In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.
SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.
What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?
But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.
An appetite for gentrification
I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.
In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.
This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.
Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.
Informal street vendors are casualties.
A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.
On paper, this all sounds great.
But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.
This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.
In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.
A call for food justice
Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.
Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.
It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.
In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.
Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.
Upending an existing foodscape
In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.
San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"
But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.
Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.
All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.
So what happens when new competitors come to town?
Starting at a disadvantage
As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.
My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"
San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.
When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.
Going up against the urban food machine
Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.
I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.
When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.
Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.
It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.
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