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Bread, Freedom and Social Justice in a Sufi Khidma

February 3, 2014

Academic Perspective

What can we learn about Tahrir Square by seeing it through the allegory of the khidma?

Here on this blog, and in two forthcoming papers, I have been writing about the spirit of Tahrir Square during the 18-days of uprisings in 2011 using terms from anthropological theory such as antistucture, liminality and communitas, non-space and so forth.

There’s another theoretical tradition in anthropology that seeks to understand phenomena analogously with other phenomena from the same cultural system. This is the approach taken by Amira Mittermaier in a new article in the journal Cultural Anthropology.

Entitled “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: The Egyptian Uprising and a Sufi Khadima” the article does as the title suggests: seeks to understand Tahrir Square and the spirit of the uprising in terms of the Sufi notion of a khidma, “a space, often close to a saint’s shrine, where food and tea are served and guests find a place to rest or sleep.”

The khidma is not only a model of the kind of qualitative space that Tahrir was, but it also articulates forms of interactivity–sharing, cooperating, seeking justice–that were definitive of Tahrir as a “utopian” cultural space. She argues 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.

Mittermaier is the author of the beautifully written Dreams That Matter: Egyptian Landscapes of the Imagination (UCalifornia Press, 2011). This article, like the book, is imaginative and evocative. And the great thing is that anyone can read this article because it is in the first open access issue of Cultural Anthropology.

‘Aīsh, huriyya, ‘adāla igtimā‘iyya (“bread, freedom, social justice”) were key demands of Egyptian protesters in early 2011. Whereas the call for bread evokes immediate need, social justice is often associated with structural transformations and a better tomorrow. In light of this temporal tension, this article calls for a critical rethinking of an orientation toward the future by dwelling on the ethical and political potentials inherent to traditions of giving, sharing, and hospitality that are fundamentally oriented toward the present. Drawing on fieldwork in Cairo during 2010 and 2012, I think about an ethics of immediacy that is embodied in seemingly non-revolutionary everyday practices, but that also emerges from stories about Tahrir as a space of togetherness and solidarity. I argue that such an ethics is obscured in dominant neoliberal concepts of social justice, which foreground individual responsibility, productivity, and economic growth. Concretely, the article places the Tahrir utopia in conversation with a Sufi khidma that provides guests with food, tea, and a place to rest. Both spaces, I suggest, gesture toward modes of being in the world which rupture the state’s monopoly of politics, enable alternative forms of circulation and distribution, and encourage forms of relationality different from capitalism (in both its welfare and neoliberal renditions). By bringing these spaces into conversation, I seek to problematize a pervasive neoliberalization of social justice and to contribute to an anthropology of the otherwise.


Mittermaier, Amira. 2014. “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: The Egyptian Uprising and a Sufi Khadima.” Cultural Anthropology 29(1): 54-79.

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