Egypt prides itself on being a pro-elite country, thanks to the status quo that has, for the better part of thirty years, studiously promoted the Egyptian dream–a carbon copy of the American dream, only warmer.
With every home now connected, legally or illegally, to satellite channels, even Egyptians forced to live among the dead in makeshift homes amongst graveyards across the country are subjected to provocative commercials of luscious green gardens with lustrous, spacious villas in their midsts, shining like a beacon of light in their darkness. If you are wealthy, you are promised a beautiful life in Egypt. The poor can only dream, and sometimes even dreaming can be expensive.
Being poor in Egypt does not even begin to describe the injustices this “class”, a deeply embedded cultural notion, of people face. They are marginalized, outcasts of society, ignored, and more than often discriminated against, by their government, council, and people, as not belonging to the modern face of Egypt, with its sprawling malls, compounds, country clubs, high street shopping districts, five-star hotels, and restaurants.
But those who do not live in the ever-increasing shanty towns, with sewer water to drink and bathe in; those who do not have solid roofs over their heads–at the mercy of Egypt’s harsh summers and freezing winters–are employed as doormen, or a bawab, for apartment buildings and villas all over the country.
A cheaper version of a bodyguard, protecting buildings from burglars and such, doormen usually come from villages across the country, to make a living in the bustling city of Cairo. They are usually accompanied on this unmerciful journey with their family, comprising of a wife and a few children in tow.
Shabaan, the doorman of a relative’s apartment building in Cairo, wakes up in the morning to clean the cars belonging to each home-owner. He is paid for this task at the end of every month, which is another way he can accumulate money to add to his meager income. Shabaan’s wife will more than often help, their children watching as they play on the steps of the apartment building.
Calls on the building’s main intercom from the home-owners will usually consist of small tasks for Shabaan to undertake, including shopping trips to the local supermarket to buy items such as milk, bread, frozen chicken, and such. Other tasks will include trips to the pharmacy. While he is out running his errands, on foot or on his bicycle, his wife will keep watch at the apartment’s entrance.
Sadly, however, the architect of this particular building did not construct a place of residence for a doorman and his family to live. These are usually found at the perimeters of newly-constructed apartment buildings, a small, brick shelter, roughly three-by-three, enough to house two tiny bedrooms, a toilet and stove. Or a closed-off room under the stairs at the building’s entrance.
Because one was not made for this building’s doorman, Shabaan and his family have to live on the first floor, which has not yet been sold. It does not have a door for privacy, the floor is rough with cement and pot-holes–freezing in the winter–and in place of windows, planks of cardboards have been nailed in place.
Upon entering, one feels as though one has left civilization and has entered a cave, while a few stories above, residents live in luxurious settings, turning a blind eye to these living conditions. But other doormen would envy Shabaan’s temporary residence. There are doormen who have to live in under-the-stairs one-by-one cloakrooms-turned-homes, where you cannot stand because of the low ceiling, where an entire family will live.
As though not having a humane place of residence is not enough, Shabaan and his family also have to tolerate being treated quite abusively. Residents often treat Nawabs, grown men, harshly, a complex deeply embedded in Egyptian culture, that because one is a doorman and works for “the master”, one has to be treated as a lesser human being.
When Shabaan wished to conceive a second child, he had to ask the home-owners permission to gather money for the artificial insemination, only to be met with outcries from the majority of residents who told him one child was enough. Although some residents believed it was his right to have more children, others argued that his living conditions were by no means a place for more children to grow up in. And yet, nothing is being done to improve these living conditions.
Hajj Abdullah lives around the corner from Shabaan. Also from a village in Egypt, he was employed by a lieutenant who owns an empty plot of land, almost stolen during the revolution by conmen. To avoid this, the lieutenant employed Hajj Abdullah and his family to protect the land, without protecting them from the harsh winter that was right around the corner. We watched him build a two-by-three brick shelter for a family of seven; the roof consisting of planks of cardboard, secured by several scattered bricks and palm leaves.
While the lieutenant and neighborhood ignored their plight, it was only second-nature to donate some blankets to the family. Upon visiting them, we learned they did not even have a stove to cook their food, having to rely on building a small fire that even Boy Scouts wouldn’t envy. Although they now have a stove, blankets, and warm-cooked food offered to them every now and then, they feel alone, abandoned; Hajj Abdullah watching new apartment buildings being sold for over a million Egyptian pounds rising above his head.
But it is not bad news for every doorman in the country. Some residents look after their doormen, as though part of the extended family. Their children are put through school, so they could have better prospects than their parents.
Like Gamal, who started working for a family member seven years ago. He was previously working in an apartment building as a security guard, and after facing injustices on a daily basis resigned from his post. A graduate from a university in Egypt with a degree in accounting, Gamal couldn’t find a job in his field. A trustworthy individual, he was employed straight after he resigned from a relative’s apartment building, but a the age of thirty-seven, he felt quite alone in the quiet suburb of the city of Cairo. Gamal was given a decent salary. He was also given money to be well-equipped to get married, and after a year became a proud father to a baby boy.
His son, Hamada, is treated and looked after a family, and not seen as “the doorman’s son who must be treated like the plague”, like Shabaan’s two-year-old blue-eyed, fair-haired son, who is usually seen dirty and barefoot in the middle of winter, although they have clean, hot water. “It’s so nobody gives him the evil eye,” his mother once told me.
“This is something we learned back home in the village.”