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A Thief or Two

Egyptian Tales
1. Shopping with a Boy Racer
2. The Maid
3. The Soldier
4. Hunting for a Home
5. First Egyptian Christmas
6. The Lady’s Honour
7. Who’s Who
8. Street Kids
9. A Thief or Two
10. The Bank
11. The Importance of Walls
12. The White Gecko
13. Black Adam Part 1
14. Black Adam – Part 2
15. Israel Part 1
16. Israel Part 2
17. Israel Part 3

Egyptian Tales — Episode 8

Every country has its thieves⎯from the petty thief that steals fruit from a street barrow to the clever schemer who manipulates the complex workings of a large business to their own advantage to the giant corporations that skillfully avoid paying their share of taxes while claiming to be ‘good corporate citizens’ (a sophistry* indeed!). In manufacturing businesses there are physical goods to steal, a tee-shirt to be slipped unseen into a bag or donned beneath outer clothing during a visit to the toilets. Nevertheless, the suggestion that there were thieves at work in Omar’s factory incensed him. He claimed that the Arab custom of cutting off the hand of the thief kept his employees honest. As Rick has more than once pointed out, over the eleven years he worked for Omar, he never saw a one-handed Arab but thieving there was.

* Sophistry is a term that comes from a group of Ancient Greek philosophers called Sophists. The movement began as a protest against the strange and paradoxical conclusions of philosophers of nature or those known as cosmologists. Over time, as their philosophy evolved, the sophists came to claim that absolute truth could not be attained. “When however, the appeal became an appeal to mere subjective truth, opinion and self-interest, it struck a false note. Independence of thought easily degenerates into intellectual and moral anarchy; individualism into pure selfishness.” (A History of Philosophy by Frank Thilly & Ledger Wood. Pub. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, NY 1914) It’s interesting that our word, ‘sophisticated’ has its roots here too.

When office systems are well designed and robust, it’s obvious when things are going missing and so it was that Rick and Gavin knew that somewhere in the chain, garments were disappearing. Rick, a naturally astute observer of human nature and with a lifetime of experience in manufacturing, had a good ‘nose’ for how goods might be smuggled out of a factory. Gavin, for his part, was not only trained in forensic accounting but was also Australian. His country was largely settled by criminals deported for crimes both petty and more serious, survivors from the harsh life of Britain’s poor. According to British archives, colonisation of Australia began in 1788 with a fleet of 11 ships, containing 736 convicts. Such a history was not lost on Rick and it earned the outspoken Aussie a fair bit of ‘ribbing’ over the years.

Omar had two factories, a very large one in the desert that knitted fabric, dyed the cloth, did all the cutting and sewed some of the garments. In addition there was a very much smaller factory in Alexandria, that took the bulk of the cut garments for sewing. So, when Omar discovered puzzling discrepancies between fabric produced in the factory out in the desert and the number of garments sewn in and delivered from the Alexandria factory, Rick and Gavin were on alert, confident they could figure out how the missing garments were being spirited away. Not surprisingly, Omar was somewhat affronted by the realisation that at least one of his people was stealing from him.

We learned a little of the Alexandria factory in our previous episode on the Street Kids. Indeed this was the same building in which Omar’s dad had begun his textile business many years before. It was surrounded by similar buildings, most of them bereft of any aesthetic appeal and for current uses, even their functionality was questionable. Several concrete stories high, the Norsa factory was a labyrinth of aged narrow corridors and stairways with dirt-darkened walls and an air of Dickensian gloom. The constant hum of sewing machines was punctuated by human voices in varying degrees of harshness and loudness in Arabic and occasionally, English. There were people everywhere in a confusing mix of regimentation and chaos. Each floor was a sewing unit, a separate sewing ‘factory’ with its own line supervisors. There was no available lift, so there were fifteen male porters on the stairs at any one time during the day, going up and down, up and down, carrying bags of cut garment panels. Their job was to move the work around this multi-storey sewing hive where both order and apparent chaos reigned simultaneously.

Rick describes this factory as being constituted of many ‘kingdoms’ but in his view, the only one worth a tinker’s cuss amongst them was actually a queen, Omar’s Mother. Like her Mother-in-law before her, ‘Madam Valerie’ was from Yorkshire and like many natives of that English County, Yorkshire not England or Great Britain, was the place they stolidly identified themselves as coming from. Though Valerie had no formal position, it was she who held this place and its processes together. That she was ‘Madam Valerie’, the owner’s Mother, was enough of a title to command obedience and deference.

To begin with, Valerie had spent most of her time in the despatch area, making sure that the goods were packed correctly and sent off to the right customers. It wasn’t very long from doing that to saying, “Look, we’ve got more of this style to go out next week, where are they? What do you mean you haven’t started making them yet? Do it right now!” Thus she ended up working backwards from packing to effectively chasing production control and soon became a very competent operator who was able to bypass the inevitable internal politics of the male Egyptian staff.

Gavin and Rick paid their first visit to the Norsa factory around April 1998, within the first few weeks of their arrival. They were introduced to an Egyptian that Gavin immediately dubbed ‘the Smiling Banana’ on account of his pale, freckled, soft-skinned face and a tendency to smile benignly at everything, whether it was warranted or not. Another of Omar’s childhood friends, he was, in title if not in fact, ‘the Boss’ at Norsa. In this society where personal and family status and connection are paramount, it was inevitable that too often, employment positions depended more on these criteria than on qualification, competence and experience. Hence, Rick’s description of the Smiling Banana was that he was ‘probably one of the best qualified and most successful textile operators, in his own imagination, that it’s possible to become’. Nevertheless, I personally came to be grateful for this young man’s company during a crisis many months later.

Much as it galled him, Omar had realised there was work going missing. From the figures of cut garments sent to Norsa for sewing versus garments delivered out the door, it was abundantly clear to Rick and Gavin as well, that stock had to be disappearing from the Norsa factory. The ratios of fabric in, to garments out, didn’t match.

Some of the garments really did just get lost and would be found a month later, after the order had been delivered. Those previously lost items could no longer be delivered but had to be jobbed off as seconds. Some got lost because when you’ve got the amount of stock that they had, rammed into every corner and under every table in the place, you’re going to lose stuff. Some of it however, just wasn’t there, so Gavin and Rick knew it was getting pinched and from experience knew that it’s not uncommon in the garment trade. Met by the Smiling Banana, they were given the grand tour, which consisted primarily of going up and down stairs.

Looking around, it was obvious to Rick and Gavin that there was a huge potential for improvement but the people thought⎯particularly the managers⎯that they were really, really good. Nevertheless, there was a mindset to change. They thought they were really good because they did get work out and they were as busy as a bee with a bum full of honey and when the orders went out on time, Valerie gave them all a proverbial pat on their heads so they knew that they were doing well. Nobody ever got admonished. Oh, Omar would scream at somebody now and then but everybody would rush around and get the problem fixed and he wouldn’t kill them so in their view that was a good outcome.

So, hosted by the Smiling Banana, Rick and Gavin are getting the grand tour. “We finally got right up to the top floor. Now at the top there’s a canteen. There was an open area with a roof over the top to keep the sun off, benches with chairs or tables and bench seats for people to sit down, have their cup of tea and their lunch and so on. It was an open sided area with a balcony looking out over the industrial charms of Norsa and the fetid water in the Mahmoudiyah Canal along with dead dogs, bikes, you name it… We could see all these buildings below us as most of them were a bit lower than ours.

The Mahmaoudiyah Canal

“Gavin and I were standing there with Omar and we’re looking out over the city, out generally towards Qait Bey and I looked at Gavin and he looked at me and we grinned at each other and one of us said, “I think this is where it leaves the premises” and the other one said, “Yes, I think so, yeah this’ll be it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” said Omar.
“The stuff that’s stolen, this is how it gets out of the building.”
“What do you mean?”
“It gets out from here.”
“How do you know that!” said Omar.
“Because there’s strict security all the way downstairs; security guards at all the doors and the windows are too small so you can’t push stuff out of them and there are hundreds of people around but up here at the top, people are not sitting having cups of tea twenty-four hours a day. Most of the time there’s nobody here or there’s the tea maker who knows their place and their place is in there and their philosophy is, “I see nothing, hear nothing, say nothing”.

At these assertions Omar got quite angry because he was still reluctant to concede that Arabs steal.
“It’s got nothing to do with Arabs,” Rick explained.
Gavin just said, “People in the textile industry steal.”
“They steal,” Rick and Gavin told him, “and it doesn’t matter what your nationality is, they steal. Some of them do it by wearing two teeshirts home every day instead of one and for some, it’s bags of stuff. At your place, Omar, it’s bags of stuff and in our opinion it leaves from this top floor.”

They looked out over the balcony and sure enough, there was a dent on the roof of a weaving factory below and a couple of plastic bags lying round.
“There! If we were stealing, this is what we would do. We would get a bag of work and we would throw it out and it would hit that roof, where that dent is. The guy that works underneath it, he would hear it and he’d come and grab it. And if you look down there, there are people walking around all over the place from all the different factories that come into this alley and some are carrying rolls of fabric and some are carrying bags of goods and some are carrying labels and some have got their lunch and some are doing this and…it would just blend in!”

Despite his unwillingness to concede, it was obvious that their logic and the dent on the lower roof of the adjoining building was a definite clue and possibly evidence but Omar retorted with a comment that had become a familiar refrain in those first weeks.
“You’ve been here five minutes and you think you know everything.”
Clearly, these early, rather numerous occasions when Rick and Gavin asserted as yet unproven knowledge as to what was really going on in Omar’s business, were received by Omar as a slight on his own authority, knowledge of his own business and status as owner and boss. In response, Rick asserts, “Well, Gavin and I did know what was going on, because Omar’s problems were Universal problems.”
In addition, Rick and Gavin were twice Omar’s age and had at least twice his experience in business.

A few months later, from that very spot on the rooftop canteen, somebody threw a bag out on a windy day but their aim was poor and it got hooked up on a telephone pole and some wires. Naturally, somebody who went up there for lunch looked out and saw one of Omar’s company bags with all its tee shirts hanging from the wires. Of course the bags had dented the roof of the weaving factory. When Omar’s people went in they found that the roof was actually propped up from underneath so the stolen merchandise wouldn’t fall through!

Not the scene of the crime but typical of the crowded buildings in Alexandria’s urban sprawl.

“Although Omar was pissed off with us for ‘casting aspersions’,” Rick observed, “he was pretty bloody impressed that we had been in the Norsa factory for less than an hour or, with a cup of tea time, say an hour and a half, and yet, as soon as we got to the top floor, we looked out and said, ‘This is where the goods have been stolen from and this is where they’re leaving from.’ That really threw Omar.”
Perhaps, as Rick’s father used to say, ‘The depth of a man’s suspicion is a measure of his own honesty.”

This was not to be the last time opportunistic thieving reared its head during our years in Egypt. When Mona the maid was replaced by an older woman, a few valuables disappeared from our bedroom cabinet and Young Rick had a large amount of cash stolen though the two incidents were not necessarily related. However, before we finally left our villa accommodation in mid 1999 there was a full blown thieving drama but you’ll have to wait a bit for that rather bizarre saga. . .

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