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The Soldier

Egyptian Tales—Episode 3

Hagazy had skin the colour of mellowed rimu, which won’t mean much to those of you not familiar with this beautiful New Zealand hardwood. Perhaps think oak, without the lines. Hagazy completed the trio of household staff at our ‘Villa on the Med’. He was tall and lean, his shoulders hunched as if they were trying to protect his tobacco laden lungs from the effort of breathing. His large, brown eyes had yellowed a little and bore the same weariness as his body. As the villa’s Security Guard, his duties were light; to make sure I did not go out alone, occasionally washing down the roof patio outside our third floor apartment, calling me if there was a phone call (a rare occurrence) and performing his obeisance to Allah each time the recorded message from the nearby mosque blared out its reminder.

When he needed to call me, he mounted the open stairway that wound up the side of the apartments inside the outer wall, stopping halfway so as to save himself the effort of two more flights. “Madahm Jakleen, telee-fon,” he would call. It was the full extent of his spoken English. Yet his physical frailty and weariness didn’t disguise an air of authority. The English lessons Mona the maid had instigated afforded him some relief from the boredom of his day and often elicited a rare smile. He clearly enjoyed Mamduah’s youthful company and they often sat chatting together over ‘breakfast’. Whatever bedrooms there were on the ground floor had been taken over by the three staff and were well used retreats where Hagazy spent much of his time out of sight, resting or sleeping. The curtains were always drawn closed and I never ventured inside these gloomy rooms, even when the three of them were absent.

I’ve already mentioned the hazardous piles of rubble in Alexandria’s city streets at that time but something that irked expat Westerners even more was the rubbish. When Rick lived in a hotel in the city and was driven the hour out to work on an industrial estate along the North coast, every day he saw drivers or passengers of cars dump their plastic bags of household rubbish out the window onto the median strip between the traffic lanes. When the strip was overflowing, the rubbish would be collected. Out in our suburb, there were blue metal skips where rubbish could be dumped. These provided homes for a multitude of small stray cats, usually ginger-coloured, their short hair permanently grubby.

The neighbouring walls.

Our villa, like all the others on our street, was surrounded by a high wall, both for privacy and to discourage intruders. Small, bare trunked trees lined these walls on the street side and between the trees, ignored and apparently forgotten, were piles of rubbish. It seemed that walking to the nearest skip was too big an ask.

Inside, our villa walls were likewise home to a few small trees and bushes and the spaces between hosted a much more modest array of litter, half hidden by desiccated fallen leaves. Not for the first time, Rick ordered these internal borders be relieved of such unnecessary unsightliness. It was an order met with a bemused smile from Hagazy and a ‘not my job’ gesture from Mona the Maid. Towards the end of our occupation of the villa, her replacement, a strong and more formidable woman in her forties, made it very clear that such fussiness was, in her eyes, ludicrous. On her first morning, as I showed her around with Hagazy in tow, she asked permission to hang a couple of wet items of her own personal laundry on one of the balcony lines. “Aiowa*,” (yes) I said. She quickly hung them up and promptly dropped the plastic bag that had contained them over the balcony onto the lawn below, which of course prompted much finger wagging and ‘La-aah’ (no) said firmly and repeatedly by me. Hagazy’s face lit up with a grin.

During Mona’s time with us, I had raised the issue of the rubbish under the trees inside our walls with Rick. He stressed that on no account was I to deal with the rubbish myself, tempting as that might be. The source of these random pieces of rubbish were a small mystery. I suspect some of it was chucked over the wall by passers-by. Perhaps the staff were sometimes responsible. On this occasion, the dead leaves also needed to be removed and when I brought it to his attention, Hagazy took it upon himself to stuff them and the rubbish into black plastic bags. I made it clear that they should be taken to the skip just down the road. Hagazy nodded solemnly.

One Friday, on Rick’s day off, he and I were out walking when I spotted black plastic bags leaning against the wall of another villa two doors down the road. They looked very much like our bags and a peak inside revealed familiar dried leaves and identifiable bits of rubbish. They were indeed ours. Rick was adamant I was not to remove them myself but to give Hagazy a clear message, via Mamduah if necessary, that it was not acceptable. Rick told me to make it very clear that he, not I, was ordering the bags be taken to the skip. Both he and I knew that as a woman and foreign at that, I was way down the pecking order in this highly stratified society where status was measured first and foremost by power and perceived wealth. Mr Omar summed it up openly when we were leaving a restaurant after dinner one evening. As we descended the steps to the road, he turned to me and said, “What’s important here is to be seen to be wealthy.” The clear implication was that actually being wealthy was secondary to the appearance of wealth. I don’t know who removed them in the end, but those rubbish bags were eventually taken the extra few meters to the skip.

Hagazy was responsible for my learning a whole coherent sentence in Arabic. When I instituted the convention that the staff could leave once the chores were done, Hagazy, with some relief I suspect, considered himself included in that edict and either trusted me not to leave the villa or didn’t care what I did in his absence. One of his duties was to close all the downstairs shutters before he left, which meant the lounge, kitchen and stairway were plunged into gloom before 2.00pm! My attempts to get Hagazy to leave that chore to me for later in the day were unsuccessful, so I got Mamduah to teach me how to say, “Lahma shams temshi, anna akfil shababek∗” ⎯”When the sun goes down, I will close the windows.” It became a ritual every afternoon, and one that always elicited a smile from Hagazy.

Later, the rubbish bag incident revealed an interesting tale from our bemused Security Guard, who clearly thought the Western obsession with rubbish disposal was a form of madness. With Mamduah translating, I learned that Hagazy was a retired soldier. At Mamduah’s prompting, he pulled up the left leg of his trousers to knee height revealing a vertical row of near-perfect circles where a machine gun had caught him.

Egypt fought two wars directly with Israel in 1967 (The Six Day War) and the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. In which of these wars Hagazy received his scars, I do not know. The second, which was a coalition of Arab States led by Egypt and Syria, was fought to recapture part of the territories lost in the ’67 war. Egypt celebrates every 6th day of October as Victory Day, when Egypt regained some of the territory previously captured by Israel. As often happens in these situations, you may read totally different opinions as to who ‘won’ that war but had Egypt not regained that territory, I would not have been on several trips through the Egyptian territory of the Sinai during our time in Egypt. I have discovered in many situations in life that ‘winning’ is often a matter of semantics.

What rank Hagazy held in the military, I do not know but also on this occasion when the scars were revealed, he recounted spending time in Sweden on army business. He told of a taxi ride there, during which he had, in good Egyptian style, thrown his empty cigarette packet out the window, whereupon the Swedish driver immediately stopped the car, retrieved the packet and gave it back to Hagazy. My Security Guard was clearly highly amused by this craziness and looked at me knowingly, with a twinkle in his eyes.

* My Arabic words are written phonetically, not with conventional translation into English.

With the contract up, we left the Villa in late May 1999. In 2000 Rick returned to Egypt. During the year of our absence, weary of life and most likely with lungs full of cancer, Hagazy had passed away. He was in his early sixties.

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