Egyptian Tales Episode 1
I arrived in Egypt for the first time on 5 November 1998. I flew into Cairo airport, navigated the jostling chaos of buying a visa stamp, queuing before one of the burly, white-uniformed immigration officials seated in his glass kiosk, smiled (it wasn’t reciprocated), found my luggage and steered a recalcitrant trolley out to where my husband’s reassuring arms awaited me. Some days later, with Cairo site seeing done, I arrived at what would be ‘home’ for the next seven months.
Having household staff is not something I’ve ever aspired to. Oh, a weekly cleaner for a couple of hours would be great but ‘servants’, no thanks. Faced with a grubby, three-storey villa an hour’s drive from Alexandria, the prospect of dedicated staff was alluring. And yes, the ‘staff’ would include a cleaner, with the title of ‘maid’. For years the villa had been used as a holiday house for an extended family. Its three storeys were actually separate apartments but the top two kitchens were locked and packed with extraneous ‘stuff’ left behind by the owners.
My husband, Rick, and I were now the ‘permanent’ residents along with a young Australian computer programmer also named Rick. They were simply referred to as ‘old Rick’ and ‘young Rick’. The other members of my Rick’s team of eight came as needed, sometimes for months at a time, sometimes for weeks or just a few days. The household staff, I was informed, was under my direction, to ensure the household ran smoothly and the team’s domestic needs were met so to speak. Mmmm . . . sounded good. Apart from the maid, there was Hagazy, an ageing security guard, tall and thin with an alarming smokers cough that resounded through his chest with a deadly rumble. Then there was Mamduah. He, I was informed, would do whatever was needed.
Slightly built, not much taller than me, young Mamduah had a ready smile exposing straight teeth stained by tobacco and coffee. He dressed smartly in grey slacks, clean, crisp white shirt and a maroon sports coat of which he was very proud. Like most urban Egyptian men, his personal grooming was careful—hair well cut, face clean shaven and well scrubbed. Mamduah and I met for the first time in the kitchen, by chance. He gave me a big smile and shook my hand, an act often unusual for a Muslim Egyptian male. It was late afternoon, the maid had skived off, there was a pile of dishes to do and four stressed out, tired men arriving home from work in a few hours. It was a relief to find Mamduah spoke reasonably good English. The maid and security guard, not surprisingly, had none and my Arabic was, at that point, non-existent aside from a few essential words Rick had already taught me, primarily ‘please’, ‘no’, ‘thank you’ and ‘go away!’
“What you want Madam? I do anything.” Mamduah said with a big grin. He pronounced Madam the French way, ‘Madaahm’. In the absence of the maid, I pointed to the stack of dirty dishes left over from several meals including the staff’s lunch. Tempting as it was for me to do the dishes myself, my instructions were clear, I was not to take on work the staff were paid to do but Mamduah’s face fell and he held up his hands in protest.
“No Madam, I cannot,” he said, flicking the lapels of his precious maroon jacket.
“Take it off,” I suggested, “and roll up your sleeves.”
He grumbled and moaned. I kept smiling and stood my ground. He removed his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and washed the dishes whilst I retreated to our apartment on the top floor from where I could watch the goats in a neighbouring lot below.
There is no long twilight in that part of the world. Day ends and night falls quickly following a masterstroke of shades graded from yellow to midnight blue. Hagazy climbed wearily halfway up the stairs to our apartment and called me, gesturing that I should follow him downstairs. It was dark. Mamduah had long since left and the men had not yet returned from work. A sleek black car was parked outside, its driver leaning against the far side, smoking a cigarette. A sandy haired English woman in a fawn business suit leaned against the near side waiting for me.
She didn’t introduce herself nor welcome me to my new abode. I deduced she was Madam T, the factory owner’s wife. I knew she was about the same age as our younger son. That’s nice, I thought, she’s come to welcome me. No actually, she’d come to tell me off. She launched into a short lecture on social mores and job demarcation that left me very confused. Then came a curtly delivered statement whose meaning was abundantly clear.
“Mamduah does not do dishes. That’s the maid’s job.” “I do anything,” had obviously got lost in translation somehow.
“So what does he do?”
“He will do the shopping for you.”
That was it. She got back into her car and was driven away. And I, firmly put in my place, was reminded that in another country, things are very often not what they seem or not how they sound. We may speak the same words but not the same language.
This window onto an oleander tree was a welcome spot of beauty halfway down the open stairway linking the three floors of the villa.
To have someone dedicated to doing the shopping was a pretty novel idea but it became readily apparent that I was expected to stay put in the villa. A ‘villa on the Mediterranean’, conjures a measure of opulence at best or aged elegance at least. The reality was neither. It was a three storey concrete construction with plaster covering in-fill brick, painted whitish with standard light blue shutters. High walls surrounded the property, edged on one side by a narrow unsealed road of pale dirt and sand. On another side was an empty lot, occasionally occupied by goats. The large back yard contained an unusable, empty swimming pool in need of repair.
As for shopping, I got into the routine of finding out what the men wanted for dinner and breakfast, adding anything of my own. I would give the order to Mamduah whose appearances at the villa were as mysteriously unpredictable as the opening hours of the local shops. It turned out that he was also the shopper for the factory owner’s household, hence that visit from the other ‘Madam’ and the lack of routine since his first obligation was to her household with its four children and eleven staff. (“Eleven, is that enough?” Rick said, with his most charming of smiles.)
Mamduah would return from shopping lugging full plastic bags and inevitably stay for a long, leisurely cup of sugar-laden tea taken in the company of Hagazy. Sometimes, he would turn up for ‘breakfast’, well after our men had left at 7.30am for work. He’d arrive with a mushy bean mixture pronounced ‘fool’, some spindly, spinach-like greens purchased from a donkey cart on his way to work, and fresh pitta bread to mop up the liquid.
For Mamduah, shopping was a perfect job. It suited his gregarious Gemini personality and gave him a sense of importance and pride as he piggy-backed on the reflected wealth and status of his employer. He was a consummate networker in this society where relationship is king. He shook hands, slapped backs and kissed cheeks—all of them male of course. There were few women about the streets during the day, and the male/female networks operated very separately. Being a foreigner with no female friends or acquaintances, the female network was invisible to me, hidden behind the walls of houses or apartment buildings. I seldom saw or heard a foreign women in the township. Those I did were usually speaking French. Since most locals shopped in the evening, there were seldom any women about the streets when I had a chaperoned ‘escape’.
Mamduah was a willing guide to things we needed, often tucked away in dim little shops so small and heavily stocked there was barely room for a customer. He showed me where I could buy journals, pencil sharpeners, coloured gel pens etc.. He introduced me to carob beans, the cake shop (definitely an Egyptian favourite) and the best place to get meat for the men. In a more modern appliance store he smoothed the waters when I erupted in anger as one of the assistants tagged me very closely, evidently suspecting that being foreign, I was probably a shoplifter.
Transport was a problem for me, a subject too large to divert to here. I rarely got into the city of Alexandria, an hour away. However, in the latter part of this first sojourn in Egypt, I discovered that Mamduah was an eager host and more than happy to escort me to the city, when Madam T. didn’t need him. He conjured up taxis, sitting in front with the driver, (always male) offering him cigarettes and greasing the wheels of transport with friendly chatter and camaraderie that resulted in local fare rates, at least half what I, as a Western visitor, was expected to pay.
Such trips gave me the chance to explore Alexandria more, discover where the locals ate, where there was a well-stocked supermarket in a multi-storey mall, and labyrinths of shopping streets I’d not have found on my own and never could find again without him. When I wanted to hunt down some cotton singlets, we ended up at a women’s lingerie shop. Such shops seemed a paradox in this Islamic country with its conventions of female modesty. Its windows showcased flimsy nylon negligées in gaudy colours and racy lingerie sets. Mamduah had no compunction about escorting me into the shop but he did get a grilling from the female staff wanting to know who I was.
In 1998-99 rubble was a frequent eyesore in the once elegant city of Alexandria. We picked our way around or across the frequent piles left behind from building or re-paving projects. They were not just in poorer streets like this one. One pile Mamduah and I had to traverse in an upmarket shopping street took the heel off my boot, but he happily organised the repair for me.
One afternoon, Mamdual arrived at the villa with a motorbike roar, wearing a grin so wide it was surprising he could get it through the property’s door. Bursting with pride and glee, he ushered me out to the courtyard to show off a six-wheeler buggy with a tray at the back, such as a New Zealand farmer might use for feeding out hay to his stock. It was one of Mr Omar’s beach buggies used for ferrying the family or the jet skis the short distance to the beach in summer. Clearly, for Mamduah to be allowed to use it was a great privilege. He was as proud as if he owned it himself.
“Come! I take you shopping.” I declined with thanks, feeling it wise to check out the protocols first. After several attempts over the weeks to get me on the buggy, finally, to Mamduah’s great delight, I agreed. Attired appropriately, as always, in modest slacks and a long sleeved blouse, I climbed onto the seat. Mamduah climbed on in front of me and with a grinning Hagazy manning the heavy iron gate, we took off into the narrow lane.
Mamduah turned left into the street of sand, then first right to avoid the cesspond that filled the corner outside the nearest ‘coffee shop’. Another left took us into the main street. He accelerated. I had nothing to hang onto but his waist. Acutely aware of the conventions in this highly segregated society, I hesitated. He accelerated again. To hell with protocols, if I were going to fall off I’d be taking him with me.
“Slow down!” I yelled as I tentatively held him by the waist.
He laughed, “You okay with me Madam.” and opened the throttle further. We careened through the streets like Le Mons drivers. Crash helmets were nonexistent here and certainly not compulsory. My hair was flowing like a short streamer, shops flying by in a blur.
“Mamduah, slow down!” I yelled again. He turned his head enough for me to see his happy grin.”It’s okay Madam, if anything happens to you Mr Rick will kill me! Then Mr Hagazy will kill me! Then Mr Omar will kill me!”
If this was supposed to reassure me, it failed. He leaned further over the handlebars and gunned it. I hung on tighter. The fact that I am writing this over twenty years later assures you I survived, and a triple murder of Mamduah was averted.
By way of a footnote . . .
This panorama, cobbled together from pre-digital photographs, is the view from the top floor of the villa. You can see the beginnings of building sites below and the giant wall of containers in the middle distance at the port. The villa on its own just to the right of centre, is similar in style to ‘ours’. The building with the tower on the left is the nearby Mosque. More about that in later dispatches.