Egyptian Tales Episode 2—“Methinks she doth protest too much!”
She had an unfortunately appropriate name, Mona, and a great knack for conveying her utter reluctance to do her job. Well, that’s not quite fair of me. She happily dealt with the dishes and the the washing machine but effective cleaning beyond a flick around with a filthy damp, rag? No. Unfortunately for poor Mona, I was on a mission. Rick had spent many precious hours to find a dwelling suitable for his expected team of seven, mostly Australian men, and the villa was really the only reasonable candidate to be found. However, it was in need of a good scrub, the floors in particular. The exception was the third apartment on the top floor, which Rick had claimed for us. It was clean, light and pleasant with a large patio. Young Rick had purloined a bedroom with ensuite on the same floor, the other side of the stairwell for himself.
What Mona’s personal life was like I can only imagine. I know she caught a bus to work, most likely what we would call a mini bus. If she lived in the city she probably lived in one of the concrete apartment buildings similar to this, that abounded with depressing ugliness in Alexandria and its sprawling environs.
She was in her early twenties, I would guess and had a young son, about six or seven years old, who came to work with her a couple of times, probably during school holidays. He was a gentle child with black curly hair and dark brown eyes.
At first, when Mona wasn’t around, I experimented with ways to get the years of grime off the floor tiles. After observing shop-keepers, cleaners at the factory, cafes and restaurants, I realised Egyptians have a love affair with water. That’s hardly surprising in a desert land where, according to Wikipedia, the crucial source of water we call the River Nile, flows over 6,000 kilometres (four thousands miles) with a drainage basin covering eleven countries. Given the general scarcity of water, we thought Egyptians wantonly wasteful of this precious resource.
They are a passionate people dedicated to emotion and drama; theatrical displays between individuals and groups were common. All over the world human language is expressed in grades from rough to refined, depending on social class. Here, most arguments erupted in corse Arabic that sounded like a volley of nails being thrown between the combatants. In metaphysics, water is said to be the lower correspondence or ‘out-picturing’ of emotion so perhaps that also helps explain their desire to throw both water and emotion about with seemingly scant restraint. I arrived at the factory one day to be greeted at the foot of the wide staircase leading up to the executive floor by a torrent of cascading soapy water flowing down to meet me. I jumped out of the way. This is how you wash things, Egyptian style⎯throw some water at it, the more the better, then shove it it out the door with a squeegee.
So, of course that’s how Mona wanted to do it. The two Ricks and I didn’t want a flood that would only shift the most recent dust, we wanted a clean floor. Baking soda couldn’t be found except in tiny packets but the shops did have abrasive cleaners and they were effective but only with vigorous scrubbing, and yes, water. I demonstrated the technique to Mona, proving that indeed the floors were cleanable. She put on an oscar performance of gingerly fingering her elbows, lowering her head in misery and supplication and begging, “Laah Madahm, Laaah,” Laah is Arabic for ‘No’ of course. Kindly (I hope) but firmly, I insisted, marking out the area of tiles I expected her to complete that day. It was barely 2 square meters. So, day by day we limped towards clean floors as I gradually increased the daily area to be cleaned. Rick was delighted and even young Rick, taciturn at the best of times, grunted his approval
Our very pleasant haven on the third floor.
There was also a small lounge where I could sit and write.
One day young Rick came to me visibly upset. The collars of his shirts were all wearing out very fast. He was sure Mona was using too much washing powder. With gesturing and demonstration, I discovered she was giving the collars an extremely vigorous scrubbing with a rather hard plastic bristle brush. She was told ‘Laah’ firmly, accompanied by sideways finger wagging, which seems to work in most countries. Young Rick bought new shirts and another domestic irritant was solved. Fortunately, I’d been dealing with our washing myself.
Mona was one of the most clever avoiders of work I’ve come across and her next move was a stoke of genius. She persuaded Mamduah to ask me for English lessons. It was a brilliant strategy that took at least an hour off her working day. Mamduah, who was needed as translator, joined us along with Agazy, the security guard, who must have been bored out of his mind. I kept a vocabulary notebook, which I think I still have tucked away somewhere. It was a win-win for the four of us. I got to learn far more Arabic than Mona or Agazy learned of English, Mona got time off her domestic chores and Agazy got to relieve the boredom. I also used it as a bargaining chip. No English lesson until the chores were done, and if she was finished her work, she had my permission to go home afterwards. As for Mamduah, he loved being useful and it gave him the chance to indulge his favourite pastime⎯talking. He was a Gemini after all.
As for Mona, she left about a month before our own first departure at the end of May 1999. Mamduah hinted at trouble between her and her husband. Apparently, she had been ‘talking to another man’ on the bus into work, a sufficient reason, apparently, to cause her husband’s ire and ban her from such travel with its dangerous opportunities for impropriety.