Life & StyleSociety

The local bawab: Beyond the surface

Undeniably a force to be reckoned with in any local metropolis, the influence of the bawab (doorkeeper) can often extend into the most personal aspects of tenants’ lives.
The bawab’s primary job is to keep an eye open, marking who enters the building they guard in broad daylight or the darkest hours of the night. He will also runs errands for the tenants – picking up koshary at odd hours if need be – call for a plumber if the toilets breaks, pick up the daily newspaper and remove some of the heaps of dust that cloak Cairo’s cars every day.
Surprisingly, the bawab’s living conditions often don’t seem to change, regardless of whether they’re minding a building situated in a middle-class neighbourhood or one in a posh area; They’re usually confined to the same dirty mattress that lies on a home-made spring bed that stopped squeaking a long time ago. The picture is often completed with a TV aptly turned towards the bed while tea steams from a glass on a stainless steel tray.
This is what the passive observer usually sees as he crosses paths with the building’s bawab. But what of the men behind the image?
“I left Aswan 12 years ago to look for work," says Shazly, a tall bawab that works in a Garden City building. "My uncle was the only person I knew in Cairo and he helped me find a job,” he says as he sips his steaming tea, "there is no economy in Aswan, no construction work, no factories, no companies. The only work prospect in El Sa’id [Upper Egypt] is to be a farmer, which brings very little money, not enough to feed a family,” he explains, concluding with an off-hand shrug.
The 19-year-old Abdel Rahman is Shazly’s nephew. Four years ago he also moved from Aswan to Cairo when he was asked to become his uncle’s assistant. “There is a lot of solidarity between the Sa’idis that settled in Cairo and the newcomers, and they helped me integrate here,” says Abdel Rahman, smiling.
The young man, who seems to have grown up too quickly, assisted his uncle Shazly for a year and a half before finding a job in a nearby kiosk selling refreshments displayed in a tall blue fridge. “In the summer I make LE 800 a month, but during the winter season my income drops down to LE250 as people do not drink as much Pepsi or Cola,” he explains, scratching his head, deep in thought.
Shazly’s new assistant, Ashraf, also came to Cairo to earn a living. Vividly, he explains that his family is a big one. “My grandfather married many, many women,” he says, his face glowing with pride. “I have ten brothers, some in Saudi Arabia, some working as farmers in Aswan, and four sisters. If I wanted to make a bit of money I had no choice but to come to Cairo,” he says.
He makes LE 200 a month carrying groceries for tenants, picking up the newspaper at 6 in the morning and cigarettes at any time of the day, while also guarding the building from any undesired intrusion. “It is much better to be a bawab in Garden City," he explains animatedly, "because the area is pretty safe. There are government buildings here, and the police station is around the corner. Nobody is going to try to break in.”
The assistant bawab confirms that the building is serviced by only Shazly and himself, which comes as somewhat of a surprise as it seems constantly busy with various men from the neighbourhood. “These men are our folks," explains Abdel Rahman, placing his hand on his heart. "They give us a hand when there is furniture to carry inside, or luggage,” he says, miming carrying a heavy bag.
In a building a few blocks away, a 22-year-old bawab, Ragab Ramadan, emerges from a dingy room at the base of the stairwell. Unlike the bawabs mentioned earlier, he did not come to Cairo to guard a building.
“I was born in Fayoum but my family moved to Cairo when I was two. Four years later my father passed away, leaving my mum, my two sisters and I in a dire financial situation,” he explains, his face constricted. “My eldest sister got married soon after my mother died. This is when I started working, at 15, to feed my [other] sister,” he says, pointing towards the cramped room he shares with her.
Ragab’s face lights up quickly when he mentions that he is engaged. “I will get married next year, God willing,” he says. Unlike many bawabs from the neighbourhood, Ragab is set to marry a girl from Cairo, not his hometown of Fayoum City. Shazly, who recently got married for the second time, chose a girl from Aswan, again. She came to Cairo for a few months, got pregnant and went back to Aswan after giving birth to a plump baby boy. “My first wife also lives in Aswan, with my three eldest kids,” confesses Shazly, a flush of color appearing on his cheeks.
Though only 19, marriage is a topic Abdel Rahman is very serious about. “In a few years, God willing, I will get married to a nice girl from Aswan and we will celebrate the wedding there. My soul is in Aswan,” he says calmly.
Ashraf interrupts the conversation to add an important clarification: “It is not that the girls in Cairo are not pretty compared to the ones from Aswan, but they constantly complain about their lives to their friends or their mothers. In Aswan, the only voice they listen to is their husband’s," adding with a joyous smile that "this is fine.”
“I am getting married next summer to my cousin Madiha," Ashraf notes, "as my father marries off my brothers one after the other. Soon it is my turn!”
Ashraf does not want his bride-to-be to live in Cairo under such conditions, so “she is going to live in the family apartment in Aswan, and I will try to visit twice a year,” he says. Abdel Rahman at that point declares, with unexpected insight, “this is what our lives look like.”
Though each story has its particulars, the bawabs and their assistants share the same dream: “To go back to home, God willing, in a few years.”

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