I am now sitting on my cozy sofa in my new living room absorbing the warm orange tones that surround me. The walls, the sofas, the carpets, and the radiant heaters in my fireplace seem to congratulate me on my long-awaited hard-earned independence. I have moved into what I hold as my biggest achievement; I have moved into my new home … my very own home. People make homes everyday. I know it is not such a big deal. But you do not see everyday working middle class Egyptian girls buying, finishing, and furnishing their own homes regardless of the absence or presence of a man. You rarely see that sort of utter independence and autonomy in a society that did, and continues to do, its very best to keep its female half handcuffed to their male counterparts. I am writing this article in celebration of female supremacy. But before you share my feelings of pride, joy, achievement, fulfillment, and warmth I want to share with you my interesting experience in a perplexing patriarchal society.
First of all, I have discovered that, in Egypt, workers, doormen, shopkeepers, and security guys will call you “madam” as the only sign they know of respect. Whether you are married or not, wearing a ring or not, it does not make a difference. I am not bothered by the title as much as I am intrigued by its connotations; I am “nothing” and a “nobody” if I am not “someone’s” wife! My studies and achievements in life and the workplace do not guarantee me respect and social status. Why couldn’t they call me “ostaza” or doctor or even miss? I was tempted many times to correct them that I am not “Mrs. Anyone” but I decided to spare myself their suspicious looks and inquisitive eyes or pity and sincere prayers that I found “the good man who would make me happy”. I held my peace.
A male friend of mine volunteered to help me out but my bossy demanding self, instead of gratitude, I felt controlled and restricted. Naturally, when someone goes out of his way and offers you sincere help, he would develop some sort of emotional involvement. My friend began giving me suggestions, advice, and opinions on where, when, what, why, and how things should be done or placed. My never-ever-try-to-control-me sensors picked up negative vibes and I gasped for air in my invaded space. The decent me was immediately replaced by a vicious aggressive creature that turned ugly and nasty in every possible way. I drove the friendly hand away and, to avoid more losses, I made a conscious decision to keep my friends out of the way and sight of my green-eyed monster. Bottom line: I am not marriage material … I was created a loner.
Since I mentioned my male friend let me highlight another point in the day to day dealings with our very own Egyptian proletariat; they all spoke to him! It is my apartment, my decision, my choice, my life, and my money – mine alone – yet whenever he was there they insisted on totally ignoring me, and what I said, and only addressed him. I cannot even begin to describe how offensive that felt. I – a very worthy human being – was turned into an invisible person by some ignorant people who denied me the right to be independent. The presence of “a man” made it much easier for them to communicate than to deal with me – a woman! Thus, the man had to go!
Speaking of that I have to share a first of a kind anecdote; in one of the governmental offices, I was kept last – I mean the very last person regardless of whose turn it was – after the employee in charge was done with all the veiled and the “monakaba” ladies in the waiting area. In his eyes, I did not deserve to be served and I certainly deserved to be punished! In another office, the cashier looked me in the eye as he handed me my receipt yet overlooked giving me back the 20 Egyptian Pounds change. In that same office I have been yelled at by some other employee who got so offended because I asked about the approximate time the technician was expected to visit me. It is only fair to say that I have encountered some very cooperative and sincere employees who went out of their way to help me with the procedures and who voluntarily called me to update me on the status of my papers or applications.
The other thing that drove me insane was the fact that almost everyone that I interacted with in the process of finishing and furnishing my home – from plumbers, carpenters, electricians, to government officers like the telephone or electricity guys – they all assumed that “someone will be at home in the morning”. Who could be at home? Even if I were married, I would be at work and so would the husband. Do I look like someone who would have a live-in maid? Or maybe they got the fact that I was single so it was only natural that I lived with my parents – who had to be at home! This made me wonder about the concept of shifts … why don’t we have shifts? It would solve a big deal of the unemployment crisis that is eating away the zeal of the youth of this country. If I finished work at five and drove home in an hour then why couldn’t they send me someone at seven or eight?
I did drugs!!! Yes ... I smoked! On the verge of a heart attack and a nervous breakdown, a friend of mine handed me a joint. Perfection and commitment are two things that are unheard of in this country – ok maybe a few people have heard of them. From leaking new pipes, broken new faucets, and worn out new furniture to unmet deadlines and continuous lies and empty promises, I was always in tears or in rage. I thundered and threatened to use my media power – first time ever – and I exploded with curses and ultimatums at least fifty times in the two weeks that I had to take off from work – remember the previously stated assumption: someone has to be home!
Tips and bribes are two concepts that got so messed up in my head; at first I thought that a tip is money you pay in gratitude to someone who served you well. I also thought that a bribe is money that you were forced to pay to get served well. Today I am no longer sure which is which. I just lubed my way with money – be it tips or bribes – to get things done. I avoided eye-contact with whoever I gave money lest they see how much contempt and disgust I felt towards them. Very few people had integrity and pride – those were the people that I had to “beg” to accept my little token of gratitude for their assistance.
This was a very educating and enlightening experience; I saw the real face of Egypt. I got in touch with the nature of Egyptian labors; lethargy and apathy run in their street-wise smart-ass veins. Even those working in big stores need intensive customer service training; they need to learn how to handle angry frustrated customers instead of switching off their phones. Business owners need to invest in their employees otherwise they will lose customers – and eventually money – because of how unprofessional their employees are. I was swallowed in red-tape and bureaucracy. Two weeks off work were not enough; you waste a whole day to apply, another day to sign a contract and pay, and a few other days with the installation.
I also saw the warm sincere helpful nature of other workers and employees who just needed to be acknowledged as human beings. People never notice them and their services are taken for granted. So many people volunteered to help me and went out of their way to make this tiresome mission less consuming just because I showed some respect or because I smiled while addressing them. Some stores really have gems of employees but they are buried amidst the rubbish of their colleagues and some owners have no clue how much customers are bad-mouthing their companies because of their insolent employees. I have heard of women who suffered during pregnancy and childbirth that they did not want to embrace the baby after it was born; like those women, I have had moments when I hated the apartment and just wanted to back off on my dream. Today as I type this article I could only say that it was worth it … every bit of it.
(Identity - Feb 08)