Thursday, January 20, 2011

MAKING HIJRAH 23 "The Miscena"

Asalamu Alaykom,

There is a HUGE difference between “The Haves” and “The Have Nots” here in Egypt and the two live side-by-side. You know in America that some people are better off than others and of course we see poverty but it is so segmented. You could reside in your gated community, travel out of it in your shiny Mercedes and shop at your gourmet grocery store without ever seeing the marginalized existence of others. The struggling mom getting free milk from WIC need never pass the radar of the mom buying an eight dollar cupcake (from which her child only licks off the frosting before throwing it away).

But Egypt? In much the same way that Islam is interwoven into the culture, so is the idea that we live together and work together. There are more poor men and women working as servants; as helpers.

Every day at school, I can witness a young girl in a crisp school uniform walking hand-in-hand with a man who cares for her. It isn’t her father. It isn’t even a family member. It’s the driver.

When I first arrived in here, I needed a driver to take me around to apartments. He quickly became someone I could rely on. Servants do become surrogates of sorts. As a woman in Egypt, you really do have to have a man to fight your battles—whether through traffic or at the fruit stand. So my driver could barter down the price of watermelon like nobody’s business.

That was my first driver. 

My second driver was sent from a private home three days a week. I was tutoring English at a new community being built on the Ring Road. This is the “good” part of town. You can see the buildings slowly growing up out of the sand more each day. I would pass by the Burger King (albeit with some salivating) and see the American store signs on the Mall.

Then I would arrive. It is an important business man's home. The new driver had told me using Arabic and his hands (which is always scary as you are sitting in the backseat) that the man's latest project is number 50. That’s a lot of projects and a lot of money.

Entering into their apartment is entering into the best that money can buy. Large photos of the wife abound. She is lovely. She is 31, bouncy and outgoing. You’ll find her in jeans or capris and some cute top looking as Western as can be. She too wants to learn English. So, after I spent time at tutoring at her son’s orange desk, I walked through the kitchen to find her.

I would greet the maids. There were four maids I counted either cooking, doing laundry, or tending to the children. They were dressed casually without any kind of uniform. They had a low-keyed demeanor and I saw that they are afraid of displeasure since displeasure could mean dismissal. This was true even with their interactions with the six-year-old boy. He is in charge of them and not vice versa.

When I reached Madam, her daughter toddled in as well. This sweet little girl got one hug and then a whiff. The maid standing at the ready was told by Madam that the girl needed a new Pamper. How nice to have that ability; never have to change another diaper!

After they left, I looked into Madam’s eyes. Those eyes have seen as much hardship as me. This Egyptian lady is on her second marriage. The young boy is from her first and the girl is from her current husband. She told me at our first meeting how blessed she is.

Now, at our third meeting she tells me the truth. Our time of English conversation devolved into a very personal confession. She searched for the right words and I helped her with pronouns and verb tenses as she went.

“Her father has never held her in his arms. Never! He has never kissed her. He does not love her. He did not want her. He only wanted the old child; not the new child. How can I love him? I want to repair. But how can I?”

I left our time shaken. There was such sadness amongst the riches. A beautiful home. A beautiful wife. Beautiful children. And yet? Cruelty and sadness.

Long minutes of Arabic love songs warbled on as I stared out the car window at the colors Allah had manifested in the sunset. It’s hard to go back to a happy state when I’ve left a woman who is at the brink of madness.

“Mohammed,” I wanted to ask the driver a question in Arabic since we were stuck in traffic anyway, “Is Madam’s husband a good Muslim? Does he pray? Does he go to the masjid?”

In a way, I was hoping for a simple answer. I was hoping for, “No, he doesn’t pray. He drinks and gambles.” If I heard that, then I could put two and two together.

Instead, I heard, “Every year, he goes to Mecca four times a year: omra, Ramadan, Eid and Hajj . ”


The Muslim who does so much good can also do so much bad. A man who prays at the Kabba more than most, can also go home and refuse to kiss his unwanted daughter. It left me stunned and silent in the backseat. The music played on and we sped back to home.

I had meant to go home. The driver, however, remembered the directions only from the night before, when I had requested a ride to my friend’s house. He sped past my apartment and suddenly there I was, so I accepted the moment and got out and thanked him.

As a Muslim, I take the surprises as offers from Allah.  Truly, I needed my time with my friend and her family.  Her family was also the Khalo's family; she is his sister.

I had met the family on my first day in the city during Ramadan. My plan to break my fast in the hotel’s restaurant was dashed when I learned that it cost 50 LE. So, I had gone in search of a local place that was cheaper. The main road is for the tourists so I had entered into a little side street and had found a shop.

The man in the shop was in the traditional galabiya. That was the Khalo.  There was something about him which put me at ease. I asked him where I could find grapes. His shop only had the dried goods. We had been to the pyramids that day and the last thing I wanted was something dry. He understood me and called over a girl.

The tall, pretty girl was so smiley and sweet. Her hair swung in a ponytail as we walked. We crossed over the busy main road and went into a bustling area hidden from view. I never would have found it without her. She helped me buy the grapes and then some chicken, which came with bread and salad.

It was a simple kindness to help us but in those first couple of months I came to appreciate simple kindnesses more than ever.

Four days later, once I had moved from the hotel to my apartment, I was invited back for dinner and I met her mom. She became my friend.  I learned that the man with the brace on his leg was her father. The man running the shop was her uncle; Khalo. She also had a big handsome teenage brother (who would be my first pick for my future son-in-law) and a spunky little sister (who would be Mr. Boo’s first pick for my future daughter-in-law).

My friend is so beautiful. She is often tired from working hard in the kitchen, cleaning in the home, helping with the children and with the shop. When she tells a joke and smiles, she is asel; honey. She truly is Top Model gorgeous but with her hejab and galabiya, she keeps it under cover. She often struggles with migraines. She doesn’t eat enough and, though she is strong in many ways, she is frail.

She would welcome me into her home and feed us. Many times a week we were invited for dinner. We would eat our fill. Mr. Boo would  play. We could talk. Her sisters and their kids were always coming to visit. Soon we became like family and everyone came to know that Khalo was considering me for marriage. If we did marry, it would be the first time that I fell in love with a family before I fell in love with the man.

I was offered food again that night when I arrived. I still felt down about the rich man’s brokenness, the rich woman’s sadness and the children who were caught in the middle. I ate, and as I ate, I watched my friend’s husband. He was sitting on the cushion on the floor and covering copy book after copy book for his oldest daughter.

I had asked Khalo once if his brother-in-law had the brace on his leg before or after the marriage.  The answer was before.  When the man was only a toddler, his mother had passed away.  In all the family's grief and upset, something simple like a polio shot was forgotten.  He contracted polio from not getting vaccinated.

I had guessed wrong. In my imaginings, I had thought that his wife had suddenly become saddled with a difficult situation and was trapped in it. I had to ask if my beautiful friend had wanted to marry him or if the family had pressured her to marry him.

She had wanted to marry the man with the bum leg. She loved him…despite any physical limitations he had.

“We are Muslims,” Khalo had told me in English.

Yes, I ate the koshary sitting on old furniture with new covers. I saw the paint chipping on the wall. I was well aware of the problems the family faced. Yet, I felt the love and I knew who was, “misceen,” or poor.
And it wasn’t my friend and her family.

May Allah ease the troubles for every family and may all of us be thankful for what we have and what we have not.

Chapter 24


janice said...

Lets not forget that mom buying the (i have yet to see) $8.00 cupcake, is paying the baker, cashier, vendors and many more folks who make that cupcake possible. Maybe the WIC mom is working for the sugar or confection company suppling that $8.00 cupcake outlet.

just something to chew on....

Yosra said...

Asalamu Alaykom Janice,

Peace to you :)

I know it sounds crazy---an $8 cupcake but there was a grocery chain in Florida that sold these enormous decorated cupcakes for that price. Most of it was frosting.

Because I have also floated between the two worlds of affluent and poor, I see both sides and both sets of people.

You are absolutely right that a mom who spends her money is helping the economy. I guess I was thinking more of the wastefulness of purchasing a frivilous item which doesn't even get eaten because it's too over-the-top.

LOL @ "something to chew on".

You have a different view on things but not a bad view. I really welcome you to keep reading and see what you can find that's worth keeping---toss the rest.

I took a look at your blog. That's great that you appreciate nature so much. Nature is so calming and inspiring.

Thanks for coming by and for bringing up points that are valid and saying it all in a really astute way.

Yosra said...

From Mostly Anonymous Halimah:

Yeah, the contrast between rich and poor is so unimaginably stark in Cairo, and even more so because they exist side by side. Every posh apartment building, or housing complex comes with the boabs, so destitute financially are they! But, just like you pointed out, they are some of the warmest, happiest and nicest people imaginable.

I remember one boab family quite fondly, and how they welcomed us into that dark, dank, and dirty (not out of poor housekeeping, but because it was subterranean) space under the stairs in which they lived (and had satellite TV hooked up, which was more than us, five floors up!), with no bathroom and no running water, mashaAllah. But they always smiled and we're so helpful in their attempts at normalizing systems and practices which were so alien to us. But still, to this day, I'll never get why they wash the cars everyday with that dirty water ... it just seemed so comically futile in dusty of Cairo.