October 6th is a national holiday in Egypt. It was on this day, in 1973, that President Anwar Al-Sadat launched a surprise attack, crossing the Suez into the Sinai, starting – with Syria attacking simultaneously in the Golan Heights – the Yom Kippur War.
It was also on October 6th, 1981, during a military parade commemorating the eighth anniversary of that war, that Anwar Sadat was assassinated.
And October 6th happens to be the day I declared war on my doorman.
I’m struck by how often ideas and advice are already floating in the ether before events happen (it’s as if the writers of the Truman Show: Cairo Edition plant them as plot points for me to act on in the days after I hear them). Just Wednesday night, at a birthday party for a photographer I recently met here, I heard a guy talking about how he dealt with problems with his Baawaab (pronounced BO-abb) – the Egyptian Arabic word for doorman*. He said he had learned, after living in a few apartments over the years, that you can’t be too friendly with them, or they’ll just take advantage of you. He said what has worked is to establish the master/servant rules immediately, be nasty and let him know who’s boss for a couple of weeks. Then, after a while, you can lay off the cruelty and be a decent human being again. I guess it’s kind of like asserting your alpha male status with the help.
I immediately thought of how I have been with Nasser, my building’s baawaab. For the past month, I’ve been exchanging friendly hellos, smiling at him and his family as I entered the building. He’s got a beautiful little daughter who’s always laughing. Was I too late to press his nose to the ground, force him to show me his white underbelly while I growl my superior growl and pound my chest?
Had I been too good a cop to now become the bad cop?
And then, on Thursday night, Nasser crossed the line.
He rang my doorbell and asked me for money to mop the floor in the hallway. He said he wanted fifty Egyptian pounds (about 9 bucks, but way too much, given what folks are paid for these kinds of services in Egypt). I wasn’t sure what he was saying. I’ve only studied Arabic for two weeks and since he wasn’t asking me my name or saying good morning or telling me to go left or right, I was only getting a few words. He kept saying sharia, which means street, or “way” which is where sharia law comes from. I thought it was some kind of fee everyone paid to clean the streets (though, given how filthy it is out front, we should all demand a refund).
I told him I didn’t have change. He said he’d come back the next day.
After he left, I saw that he had lifted up the mats from in front of the doors of the other apartments in the building, and it was clear he was going to mop the floor. I consulted my dictionary and learned that sharia also means hallway. But I knew that the building owner and the University both pay his salary and mopping the floor is part of his job.
He’s taking advantage of my good nature, I thought. And, after talking it over with some other expats I’ve met here, and finding out how much they pay their baawaabs and such, I decided that if he asked me again, as the sage Yoda might advise: “in his face you must get.”
That goes against the grain of how I operate my life. Ask any woman I’ve married or dated and they’ll tell you how much I hate to argue. I’m a firm believer in the golden rule, and have always felt better operating from mutual respect. Karma is a boomerang and you most often get back what you toss.
But I also know that if I give a pound to one of the poor kids on the street (as sad as I am for their plight), I will have set myself up so that the kid will hound me every time he sees me. And word will get around that I’m a pushover and every street kid will demand the same. Now they usually give up after a tugging my shirt sleeve for a couple of blocks, but they’d never give up if I’ve given them money in the past. I’d get to my door every day with a swarm of street kids buzzing around me.
So I practiced what I would say to Nasser if he asked me again. I wouldn’t touch him, but I’d get in his face. The image in my head was Robert DeNiro: “Are you looking at me? Are you asking me for that much money to mop the @$%&ing floor?”
And tonight, when the doorbell rang and I could see Nasser through the peephole, I opened the door quickly. He handed me a yellow post-it note with the following scrawled on it:
Gav me 50 pounds for mabtak flor
He clearly had asked someone to write it for him.
I read the note and immediately snapped. I went into a scene from a movie. In his face I got. It was like an out of body experience. I was a complete jerk. I said one of the phrases I’ve learned in Arabic: Inta magnum walla eh? Are you crazy or what?
And he got away quickly. I could see fear in his eyes.
I went back inside and I was shaking. I hated doing that. But, I felt that I had at least established that I wasn’t stupid or a pushover and that I wouldn’t be taken advantage of.
Or I may have just confirmed in his mind that all foreigners are jerks.
About an hour later, I was reading through some of the literature from AUC about living in Cairo and I saw a bit in there about it being customary to give a little extra to the baawaab each month, but certainly not 50 pounds.
So I went a little overboard.
I’ll give it some time and then give him something. I’ll find out what another professor in the building gives him every month.
And I’ll most likely give him a gift for Eid el Fitr, the feast at the end of Ramadan. That’s in two weeks… just about the time when I can go back to being the good cop again.
*I also read today that my colleague and fellow Knight fellow Jesse Hardman has three doormen at his building in Lima.