They Hold the Keys to Cairo
They sleep on dirty mattresses, behind stairwells and elevator shafts, lulled by the flicker of scavenged televisions or the scratch of battered radios. Gnomish, often illiterate men in worn robes and knotted turbans, they live in this clanging city, far from home, with no realistic hope of climbing out of the gutters of Egypt’s elaborate caste system.
But, improbably, they are some of the most powerful players in Cairo society. The doormen of the Egyptian capital are also the city’s gatekeepers.
The bowab, or doorman, is a spy quietly amassing a damning security file, a Koran-wielding hard-liner ready to bust up an inappropriate romantic liaison, a grudge-carrying handyman who melts into the smoggy air just when a stingy resident is most in need.
Every savvy Cairene knows just how important it is to stroke, butter up and slip spare cash to the bowab. It’s an Egyptian truism that the bowab sees you before you see him, and that there is no secret too small to escape his snooping.
“It’s like the bowab lives here, and I’m just visiting,” said Robert Williams, a professor of linguistics at the American University of Cairo. “Sometimes I’ve gotten really mad, especially in the beginning. He just seemed like an intrusive little weasel.”
Williams’ complaints are the stuff of life in the Egyptian capital: His bowab blares Koranic verses from a radio at 3 a.m. and washes cars in a noisy exultation of water at sunrise. When the Williams family forgets to pay his monthly salary, less than $5, he gives a tactful nudge by showing up at the door with gritty, squashed brownies wrapped in newspaper. At first Williams threw the cakes away; then it occurred to him that the bowab was going through his garbage, piece by piece.
Most of all, there’s the sense that family members are captive, that their every move is tracked and known. “It’s really interesting how the servants control the masters,” Williams grumbled.
On the surface, bowabs are all-purpose employees. They lug suitcases and grocery sacks, gather mail and venture into a winter night to fetch eggs or cigarettes. They typically hail from poor villages, and many are supporting seldom-seen wives and children back home. In other buildings, bowabs’ wives drum up work as housekeepers.
The bowabs control whether a tenant will be hassled by panhandlers or police, whether deliveries reach the door, how quickly plumbers materialize, whether parking or taxis are available at the crucial moment. In short, they can make life smooth or impossibly harried.
“If the tenant treats me well, I’ll do anything for him,” said Gaber Ahmed Taha, a 40-year-old bowab whose saintly smile reveals a mouthful of crooked teeth. “If somebody is talking to me with arrogance, I won’t do anything for him.”
Once they become bowabs, the men relinquish time and space of their own. They doze on and off through the night, curling up close to the door so they’ll be roused by any disturbance. In the social hierarchy, they come in a hair above street sweepers and considerably lower than the ubiquitous, vaguely defined “security guards” who prowl the blocks wearing polyester sport coats and thin mustaches.
The social stigma attached to bowabs creates a crucial plot tension in the popular Egyptian novel “The Yacoubian Building.” In the book, a young man is abruptly rejected from the police academy when instructors discover that he’s the son of a bowab. Lost and shattered, he turns first to fundamentalist Islam, and eventually to terrorism.
But what bowabs lack in status they gain in power. The doormen’s presence is a constant reminder that Egypt’s all-seeing police state and its conservative morals are enforced in the same, subtle way: through hands-on and often disarmingly humble figures.
Working as an informant is no shame to many bowabs. They cheerfully, even boastfully, describe the information they pass along to intelligence and police officers who drop by to find out who’s coming, who’s going and who’s suspicious. They think of this function as protecting their tenants, not spying, and it seems to impart a sense of greater accomplishment. Many pride themselves on being keen observers, astute judges of character.
“You can tell if somebody looks decent. It’s just a look and the way they speak,” said Mansour Mekki, a 58-year-old bowab on the lush, high-rent Nile River island of Zamalek. “We can really read the people in front of us.”
Like many bowabs, Mekki inherited his job from an older relative. Although he pointed out that the pay is “very, very little, and we don’t have a pension or anything,” he said it’s also the best he could have hoped to find.
Mekki is the father of six children, all of whom live with his wife in Aswan, a 12-hour drive to the south. He spends his days perched on an old wooden bench, watching the cars slide past and the menagerie of life jostle along the sidewalks.
“We keep an eye on everybody,” he said. “We don’t even let an ant get in without asking where it’s headed.”
This zealous scrutiny is especially unwelcome for anybody trying to date, host parties or lead any of the many lifestyles that qualify as alternative by Egypt’s traditional standards. (Read: anybody living alone.)
Egyptian bank analyst Ali Mustafa, 32, bucked tradition by renting his own apartment and moving out of his parents’ place. At first, he worked from home, employing a young woman as his assistant. Trouble soon followed.
“Ten minutes after she came up, the bowab was knocking on my door and demanding to know who she is,” Mustafa said. “I said, ‘Why is it your business?’ You can imagine where it went from there.”
The bowab tattled to the landlady, who in turn phoned Mustafa and scalded his ear. It wasn’t proper, she said. He dug in his heels, insisting on his right to have guests.
“It was quite a scandal, actually,” he said.
In the end, the situation was solved with the time-honored grease of Egyptian society: baksheesh, or a small bribe. To Mustafa, his well-paid bowab is a reminder of the many layers of appearance and reality that make up this sprawl of a city.
“In Egypt, you always have two layers to things: the moral facade that ‘we’re the guards of this place and we won’t let anything that upsets God happen here,’ ” he said.
“But in reality, they were trying to hustle me. There’s always the money factor. You can buy everybody off.”