Welcome in Egypt

Back in Egypt, life returns to normal: curfew, power cuts, traffic jams, protests. Today after work, riding up in the elevator, I thought about how miserable it would be if I got stuck in the lift during a power cut. I had just opened the door onto my floor when the building went dark. One second earlier and I would’ve spent the following hour or so in a jammed elevator. With little else to do, I dropped off my things and headed to the pub with friends, waited an hour or so, then headed back.

The power was on so I took a shower, figuring I’d settle down to a movie when what to my wondering ears did appear – an incessant ringing of the doorbell.

At first, it was a lone ring, a friendly press of the button that is suggestive of a friend dropping by. I was just setting my laptop down on the floor to stand up when the bell began ringing repeatedly and with increased urgency, as though the ringer might have been held at gunpoint or had died with his nose on the doorbell. This could only be one person:

The garbage man.

I met the garbage man last year under similar circumstances. He would arrive any time between 8pm and 11pm (or later if he was feeling like it). When I tiptoed to the peephole to see who was there, I heard a monotone, low voice say yes, which meant that he could somehow detect my presence behind the door.

Courageously, I opened it and listened as he explained his job: bringing the trash downstairs once a week for a hefty fee. It was not an option; I could not choose to bring my trash down independently. It was essential for him to perform this job.

Fine, I thought. I paid the fee and politely declined his invitation for me to teach him English.

The second time he arrived, he was more conversational. “I have two wife. The first wife, she does not give me child. The second wife, yes, okay. But now I look for third.”

This time I pretended not to understand and shut the door.

Our relationship continued in this fashion: an urgent and repeated ringing of the doorbell, a creepy man on the other side.

I hadn’t seen him toward the end of the year, partially because his visits were never planned and partially because I didn’t spend much time in my flat at all. Whether or not I actually paid him for June is up for debate, but I shouldn’t have had to anyway, as it’s difficult to make trash in Egypt when you’re across the Atlantic all summer.

Quickly, I darted to my room to get dressed. I’d just taken a shower and was lounging around in very little – an inappropriate way to answer the door in any culture, but moreso here. As I scrambled through my drawers for a pair of hiking pants and a gigantic silk shawl, he slammed on the doorbell over and over. I’ve seen more restraint in small children who view buttons as magical orbs just begging to be pressed.

Vexed, I flung open the door and flashed him my angriest face, the kind I reserve in the classroom for students who have worn me to my last nerve. He looked slightly taken aback – but only slightly.

“Oh I am very sorry,” he said, putting his hand up. “Please don’t be angry. I am sorry.”

“How much?” I asked. He glanced at his pad and said, “Seven months. 1600.”

I wasn’t sure where to begin: the fact that it had only been three months since I paid my trash bill, or the fact that his calculations for seven months were way off.

“No. Three months. July, August, September.”

“And June.”

“No. Three months.” I wrote down the price and he nodded easily. “OK,” he said, and I shut the door to go retrieve the money. As I fumbled through my budget envelopes, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Had it been a gentleman caller at the door, I might have felt mortified. I looked like a cross between Jo from Little Women and a fortune teller who’d been caught in a rainstorm. Pulling the shawl in place, I opened the door again and gave him the money.

“OK,” he repeated, scribbling something on the receipt. “This is my mobile.”

Confused, I took the receipt.

“You just take shower? Very nice.”

Disgusted, I shut the door in his face. I’d briefly grappled with the morality of pretending I’d paid him for June when I probably hadn’t, but after that comment, I don’t care. The unprofessional, disturbing way he handles his business leads me to wonder whether he is a garbage man at all. He could easily be a lascivious, amoral man passing by the building once a month with a receipt pad he’d found at Volume One.

It’s also frustrating in that, though I attempt to be conservative in the way that I dress, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. You might think I’m joking when I say that the next time he comes, I’m going to put a bag over my head– but I’m not.

Categories: Egypt

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