When I lived in مصر Misr (Egypt),
we lived in a very nice apartment building. MashaAllah. It had 4 floors and was owned by 1 family. The apartment was spacious with Louis the 16th style furniture and tall French doors leading out to a large balacoonah (balcony) overlooking a main street. Sigh… I loved that شقة shaqqah (apartment). When we would go out and come back in, there was always a 9 year-old girl who would follow us into the building and ask, “Awzah haagah?’ I couldn’t figure out what that meant for the first 5 days. “Do you want/need anything?” The girl was a part of a family that lived in a home in the wall or more like a hole in the wall, on the side of our apt building and her father was known as the البواب ‘Bawwaab’. ..the ‘Doorman’. Me being from New York City, Doorman to me means a man in a suit and hat, standing in front of a fancy apartment building. Well, …it was not quite like that. They are there to serve the middle class people who live in the building. They opened doors for us, carried groceries for us, cleaned our apartments, even shopped for our groceries. We could give them a tip of like $2 and they were happy.
Sanaa was 9 years old. She did not go to school.
She was too busy helping her mother clean houses and see to the needs of the residents of the عمارة (imaarah) building. Sanaa, her mother, and her sister, cleaned our apartments, did our shopping, cleaned the halls and stairs and carried our groceries. Sanaa’s mother was a very strong قوية (qawiyyah) little woman. One day our gas tank ran out in the kitchen. I heard the gas tank guy clanging downstairs on the ground floor so I ran to my balcony to catch him. He didn’t hear me and rode off on his bicycle. Sanaa’s Mom took off running down the street after him. I was expecting her to bring the guy back with the gas tank. Instead, she showed up at my door with the FULL GAS TANK on top of her head! She had walked the block and up 2 flights of steps to get it to me!! I tried to help her get it from her head to the floor and that thing felt like lead! ” Laa Laa! Madame Nadiya!” She said.
Sanaa started cleaning our apartment once a week. She was very good to be just 9 years old, and strong like her mother. When she would finish cleaning I would give her a snack. She used to clean my house from top to bottom. I gave her money but what she really wanted was croissants. She loved croissants with strawberry jam. I tried to pick up as much Egyptian dialect as I could from her since we were only allowed to speak fus-ha at my school. Sanaa and I became best friends. One day after she did her cleaning, I asked her if she could recite Quran she said no, she could not read. It was very strange teaching alif-baa to an Arab child but I didn’t care about that. I felt like she deserved to have an education and reading Quran is a minimum education for a Muslim child. So I would teach her to read Quran (which is really proper Arabic) and she would teach me Egyptian Arabic.
I was so curious about the hole in the wall though.
I would see them disappear around the corner and I was so curious about their hole in the wall. What was it like inside? Did they have furniture, a stove, refrigerator, electricity? Finally, Sanaa’s mom invited me inside. I wasn’t supposed to go in there. After all, I was an American Lady living in a lovely apartment building and I had a “status”. What was I doing going into a dark hole in the wall? But curiosity got the best of me! I went in. It was one room with a curtain as a door and you actually couldn’t stand up completely or you would bump your head. It was kind of dark. There was a bed and a carpet on the floor. I guess the 4 kids slept on the floor. A small portable type of stove for cooking and all bathroom facilities were outside in the back of the building, looked like just a water hose. But it was clean and Sana’s mom served me tea. She told me about where they came from in the country but my Egyptian wasn’t really that good so I only got bits and pieces. They were a family trying to make it the best they could in the big city of Cairo القاهرة.
I grew up poor, but I had to learn rules of classism.
Rule #1: don’t be too friendly with the help. One time, Sanaa finished cleaning and her 2 little brothers came knocking on the door for her. I offered them all some fruit and let them sit on the balcony to eat it. The sister of the building’s owner happened to drop by and she saw them on my balcony eating. She gave them a look, they all looked down to the ground then she turned to me and smiled like everything was fine. But I understood perfectly. “They’re kids!” I wanted to shout. “Let them have a childhood, SubhaanAllah!”
Rule #2: don’t get too comfortable with poor people who perceive you as being rich. One day there was some problem in the kitchen and Sanaa’s father brought up a fix it man but everyone seemed to be interested in what was broken. When they all left, my gold watch – a gift from my Dad for my college graduation – was missing. I never said anything about it. It was my own fault for being too trusting.
Well, something very strange happened in this story. You could say a surprise ending. Eid ul Fitr came around and a woman who I had never seen, showed up at the hole in the wall. I heard her and Sanaa’s mom shouting at each other. The whole building could hear their shouting. The shouts became screams. We went out to the balacoonah where we could see downstairs to the ground floor. And there was Sanaa”s mom running down the street after that woman, holding a thick long tree branch in her hand. I’m not kidding it looked like she had yanked that tree right out of the ground! The woman was running for her life. ‘What in the world is going on?’ we thought. The next day we woke up, and Sanaa and her family were gone. I asked the owner’s sister what happened to them and who was that we had seen the day before. Well! Sanaa’s Dad had another wife!! زوجة ثانية She was the strange lady who showed up and got chased down the street with the tree. We stood there with our mouths hanging open. The owner’s sister and sister in-law chuckled. I just sat there wondering, if he had this family living in a hole in the wall, where in the world was she living????
Then I thought of my little friend Sanaa, and I hoped she had a better home wherever they went. I still remember her laughing in delight when I gave her a special Eid gift…a basket of croissants and a jar of strawberry jam. “I love you Madame Nadiya Wallahi! Uhibbuk! ”
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