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Not only is a death in the family very painful because of the loss of a beloved member and the wrenching feeling of missing them, but to add insult to injury, there are all the legal procedures you have to go through. In Egypt here the laws governing inheritance are those of the ‘sharia’ and they apply equally to Christians and Moslems. So in any case of inheritance the male’s share is double that of the female, this was set up this way to cover the expenses incurred by the male who supports the females of the family. Of course with women now working and earning a living and having to share in living expenses, this is seen as a bit unfair, and quite a few families have taken it upon themselves to distribute their property equally between their sons and daughters. But the law remains the same.
This thing about the male’s double portion as compared to the female’s inheritance, has spilled over into yet another aspect in the legal system. If you need a witness then you might have one man, or two women! Quite bizarre in this day and age, but this archaic system is still practiced and has to be followed to get anything done where the deceased’s estate is concerned.
The first legality is to go to court, with two witnesses who know the family and who can testify as to who is who. This is mainly for the purpose of the court issuing what is called the Notification of Inheritance. According to this Notification, the estate is then divided among those who inherit.
This is the first time for me to do that, and today was the scheduled court case. I lined up a couple of witnesses, one cousin and one ex-employee who has been with the family for nearly two decades, and early in the morning off we went to the pertinent court which is downtown Cairo. Traffic was quite reasonable and we managed to find a parking space right across the road from the courthouse after greasing the palm of the man in charge of that space.
I called the associate of the law firm that has set up this case to find out when and where we are supposed to meet him and he said he will call me back after checking with the bailiff to see what number the case was given. Twenty minutes later he called to say that we were assigned number six and that it would be a good idea if we would come up to the third floor to wait for them to call us.
The courthouse is a very old, impressive building, very high ceilings and built on a very generous scale. We walked up the first floor, which was pretty high, probably as high as a couple of floors in any modern building, then looked around to continue to the third floor but the stairs stopped there! Huh? There were so many people milling around, I just randomly asked where the up stairs were, and was told to go through a corridor, to the back and continue from there. So we went looking for the stairs, which we finally found, went up one flight, and were somehow on the third floor! Don’t ask me how! I know I failed Maths but I can still count to three! Anyway as I was somewhat out of breath, I didn’t argue and was relieved that we had arrived. Before I could call him, the associate appeared and tried to gather us together in one group next to a wall so as not to get trampled by the milling throng.
After catching my breath I started looking around at my surroundings, which on closer inspection were quite fascinating. Men and women were everywhere, standing around is tight little groups or sitting on the steps leading up, and invariably the majority of the men were smoking. As I am allergic to smoke I naturally gravitated towards the open window, where at least there was a slight breeze. But my God! The window panes that were not broken, were filthy. I looked at the floor and you could barely see it from the cigarette butts stepped on there. I looked around, and surely enough, no ashtrays. Then at a small door, just off the hall, there was a longish table with all sorts of munchies, sweet and savory, all sorts of drinks, in bottles or cartons, there was the cafeteria! And a server. I first saw the server when he nearly spilled some drinks he was carrying on a tray, right on our young lawyer. But at the last minute, and only through this server’s ballet-like maneuvering, were the drinks preserved and so was the dignity and the suite of my lawyer.
The noise was horrendous, people calling one another from one end of the hall to the other, then the bailiffs shouting out the numbers and names of the cases, let alone a couple of shouting matches when two or more people rub one another the wrong way.
The most interesting characters were those court employees, usually clerks, who take on the air of judicial importance and start ordering people around, banking on their “official” status. You can so easily differentiate them from those court officers of real importance, by their attitude. These people have such an inferiority complex that they over-compensate drastically, to the extent of becoming human parodies of the real thing. They are so stuck up in their self esteem that they imagine any gesture as a slur on their dignity and get into shouting matches with nearly everyone they get in contact with.
Another character is that of the very aggressive,very pushy, female lawyer, mainly overweight and veiled and invariably on her mobile giving hell to the person on the other end. She cuts through the throng with total disregard for any bodies in the way, you see people flung on all sides by the sheer force of her girth pushing through the crowd.
Then there was the lift operator who took people up or down, shuffling them in and out of the lift, and also acting as a messenger, as he is given a lot of documents that he keeps delivering from one floor to another.
Finally our case was coming up, so we went closer to the door leading into the court where the witnesses would testify. Looking up at the ceiling I was struck by the beauty and cleanliness of the border running all round the ceiling. What a contrast to anything within human reach! The doors to the courtrooms also were very impressive. Heavy mahogany wood, a bit dull, but the beauty of the wood cannot be concealed by the dirt.
Finally it was our turn, we went into this small room where three men sat at a table covered with papers, and a young, veiled girl sat at one end. The lawyer handed the pertinent documents to the judge who asked if any of the heirs were there, and I said I was, so he told me to wait outside! Huh? The lawyer nearly shoved me out, fearing I might argue with the judge, so there I found myself back in the corridor where I had been waiting for over an hour.
Two minutes later the lawyer and the witnesses came out, looking a bit crestfallen. The case had been postponed for a couple of weeks pending the completion of the documentation! What documentation ? I asked. And why didn’t my lawyer tell me about these documents so that I could have prepared them while waiting for the case to be assigned a date? The poor lawyer had no answers and kept saying that he will get his boss to call me. A whole morning wasted. I dragged two people, who kindly consented to help me out, just to have them be told that they needed to come back in another couple of weeks. It was so embarrassing. But it seems that they are more used to that sort of thing than I am, and took it in very good part.
On the way back home I kept thinking, why do I need this Notification of Inheritance? I know that it is automatically done, but why do I, specifically need it? My Mom had already transferred title of all her property in my name, so there was nothing to be “inherited” as such. When the lawyer called at the end of the day, going on and on about how to go about getting the needed documents, I just cut to the chase. No Notification, just get the document transferring title to me and register it and that is that. Light bulb moment, total silence on his part, then, ok, it will take some time.
My job from now on is to pester my lawyer in getting this done as soon as possible. At least I won’t have to drag anybody else on another wild goose chase.
The whole experience was rather daunting, to see the creaking wheels of justice turning on the ground, is far from the usual lauding of justice as highly inspirational. The reality on the ground is a very rude awakening indeed.
22 April 2014