Although it was just my Mom and I who lived at home – well, with a lot of animals – yet we had a serving staff of four, without the occasional extras for certain functions. The four were permanent, salaried staff that all lived-in. They consisted of three men and a woman. The men had their quarters outside the house in a building on their own, but the woman had hers within the house, on the third floor. This was necessary as she was the one taking care of my Mom, and she needed to be on call all the time.
The position of that helper had a fairly high rate of turnover as, although paid one of the highest salaries in that category, it seems that the job itself attracted only the worst kind of elements. It is often socially unacceptable that people work as domestic help. It is looked down upon by the very people who do it, and that in itself is a problem. Also live-ins are very rare, unless they come from a different part of the country. But if you originate from Cairo, and you work in Cairo, then you go back home at the end of the day. So finding and keeping these women was one of the difficulties, especially that my Mom was pretty picky and most of them did not pass muster in her book.
It is the men though who represented an interesting cross-section of society. All of them hailed from Upper Egypt, the two gardeners from Minya, and the houseboy from Aswan. Though the three shared certain traits in common, they were also quite different.
The two gardeners had worked as daily laborers with the contractor who was finishing my house, and towards the end of the job they approached me for employment. I talked to the contractor and he had no objection as they would have been out of a job once the house was finished. I asked him for his assessment of their honesty and ability to work and he gave them a good recommendation. Not only did he trust them with guarding the raw materials stored at the site for the finishing of the house, but they also chipped in with manual labor wherever they were needed. They helped with the plumbing, with the electrical work, and with some of the laying of the tiles as well as finishing the walls. Jacks of all trades. This was a great asset later on in their job with me.
Both these men are illiterate, and this disability was quite a disadvantage when they first started working for me as gardeners and part of their job was managing the automated sprinkler system, as well as cleaning the pool. They had previously been field laborers before moving to Cairo for a better income to support their families. They are not really gardeners. It is true it took a few years, but they learned. The very fact that they could not read, sharpened their memories for they could not re-read operating instructions if they forgot them. The amount of knowledge assimilated by these two vies with any college student, given the basic tools they had at their disposal. I once asked them how they felt about their inability to read or write, and they were very bitter about it. They felt they were at a great disadvantage and could have done much better in the job market if they were not illiterate. But they had to leave school at a very early age to help their families by working in the fields. Then they grew up and had families of their own, and not enough time, or opportunity to learn how to read or write. Despite all that, they had the courage to venture out of their cocoon, out of their village, and all the way to Cairo, that large, scary city, seeking betterment of their standard of living. This alone, if thought about, is courage parallel only to that of explorers of unchartered territories: venturing into an alien world without any weapons at all, except your courage and driven by your need.
Inherent honesty, be it of word or where others’ properties are concerned is a general trait of people from Upper Egypt. The three men on my staff have this trait, and in spades. Another trait is chivalry, not in the European sense, but more basic, as in inherent decent behavior because, simply, it is the thing to do. These two characteristics have made it very easy to deal with my staff. They are decent human beings, who care for their jobs, but more so for their employers. Once this is reciprocated, by decent treatment by the employer, you have employees for life. I call them my boys, and the gardeners and houseboy have been with me fourteen and twelve years respectively.
The houseboy is different, for he did get a fairly decent education. He graduated from a high institute where he learned a trade. More importantly, he has the training to think for himself and the tools of learning more. He is an excellent houseboy and over the years has managed to become my right hand where the house and sometimes the animals are concerned. He even learned to drive, and I helped him get his driving license, and now acts as my part time driver. He is a willing and able handyman, he dabbles with fixing simple electrical and plumbing problems, and is a whiz at setting up satellite dishes and downloading channels. He is sports mad. He has learned how to set up for a fairly large party I might be throwing, even on short notice. Though when he first started working for me he shunned the dogs, was afraid of the big ones in the garden, yet over the years he has come to really love them. He can barely do his job of cleaning the house because he is playing with the new additions, Troy and Helen.
The two gardeners are Christian, and the houseboy is a Moslem. At a time when sectarian violence was at its worst, I found out that there was tension between my employees. I nipped this at the bud. I said any manifestation of religion made public and imposed on the other is punishable by dismissal. You want to practice your religion you do it in your own room. You want to listen to mass or the Koran, you put earplugs in your ears and listen to it on your own. In the shared areas in their residence, on TV, only the news, sports, films and talk shows are allowed, no Koran or Mass blaring. This took a few months, then things settled down back to normal. Even better than normal. At the beginning of Ramadan, the month of Islamic fasting, the houseboy likes to invite his peers to a breaking of the fast. I usually provide them with the food, then all three chip in to cook, clean their quarters and invite their friends. They all sit down to a meal together and enjoy a sociable evening with their friends, celebrating a purely Moslem religious feast.
When Morsi came to power and sectarian violence was quite strong, the woman I had taking care of my Mom at the time turned into a Brotherhood supporter, and took on all their worst traits. She became paranoid, imagining insults where there were none, then started making up stories to start religious fights with the Christian gardeners. The one who stood up to her and defended them was the Moslem houseboy. I had to let her go. I could not afford to keep such a ticking bomb in the house at a time when the whole country was going through its own sectarian crisis.
Although the houseboy, compared to the gardeners, had an advantageous start by being fairly well educated, yet it seems that environment does play a big role in the shaping of character. He, like the other two, had the courage to leave Aswan to come seek his fortune in the big city. But to him it was not as big a risk, and therefore did not need as much courage as the other two. He looked for and landed a full time salaried job, whereas they had to work as itinerant laborers till they finally applied for a permanent job with me. He is single but supports his widowed mother, unmarried sisters and unemployed brothers, yet manages to live well, buy the latest mobiles, dress well and is computer savvy. So I gave him my old computer, to which he added a line for the net. The gardeners are both married, one with a brood of children, the other with only two, but are real family men, look after the interest of their families, and more importantly have taken out loans from me to put down stakes in their village. One built a house, the other bought a piece of land. They both paid their loans back in full.
Politically they are also very different. I would have thought that the more educated houseboy would be more politically active, especially coming from Aswan where the economy was drastically affected by the drop in tourism during Morsi’s year of rule, but no. It is the two gardeners, illiterate yet highly aware of the violent discrimination against Christians, coming from Minya, which was the scene of the most violent attacks against churches and Christians, who are far more active and aware politically. They are eager to vote even though it might cost them money they can ill afford to spend. Yet they incur the expenses just to ensure that their voice is heard, whereas the houseboy is still apathetic and does not believe that anything can change.
I am very lucky in having them as employees. They are now a part of my household family. I think they feel the same, for they have given me silent but tangible support throughout the years by taking care of my dogs, cats and property, and especially through the past few months after the loss of my Mom. I count my blessings, and those three are among the most important of them.
31 May 2014