Saturday, March 2, 2013

BBC News - The doormen policing Egypt's morals

BBC News - The doormen policing Egypt's morals

The doormen policing Egypt's morals

Residents of Cairo cannot simply live as they please - they must always take into account the judgement that will be made of them by the man who sits at the front door of their building.
One of the many things any fresh-faced arrival in Cairo is likely to notice - when lugging bags and suitcases to a new abode - is that there will be somebody sitting in front of it, sternly looking into space with a stare so stoical that it can only have resulted from a lifetime of gazing, sitting and waiting.
In Cairo's hectic maelstrom of activity, there is one person who can take things relatively easy - the doorman, or bewab.
Security guard, porter, enforcer of social mores and general snoop, all rolled into one, the bewab is a quintessentially Egyptian figure, and can be found sitting in front of almost every building in the capital.
Often from Upper Egypt, the bewab brings a distinctly rural flavour to life in the largest, most populous city in Africa. Sporting the long, flowing robes favoured in Egypt's countryside - along with a distinctly non-Cairene dialect of Arabic. Many bewabs are in the city... but not really of it.
Up and down the capital, these rustic imports act as a kind of moral police force, bringing the conservative values of their home districts to the heart of the metropolis.

They can act as Ro police exposing secretive behavior, also moderating it by accepting bribes.
Forget the anonymity of city life almost anywhere else in the world - in Cairo, your bewab will be keeping a beady eye on the comings and goings of anyone associated with you, especially if they happen to be female.
A quick look at the house listings for foreigners living in the capital reveals the premium that is put on having a liberal - or at least a venal - bewab.
In the selling-points of advertisements, the "laid-back bewab" is a sought-after epithet and is code for a bewab who will conveniently lay aside his moral foibles and leave you well alone, mostly because you are a foreigner.
The mixing of foreigners and Egyptians of the opposite sex, however, is where the trouble really begins.
On the occasions when I have headed up to my apartment with an Egyptian lady, she has often frozen at the sight of my bewab, whom I shall call Uncle Mahmoud, slouched on his plastic deckchair watching the world go by.
"I can't come up to your apartment with him there," hissed one friend of mine, blushing. "I just can't stand him judging me, he'll think I'm a whore!"
To her, and many like her, Mahmoud's opinion really mattered and his moral judgements carried weight, even if they had no basis whatsoever in reality.
I often found it hard to believe that Uncle Mahmoud - the jovial and somewhat annoying man who occupied his days sitting, staring at the front door of my apartment building - could be the object of sheer terror for Egyptian female visitors.

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