TALES FROM AN EGYPTIAN HOUSEHOLD – THE MAID

Date posted: June 6, 2008


The first time I laid eyes on her was 5 years ago. She was a short tiny bony little elfish pale woman with an empty grocery bag in her hand and some sort of scarf on her head. Her forehead stuck out as though that huge skull-shaped protrusion was what was left from her facial structure. I looked at her face again and her teeth caught my attention with that unnatural spacing between them. How could she eat? I wondered. There was something ghastly about her – she died and came back to life but never managed to get her life back. I could not see how such a rundown woman would manage to clean my home every week.

In the beginning our verbal exchanges were kept to the minimum until one Friday morning she got me a sandwich. I looked at her with a smile and wondered if she saw me as frail and as underfed as I saw her. She seemed to read my mind when she replied with pride: "I would like you to have breakfast with me." I am not big on breakfast but I could not turn her down. We ate in silence and every couple of minutes she would look at me and smile approvingly. I bonded with my maid. There was something intriguing about her and I looked forward to our weekly meetings – if you could call them so.

One morning she looked more dead that she usually did. She was a carcass with still tears in her eye sockets.

"What's wrong, Om Essam?"
"Nothing anesa (Miss) Marwa."

I insisted on an answer and between her loud sobs and silent tears, she told me how her husband's illness got worse – I did not know she had a husband – and how their son Saoudy, seemed to be contracting the same illness. She cried as she told me how her husband could had not worked in the last 10 years because he sleeps all the time; how he had unexplained frenzies; how he beat her, and her daughters, whenever he had one of his fits; how he turned into the famous bull in that china shop when he tore, broke, and crushed everything she worked so hard to buy for their home.

"Yesterday, Saoudy was about to throw himself out of the window. He said he did not want to live anymore. His sisters were screaming and wailing. I begged him to come back inside and to remember God. I did not want him to die an atheist. I did not want him to go to hell. The Sheikh in the mosque promised us that we would all go to heaven. He told us that people who lead such a tough life of deprivation would enjoy luxuries that surpass all luxuries in the afterlife. I know that I will go to heaven" said the woman as she wiped her face and reached for the mop.

Later on I found out that her husband had chronic depression and that her son was a drug addict. Over the course of the 5 years that I have known her, they were admitted to hospitals a zillion times and they relapsed all the time. I also found out that she worked double shifts; from 8 to 2 at my house and from 3 to 9 at another house – she cleaned homes 12 hours a day 7 days a week! Her eldest daughter was married to an electrician who "is a real man; he keeps her in order by a regular beating – yes, of course, he is a real man." She has two other girls who have great expectations – just like the Dicken's heroes. They are studying but "a girl should get married. You too should get married anesa Marwa or you will not go to heaven – the Sheikhs said that women go to heaven only when their husbands are happy."

I moved to another district and Om Essam is no longer my cleaning lady. I wonder if our paths will cross ever again. I see Om Essam in the faces of many Egyptian hardworking women whose bodies are shrinking with continuous pressure and violation. Om Essam and the likes of Om Essam have never heard of human rights, women's rights, children rights, or empowerment and liberation. I once tried to tell Om Essam to get a divorce. She gave me an aggravated look and said "I believe in God anesa Marwa and divorce is the path of the devil. I will go to heaven. I know I will."

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