“The elevator in the century-old building where I live in downtown Cairo plays a stabilizing role in my existence; it’s the first thing I hear in the morning and the last at night. The engine clearing its throat as it gears grab on to start the haul, its steady murmur is the voice of a friend that says however dysfunctional things are, we can still make it to the top.”
auteur: Maria Golia
éditeur : Jean Colombain
mise en page : Thomas Bush
année: 2019 (2015)
tirage : 50 exemplaires
format : A5
couverture: vert menthe
reliure: 2 agrafes à cheval
catalogue : S008
disponible sur simple demande
Such is the life, such is the form. – S. Coleridge
The elevator in the century-old building where I live in downtown Cairo plays a stabilizing role in my existence; it’s the first thing I hear in the morning and the last at night. The engine clearing its throat as its gears grab on to start the haul, its steady murmur is the voice of a friend that says however dysfunctional things are, we can still make it to the top. There have however been times when the elevator emitted a high-pitched whistle and months on end when it was out of service, but a man with a wretchedly inadequate tool-kit always greased it quiet or coaxed it back to life. Like the sun’s rise and set, the elevator is integral to my illusion of order and the routines on which I pin my fragile existence as a marginal American writer in Egypt’s beleaguered capital. So when the elevator stopped working there was cause for concern. I listened hard all day and heard nothing, nor the next day or the next. Word arrived via neighbors; it was broken, this time badly.
A Greek shipping merchant built my building, a five-story edifice with thick masonry walls, in 1922. Sequestrated after 1960 as part of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s plans to redistribute Egypt’s wealth, it has enjoyed virtually no maintenance ever since. As the lease-holding tenants of the building’s twenty-two large flats gradually died off, they were replaced with government-affiliated offices. The building’s daytime population has consequently increased from around one hundred to closer to three hundred people, all underpaid civil servants. Decades of dust and disillusionment, collision-scarred walls and grime-darkened windows may detract from its beauty but the building’s lofty proportions, noble materials and the refinement of its details impart a sense of aching grandeur. At least to me. To most visitors they impart a sense of trashcan, if the amount of cigarette-butts, snack wrappers and used Kleenex deposited daily in the lobby, on the stairs and landings is any indication.
The building’s original elevator has valiantly withstood its constant use and abuse. A finely-crafted wooden cabinet in an ornate wrought-iron cage, its enfeebled floor planks have been ‘reinforced’ with a sheath of checkered linoleum. The windows on either side of the cabinet are framed by wooden panels where traces of marquetry are visible beneath scratched-in graffiti, mostly people’s names. The outer windows are frequently decorated with blobs of phlegm, deposited by men who use the elevator shaft as a spittoon. The white marble stairs that climb around the shaft beside the building’s cathedral-esque windows have been worn into dingy oval hollows; their wafer-thin lips have in many instances fallen away. Perhaps to avoid the treacherous descent, some individuals opt to wait in the elevator until someone calls it down. That is, once the elevator is on an upper floor, someone on the ground floor must press the button in order for it to descend.
This mechanical feature was devised by the Egyptian state-run insurance company that owns the building in a bid to cut back on expenses, the idea being that the elevator works half as hard if it only carries passengers one-way. When I first moved here, I noticed people often waited in the darkened elevator relying solely on chance to get them to the ground. Returning after an errand of perhaps a quarter of an hour and summoning the elevator to make my ascent, I have watched that same person eerily descend feet first and emerge with a vacant look or a weak smile, as if time had meanwhile stopped. I’ve since learned that the ability to summon this unquestioning, semi-dormant state is a national occupation, a saving grace, virtually all that holds the demons of chaos at bay.
It happened in summer; the elevator stopped working just weeks before Ramadan, instilling the building occupants who would be fasting during the daylight hours of the holy month with a sense of dread. I couldn’t bear the thought of watching them drag themselves to work for a day in a cramped, hot office without food or water, nor did I relish the prospect of that dusty climb in the depths of summer myself. As I happened to be between books, jobs, lovers, middle-age and death, I had time on my hands and needed a project that would take me out into the world, revive my sense of community service while demonstrating some good old American team-building and goal-oriented project-management; not to mention practicing compassion and patience and winning the affection of my neighbors. So I decided to take charge of the elevator’s repair, or if need be, its replacement.
But what to do? Who to call?
Elsewhere, the situation would be relatively simple: contact the building owner or superintendent who would request proposals and cost estimates from several companies; choose the best all-round deal; divvy up the cost between tenants; collect the money; engage the company and Bob’s your uncle. But Bob is nobody’s uncle in Egypt and nothing is straightforward when it comes to ownership and the incumbent responsibilities; especially if it involved anyone forking over cash, particularly if that anyone is the government. Recall once more that the building is owned by a state-run insurance company, who from the looks of things is strapped for cash and little wonder. Insurance is not big in countries whose majority population is poor, essentially fatalist and on an intimate footing with mortality.
Another problem is that laws change with alarming frequency. Just when you’ve managed to figure one out and are about to rely on it, a new one comes into effect, inevitably placing you at a disadvantage. For instance, building owners were once responsible for two-thirds of infrastructure maintenance expense, with the tenants required to split the balance. But shortly before the elevator broke down, a new law had been passed placing the full burden of building maintenance on tenants, with the owner responsible for a single tenant’s share in the expense. And even this is not straightforward.
All payments of maintenance-related and utilities costs must be made through the misleadingly named ‘workers’ union’. This actually refers to a volunteer committee of at least four, including three tenants who agree to collect and disperse maintenance funds through a dedicated bank account, and one owner’s representative, who in the case of my building, reports back to the insurance company/building owner and requests clearance for its portion of the payment. It should be added that cutting a check in Egypt involves numerous carbon-copies of formal requests and permissions that can take weeks or months to process.
The main obstacle was that our building, like many others, has no workers’ union, owing to the difficulty of finding three people willing to assume the onerous, time-consuming task of managing the place free of charge. But cleaning and maintenance affairs were, for years, loosely overseen by an esteemed accountant with offices on the third floor. The elderly gent retired after the 2011 uprising in nearby Liberation Square, when downtown was frequently blockaded and immersed in clouds of tear gas. It was all too much for him, so he passed the baton to another longstanding tenant, Monsieur Faris, the tri-lingual septuagenarian owner of an electrical contracting company occupying two second-floor flats.
The office of M. Faris is a former salon transformed into a white cube by dropped ceilings and partitions covering the windows and balcony. He sits behind an immense desk with an array of telephones and a tray-full of designer perfume bottles. Abutting his desk, is a large white meeting table beneath whose glass covering someone has inserted squares of photocopied paper bearing the computer-printed words ‘Don’t Trust’. “The elevator repair will be costly, we need a new motor,” he told me suavely and based on his experience no one would want to pay. Anyway, he was leaving for Greece.
Up to me to advance the project and having already intervened in several maintenance-related affairs, I was optimistic. The first intervention was the mosquito infestation in the summer of 2014 caused by a broken pipe in the adjacent police station that had flooded one of our building’s semi-subterranean storerooms. “There are things swimming in there,” Wagih, the owner of a snack kiosk across the street informed me, and an image of Viet Cong water dungeons sprung to mind. I asked why the police had done nothing about it but Wagih’s glance reminded me of the indelicate nature of my question.
“The mosquitoes are this big”, he said warily, holding his thumb and nicotine-stained forefinger around ten centimeters apart.
“Maybe they can shoot them,” I offered, and he showed me his three tea-browned front teeth. I set to work and following a lengthy telephone campaign, reached someone at the insurance company who seemed sympathetic and who I expected to do nothing. But the next day, miraculously, a truck arrived and pumped the water out of the ground floor space. This had the immediate effect of diminishing the mosquito population and turning me into a neighborhood hero.
Not long after that, the building’s electricity was about to be cut off owing to an overdue bill so I organized a tenant’s meeting. Representatives from the buildings’ sixteen offices (including the no-star hotel on the first floor) and six private families attended, an excellent turn-out, no doubt because everyone wanted to see the inside of my flat. I held the meeting in my work space, with its large table and bookshelves and watched people’s eyes dart from the blue-faced Kali on one wall to the portrait of assassinated president Anwar Sadat on another. Rather than the customary tea and coffee, I served fresh juices and a plate of honey-soaked semolina cakes stuffed with spiced date. In this congenial atmosphere it was decided that owing to the offices’ much larger population and their consequently greater use of the elevator, stairs etc., they would pay three times as much as residents for electricity and maintenance related expenses. And although it was highly irregular for the offices to pay cash instead of checks, in the spirit of cooperation they decided to do so, just this once, in exchange for a receipt. The building guardian’s mother and sister agreed to collect everyone’s contribution to the electrical bill, a process that benefitting from the general enthusiasm, took only about a month.
Before this meeting, I had never consciously contacted all my neighbors. I greeted people who work in the various state-affiliated offices daily but their purposes were a mystery I had never cared to solve. Now, even having visited their offices and learned that they deal with things like roads, bridges, hotels and insurance, I am unable to explain what they actually do. On the surface these offices are all identical: spacious flats with parquet floors and four meter-high ceilings converted into workplaces by cramming them with desks, telephones and metal filing cabinets. Only the manager has a private, much larger office, usually corresponding to the flat’s former main salon, with a desk bearing a pen set, a Quran, an Egyptian flag or a bronze eagle but few, if any papers. No one has a computer, although some have typewriters.
Workers all have pens and ledgers that when filled will be placed in black cardboard file holders like those already piled atop and spilling from the metal cabinets. What they record and how this advances the business of bridge building or hotel management is uncertain. It may be that the employees themselves, each responsible for a particular step in the process, are unaware of their work’s actual purpose or end result. For whereas Henry Ford had identified the means of manufacturing something by having many individuals put it together piece by piece, Egyptians had long since discovered the virtues of doing the opposite. Every procedure aimed at achieving whatever goal is divided into an infinite series of steps, each requiring permissions, signatures, payments and rubber stamps involving a number of functionaries who would otherwise be unemployed. It’s the process that counts, not the result; the process is everything. Each procedural step is clung to like the floating debris of a shipwreck, and no decision is ever made in contradiction to the prevailing order.
In the course of the elevator situation, my understanding of the bureaucracy matured. I called a tenant’s meeting, held in Monsieur Faris’ frigidly air-conditioned meeting room because no one would want to walk up the five floors to my place. Several tenants, including Monsieur Faris, agreed to find elevator repair companies to provide estimates. But in order to diagnose its problems, someone had to turn the elevator on. Unfortunately the municipality had placed a red wax seal on its electricity supply, indicating it was dangerous and out of bounds. This happened because a woman had filed a complaint at the adjacent police station one day when the elevator descended a meter or so below the ground floor into the pit housing part of its cabling, and she had to climb out. This was not an unusual occurrence, but she used the phrase ‘the elevator fell’ implying it had lost its moorings and crashed to earth. The police duly dated, stamped and copied the complaint filing a copy with the municipality, whose agents came and applied the damning red seal.
Everyone openly agreed about the need to bribe an engineer to convince the municipality to turn on the elevator’s electricity. This hurdle was overcome by a small collection (with myself and Monsieur Faris the largest contributors) and in the following weeks the five estimates were painstakingly assembled. The company I recommended, that proposed refurbishing rather than replacing the existing elevator motor, with a new (Chinese) one, met with unanimous disapproval. Egyptians do not like old things. They’ve had enough of them. New is always better, even if materially speaking it isn’t, because it represents a fresh start. I argued for the building’s heritage and the overall superiority of the existing motor over anything that might be purchased today and in the end it was decided that an independent consultant would make the call between the relative benefits of repairing the old or installing a new motor. The next meeting would not take place for another six weeks owing to some contingency cited by the insurance company representative that I can no longer recall.
Ramadan came and went, as did September and half of October, with summer scarcely loosening its grip. I left the flat less and less. It was too hot and I could not bear the reproach in the eyes of people laboring up the stairs, hefty women with swollen ankles, old men in clothes shiny from repeated ironing or in flowing galabiyyas that had seen better days. One morning, carrying groceries up to my flat, I ran into the manager of the ‘Office for Technical Information’ who demanded, “When are you fixing the elevator?” without so much as a ‘good morning.’
“Why me?” I asked.
“Because you’re the one who got us together,” he said.
“Exactly. I can’t do everything. Who do you think I am, El-Sisi?” I quipped, referencing Egypt’s president, a former general whose reputation as a paragon of military efficiency had already fallen into question, though admitting this aloud is strictly infra dig.
“What’s wrong with El-Sisi??” the man asked.
“El-Sisi is like this,” he said, putting both thumbs emphatically up, and looking over both shoulders before continuing his descent.
I labored up the last flight, feeling a bit like El-Sisi must feel, sad to recall how one’s heart swelled when things looked promising and you were genuinely loved, before the people’s faith turned to ingratitude and resentment. ‘Can’t you see I’m doing my best?’ I wanted to say as I’m sure El-Sisi did, ‘what have you done to improve your own situation besides complain? Am I expected to fix everything around here?’ Of course, in my case, the sadness didn’t last and no one was arrested, jailed or tortured.
By the time November rolled around, the consultant had determined a new motor was called for and the company that had been responsible for maintaining the elevator so poorly in the past, was chosen to install it. Although I suspected some underhanded dealing behind their winning the bid, I had no proof. And by this time, like everyone else in the building, my will had been worn down. Monsieur Faris, now the self-appointed head of an inexistent workers union, held a meeting to confirm that the work would begin as soon as everyone paid their part of the 62,000 EGP cost. Residents would pay half as much as the offices, even though we had earlier agreed we would pay less. The building owner’s representative read their pronouncement from a scrap of paper: “The law says offices pay only twice as much, not matter how greatly they outnumber the residents.”
“The law is not fair.” I said.
Everyone nodded almost imperceptibly.
At last, the new engine was installed on the roof and the old one, over a ton of iron, was dismantled and dragged down the stairs, breaking the lips of several steps and leaving streaks of black grease that foot traffic eventually wore away. The elevator’s wooden cabinet was given a superficial cleaning that predictably didn’t last but it remains a thing of beauty if only for surviving a century’s ups and downs. The new engine, it must be said, is much quieter and the elevator may now be summoned from any floor. While it’s worked without a hitch for several years, it will never last another ninety, like the old one. But then again, neither will we.