Hamed Abdel-Monsif Bakri: Easy go
Plumber by profession, mechanic by vocation and, on paper, once upon a time in Iraq a millionaire
Profile by Nur Elmessiri
"Labour Day? It was the muwazafeen [government employees] who used to celebrate it because of the raise they got on 1/5. But when raise-day was shifted to 1/7, Labour Day became a mere name. We don't really have labour syndicates or unions. They do exist, but they don't look out for their members," says Hamed Abdel-Monsif Bakri, a plumber whose work-base is a shop he rents in Madinat Al-Herafiyeen and who lives in the shaabi (traditional and mostly, though not strictly, working-class) Amiriya district of Cairo which lies on the outskirts of the historic Mattariya.
Bakri is not cynical when he talks about Labour Day, just matter of fact. His expression becomes slightly more heated when he moves to the concrete: "You pay your membership fees and don't get what is owed you if you fall sick, if your illness keeps you out of work, when you get old." He does not have particularly strong political views and does not believe in a "golden age" of recent, post-1952 Egyptian history.
Hamed Abdel-Monsif has not always worked as a plumber or lived in Amiriya or been Hamed. He has worked as a car mechanic and a driver and is an on-the-go sort of person. When he enters a room there's a whirlwind -- of voice and gesticulation -- but, at the same time, he has a gentle and unthreatening presence. He knocks down a part of a wall in his apartment, plasters, begins to paint ... and never, or so one of his brothers claims, gets round to finishing the job before starting on another.
On-the-go -- and easy-going. It was hardly easy come, the million Egyptian pounds he made in Iraq, but it was easy go. He did not spend the money: like so many other Egyptians he lost some in a pre-invasion-of-Kuwait bank transfer, and some due to the on-going war situation. The first batch of money was lost in space -- the space in which nearly a million Egyptian labourers are asked to hand over foreign currency and take pounds instead at the official rate, and only a quarter of them actually get their hands on the cash they worked hard to earn: that money left the Iraqi Rafidein Bank but somehow never made it into the pockets of their Cairo claimants. The second batch of money belongs to the on-going, now 13-year- old Egyptian chapter of the United Nations Compensations Commission (UNCC) story.
But Amo Hamed -- beloved uncle to 22 nephews and nieces, oldest brother of 10 siblings (without the demeanour of family elder) -- is, miracle of human miracles, the furthest thing from bitter, and without being cloyingly pious. Wind is his element -- and fresh air: one can easily picture him driving the Renault he once owned, wind blowing through his unruly locks, whizzing down a motorway to the delight of children, teeny-boppers to recent undergrads, jam-packed in the car -- or solo.
The big move was to Iraq in 1987, but once there he settled into plumbing, one of the most settlement-oriented (earth/ water, not wind/fire) of crafts. And when he was deported eight years later, in 1995, as many other Egyptian labourers before him had been, he left a family behind. Today, nearly a decade later, aged 52, he is to all intents and purposes a bachelor, has received no compensation, and is still in plumbing. He has no regrets about having gone to Iraq, but about having had to leave. He had a good life in Karbala, he says, and was treated well by the people he came to know there. "I didn't feel any differences were being made," he says of what it was like to be a Sunni Muslim in a Shia Muslim town.
Born in Spring 1952, the season before the Revolution, Hamed is not Hamed but Hamdy on his birth certificate and on all other official papers -- just as his brother Maged, a barber, is Mohamed; just as Saleh, a plumber, is Hussein; just as Ezzat, a unit head of the public sector Al-Masani' Al-Harbiya factories, is Abdel-Aziz. To appease grandparents who expect that children be named after them, parents in traditional Egyptian families will often put down one name on the birth certificate and proceed to call their children by another; sometimes it is just that the chosen name proves in practice to be a mouthful. This two-name phenomenon is neither exception nor rule: Hamed's other siblings -- Samira and Hanan, housewives; Sami, a carpenter; Ahmed, an engineer; and Khaled and Fawzi, plumbers -- are Samira, Hanan, Sami, Ahmed, Khaled and Fawzi.
It was through Fawzi that in his teenage years Hamed learned the ABCs of plumbing. He worked as Fawzi's apprentice during the holidays, shadowing the usta (master craftsman), handing him tools, learning by watching on.
Egyptian plumbing leaves much to be desired, a fact which Hamed does not contest. "Compared to other crafts," he says, "plumbing is easy to get started in. So, unfortunately, these days anyone who can get their hand round a wrench goes straight into plumbing -- whether or not he was apprenticed to a master. It's a profitable profession. And clients," Hamed goes on, "are often stingy, and so get stuck with plumbers who learn on the job."
Six out of the eight Abdel-Monsif Bakri brothers are or once were in the plumbing profession. But plumbing is not a family tradition, was not a craft passed down from father to son.
Abdel-Monsif Bakri Askar was, by the time his first child Hamed was born, a baker. And by the time his fourth was born in the late 1950s he had built the modest two-storey apartment building which is now the three-storey family home, but which also housed rent-paying tenants. His was one of the first buildings to come up in Amiriya, the area which then constituted the agricultural land extending around the Qubba Palace, and from the balcony, one of Hamed's younger brothers remembers, as late as the mid-1970s all you could see was feddan upon feddan of green. Today there is nothing of the countryside about Amiriya. Abdel-Monsif Bakri was a pioneer; but such pioneering multiplied by many and spread out over the years can easily become environmental degradation: in this respect Amiriya is no better and no worse than Mohandessin, Dokki or Giza.
Hamed's father must have appreciated the fact that Amiriya was green and bordered the Ismailia Canal. His origins after all were rural. Before migrating to Cairo in his late teens he had been a small-land-owner and peasant from a village outside of Zifta, a Delta town which -- besides eliciting chuckles because zifta in Arabic means "bitumen" in the feminine form, a term of slander -- boasts having declared itself an independent republic under the leadership of Youssef El-Guindi for a short period during the 1919 Revolution.
So is the El-Guindi villa still standing in Zifta? Twenty-two- year-old Mohamed, an apprentice plumber and cousin of the Abdel-Monsifs, answers in the affirmative. We are on our way to Hamed's shop and have stopped at his brother Khaled's around the corner: Khaled's shop is small, but choc-a-bloc with merchandise, is doing, one guesses, healthy business.
By contrast Hamed's shop is uncluttered, and immaculate. Hamed rises to greet us. Behind him is a calendar bearing a photo of the late El-Sheikh El-Shaarawi who was popular in the 1980s, and posthumously continues to be in some circles, and whose approach to Qur'anic exegesis combined rigorous textual analysis with a delivery style combining classical and colloquial, comprehensible to even those without formal education. Hamed arranges for coffee to be brought and, though not a regular smoker, lights up and then turns down the classic recording of El-Sheikh Abdel-Basit Abdel-Samad's chanting of the Qur'an.
El-Shaarawi and Abdel-Samad, not the up-and-coming Amr Khaled generation. As with religious masters, so too with music. Hamed prefers old songs to current Egyptian pop, "but the new is imposed on us, so we listen".
Hamed came to plumbing after years as a mechanic working for the Egyptian army -- and a very brief stint with his father. "Baking is a tiresome and very difficult job," Hamed says -- not in reference to the part that demands a reputation for honesty and integrity (Hamed's father's job consisted in, first, measuring out the amount of flour required for each loaf of bread ), but to the second part: "The bread was hot, really hot, and your hands would burn. Baking is tough work." Tougher, if Hamed's words are anything to go by, than being a mechanic for 16 years.
And not any 16 years. After graduating from preparatory school Hamed joined the army in 1968, a year after the June defeat, a traumatic moment in Egyptian history. "One day Hamed is gone," his brother Sami recounts, "and a few days later he shows up in military gear. He joined up without telling anyone, not even my father. Hamed does things suddenly ... and then drops them."
"I don't like to be tied down; I like freedom," says Hamed, who resigned from the army in 1984 instead of hanging in there until he became eligible for decent retirement and other army-related benefits. "Sixteen years in the army, and he comes out not a lieutenant but a common sergeant," Sami exclaims, both amused and frustrated by Hamed's behaviour. "He should have come out a lieutenant, but he resigned."
Be that as it may, the Egyptian army did give Hamed something valuable: a year and a half of training in mechanics, the field he loves. The job as army car mechanic took him to Alexandria, Marsa Matrouh, Salloum, Fayoum and, during the 1973 War, when he was attached to a missile battalion, to Port Said. When asked about how he felt during the October War, Hamed replies: "The feeling was that the issue you were in would be resolved ... and you would finally be able to leave the army." No mention of the Arab-Israeli conflict; none about the liberation of Sinai. For Hamed the army was an employer, a place far from the domestic scene in Amiriya in which to earn a living. He had signed on for a seven year contract, but found himself stuck for an additional 10. "You couldn't leave the army in those years ... I got fed up with being stuck out in the back of beyond, with moving from one nowhere in the mountains to another."
When he left the army in 1984 with not much to show for himself -- no fancy uniform, no stars, no benefits -- he took up driving: truck (transporting fridges throughout Egypt) and then taxi (his own Renault). On whether as a taxi driver he did any particular "beat", Hamed's reply is: "Anywhere in Egypt except Shubra Al-Kheima." He elaborates: "All those fly-overs and checkpoints, and the congestion and suffocation."
In prison in Karbala Hamed drew caricatures of Saddam and Ceausescu on the cell wall when, in late 1991, all Egyptians were rounded up regardless of whether or not they had been involved in the uprising. But wasn't that a very dangerous thing to do? "Oh, but I erased the one of Saddam immediately." Pencil drawings? "No, magic markers. I left a bit of a smudge on the prison wall -- and Ceausescu." Other than "the routine slap you get in the beginning", Hamed was not subjected to any form of torture during the 15-day period he spent in prison in Iraq.
The subject of prison comes up indirectly when Hamed is asked about his hobbies. "In Iraq, you worked and earned good money, and still had plenty of leisure time left." These days, in Cairo, he does a 9am-9pm, six-day work-week. In what remains of the day Hamed's brothers will often gather in his flat for tea and conversation, with some satellite channel or other -- music mostly -- on in the background. In terms of quality time he is a generous uncle, one with whom the lonesome hours when your parents are not there can be filled with playing cards and backgammon, painting, or putting together an impromptu meal.
Hamed is not chauvinistic. He recounts with pride how an Iraqi friend, having seen one of the drawings he made, said that Egyptians are a very intelligent people. But equally, and objectively, when told that many Egyptians complained about having been ill-treated by Iraqis, Hamed is quick to point out that: "Some Iraqis liked Egyptians; some hated them. That's natural. Plus the behaviour of many Egyptians was appalling. Much of Egypt's garbage was in Iraq." On the coffins sent from Iraq to Egypt in the late 1980s, he says: "I heard about them but didn't see any in the area in which I lived. Besides," he adds, "capital punishment was applied for various offences to Egyptians and Iraqis alike."
Hamed lived in Baghdad for the first year and a half of his stay in Iraq. His first job did not require much expertise: transforming barrels into metal sheets. He then moved to Karbala where he set up a plumbing shop, employing both Egyptians and Iraqis. An Iraqi client who became a friend found him clients in other towns including Diwaniya and Nasseriyas.
"He was a client," begins Hamed's story of a family established, then lost in the world of statistics and buried in the nether regions of memory. Journalists have prodded, and the narrative style is staccato. "Her father, no, grandfather had a sportswear business. She was an English teacher. She was Iraqi and I didn't want problems. I fixed a water heater for her father. One day she was passing by ..."
"Doesn't she have a name?!!"
Perhaps it was the interrogative form's sudden intrusion into the narrative that made Hamed wince. Perhaps his startled and brief A was simply the appropriate response to an abrupt Q. In any case, having given us a name -- Zeinab -- Hamed then continues with pronouns. He feels more comfortable that way: "She passed by the shop. Suddenly she was there in front of me ... He, not her father, but a mutual friend who lived in the area asked me if I knew her. I didn't. He said he'd arrange a marriage ... Suddenly I found myself in the situation."
A six-year situation, till 1995 -- and a daughter and son. Egyptians had to leave; Iraqis were not allowed to. So Hamed left a shop to a brother-in-law and a nuclear family to the care of an extended one. The siege on Iraq was tightened; means of communication were severed; and family reunions became less and less of an option. A year, several, nearly a decade ... But surely ... Hamed silences the rhetorical question: "She is not going to wait for so many years for a ghareeb (stranger and foreigner)." Penelope -- faithful, Ancient Greek, Homeric -- belongs to myth; Hamed -- pragmatic, modern Egyptian, stoical -- belongs to social history.
Tragedy is if you go into an office and find the secretary crying. Sociology is if, having gone into the next office, you find the secretary there also crying. Not funny, but applicable to the Egyptian-Iraqi story at hand. Hamed's case is not unique. Nor does he see himself as in anyway "special".
"Those who had been imprisoned in 1991 weren't allowed to renew their residence," Hamed tells in a detached, no- nonsense way of how and why he left a country that had become his home: "If you left you couldn't come back. The embargo was beginning to suffocate Iraq. Economic conditions deteriorated, with the dinar plummeting against the dollar. An Iraqi friend working in a bank gave me advice: 'You will be an object of envy. An Iraqi unable to put food on the table, and you, a foreigner, working. I'll put your money in a bank account here' -- from 1991 you couldn't take your money out of Iraq -- 'and either you'll be able to cash it or not.'" So Hamed took his friend's advice -- "She told me it would be like gambling" -- and left.
Hamed has asked a friend to inquire on his behalf, at the concerned Egyptian governmental bodies, about the possibility of his case being looked into and of his getting some form of financial compensation. When prodded a third time about personal losses, it becomes clear that he and Hope have gone their separate ways. And there's no glancing backwards over the shoulder for either of them. Abandon her all ye who enter; something, someone will slip away if you turn around to look.
Like so many post-1960s shaabi (and non- shaabi ) areas of Cairo, Amiriya is far from pretty, and certainly not springtime- green. But as in many shaabi areas, on the street where Hamed Abdel-Monsif lives there are trees which, of modest breed, you do not notice at first. They do not make an enormous difference to the grey-brown wind-blown tonalities of the street, but the four fecus decori are a touching reminder of how some people still have it in them to bother.
"Amo Hamed planted them five years ago," Hamed's next- doors niece Samia tells me.