What the Garbageman Knows
Sayyid’s conversations revolve around the three fundamental forces in his world, which are women, money, and garbage. Often these things are closely connected. In the beginning, it was Sayyid’s father’s unquenchable passion for women that led to his son becoming a zabal. Sayyid’s father worked as a watchman on the outskirts of Cairo, where he embarked on a rapid series of marriages and divorces. All told, he went through nine wives, or ten if you count the Christian woman he married briefly before Sayyid’s mother. Nobody seems to know how many children he fathered, but it was too many to support, and he died when Sayyid was six. As a boy, Sayyid never attended a single day of school, and by the age of eleven he was working full time as an assistant to zabaleen.
Despite this difficult childhood, Sayyid speaks fondly of his parents. And in his ancestral village in Upper Egypt residents remember his father in almost mythical terms. They say that at heart he was a true Arab, a Bedouin, a man of the Sahara; and thus he was fated to restlessness. The villagers also make it clear that they don’t count the Christian wife.
. . .
Sometimes he mentioned the possibility of divorce, which has little stigma for male Muslims in Egypt. One of Sayyid’s older brothers had recently divorced for the second time and now was searching for a third wife. “You keep one for a while and then you change,” the brother had told me, when we met at the sebou. “It’s like changing a tire on a car.”
. . .
In Sayyid’s extended family, most women wear the niqab, but the reason seems to be more cultural than strictly religious. It’s a point of pride and possession for the men—Sayyid says that his wife wears it because she’s beautiful, and if she shows her face in the street she’ll be coveted by strangers and harassed. And other traditions serve to control women in more explicit ways. One evening, Sayyid and I were watching my twin daughters play in the garden, and he asked casually if I planned to have them circumcised. I looked at the girls—they were all of three years old—and said no, this wasn’t something we intended to do. The majority of Egyptian women have undergone the surgery, which opponents describe as genital mutilation. Since 2008, it’s been illegal, but many people continue to have it performed on daughters, usually when they’re between the ages of nine and twelve. In Egypt, Islamists are the biggest supporters of the procedure, which, among other effects, makes intercourse less pleasurable for a woman. But in fact this tradition is not mentioned in the Koran, and Muslims in most parts of the world don’t practice it. Originally, it was a tribal custom native to many parts of Africa.
I asked Sayyid if he planned to have the surgery performed on his daughter, and he nodded. “Otherwise, women are crazy for dakar,” he said, using a word that means “male.” “They’ll be running around outside the house, chasing men.”
For traditionally minded Egyptians, this is a common view: desire should be limited to males, who do what they can to heighten it. All those sex drugs in the garbage of Zamalek aren’t an anomaly—in Egypt, I’ve had a number of casual conversations in which the topic turns to sex, and a man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pill, to show that he’s prepared.
. . .
Finally, a neighbor in Ard al-Liwa organized a traditional reconciliation session involving members of Sayyid’s and Wahiba’s families. At the session, the neighbor gave Sayyid a piece of advice. “If your wife asks for a penny,” he said, “give her two.”
“Why should I give her two pennies?” Sayyid asked.
“Because the man with three pennies is standing outside your house.”
Afterward, Sayyid was optimistic. When I asked how his sister and Wahiba had got along at the meeting, Sayyid seemed surprised by the question. “They weren’t there,” he said. “Women aren’t allowed at a reconciliation.” He explained that it’s impossible to control them in such a situation. “They have long tongues, and they insult people,” he said. “There would be a fight.”
. . .
He explained that by law Wahiba needed her husband’s permission to work, because the papers described her as a housewife. “In Islamic Sharia, the woman is like an egg,” he said. “Let’s say you have ten eggs. Where would you put them? Would you just leave them lying around? No, you’d put them in the proper place, in the refrigerator. Women belong at home. They can go out of the house with their husband’s permission, but that’s it.”
. . .
I had always liked talking with Sayyid, because of his eye for detail in Zamalek, but I noticed that he rarely said anything specific about his wife. She was crazy, he often told me, and her mind was a lock—a phrase that describes ignorance and stubbornness. But sometimes I wondered if she was almost as mysterious to him as she was to me. In his description, the woman was completely blank, as faceless as a figure in a shroud. And all the skill that Sayyid showed in Zamalek—his insight and flexibility, his ability to interact and negotiate with so many different people—seemed to evaporate when he was dealing with his wife. She was, quite simply, terrifying. And from the male perspective this seemed true of Egyptian women in general, whether they were starting fights, or chasing dakar, or intimidating Azhar judges.
I never knew why Wahiba became so angry. Sayyid blamed money, which seemed unlikely. A couple of his neighbors told me the real problem was that Sayyid spent too much time in Zamalek, cultivating his relationships, while Wahiba was stuck with three small kids in the ashwa’iyat. But it was impossible to know for certain, just as it was impossible to know why she suddenly dropped her cases. After all the lawyers and statements, and all the threatening messages, at the last moment Wahiba backed out. She decided not to file for divorce, and she quit her factory job, and Sayyid went home to Ard al-Liwa as if nothing had happened.
. . .
Still, they survived. The circle kept turning. The garbage vanished from the fire escape every morning. At night, Sayyid periodically stopped by my apartment to drink beer and chat. After he was gone, Leslie sometimes asked, “Is it really possible that they’re together again?” But he looked so much healthier and happier than he had during the winter. And he was back to taking tramadol on Thursday nights, which had to mean something.
In this story, the things feared by a real man in a truly patriarchal society include:
- too much sexual desire by his daughters
- too much sexual desire by his wife
- his own lack of sexual desire
- his wife being raped by other men because of her beauty
- his wife being lured away by other men with more money
- his wife working outside the home
- women’s emotions
- women talking too much
- having to read and comprehend stuff not related to his work experience
- having to deal with laws and courts
In other words, Arab patriarchs have pretty much the same concerns as patriarchs anywhere, including those in all societies steeped in “honor culture”, such as the American South. They are not admirable, just, or ethically representative of Christianity.*
The patriarchal model, AKA the “culture of honor”, is unusually susceptible to corruption and depredation due to everyone’s dependence on patronage for survival and the prevalence of sexual dominance as the form for the ideal relationship. This leads to a fundamentally feudalistic socioeconomic structure, including the institution of control systems such as vassalage, chattel slavery, villeinage, serfdom, divine rights of lordship, pederasty, and child marriage. Such systems arise as methods to ensure the maintenance of patriarchal authority, since it eventually breaks down under the burden of worthless and dissipative, yet perpetually entitled, scumbag “alphas”.
The exaltation of biological masculinity as forming an inherently logical and righteous state of mind leads to the development of a mythology in which the imperatives of the male sociosexual hierarchy (especially in its manifestation of vassal politics) trump any abstract notion of “morality”. Yet, since men are not inherently righteous or even capable of maintaining self-control, much less social order, eventually the leaders have to turn to legal justifications for brutality in order to keep the peace.
*Sure, I know that Christianity has taken many forms throughout history, including some long-lasting patriarchal forms. I am applying here my own subjective judgment about “Christianity” based on my perspective in a middle-class, White-dominated, suburban, post-communist, secularized, 21st-century, Midwestern United States culture.