Egypt, the bawab and the idea of collectivism

by Stephany Daal

“Make sure you have a good bawab.” A sentence often heard in Egypt when looking for an apartment to live in. From a western perspective it’s a rather strange saying. How can the doorman have such an influence on the lives of the residents?

Not just a doorman

The bawab is quite common in Egyptian society. Often deemed more than just a doorman, they keep an eye on the apartment building, take care of maintenance and cleaning and run errands for the residents. They’re paid monthly by the residents and live with their family in a tiny living space underneath the building. It’s not a highly ranked job in Egyptian society and social mobility barely seems to exist for bawabs and their families, although there is definitely a difference in being a bawab in a more affluent neighborhood. Not only are the buildings there in better shape and the neighborhoods often more safe, residents are often capable of paying more for the tasks the bawab is helping them with. These tasks can be anything from doing groceries, to calling the plumber when the toilet is broken, to washing the car.

The relationship between the residents and the bawab is an interesting one, quite unseen in other parts of Egyptian society. There is an obvious difference in social class with the former being able to move upwards in society. However, while under different circumstances the two social classes would probably not have mingled, let alone find themselves living in the same area, the residents and the bawab now depend on each other. The former for the maintenance of his living space, security and the tasks needed to be done, the latter for a job, a place to live and stable income. 

Closeup and a miniature version of collectivism

A “good” bawab will keep you and the building safe, a “less good” bawab will do the same but gossip about you or mingle too much with your private life. Egyptians often joke about it, but a bawab knows everything about its residents. From the visitors they have, to what time they leave for work, to what time they usually go to bed. There is no such thing as privacy when one lives in a building with a bawab. Not strange, given the closeup they have into people’s day to day lives. Hence, many people’s preference for one who doesn’t gossip about its residents to other residents or who doesn’t interfere with people’s personal lives. 

In collectivistic cultures there is a greater emphasis on social cooperation, dependence on others and social obligation and although the bawab is paid for his services, residents and their bawabs seem to live in a miniature vision of collectivism where taking care of each other has been taken to a different level. How common is it for the bawab’s wife to cook for residents and their family, or to clean their apartment or how often do residents gather to collect money when the bawab has a medical emergency. Despite the difference in status and the fact that they most probably have very little in common other than living in the same building, the two groups take care of each other in more ways than deemed possible.