The lock in our “bab” (door) began to jam a few days ago. Each day, it would get harder and harder to unlock the door. Last night, it took more than an hour.
I first ask our doorman Mahmoud, who’s my favorite of the three doormen, for help. He always greets me warmly and with a big smile each time he sees me. Mahmoud tries for a few minutes, but fails, so we go back downstairs. I ask if he can talk to the landlord Mr. Sameer for us. “Who’s Mr. Sameer?” he asks me.
He returns to his desk, and says the locksmith can take a look at the “mooshkayla” or problem “bokra, insha’allah” or tomorrow, God Willing. Otherwise, he keeps quiet. It is 9:40pm. At this late hour, a locksmith would cost about 150 LE ($30). After I ask for a phone number, he writes it down for me. I call the landlord and request that Mahmoud speak with him, as I still do not speak fluent Arabic. He agrees. However, the landlord does not answer his phone.
At this point, my phone credit expires. After buying more credit, I go for a schwarma chicken sandwich dinner to stay calm. When I return, our Romanian neighbor Nikol is helping us with the door. He asks me if I have a small card.
I give him my Arlington, Virginia public library card. After a few minutes of jamming it into the door, he returns it to me. He goes to his apartment and returns with a large kitchen knife. He slides it into the side of the door. He returns to his apartment for some pliers. He spends the next 30 minutes performing surgery on the door. At one point, he tries to kick down the door. Boom! Boom! Boom! Nothing. He disappears into his apartment and returns with a small wooden board and uses it as a lever to budge open the door. It opens a little bit. Back to the knife and pliers.
At this point, the night shift doorman visits. He’s an older man, in his 50s, with a receding hairline and walks with a slouch. As he arrives at our door, his phone rings. He answers and talks while he picks up the knife with his left hand. He inserts it into the door crack and moves it back and forth a few times, without much effort. When he hangs up, he disappears into the elevator, but doesn’t return.
After we finally open the door, the next day, I find myself stuck in the apartment. I tell Regib, our daytime doorman, about our problem. He is also in his 50s and speaks some English; he graduated from Cairo University in 1976 with a degree in English translation. As soon as he examines our door, he says, “you must change. Helas!” or this lock is done. He says he can fix the lock for only 100LE or less than $20. He lives by the pyramids, so it’ll take him an hour or so to go home to get his equipment.
He returns in one hour and fixes the door with remarkable speed. He hammers the nails back into place and tells me, “nails not good. Made in Egypt!”
“Where are the good nails?” I inquire.
“Made in China,” he smiles. He also explains the glue he uses is Egyptian.
Ahmed, our roving doorman, tags along, but doesn’t do much more than pass a few screws to Regib. Although the repair is really a one-man job, somehow in Egypt, it always takes two or more men. When Regib finishes repairing the lock, I slip him a small baksheesh (tip) that will allow him to buy five falafels. The custom here is to tip for nearly every service. I give Ahmed nothing.
To sum up, lessons I’ve learned about life in Egypt so far:
1. Everything breaks down in Egypt
2. Good help is hard to find, especially in Cairo
3. Most doormen are useless
4. Try to have a Romanian neighbor who knows how to open a stuck door
A final note—my new favorite doorman is now Regib. Alhamdullilah!