Thursday, January 10, 2008

Our Munaqiba Cleaner

When I woke this morning, I heard the sound of a woman’s voice in the living room. It belonged to our new cleaner, a woman who has no identity. She is “munaqiba” or one who wears the niqab, the black veil that covers the face. In expat-speak, she is a ninja lady. My roommate Alex told me that it would be awkward – to say the least – to deal with her. Awkward because a man does not talk to a munaqiba, much less look her in the eyes. Having a man in the house while she cleans would pose a challenge. A possible scenario would be to have me leave the apartment while she cleans. I had no objections to this possibility; however, in the long term, it would be a problem, not simply a challenge.

Fortunately for our munaqiba, I returned home very late last night, so slept in. Also, I have a cold, so did not feel like getting out of bed. Alex slipped a note under my door: “Hi Andy! Don’t come out – the cleaning lady is here. Just call my name and I’ll come.” She also spoke very slowly and methodically – almost like a new learner of Arabic. Alex believes that perhaps she has been drinking.

I am still new to the world of Islam and just beginning to learn about its rich history and culture. So, I try to approach the religion with an open mind. However, when it comes to the niqab and munaqiba, it is very strange to me that I don’t even know what my cleaner looks like. Or that I cannot see her face. As people, we are known by our faces. Not our hands. Not our feet. Not our bellybuttons. But, our faces. If your face is covered, you hide your identity and your personhood. There is little difference between you and an invisible man.

I would’ve liked to meet our cleaner today – to thank her for her service; sadly, this may not happen anytime soon, as it would be a collision of worlds.

A street solicitation by the police
So, I encountered my first solicitation tonight by the police. As I walked home toward my apartment building, I greeted a police officer at the corner with the usual “izayak” or “hello.” I then added, “MasaH Alkheir” or good evening and the holiday greeting “Kulu Sana winta tayyeb” meaning “may you be good all year.” He responded with a sentence that I did not understand.

He then said “feeloose” or money. He opened his right palm, indicating he wanted a contribution from me to his pocket. I joked with him, “feeloose kwayyes” or money is good. I asked him if he had any to give to me. He smiled. And then asked me again for money, with his hand extended. The jist of his request was that during the new year, I’m supposed to give him some money. I turned the request around and said “Adee-knee 10 guinay” or give me 10 pounds. He declined. I then asked for 5 pounds. He smiled and I ended with “may-yeah may-yeah” or 100%, which is the Egyptian way of saying, “I understand your joke.” Of course, this is no laughing matter when the police stop you on the street to beg for money. It is said that the police are usually paid about LE 400, which is less than $80.

Happy New Year!

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