The Bawabs

Anyone who rents an apartment in Cairo has to deal with someone called a bawab, a sometimes quaint, sometimes frustrating fixture of Cairene city life.

The bawab is a kind of porter cum guard cum building manager. They are always men, and most of them wear the traditional gellabaya. They can usually be found sitting in front of their buildings, on plastic chairs on the sidewalk. They often sleep in sad little rooms on the ground floors of the buildings they keep. Tenants pay them monthly fees, and they also make a little money on the side when they help tenants with repairs, errands, or car cleaning and parking. Each apartment building in Cairo has its own bawab, plus a team of helpers if the building is large enough.

Bawabs usually come from Upper Egypt, which means they bring a little bit of country-life sensibility to the big city. They are meant to act as custodians of correct behaviour, keeping tabs on the comings and goings of the residents of their buildings, and making sure, for example, that they are receiving appropriate guests.

Thus, they can be influential in making the life of their tenants a breeze or a living hell. There are stories online of tenants plying their bawabs with beer so they’ll turn a blind eye on overnight guests of the opposite sex…

Bawabs are also very useful when apartment hunting in Cairo. They’ll bring you up to view any apartments for rent in their buildings, or point you in the direction of other buildings on their street that have available flats.

Except for a kerfuffle about electricity bills, we lucked out with our bawab, Y., who is a very nice man. He doesn’t speak a word of English and our Arabic remains pretty basic, but somehow, we’re able to communicate about most things. And we were grateful to have him and his team of acolytes last week when we locked ourselves out of our flat.

Bonus content: Check out this sad but excellent article about bawabs in the New York Times from 1995

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