Friday, January 14, 2011

Egypt Essentials: The Bowab

A bowab is neither a thing or a place but rather a person. However, if you live in Egypt long enough, he might just become the most important person you'll meet.

The Arabic word "bowab" loosely translates into the English word "doorman," but he does so much more than just hold the door open to your building.

Years ago when I lived in Egypt the first time around, I lived in several apartment buildings. But I cannot tell you today whether any of them had a bowab present.

What a shame!

The first thing to know about dealing with a bowab is that you must be able to speak Arabic. Bowabs may be Muslim or Christian, but they are always from a lower class (and many times from upper Egypt) so they will not be able to speak any English.

There is one person in the building who usually serves as the building *manager.* This person usually owns a flat in the building and is responsible for all of the building maintenance and upkeep. They are also in charge of the bowab.

In our case (like many others) the bowab lives in a small room usually in the lower level of the building. We have a garage so his room is in the garage. Some bowabs have their families with them and some do not. 

The bowab is responsible for certain things as part of his regular job:
*Guard the building (although this does not meet to stand guard all night)
*Cleaning the inner shared parts of the building, including the stairwells, elevator(s), and entry or foyer to the building
*Cleaning of the front outside of the building, including the steps leading up to the building, the front sidewalk, and usually the part of the road or curb directly in front of the building
*Watering and caring for any plants inside or planted in front of the building
*Maintenance issues (elevator, lights in the stairwell, water pump, gas line, etc) that may need to be addressed by the building manager

However, the bowab is also able to perform services directly for the inhabitants of the building. This is where you'll find that he becomes invaluable. I never realized how many things a bowab could take care of until we moved into our building. Of course, some of these things require a certain amount of trust on your part.

Here are some things our bowab does for us:

Cleans our car daily. As far as I understand it, this is not part of our bowab's regular job but rather an understanding that he and my husband have decided on through the years.

Collects the mail. I have yet to see a mailman in our current building. Often when I lived in Egypt before I would receive a package while I was out of the house and all I'd get was a yellow slip that told me I'd have to go pay money down at the post office to collect it. However, with our bowab he pays the fee (usually) and holds the package for us until we come home.

Assists in carrying things. This might be when I'm getting out of a taxi with my young son on one arm and bags in that hand, struggling to wrench the stroller out of the car with the other... so you can see how this comes in handy. Other times he's there to help is when we come home from the grocery store or if we're off to the airport with all our luggage. In one way or another, his poor back has been saving ours for several years now.

Sends and receives the ironing. I'm not sure exactly when this started, because it used to be that the ironing guy would come up to the flat and deal with us directly. However, through the years - perhaps because we were often not in the house when the ironing guy would get around to coming by - we've taken to leaving the bag of clothes we're sending out for ironing with our bowab. Then when the ironing guy comes, he collects it from the bowab and when it's finished he brings it back to our bowab who then delivers it to our door.

Runs errands. This includes a wide variety of things. Our bowab buys fruits and vegetables for us. He goes to bring us foul (Egyptian beans eaten for breakfast) and freshly baked Egyptian balady bread. He runs to get milk or yogurt or whatever else I may have forgotten from the store or run out of suddenly. We might have surprise guests at the door and have nothing cold in the refrigerator to offer them to drink; when this happens I just call the bowab and he goes quickly to get some drinks for us.

There are a million other things that our bowab does for us, many of which are perhaps not part of his job but that he does anyways.

Honestly it can take years to build up a rapport with your bowab. And of course with many or most of these little extras it's customary to give a little tip out of thanks and respect for his hard work. Remember that those things aren't part of his everyday job.

Note: Although we personally have been blessed these past 5 years with an excellent bowab, it is important to know that you should be wary when dealing with your bowab. They should not be allowed in your house when you're not at home nor (particularly if you're a single lady or married lady alone without your husband or son) when you're at home. Unfortunately not every bowab is honest or trustworthy so be careful when you're new (you might get opinions from your neighbors in the building if you're concerned).

You may give your bowab a small gift at feast time (Muslim feasts if he's Muslim and Christmas & Easter if he's Christian). This is usually money. Sometimes we also give sweets like cookies or chocolates (not bought special but because we already had them in the house).

If you live in Egypt, I hope that you are able to fully appreciate your bowab. It is a very difficult job they have. However, at the same time if you can learn to both communicate and understand how to deal with your bowab, this will make your life in Egypt much easier in many ways.

What about you? Can you share any advice or experience you have on dealing with a bowab in Egypt?

Image courtesy walid.hassanein


  1. As I live in Upper Egypt the following made me really gringe
    "Bowabs may be Muslim or Christian, but they are always from a lower class (and many times from upper Egypt) so they will not be able to speak any English"

    I once stayed in Cairo for two months and always remember watching a wealthy Cairene lady getting her elderly Upper Egyptian Bowab to carry her shopping. He was elderly, bent over and probably someones Grandfather and she was speaking to him like dirt. To be honest I felt like stepping in for the precious little madam and asking if she would like me to carry her shopping. Upper Egytians are warm and dignified and I hate to think of them as considered as perfect Bowab material.What you have written is very helpful and accurate but I can't help but feel terribly sad when I read it.One thing I hate about Egypt, lack of social mobility. Once a Bowab, always a Bowab.

  2. By the way - my comment should say cringe not gringe. That's what happens when you decide to go on the internet at 2.30am when you can't sleep

  3. Thanks Ruby for the input. For me, it's not so much about a bowab doing his job but - like you mentioned - the way some wealthy Cairenes speak to said bowab. Now THAT makes me cringe. I think we should all make a point to treat our bowabs (and anyone who works for us) with dignity and kindness.

    And I dearly hope that it was not implied above that upper Egyptians are "perfect bowab material." Because that is not what I meant. Ever heard of a certain family that goes by the name of Sawiris?

    But the truth of the matter is that many bowabs are, in fact, from upper Egypt. Many of them live here in Cairo and often without their families.

  4. I was able to spend a semester in college living with an Egyptian family in Heliopolis. Just a few weeks into my stay I went to drop off some mail and on my way home was chased by a young guy. I had very little Arabic skill and had no clue where to go but back home. The fabulous bowab was able to just read my facial expression as I raced into the building to hide and went outside and told the guy off. I really appreciated my bowab!

  5. Thanks Allison for sharing! Yes, bowabs can be very useful in those types of situations. I keep thinking that the bowabs all the way down our street and around the corner to where we walk to catch a taxi all know who we are so I feel more at home once we reach our *block*. Certainly if something were to happen I think I could count on them to do something to help.


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