Pretty much every apartment in the Middle East has a porter, or bawwab, who takes care of the physical aspects of the building. He cleans the stairwells, waters the lawn, cleans the tenants’ cars, carries heavy groceries up the stairs for you, and is generally an all around nice guy. The bawwab lives on site in a small apartment in the building or in a garage next to it. He generally knows the ins and outs of the apartment and neighborhood. In fact, the standard way of finding an apartment in the Middle East is to find a neighborhood you like and start talking to the bawwabs to see if there are any vacancies.
Our bawwab in Jordan was a nice, quiet Egyptian migrant worker who sent his low salary back to his family every month. He was never intrusive; he just did his job. Awesome guy.
Hussein, the bawwab at the church building here, probably has the easiest job on the planet. He doesn’t have tenants—the church owns the entire building. He mows and waters the lawn and cleans up the place after we’re done with church on Fridays. He’s the happiest guy ever.
When we were being shown all the different apartments last week (one week from today, actually), Reda, our real estate agents, would get the keys to each of the apartments from the bawwabs. When he showed us the apartment we eventually rented, he got the keys from a man named Khaled, who seemed to be the bawwab. He seemed really excited to have us move in to the apartment and talked up both the apartment and his services as bawwab.
When we came back the next day to pick up the keys, he was there, excited as ever. He followed us into the apartment and just kind of stood there. I asked him what he wanted and he informed me that he wanted to make a special agreement, “just between you and me” (bayni wa baynak)—whatever that meant. I was too concerned about getting him out of the place so we could see what we needed to buy, so I just shooed him out, telling him we’d talk about it in the evening when we thought we’d bring our suitcases by.
We didn’t end up moving over until Tuesday, so I totally skipped our “secret meeting.” We kept stopping at the apartment throughout the day to drop off cleaning supplies and household stuff we needed and never saw him doing his bawwab work.
That evening, President McCallister drove us over. His helpful bawwab helped us load up his car, which was great—he didn’t even ask for a tip, or baksheesh.
When we got to the apartment with the loaded car, Khaled was there. He helped us unload the car and carry everything up. He then waited in our apartment anxiously, saying he needed to talk with me about “our agreement.” He was disappointed when I told him “No, not yet.” We had to run over to the church to grab a few things left over from previous American families (dishes and stuff), and Hussein cheerfully helped us load up the car while we were there.
Upon returning with the kitchen stuff, Khaled impatiently helped us unload one more time and again stood there waiting in our apartment. I had already forgotten about our imminent deal, so I reached into my wallet, grabbed 2 pounds (like 40 cents)—a normal sized tip for a helpful bawwab—and handed it over.
He refused and looked gravely offended. He said that that was way to cheap for such a fantastic bawwab. He then reminded me of our deal, saying that since he was an amazing bawwab and guard, I could/should pay him something so he would take extra good care of me and my family.
Each tenant in the building pays a monthly fee to the bawwab—in our building it is 25 pounds (5ish dollars). I told him that we already pay him and he again refused, saying that this special payment of mine was a one-time-only deal. Confused, I upped his tip to 5 pounds, hoping that would be enough to get him out of the house.
Again, he refused, and acting hurt told me about his great bawwab services. I upped the ante to 10 and once again he refused.
It took 5 more minutes to finally get the price up to 50 pounds ($10). He then left, happy, promising the best bawwab service ever, even saying that he would clean our balcony in the morning.
The landlord came later that evening to collect rent and I broke my apparent “secret bawwab deal” and told him about it. He was outraged that his bawwab would steal from his new tenants. He said that he’d take care of it as soon as possible. Early Wednesday morning, he actually called me again to confirm that the bawwab had really taken 50 pounds from us.
We haven’t seen Khaled since Tuesday night when we paid him.
In fact, until yesterday there was no visible bawwab for our building. The stairs still got cleaned, the trashcans got emptied, cars got washed, but not by Khaled.
Finally this evening, on my way to Arabic Sunday School, I met the mystery bawwab, Ibrahim—a younger guy with a small family who lives with him in the little garage. I was in a hurry so I unfortunately couldn’t ask how long he had been our building’s bawwab, but when I asked if he was the bawwab he looked at me like I was crazy for not knowing already.
This brings us to our bawwab conspiracy theories:
1. Khaled was never the bawwab all along. He was some random guy that saw that we were potentially moving in and became a bawwab-imposter. He put on a great show until he got our money. Then he ran. However, how did he get the keys if he wasn’t the actual bawwab? If Ibrahim has been the bawwab all along, was he in on it, or was he gagged and tied down in the garage?
2. Khaled was the bawwab, took too big of a gamble, we squealed, and he lost his job. Ibrahim was brought in as a replacement by our angry landlord.
3. Khaled was the bawwab, got our money, and ran. The landlord hasn’t taken care of the situation yet (he’s on a business trip right now), and when he comes back, humble Ibrahim will get the brunt of the landlord’s wrath. Maybe I should check with Ibrahim to make sure he doesn’t get fired.
4. Khaled works for the FBI/CIA/Mossad and was using us as pawns in some megaglobal conspiracy involving Interpol, China, some radical right-wing Catholic cult, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Area 51, the Great Pyramids, and Osama Bin Laden.
Cast your vote in the comments for your favorite one!