I just got off the phone with Umm Abdullah. “Wallahi, ehna mutaaban khaalis – We’re so, so tired,” she told me. Umm Abdullah is the wife of a bawab (apartment keeper) of the old apartment building in Egypt I used to live in. They have four kids, three of whom are under the age of eight. When I went to see them, Abdullah, the two year old, was really sick and woke up crying from coughing so hard. My heart poured out to them.
Umm Abdullah was holding sick Abdullah and she herself was trying to recover from a tooth operation she just had due to a bacterial infection. She is now missing her front tooth, and is in a lot of pain. She and her husband did not have enough money to pay for the operation, and the doctor gave them a special discount which they still could not afford. Alhamdullilah
(all praise be to Allah), Allah opened the way for them and a couple of friends covered the cost. When I went to see her she told me, “The doctor said alhamdullilah I came now…the bacteria would have soon reached my brain.”
The bacteria would have soon reached her brain. With four kids, a husband who is on 24/7 shift at keeping the apartment building in shape, fetching to the needs of all those who live in the building, and trying to barely make ends meet, it is only by Allah’s mercy that those individuals she knew stepped forward to help when they did. When I spoke to her now, she told me her husband is very sick with great pain in his teeth as well. I ask everyone to make du`a’ (pray) that Allah makes it easy on them and on all our brothers and sisters who are in this situation…subhan’Allah (glory be to Allah), how many of them are facing so much worse, and have no one who they can turn to for some financial help in desperate times?
The bawab system is insane. In the city of Cairo in which I had lived probably millions of people live in complete poverty. Bawabs and their families live in small rooms, with leaky walls and roofs, often insect-infested, with little of anything else. I realized how –subhan’Allah – different our worlds truly are when I took some kids from a bawab family out to pizza. The kids had no idea how to use a fork or a knife. I took one of the little boys to the bathroom and he had no idea how to use a toilet. It had never occurred to me that this amazing toddler has probably never seen a toilet in his life (they use the baladi style holes on the floor). In the split second I turned away, the poor kid ended up urinating all over the floor because he had no idea what else to do.
What hits me the hardest is thinking about how the kids in this situation look toward their future. To see their father and mother work and receive no respect, and think they will most likely never be able to go after their dreams of being a journalist, a teacher, a film maker, an engineer, a lawyer, a doctor, a manager…that their ability to contribute back to society will eventually just turn into working under the command of others as a bawab, or maybe becoming someone who walks the streets day and night with a cart of corn, hoping to make a couple Egyptian Pounds (LEs) every few hours, and that this lifestyle will continue until old age; watching their children and grandchildren take the on the role of bawab, or that of a bawab’s wife is – as one bawab’s daughter said – “Who else [than the daughter of a bawab] would marry the son of a bawab?”
One time I was walking back from a class with a few sisters and we saw an older man, probably in his seventies, trip and fall on the hard street. The man was dressed in a thobe (a man’s garment), the specific type which bawabs sometimes wear. As we hurried toward him to ask if he needed help, we realized that his glasses had fallen in front of him, the lenses had broken, and he could not see. He searched for the extra pieces of the broken glass with his hands, politely declined our help, crawled to a nearby car, and began to cry. “He’s not crying from the fall,” one of the sisters told us, “he’s crying because glasses are so expensive and he broke his glasses.” Our hearts broke as we walked away, and I can only cry in incredulity at how our opulent computers and cell-phone bills probably cost more than the amount of money he has made over his entire life. Allah Musta’an (Allah is the One we rely on).
How can those of us who are alhamdullilah – not in this situation feel any trace of arrogance or disgust when we see our brothers and sisters in this situation? We seek refuge with Allah! How can we not stop, give our salams, smile in their faces and shake their hands? Allah blessed us. We can read; we can eat comfortably; we have public schooling (the worst schooling option here costs at least 500 genay, discounting any books, uniforms, etc); we don’t sleep with – literally – twenty flies all around us. My roommates and I complained about cockroach issues. Cockroach issues? “Are you scared?” Our bawab’s wife laughed when we told her we were trying to get rid of them; pointing at her own floor, I saw insects crawling in dozens.
Gloomy picture, right? It’s sad, but you can help. Very seriously, you can make a huge difference insha’Allah (if Allah wills). Here’s how:
- Show Allah our gratitude to Him by working on our relationship with Him. Alhamdullilah, we have enough to eat everyday. Alhamdullilah, we are reading this in English, and it might be our second or even third language. Alhamdullilah, Alhamdullilah, Alhamdullilah… so show Allah!
- Allah says in a hadith Qudsi: “… My servant draws not near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him…” So let us keep up with our obligations to the One Who continually provides for us! And then try to do some extra if we can insha’Allah so that perhaps Allah may include us amongst His beloved slaves.
- Keep up our relationship with the Qur’an. Everything will open up for us when our best friend is the words of the One Who owns the Heavens and Earth and the treasures of everything in between. Let’s just start with committing ourselves to never leaving at least reading one page of Qur’an a day and insha’Allah build up from there.
Those are for both of us. And by helping ourselves and connecting with Allah, we WILL help these people insha’Allah. If every single Muslim – and I’ve heard there are over a billion on the planet masha’Allah – just prayed their five daily prayers on time, do you think we would be in the desperate situation we are in as an Ummah? Do you think we would see the massacres and extreme poverty of our brethren in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sudan, Gujrat, Kashmir…the list continues? Naw man, with Allah’s Help, no way!
But subhan’Allah, it’s scary; we don’t see how our sins DIRECTLY IMPACT THE SITUATION OF OUR BROTHERS AND SISTERS. So, simply put: Let’s check ourselves before we wreck ourselves…let’s wake up!
And how can we do a few small things to directly help the situation of those suffering globally?
- Donate! $10=~50 Egyptian Pounds (LEs). $100=~500 Egyptian Pounds (LEs). Insha’Allah your donation can put children like AbdulRahman, Amatullah and Abdullah through school, help provide a ton of food for them to eat and enough clothes to get through rough times like the winter. I cannot tell you how many random people in the streets of Egypt stopped me in the winter and asked me if I have an extra blanket to spare. Do not underestimate the weight of a dollar! If you can only give $5, we’re talking about 25 Egyptian Pounds (LEs)! And that’s only in Egypt…imagine other countries where the dollar weights even more. There are plenty of places you can donate online. Here are just two websites to get you started: www.givelight.org and www.irw.org.
- Please make du`a’ for them – in your sujood, in the last third of the night, when it rains…keep our brothers and sisters in your du`a’. They are suffering, and the least and WEIGHTEST effort we can put forth is asking Allah to open the ways for them.
- Last, but not least, set the trend! Treat the poor, whether in America or Egypt, Brazil or China, and everywhere in between, as your blood brother or sister. Check your heart when you feel an aversion to greet them. And especially for westerners in foreign lands, like Egypt for example. Take time out to hang out with your bawab, and set an example for some of the natives who think it’s not posh. Set a trend! The “hanging out with people in poverty is cool” trend! Once in Ramadan we had taken AbdulRahman and his grandma to taraweeh with us and one of the Egyptian women spoke really rudely to them and basically pushed them aside. All that before they knew they were with “an American.” Whoa, talk about change of picture. Once they knew an American was with them, suddenly they wanted to hook it up. May Allah purify our hearts from hypocrisy.
[Also, disclaimer: I’m focusing the camera lens up close and personal on a negative aspect of a particular region in Cairo. Alhamdullilah Egypt is amazing, masha’Allah. This topic is simply focusing on “the dark side.”]
Subhan’Allah, maybe you and I are being tested more with wealth than they are tested with poverty, because they have to keep turning to Allah and being grateful for the small amounts they receive, and constantly feel complete trust and reliance upon Him because they truly have no one else, while we often just waste, complain, and are so busy making more dough that we easily forget to do really, really important things…such as, say, the most important thing we can do to show gratitude: praying five times a day, on time, every day!
May Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala (exalted is He) bless these people, increase their rizq, open every good way for them and make everything easy for them, and make them and us of those who are grateful to Him, and help us show our gratitude by fulfilling what He has asked us to do, and be of those who race in doing the extra, ameen.
What a wake-up call. Thank you.
mashallah awakening ,thank u so much
Jazaki Allahu Khairan for posting this.
I thought about this so much when I lived there. Having been brought up in Cairo the bawab’s kids were our first friends. They were our first teachers that corrected our broken Arabic (spoken). We all used to play outside together with the kids on our street.
As we got older there was an unspoken agreement that we would no longer associate with them or be seen with them. It was like they had some disease we would catch if we came near them. Our friends talked badly about how low class or ghetto they were and we didn’t say a word.
It is a sad reality. Subhan Allah.
jazaki Allahu khayran. This article came at the perfect time, alhamdulillah. Reflecting on the situation of those in need is such a needed exercise, in order to put our own lives in proper perspective.
They have a similar system in Saudi Arabia only these poor men live for years without their families. They are not allowed to bring their families and hence live alone for many years while sending all of the money back home.
first time hearing about em bawabs, inchaallah when i visit egypt i’ll be chilling with em venturing through the messy streets. awesome one, jazakallah khayr!
MashAllah, brilliant article.
My bawab and his family were really incredible people. Simple, humble and content. They helped me settle in (while my landlord ripped me off), kept up regular checks, gave good advice and looked after me well. They even helped me break into my room at 5am when I lost my keys! SubhanAllah the whole family got up and searched for tools as they couldn’t sleep knowing I locked myself out. I was their “guest”.
Bawabs often work in well to do middle class suburbs of Cairo and so all around them is expense upon expense upon expense. They can look but not touch all the things around them and it really is heartbreaking to see the bawab children request snacks that the parents simply cannot afford yet they see all the other kids enjoying them.
From my thrid floor balcony I would look down on their quarters – a husband, wife and four children sleeping in a box 12ft by 12ft with only a ripped cloth to shelter them from the elements. Many bawab families are forced to pitch camp on land about to be developed and remain living in dangerous construction sites for months till completion so as to secure some future income. They can often be seen sleeping rough on piles of sand and brick but they never complain. Poverty disciplines the mind and focuses the heart on Allah swt.
jazaaki Allahu khayran ukhti Maryam.
SubhanAllah, a timely reminder. I was just speaking to a sister here about the poverty. It’s truly humbling to see how families struggle here for basic necessities while back in the West we complain about the most minute details.
Another thing you can do is give them meat or prepare some food. The price of meat has skyrocketed here (supposedly because of the swine flu scare) and so many families cannot afford meat anymore.
Giving the kids some candy or fruit is nice for them as well 🙂
SubhanAllah may Allah reward you for the reminder. When I read reminders like this, I question myself about how much I worry about the microscopic elements of life: I must have this brand of jeans, with this color striped shirt, with this type of car, with this many megapixels on my phone, etc.
when we have too much, we only want more.
Great reminder, jazakallah khayr! These are the kind of trends that should be set!
jazaki Allahu khayran
May Allah make it easy for the people struggling in this world, increase them in good, and save them from the fire of hell. And help us All in our own ways with our own struggles.
Jazak Allah for this, a real eye opener for sure. If we really want to help, the best way is to target the next generation, to try and get them out of the circle: their parents are poor, they can’t afford to educate them, so they will end up poor, unable to educate their children… and so on. An organization which I have heard a lot about is The Citizens Foundation, who educate poor kids in Pakistan to try and break this cycle of poverty (http://www.tcfusa.org/). May Allah reward you Sister Maryam for writing this post, it has inspired me to start a monthly donation to them. It costs only $10 a month to educate a child through them… that $10 a month, peanuts for most of us, can and will Inshallah take a kid away from being a bawab and into something like a software engineer.
Very true sister. May we all become trend setters. Thank you for posting.
Another excellent article Sr. Maryam. BarakAllahu feeki.
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