Smarter Than Most

“These fellahin (villagers) are stupid! If you want them to do something, you have to tell them over and over again! Even after you show them a million times what to do, they still forget everything. And when they do something wrong, they don’t tell you until it’s too late!”

Dr. Mona pointed at Zaineb as she rattled off her frustrations to me. “Her sister has worked for me for a year and she still makes the stupidest mistakes. I have to scream at her every time she comes!”

Dr, Mona then harshly scolded Zaineb, who stood there timidly with her head down, her two hands folded in front of her. She looked like a frightened cat.

I had just arrived in Mansoura, a town by the Nile Delta in Egypt. Dr. Mona, the director of an organization, was my counterpart and local contact. She was doing her best to help me settle in, including bringing me Zaineb as my maid. For over an hour that day, she gave me a cultural run-down on how to treat maids. She also translated what I wanted Zaineb to do and showed Zaineb how to operate the electrical appliances. Zaineb listened attentively and nodded at everything she said.

When Dr. Mona was satisfied with her instructions to both of us, she warned me before she left, “You have to cut her wages if she doesn’t satisfy you, otherwise she will never learn. Remember, she is a fellahin; she doesn’t think as we do.”

Zaineb had come down from a village near Mansoura. This was the first time she worked as a maid, a low-level, despicable job in Egypt. Her husband had been unemployed and the twenty Egyptian pounds I gave her for two afternoons of work was like a gift to the family. She was about my age but she looked older than I. Her hard life had carved many wrinkles on her face.

Zaineb cocked her eyebrows and nodded in an exaggerated manner whenever I gave her instructions in my broken Arabic. She would say, “Aiwa (yes)! Aiwa!” Assuming a subservient posture, she never looked me in the eyes and always stood five feet from me. Even when I approached her, she would timidly withdraw. No matter how much I tried to be warm towards her, she behaved like a cat trapped in a cage with a lion.

During her first few days in my apartment, she sucked my brand new panty hose and socks into the vacuum cleaner and burned my dress with the iron. Sometimes the vacuum was turned to the highest level and I would hear loud noises of all kinds of things being sucked into it, followed by Zaineb’s frantic retrieval of them with her fingers or a broom stick. Repeated instructions on how to adjust the vacuum cleaner and iron didn’t yield any effective results.

Although Zaineb was supposed to work from one to five, she stayed till way past seven. Dr. Mona told me she had to take a one-hour bus ride back to her village and waiting for buses could take her over an hour. If she stayed late in my apartment, she would arrive home late to prepare dinner for her family. When I pointed at the clock, Zaineb looked at it with a blank expression. Not wanting to take advantage, I said, “Sabah (seven)” or “Sitta (six).” She would then rush off, suddenly jolted into reality.

One day, I found the brown outline of an iron on an expensive silk blouse. “Eh da (what are you doing)?” I demanded.

Zaineb’s hands shivered. She pointed at her head, then shaking it furiously she said softly, “Mefish! Mefish (there is none)!”

Zaineb lifted her face towards me and slapped her cheeks several times. Two tear drops rolled down from the corners of her eyes. She then lowered her head and shoulders, her two hands folded in front of her, as if she were waiting for me to pound on her.

I was stunned by such strong showings of remorse. “Malesh (never mind)!” I shrugged my shoulders and walked away. I didn’t know what else I could do.

Torn between keeping her because she needed the money and asking Dr. Mona to get me another maid, I thought I could give her another chance by having her do my food shopping. I gestured to follow me to an alleyway near my apartment where there were fruit, bread and vegetable vendors. A woman vendor had a table full of breads.

Ithmin (two),” I pointed at the bread. “Bee kam (how much)?”
Khamsin pastre (50 piastre).”

I took out some notes and sorted them slowly. Having arrived in the country not long ago, the Arabic numbers were confusing and I still had difficulty figuring out the money. Zaineb beckoned me to hand her the money. She took out a note swiftly and showed me. It was a 50 piastre note. She paid for the bread, and as the vendor wrapped it in a piece of local Arabic paper, Zaineb stopped her.

She spoke rapidly to the vendor and signaled me to wait. She went into the pharmacy beside the walkway. Pointing at me, she talked animatedly with the proprietor. He went to the back of the shop and brought out several pieces of newspaper. He showed the front and the back pages to her. She took the newspaper and came back with it happily. For the first time, she looked at me as an equal.

“Ingeelishi.” Zaineb’s eyes were radiant with warmth as she pointed at the newspaper. It was the Egyptian Gazette, a local English daily. Then, she wrapped the two loaves of bread in the paper and handed them to me.
She carried the rest of the Egyptian Gazette with her and told all the vendors to wrap my purchases with it. She also sorted out my money for me with ease.

When we came back to my apartment, I felt very touched by her thoughtfulness. Zaineb was more clever than I had thought, and there was a cheerful side to her as well. I wanted to ask her more about herself, but my Arabic was too limited for a meaningful conversation.

Thinking that she could write, I gestured her to put her name down using my pen on a piece of paper.
Zaineb shook her head and shrugged her shoulders, “Musha’arif (I don’t know).”

It finally dawned on me that Zaineb couldn’t read or write. She went home late because the sun went down by four o’clock in the winter and she couldn’t tell the time when the clock reached five o’clock. She didn’t know how to use the appliances because she couldn’t figure out the words that indicated the power and the level of voltage.
One day, I brought Zaineb to the pharmacy where she got the English newspaper and asked the proprietor to translate my questions for her.

I learned that Zaineb had never gone to school because her family was very poor. She spent her childhood helping her mother in the house. She married when she was thirteen and became a homemaker, just like other fellahin women in her village.

Zaineb recognized the notes and coins from their colours, shapes and sizes. She could only count up to twenty because she had never bought anything for more than twenty English pounds in her life.

When I told her she could still learn to read and write, she pointed at her head and shook it sadly, “Mefish!

Zaineb refused my offer of money to pay a teacher to teach her. She insisted that such expensive activity be given to her sons and her husband. “What does the mother of Mahmood (her eldest son’s name) do with things like this? She can’t cook or wash the clothes with them!” The pharmacist translated Zaineb’s refusal.

He shook his head and said to me, “Madam, you are wasting your time. These women are not born to learn things like this. They can’t think!”

Not satisfied with what I was told, I devised a way to prove that Zaineb was not stupid. I marked the suction-control on the vacuum cleaner with different coloured markers—red for “high”, green for “medium” and blue for “low”. I showed her the power of the suction according to each colour.

Then I cut squares from clothes made of nylon, linen, wool, cotton and silk. After pasting each piece of cloth on a piece of paper, I marked them with different coloured markers. I stuck a piece of masking tape on the temperature-control of the iron and marked the signs with different coloured markers that matched those pasted on the paper. Satisfied, I pasted the paper on the wall right near the ironing board.

From then on, Zaineb didn’t have any problems with the appliances.

I went to see Dr. Mona in her office one day. She was buried behind the stacks of books she was supposed to have authored. After the usual greetings, I handed her a pile of US dollar notes that the office gave to our project for equipment purchase.

“So much money confuses me! These notes look the same!” She fidgeted in her seat and tried counting it, but messed up every time.

“Ahmad, sit here and count this for me!” Dr. Mona yelled at her clerk. “Don’t you make any mistakes!”
Then, turning to me, she asked, “Is Zaineb doing what she’s supposed to do? I told her if she makes many stupid mistakes in a foreigner’s apartment, she should be ashamed of herself.”
“She is doing fine. She is smarter than many people I know!”

-by Chong Sheau Ching


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