Atlantic City in the sixties and seventies was not the glossy casino-ridden playland it is now. It was more like a wasteland: the hotels along the boardwalk were showing signs of crumbling, the shops that sold jewelry, moccasins, and beachwear barely made their rent. But by some weird fluke of college-infused skills, my sister Selma, a Freshman in college, convinced my parents to allow her and me, who was sixteen at the time, to go to Atlantic City to work the summer vacation and convention crowds.
At the time I was naive, inexperienced and from an Appalachian town of seven hundred--everything I knew I learned from my older brothers and sister who were in college--they brought home the best music, the best books and the best politics. I was radicalizing as far as my little town would let me. Atlantic City was the big bad world.
I was a kid, a teen-aged hippie, who like the other personnel at the restaurants and shops, was there on a lark. I was not a married man, in my thirties with degrees in English and tourism, a wife and child six hours away in Cairo, working sixteen hour shifts, seven days a week.
Mohamed (yes, which one? true) was my waiter on the first day I had breakfast at the buffet. I asked him for Arabic coffee. He explained it was only available from the bar which didn't open until nine a.m. Sure enough at about 9:05 the urn appeared, the coffee poured and my day was getting super-charged. Every morning, without my saying a word, at about the same time, my coffee appears.
Naturally at the end of the drink, I turned over the cup and wait for my day's fortune to appear. Mohamed came by, looked in side and said, you have a fantastic life. No cup necessary. I do.
I noticed at dinner, there was Mohamed, at lunch, Mohamed--carrying cups and plates, changing linens, moving at lightening speeds. Throughout the week, we get a small rapport, not only between me and Mohamed, but all the writers ask him questions--how many days do you work? when do you see your family?
We start to puzzle together a profile of the force of workers at these resorts. Thousands of men work here, come by van in the morning and are taken back to their sleeping quarters well after the tourists have drunk their last drink. They are dressed in black pants and white shirts, jacket at night. They speak English--others have other languages. Their manners are impeccable, their graciousness, over the top.
Clearly a hierarchy ranks them by skills, age, attractiveness. The men at the reception, the most articulate; the ones acting as bwaab, guarding our units, the least english and the worse paid.
Because we are the type of people who probe, we find out about their lives and families, get a sense of how serving us does or does not serve them. For instance, downstairs, my colleagues' cleaner, Mustafa, creates elaborate towels sculptures for his rooms-- swans, lotuses--strange level of detail for using just towels. (Check out Lauri's blog: http://thoughtsfrombotswana.blogspot.com/2010/05/egyptian-towel-art.html)
We begin to suspect that these men have interior lives that never get much play.
Yesterday at breakfast, Mohamed notices I am early, that I will not get my Arabic coffee. I tell him I have to get to work. He wants to know what work. I'm writing a book.
Mohamed's response is "Fact, fact, fact." A quote from Charles Dickens' Hard Times the novel where Dickens criticizes the utilitarian perspective of privilege for some and hard work for everyone else--or the terrifying workhouses. All fact no fancy according to Mr. Gradgrind.
"This is my favorite novel," Mohamed tells me. "I've read it more than ten times." Then he speeds off to deliver fresh napkins to a recently abandoned table.
He works at the hotel nine months, seven days a week, from the first meal to the last. He sees his wife and son in Cairo on a ten-day break. He says he lost them to Cairo.
Mohamed attended Cairo University in Fayoum with degrees in English Literature and Tourism. A lot of English majors end up as waiters in the US, often in hopes of shedding it one day and doing something more, (which usually happens)
But the conditions of this Mohamed's job drive home the situation in Egypt. Most of the population is young and getting more educated everyday: 60 percent of the population is under twenty-five; 40% between 10 and 29---unemployment among young adults is high and most have gone through the cost-free university system.
I am bothered by labor issues, although some would say Mohamed is lucky to be working. True but I think about Dickens in his head, Mustafa's artistic skills---these talents that don't get any recognition. What's going to happen to the artist? to the lover of literature? These are the insides of beings that make them engage in life, inspire them, bring joy. Job practices will take foreground, they will be practical because a living needs to be made, children need food. And something like "Hard Times" will be the script of their lives.
I'm not trying to change the system here--people are employed--that's a lot. There are inequities, injustices and difficult practices--hard to address.
What is draws me to these stories are the lives un-lived. The pain of carrying an aesthetic that has no use. No way to express. Bottled up, blocked.
it's Dickens all over again--all utilitarian. I am not surprised by Mohamed's love of Hard Times, perhaps recognizing his life somewhere in those pages.
From my desk, i see the groomed ground of the golf course. Men in blue hand pushing mowers along the bumps of the eighteen holes. They are working hard under the sun, surrounded by mosquitoes. And I wonder are they humming a song, thinking of a poem, remembering a favorite painting?
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports