The writer at the Roman Amphitheater in downtown Amman with a group of local children in November 2003.
Amman, Jordan, is on its way to becoming a modern city in the Middle East. High rise buildings dot the landscape, and Mercedes and BMWs shoot through traffic circles. In the basements of every high rise and apartment building, you will find a “boab” who is sharing his living space with the tenants’ cars. The boab is a jack of all trades: he is a 24-hour live-in doorman, the building’s guard, a maintenance man, a personal grocery shopper, and the car washer. Indispensable but nearly invisible.
My name is Abu Hassan. People laugh at me because of my small feet. They are almost a size 4. No matter how I try, I can't hide them. I wear sand-colored open-toed sandals, like the ones we have back in Egypt. But here, in Amman, I wear sweatpants and not a long gallebeya, my traditional Egyptian robe that conceals my feet.
What's my daily routine? It's simple really. I wake up before the sun rises and wipe down each of the cars in the apartment building. There are 18 in total and they are all lined up. The six-story building is old and badly needs to be sandblasted. It's not nearly as nice as the one my son Mohammed works in down the road, but both buildings have the same owner. He is fair and occasionally generous.
I have my own room on the ground floor right beside the elevator, more space than I ever had in Egypt. There, we were six, packed in a tiny room. It was always filled with flies. The flies crowded around our babies' eyes when they slept, especially in the summer.
Now I have an entire bed to myself. I even have an extra one for when my son visits. There are no bugs, and I own a small black and white TV.
After washing and polishing each car early in the morning, I come back to my room and put my copper kettle on my small stove and wait until it whistles. I snatch it off the flame just as it is about to fully let out its piercing song so that I don't wake up everyone in the building. I mix in five spoons of sugar and dunk a tea bag that seeps its ochre goodness into the boiling water.
The glass warms up my fingers, which are rigid from the cold cleaning water outside. Unlike Egypt during the winter months, it snows here in Amman.
After my break, I sweep the entire entrance to the apartment building. The 14 pesky kids who live here leave little piles of candy wrappers in every nook you could imagine — between the cracks in the pavement, the grooves of car tires, and the tops of the entrance bushes. Every day I am forced to go on a trash hunt to keep the place spotless as they giggle and watch. As soon as I've cleared the entire area, they run to their school buses, leaving whirlwinds of dust and trash behind them. And I have to start sweeping all over again.
If it's a good day, the foreign woman on floor two may ask me to clean her apartment or help her fix things. She tips well, perhaps an American trait. She's clumsy, speaks broken Egyptian Arabic, and has a strange talent for breaking things.
She asks me to come up once a month to help her with repairs. I never know what to expect.
Last time, she had somehow ripped her curtains off their hooks. I've never known anyone who managed to do that. The time before, she had yanked the handle off the toilet. It took me a week to figure out that one. She then cracked her wooden bed frame in two. And one time she blew up her glass coffeemaker.
A Jordanian artist’s rendition of the writer at her favorite local cafe in May 2004. (Walid Zou’bi)
I call her Ruru, and that's what the kids call her too. At least she's able to distract them, by playing football with them after school so that I can get about my business.
Best of all, she loves my tea. She comes by once a day to chat, and I laugh. From her stories, I can tell that she's not just clumsy at home; she takes her klutziness into the world. Over tea and sometimes a tobacco waterpipe, or sheesha, she tells me stories — about her experiences at work and her convoluted attempts to buy things.
She calls pillows "beans." And when she tries to say "beans," she uses the word for "money" instead. Her Arabic is mangled, but she talks with her hands and reminds me of being back home in Egypt.
Ruru lived in Cairo for three years and has carried our humor with her. She seems to trust me more than others, because I can understand her even when her words make little sense.
Ruru is friends with the apartment building owner, so I feel extra kind towards her. I always put an additional scoop of sugar in her tea, even though she says it will make her lose her teeth. In return, she brings me treats. She knows what my favorites are: dried apricots and strawberry milk.
I pray that Ruru marries someone good. Someone who can fix many, many things.