Heba and her nine brothers and sisters were brought up in one room, under the stairs of the old Shubra building in Cairo where her father was the caretaker all his working life. When she was tiny, she used to totter along the pavement to the street-level workshop of Amm Ismail the ironing man on the same block, and sit under his bench, where she could observe the comings and goings of this main thoroughfare from a safe distance. Here she would inhale the safe smell of clean laundry and hot linen as the iron exhaled, steam fizzing off the scorching metal. If anyone was looking for her, she could often be found curled up asleep in the clean, crumpled nest of the ironing pile at the old man’s feet. By the time she was too big to fit under the workbench, her brightness and curiosity had come to the attention of one of the middle class families in her father’s building and she was invited her up into their apartment a couple of times a week to share their children’s private lessons.
Heba learned more in that apartment than just how to read and write. She trained her eye and developed her taste. On some lucky winter evenings, if it was particularly cold, she would even get to stay on at bath-time and enjoy the unimaginable luxury of soaking her whole body in warm water before going back down to the crowded little room under the stairs where one neon strip buzzed against the ceiling and a few grimy mattresses would be laid down each night for the family to take turns on, children of every age lying every which-way.
One of Heba’s older sisters met a Texan millionaire while working as a housekeeper at the Sheraton, and went to live in Florida – and that’s a whole other story. Heba got herself a proper high school diploma and became a secretary in a respectable local manufacturing company. Whenever she got a bonus at work, she bought a piece of gold jewellery. She had no desire to get married, and enjoyed a certain amount of freedom as a single, wage-earning woman in her twenties. Then handsome Amgad caught her eye and they married. They had three children. Despite a modest double income, however, their living conditions were only one step up from those of her childhood.
The couple lived in Amgad’s late mother’s ground floor ‘apartment’ in a dingy street off the Shubra main drag. The front door opened straight into their one room, where two wooden benches faced each other from windowless wall to windowless wall, a TV sat at one end and a computer in the corner beside it. A narrow, also windowless, corridor led to a crooked shower room with hot and cold running water, a western toilet, and an air vent out onto the staircase. Heba broke onto the central ventilation shaft at the heart of the building through an opening in the back wall of the corridor. She covered this new space with corrugated plastic to protect it from the garbage that rained down from the neighbours above, and turned it into a kitchen so narrow that when you opened the oven door it hit the opposite wall, but at least the cooking, with its accompanying ants, cockroaches and the occasional rat, could be done separately from where the family slept. She and Amgad slept on a wide single bed in the corridor. The three children slept in the living room, mattresses spread out on the floor between the benches.
After a particularly long day, Heba would close herself into the bathroom, turn on the shower, shutting out all other noise, and let all other sensation be drowned out by the feeling of the warm water coursing over her body. One day, she would think to herself every time, I’ll live in a proper apartment and it will have a bath, and I will slide into it at the end of the day and forget the world.
But then the company she’d worked for all her adult life folded and Heba was looking desperately for work. The cramped conditions at home with two teenage children and the youngest one growing fast, were starting to get on her nerves. They were getting to Amgad too, who was flirting with a secretary at work. Heba was sure that before long Amgad would be marrying again and she’d be the ageing first wife left on the junk heap if she didn’t play her cards right.
She got herself two full-time jobs as a domestic help, took all her jewelry to be valued, joined a co-operative savings initiative, calculated what Amgad’s savings were, and without letting on to anyone, set about finding herself a real apartment somewhere in her home district. Meanwhile she lost some weight, hennaed her greying hair, and started paying more attention to what she wore. Domestic help didn’t have quite the status of her former job, but there was one big consolation; a couple of times a week she got to take out an ironing board and sit, with a heap of fresh laundry at her feet, soothed by the smell of hot linen and the sighs of the electric steam iron, satisfied by the growing piles of pressed and folded clothes on the table beside her.
After four or five years and several false starts, Heba found her apartment. It was on a 4th floor, had two bedrooms and a balcony just wide enough to sit on. It also had a central living room and an entrance hall. The living room was marred by the presence of two square cement columns dividing up the already slender space, the kitchen was tiny, and the bathroom even smaller, a corridor-shaped space with a window at one end and a doorway at the other. But last she sold her gold, cashed in her savings, borrowed what she could, took everything Amgad had in the bank, and they bought the flat, in her name. Over the next year bit by bit, they did it up. The bathroom came last, staying as it was with its squat loo and shower until Heba had saved enough to do it just the way she wanted.
She measured up the space and, for several evenings after work, took herself off to Faggala, the bathroom supplies district of Cairo. She scoured shop after shop, looking for the short bathtub she’d conjured up in her mind. Amgad, uninitiated into the joys of the bathtub, didn’t take this obsession seriously and believing she was on a wild goose chase, didn’t worry about it either. But after a few fruitless evenings’ search, Heba at last found what she’d been looking for. A small, pink tub, just short enough to fit into one end of the bathroom and leave enough space at the other for a western loo by the doorway. It would mean replacing the wooden door with a plastic concertina one, and to get into the bath the family would have to sidle past the loo and then hop in from one end, but it was a bath and it would fit. She even found pink tiles decorated with gold ears of barley that would match. She paid her deposit and went home to Amgad.
Amgad argued, half-heartedly about whether a bath was really necessary and how little space it would leave for the loo, and the privacy issues raised by having a plastic concertina door dividing the loo from the kitchen. Heba held her ground and bided her time. A couple of Fridays later her husband disappeared off into to Faggala and reappeared at the end of their street a few hours later riding pillion on a motorbike, wearing the pink bathtub on his head, steadying it with one hand while he steadied himself with the other. The bath was manoeuvered up the stairs and into the apartment and Heba held her breath as it was inched into the bathroom and wriggled into place at the end under the window. A new loo was plumbed in a week later.
All that winter, on her way home from work late at night on the metro, Heba would anticipate the moment she would swing one leg over the end of her beautiful pink bath, then the other, and then slide her tired body into the warm water. There, relieved from the pull of gravity, it was as if her worries and burdens lightened too. She would lie neck-deep, for long moments of quiet punctuated by lazy intermittent drips of water from the tap, zoning out on the pink and gold tiles that came down and met the edge of the bath so snugly.
The following spring the daughter of a friend of hers was married. Heba’s own daughter, quick-witted, beautiful, a great dancer and in possession of a very respectable job, had already called off one engagement to a cousin when it turned he wanted her to wear the niqab. But despite the advantages of the job and Heba’s own history of marrying relatively late, there was a feeling that Rana, at 24, was in danger of being left on the shelf. The night of the friend’s wedding Rana danced her heart out. The groom’s best friend noticed her and a courtship began. While the first engagement had involved a lot of making up for their very humble accommodation, Heba’s daughter’s status had been significantly raised by her family’s improved living conditions. Very soon plans were being made and the marriage was announced.
There was a problem though. Heba’s prospective son-in-law was a security guard and body builder. He was as big as a house. And there was no room for a suitcase, let alone a house between Heba’s loo and the wall opposite. He could hardly sidle past it to get to the bath, and when he did his head banged the water heater above. Sitting on the loo for him was almost impossible. Large relatives from the countryside had already complained about the toilet arrangements, and Heba had seen off their criticisms, but with the prospective son-in-law it was different. Whichever way she looked at the layout she could not fit in the bath and enough space around the loo for a body builder. It was the bath or the bodybuilder.
The bath was ripped out and replaced by a shower that allowed for the loo to be repositioned and the engagement was sealed.
In Yoga we talk about prana and apana – the in-breath and the out-breath, the life-force and the waste, the stuff you don’t need any more, that you must let go of. With a build up of apana, there’s less room for prana. So much of our work on our psychological and physical health is about letting go of apana to make room for prana. We get weighed down by our baggage. Letting go allows us to make room for the new stuff to come in. When Heba told me she’d ripped out her precious bath, I mourned on her behalf. But she was already preparing for her daughter’s wedding.
A few years on Heba doesn’t have a bath, but she has an adored grandson. And her daughter has become a housewife, which Heba, even now that she has seen off the rivals for her husband’s affections and established herself in her own home cannot afford to do.