A day in the life of a Cairene refugee lawyer

Posted on August 22, 2006


I was going to write about the whole Li Beirut opening event thing, but that has been superseded by much more newsworthy (to me) events. For the record, it was damn hot at the Contemporary Image Collective. Poets and performers were hanging off the balcony in an attempt to secure air molecules. It was a heath hazard…tropical bacteria were multiplying all around us and my friends kept sticking to me. I don’t know if they’re going to be able to raise much money in those temperatures. Also, if they’re going to have readings in English, it would be best to secure the services of someone who is proficient in the pronunciation of that tongue.
You know how I am always saying how my days in Cairo are filled with truly remarkable incidents? Those were as nothing compared to yesterday. I showed up at work a bit late as usual. I walked into the reception to see one of my clients sitting there. She is eight months pregnant, and informed me that her water had broken. I heaved a heavy sigh and decided to take her to hospital, as she doesn’t know her way around Cairo. I mean, I don’t either, but at least I speak better Arabic.
Last week when I was freaking out about this client I managed to extract from other members of the staff the information that Galaa Hospital in Ramses is apparently free. We eased our way downstairs – the elevator usually needs a key to go down, but not up (for some reason) but it was already at our floor.
My building is in a part of Garden City that has very little car access because it is blocked off by embassy security barricades. I usually cross the barricades on foot and walk down the street, but my client was clearly not up to that. I looked around and found three police and Special Forces officers sitting around idly at the corner. They were actually very cute, the three of them. I explained the situation and they sent one of their lackeys to get my client a taxi and one of them offered her his chair.
We got in the taxi and made our way to the hospital without too much trouble. She asked me perky questions about my personal life all the way there. We were disgorged (at my expense) in front of a building teeming with large quarrelsome women and surrounded dirty water. Of course, I had chosen that day to depart from my usual work wear of flip-flops and floaty skirts or jeans, choosing instead to wear high-heeled sandals and cream linen pants, and long sleeves. This, as you might imagine, is not appropriate wear for Egyptian state hospitals. But that’s how your man Murphy likes it.
I went and made various inquiries, large belly in tow, and of course I was misdirected a bunch of times. I don’t know what is ambiguous about “El set di betewled,” (this woman is giving birth). It was a sentence that I felt would result in being sent to an obstetrician or other DOCTOR.
We made our way through to the filthy interior where after several false starts and a lot of yelling I managed to usher her into a room with a bunch of other heavily pregnant women waiting to be examined. I tried to get in there with her, but was not allowed. I stood around in the “waiting room” being ogled by numbers of fat veiled woman who could not understand my presence there. I overheard conversations about whether 16 was too early to marry off a daughter. “You know…it could take her two years to get pregnant…and then she would be 18 years old, which is a good age for it. Anything later than that is too late.” I felt like my uterus had withered away into a raisin or something. But shit, that’s better than being fifteen and pregnant, like the poor orphan girl next to me. I did a good bit of chicklit reading in that waiting room.
Meanwhile, inside my client could not make herself understood, as everyone insisted in babbling to her in highly complex Arabic even though I told them she was foreign. They kept having to call me into the sanctuary I was forbidden from to help out. Everyone in Egypt believes that Africans can speak Arabic but refuse to out of obstinacy, and that if you shout loudly enough they will start to understand, especially if they are Muslim Africans.
After we trudged up and down stairs heavily a bunch of times, took sonar examinations, and yelled at people, I finally spoke to a doctor. He informed me that he could not tell when she was going to have the baby – everything was in God’s hands. This baffled me – I mean surely Egyptian medicine has come some way? But then he told me – actually he told another doctor, a cute blonde chickee, since non-doctors are ignorant of sexual and reproductive matters – that she had had a Sudanese circumcision so he was unable to examine her. If there’s anyone who is unfortunately conversant with all the aspects of female genital mutilation, it’s a refugee lawyer in Africa. He also said that if he took her in, and she had the baby prematurely (which she had been told she would), he would be unable to find a incubator for the child since all of theirs were full and that she or her husband would have to sign some sort of document guaranteeing that they would take the baby to another incubator. He seemed to think I would do this, since I was obviously her caretaker (I had told him her husband died back home because I didn’t want her to hear anything unpleasant). I couldn’t believe my fucking ears. He wanted me to take a dripping, newborn, underdeveloped baby and rush it in a taxi to…where? Wouldn’t it die on the way? Didn’t they have arrangements for this with another hospital? I’m not taking charge of anyone’s premature kid! This is not why I went to law school. He also said he didn’t know how much it would cost since she was a foreigner. Of course he told me to take this up with administration.
So I decided we would just go home (there was no point trying to make her understand the options in my pidgin Arabic). The doctor seemed relieved and wrote a prescription for medicines and things she should watch out for. We went back to the office (someone had better reimburse me for all this – not everything at the hospital was free!) and on the way back, she complained vociferously about the hygiene level at the hospital. It’s true…from right outside in the corridor, you could see that the bathroom was covered in shit. Actual chunks of faeces. And there were flies all over the examining room – I pointed this out and got flat, dead eyes and sharp answers all around.
She said that she thought the All Saints Church clinic in Zamalek was better and cleaner. I had offered to take her there before, but she cried down my front and said she didn’t have the 150 pounds they ask (for full care from conception to birth including food and clothes!). But lo and behold…she can find the money now. So when we got to the office (after I updated the police officers on the situation and they invited me to have foul with them, and I smiled graciously) I got the doctor’s instructions translated, and arranged for her to show up early this morning to be escorted to All Saints – by someone whose job it is!
Sheesh. I talked about genitals even more than usual today. I’ll let you know how the birth goes – I’ll go to hold her hand because Sudanese circumcision necessitates surgery and there’s a 50% chance of death. Good times.