He was visibly shaken as he walked up to the door. A cheap knock-off Rolex and a dirty finger nail immediately gave him away. Before he mustered up the courage to plead his case, I had already made my decision; this is no place for such a low-life. You see, in my limited time working as a door selector at one of Cairo’s fanciest bars, I was finally catching up on what my managers had, for months, tirelessly tried to teach me.
It was a cold winter night when I got the call from the bar’s owner congratulating me for landing the job as a glorified gatekeeper to his establishment. At the time, I believed it was the best job a confused, fresh out of college millennial like myself could stumble upon. Not only will I, overnight, turn into a powerhouse in Cairo’s nightlife, I naively fantasised, but I’ll also get free drinks and bites every night. A sweet deal, it seemed.
“Work starts at 6 P.M.,” said the owner . The very next day, I jumped behind the wheel, looking like the best version of myself, and made my way through Cairo’s rush hour to the upscale district where the bar is located. As he smoothly explained my duties and responsibilities, I got even more excited; all I ever needed to do was to be present at the door until 1 A.M., with a big smile across my face, and decide who gets to earn the privilege of busting out a cold one after work. I could do that in my sleep, I thought.
No hijabis allowed was the first lesson I learned. This was a place where people went to party and disconnect from reality. No one wants to party alongside someone that might as well be the maid’s daughter, my boss eloquently elaborated. This was only the first lesson I learned at my new job, for I was in for quite an education.
Answering the phone was another one of my duties. I had to speak exclusively in English and stay alert for any phonetic or grammar errors from callers, in which case I’d politely direct them to our Facebook page, which would enable me to properly scan their profiles for signs of ‘not belonging’. “Sorry, we’re at full capacity,” would be the standard response in such cases. The reservations policy was strict. No one could get in without prior reservation unless there’s a visible sign of wealth or a flashy white accent. Single men were to be treated as rapists until proven otherwise. When they simply couldn’t take no for an answer, the two beefy bouncers standing by my side would take it from there.
The one thing which was truly shocking was how the entire staff, none of whom attended international schools or spent their summers cruising the French Riviera, were conditioned to practice the very same classism they suffered from in their everyday life. They were taught, albeit indirectly, to use their knowledge of their fellow middle class folks to quickly identify eligible candidates for entry at our haven of an establishment. “He only ordered one beer last time,” and “look at that rip in his shoes!” are examples of the tools they were passing on to me to help me excel at my job.
The job was my first reality check on how cruel class segregation in Egypt really is. I’ll quote a dear American friend who once explained to me that classism to Egypt is what racism is to America. Those people, my fellow colleagues, seemed convinced that judging people from a similar background as they are somehow sets them apart from them.
As I slowly landed on such a realisation, I began to disconnect from the elitist persona I was attempting to enforce upon myself. I began my own subtle act of rebellion by letting customers in who didn’t necessarily match the aforementioned criteria but who, however, seemed decent enough to not cause any trouble. Needless to say, this was not well-received by the fellow staff members. They had been attached to the job for the tips, and the bigger the cheque, the more rewarding their sense of achievement was.
Soon, I found myself stepping out the door with no intention to return. After all, unemployment couldn’t have been worse than utterly destroying my own perception of myself as someone who believes in equality and fairness. For months, I was debating between chasing a similar job, given my new proven record of experience, or falling into the uncertainty and self-doubt being jobless brings upon oneself. After months of contemplation, I decided to draw that employment chapter to a close and never look back.
Classism, Islamophobia, and racism continue to be pillars of the Egyptian nightlife industry. However, I opted to seek a job elsewhere – where people had the courtesy to at least pretend they’re not actively discriminating on those basis; where people were at least not so nonchalant being open about such beliefs. It took me a while to stop checking out people’s shoes and fingernails to decide on their worthiness.
Hijab stopped being my enemy, and genuinely respecting people who couldn’t afford a pitcher of Cairo’s finest sangria was suddenly possible again.
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