Interview with Hilmi Zaki:
Are you married?
Yes, and my wife is an orphan. I chose an orphan woman so that she struggles with me the way I struggled when I was young. Her father was a lawyer — he died when she was young.
Where do you live?
In the company’s housing project in Shubra. My three children, my wife and I live in one room with utilities. We pay 1 pound a month rent. The company gave me this room because I am poor. Before I shared an apartment in Masr al-Gadida for 4 pounds a month. My salary was 9 pounds. My gross salary now is 18 pounds a month, but 8 pounds are deducted to pay back loans. In 1973 I borrowed 50 pounds to pay for my son’s medical treatment, which cost me 150 pounds. I had to borrow the money from people, from the company, and from the fellowship fund. [This is a fund, which, for workers in the public sector, is financed by part of the 25 percent of company profits shared with the workers. – Eds.] I still have to pay back 26-30 pounds.
Tell us about your life.
My life is full of suffering. When I was young, each one of my parents was married to someone else. Life was not stable. When I lived with my father he got annoyed at me. When I lived with my mother she kicked me out and said to me, go to your father. So sometimes I slept in the street in front of my uncle’s shop where I worked as a makwagi in Kubri al-Qubba. I preferred to sleep in the shop because I could not stand the torture of my father’s wife and the humiliation of my mother’s husband. I was 8 years old and I made half a piaster a day then, in 1947. I also got tips when I delivered the clothes to the customers — not less than 25 piasters. People were generous and they had pity on me.
And your uncle paid you half a piaster?
Yes, he also treated me badly.
When did you start school?
In 1946 and 1947, in Kubri al-Qubba. Then I worked for my uncle until 1960. Thank God I knew the honorable lady Buthayna al-Ghoura and Muhammad al-‘Aqqad. These people helped me. They gave me money and clothes.
Did you do them any service in return for this help?
As a makwagi, I used to go to their house to iron their clothes on Mondays. They gave me ten piasters a day. I only worked for two hours in their house and two hours in the house of Gen. Muhammad Ibrahim. He also paid me ten piasters. I also worked for Maj. ‘Abd al-Hamid Ni‘matallah. Usually I could not buy meat; I only ate old cheese.
Do you have brothers and sisters?
I have two brothers — one of them is a pilot, the other is an engineer. I also have a sister who works as a teacher. Their parents did not abandon them the way my parents abandoned me.
You speak classical Arabic. Where did you learn it?
I learned from life, from my work and from my contacts with people. When I was interviewed for a job in 1964,1 was asked whether I could read and write. I replied yes, that I had no diplomas and that one learns from life more than one learns from books. Life is a school and one always learns. I was given the job and I got married later on. At that time my salary was 25 piasters a day, and to be able to save some money to start a household I had to stop eating meat. In a year I had saved 30 pounds. I worked from 6 am to midnight, then I went to work in another shop from midnight to the next morning. I only got one hour of sleep on a chair. My father insisted that I marry one of my relatives in return for his help. I refused. I borrowed some money because I had to pay 50 pounds dowry. When my wife was pregnant with my first child, I asked Buthayna al-Ghoura to help me find another job in Ideal Company. My salary was 19 pounds a month and with the extra money I earned from ironing in the afternoons, I was able to live.
How much money do you earn in a month?
Around 10 pounds net salary, and 6 pounds from ironing.
Where did you learn plumbing?
The company trained me. Also my fellow workers helped me.
Does your wife work?
When we were first married. When she had the second child I asked her to stop working.
Does she know how to read and write?
Yes, even though she did not go to any school. She gives shots and she does some knitting and makes pullovers. I asked her not to charge anything for the shots she gives. For poor people like myself, it is shameful that women work. That is how I was brought up.
But there are poor and middle-class people who let their wives work.
That is true. But I was brought up to live in dignity and my wife should take care of the children.
When the children grow up, will you let her work?
When they grow up, their problems grow and if she works, she will not be able to give them enough attention. Work is not shameful for women as long as they work in decent jobs. I want my wife to spend her time with the children so that their upbringing is good.
If it was possible for a woman to work and at the same time her children were brought up well….
This is not possible. All I care about are my children. Last week I fell sick. I had acute bronchitis. I brought my children around me, I was crying. I told them they only have God and myself. If I die today who will stand by them?
Did a doctor visit you while you were sick?
Yes. I had to call a doctor because the company’s doctor did not show up until the second day. I had only 1 pound and the doctor’s fee was 2 pounds. A friend of mine paid the fee and bought the medicine.
Did your wife ask you to allow her to work?
She did but I refused. I told her that my children are the most important thing to me. I want them to come home, find their mother waiting for them, their clothes clean and their lunch ready.
What do you think of women’s freedom and their right to work?
Their right to work…. Yes. Life is hard, prices are high. But I prefer to work hard and do my best for my children. I have not seen a good day in my life. I pressure myself and my wife for the sake of my children. I want them to know what I have suffered in my life and that is why I agree to do this interview.
What do you think of women’s freedom in Egypt?
In the days of the king…in those days it was shameful for women to work. But with the passage of time women now get their rights. They stand by men and do not remain as a burden on the society.
It is clear that you are saying what you read and hear. Why don’t you carry it out?
I told you before why I did not carry it out. I need to carry it out but there is an obstacle.
Frankly, do you feel jealous for your wife?
Is this the reason for your not allowing her to work?
Let me tell you something. As long as the man does not do anything bad….
What do you mean by anything bad?
I mean commit adultery.
You did not know any woman before your wife?
Because of the nature of my job as makwagi, I knew house maids. Actually I loved a woman called Samia, but I was working for a fireman and he opposed our marriage. He threatened to fire her father, who also worked for him, if he accepted me as a son-in-law. Of course, her father refused me.
This was in 1959. In 1958 I was recalled to serve in the army but I was rejected because I had flat feet. At that time I worked for the chief of staff Gen. Muhammad Ibrahim. He told them, “This is my makwagi and I need him. Do not take him.” After that I got married.
Tell us about one day of your life.
I leave the house at 6:30 in the morning. My work is not far from my house. I finish my work at 2:30. I work as a plumber in the morning. In the afternoon I iron clothes. I finish ironing around 9 o’clock and get home at 10 o’clock. I have dinner. With the children? No, by that time they are in bed. I also find my wife sleeping. I knock on the door and she opens it for me, then she goes to bed and I have dinner.
Don’t you sit with each other?
No. Seldom. Maybe on Mondays we sit with each other. This is my rest day. We talk about life. I tell her about how much money I have and that she should be careful and take care of the children.
Don’t you talk about important things?
Anything. News you heard, for example?
No. I constantly read newspapers in my free time.
I forgot to tell you that I was a member of the Muslim Brothers when I was young. I had a customer. He asked me once whether I go for the morning prayers. He was an officer in the army. He said that I could be useful in carrying leaflets which called for spreading of religion and proper women’s dress. I ended my association with them when the revolution occurred and the Muslim Brothers were arrested. I was arrested in 1957 and they found leaflets in my possession. I managed to convince them that I was fond of reading things like newspapers or anything which could help me learning how to read.
Did they beat you?
No. One of my customers, who was an officer, intervened before it was too late. He ordered them to release me because he had clothes to be ironed and he needed me for that. Later on we found out that those who started the revolution were members of the Muslim Brothers. Anwar al-Sadat and Nasser were in the Muslim Brother organization. I read that in the memoirs of some of the revolution’s leaders.
When the revolution clashed with the Muslim Brothers did you side with the revolution?
Yes. The revolution wanted to do something for workers, job security and savings. The revolution initiated social security programs, savings and insured the lives of workers. I had to side with the revolution.
What is your opinion after 20 years?
I think that Sadat corrected the revolution and brought it back to its original course. When Sadat assumed power after the death of Nasser, workers started to get their rights. Before, nobody could ask for his rights or express his thoughts.
Did you like Nasser?
I liked him and hated him. I liked him when he was good and fair. I hated him when he started to listen to people around him instead of seeing things on the spot. He imprisoned people without giving them a chance to defend themselves. When Sadat came to power, he released the political prisoners and everybody can express his opinion in the street without fear of getting arrested. As you see, I am expressing my beliefs and nobody will imprison me. This is what I think of the revolution. It is true that Nasser did something for us. He built factories, schools. He nationalized companies and put an end to monopoly. Sadat listened to people and eliminated hatred and differences among us. That is why we won the October war. We defeated Israel, the US and all forces of oppression all together. The world started to respect us, they started to know that we have rights we want. The world and the Arab brothers stood with us and we became one family.
Are there aspects you would like President al-Sadat to correct?
I would like President al-Sadat to give more rights to the workers. Profits for example. Also workers should get paid for their extra work and should not be fired.
You’ve heard about private and public sectors?
Yes. I work in the public sector.
What do you think of them?
In the public sector, workers work for 7 hours a day while in the private sector, workers work from 8 o’clock in the morning until 11 o’clock in the evening. In the public sector workers have limited work hours. There is also a doctor, medical treatment and life insurance. When I retire, I still can get a salary and my children will not starve. There is nothing similar in the private sector. Workers in the private sector should have the same benefits as workers in the public sector.
Did you read in the newspaper about some people who demand that the government sell the public sector?
It is a mistake to sell the public sector. Those who controlled its companies earlier would buy it. I prefer that the public sector remains in the hands of the government. We should preserve it so that my children and I can survive.
Do you buy from the public or private sector?
If I was able to purchase from the public sector, I would do it, but it is not easy for me. Poor people like us can’t afford to buy their things except from the public sector. I can’t leave my children without clothes, so I bribe someone in a public-sector store for a ticket to buy cheap clothes.
How much do you pay him?
Whatever he wants. At least a pound. The rich people come by with their cars, speak with the manager of the store and carry away all they want.
Do you deal most with the private or public sector?
With the private sector. I have no time to go to the public sector.
When you buy from the private sector, do you pay the official price?
No, I pay a higher price, even for food items.
Did you hear about al-Shawarbi street?
I have never been there. I heard you can buy imported items there. I can’t afford the prices. Only rich people go there.
Do you think that this street should continue to exist?
It should continue to exist for those who have the money and should not exist for those who don’t have the money.
Do you have friends?
You have no friends at all?
Not even among your neighbors?
No. Everyone leads his own life.
Do you have a TV?
Yes. I bought it on credit for my children. They want to watch the neighbor’s TV, but they were kicked out. I wanted my children to preserve their dignity and mine, so I bought a TV for them. It is good, but should show religious movies, educational movies instead of violent and indecent movies which lead children into criminal life.
Do you listen to the radio?
Yes, I do. The Qur’an and old songs especially songs of Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab. His songs are sad. Also songs of Farid al-Atrash are sad. Umm Kulthoum has sad songs, too. When I listen to sad songs, I remember the bad old days of my youth. I am still living in bad days.