Greetings from Cairo part XVI
Published in Ishtar 2/2010

House Calls – the Cairene Version

translated by Anu Toivonen

Buying by mail-order has long since made it possible to do some shopping lying on the couch and the Internet has further both broadened the selection and produced a world-wide market. In Egypt, this style of home shopping is widely different and it is possible to take care of a number of things by phone or a shout from the balcony.


The Cairene women often go to the hairdresser’s getting a facial treatment, having their nails done and body-hair removed either by threading or halauwa – a sticky sugary mass – at the same time. These beauty treatments are not very expensive (€ 2-5 per treatment) and many ladies pay a weekly visit to their chosen salon. It is also possible to have the beauty specialist to pay a house call. The hairdresser will bring with her all the necessary equipment and products or use those of the client if the client so prefers. These calls are considerably more expensive and easily double or triple the price so not everyone can afford them.

The normal routine of one Cairene lady includes a bath attendant making house calls, and the same attendant has visited her all her life. As both women have grown older the staircase of the client’s block of flats has begun to cause problems: the feet of an 80-year-old no longer have the same strength to reach the flat of a 60-year-old.

Hair News Magazine

Cairene men go to the barber’s to have a haircut. The countryside barber normally makes a house call and deals with all those in need of a haircut or a shave, for the price of a couple of pounds (c. € 0.20) per client. However, many farmers pay the whole year’s treatments at harvest time, four times a year the payment being, for example, a sack of corncobs or a box of potatoes. These old contracts are growing increasingly rare as the barbers grow old and their sons take up their fathers’ business: the young generation are aware of a bigger income when money is used as currency.

House Beautiful

If the house is in need of redecoration, e.g. new curtains, a seamstress is invited to make a house call. She will bring samples of materials to choose the most pleasing of them. The suitable curtain arrangement is discussed and the seamstress will take some measurements; a few days later, she will return with the finished curtains.

The bedroom furniture is often made to order. A desired bed design is chosen and the necessary measuring is done. The wardrobes are also designed to fit the bedroom and after taking the measurements, the carpenter will manufacture the various parts and later, return to assemble the wardrobe. When necessary, the carpenter will also build other fixtures for the home and, therefore, the living room bookshelf or a mirror covering the entire wall should fit perfectly.

Ideal Home

There will always be something to fix at home: a tap is leaking, the drains are clogged or the boiler gas flame cannot be lit. The help is only a phone call away, and the workman will find out the source of trouble, buy all the necessary parts and fix the trouble.

Changing the light bulbs is not always simple, so the electrician at the neighbourhood lamp shop will change them for you and fix the oxidized wires as well. This kind of work is commonplace and will cost a couple of euros.

Medicine Magazine

In Egypt, the doctors still make house calls and especially your personal doctor will give advice on the phone at any time of the day. If the illness has lasted long, the relationship with the doctor will have had time to grow very confidential, so it is easy to phone the doctor and also easy for the doctor to judge the necessity of a visit.

If the illness is sudden and severe, you can always phone the nearby hospital and ask for a doctor to come. And if the distance is only a few hundred meters it is relatively easy to just walk there to fetch the doctor.


State vaccination campaigns are announced in the television telling the people when and where to go and what the vaccination is for. These campaigns are also announced in the mosques and the newspapers. Nurses go around vaccinating the children at home and many mothers arrange with their employers to stay at home when the nurse comes to their door. These house calls will increase the number of children being vaccinated as otherwise a great number of them would remain without their injections. The family being poor or the parents being suspicious towards the doctors will result in many children remaining outside the hospitals’ vaccination programmes. Some parents do not find the vaccinations important and others may find it inconvenient to go to the hospitals’ free-of-charge vaccinations, so their children do not receive this significant protection against illnesses. Polio and other preventable diseases are still common in Egypt today.

Bon Appétit

The smallest corner shop will deliver your shopping home for you and your daily shopping will arrive after just one phone call; all the grocer’s shops have their phone number printed on their signs.

If the shop happens to be at the basement of your house or right across the street, it is easy to lower down a basket with a shopping list and some money from the window or balcony. The shopkeeper will fill your basket according to the list and take the appropriate sum from the purse. Then you can just pull the basket back up and nobody needs to run up and down the stairs.

You buy fresh fruit and vegetables at the nearby souk – the bazaar alley. You may also find living ducks, chicken and sheep there as well as an occasional cheese, some meat and fish. The doorkeeper of your own or the neighbouring house, or his wife, will gladly visit the souk for you as it will add a little to the family income.

Good Housekeeping

There are laundries everywhere in the city and they are slowly becoming more common even in the country, even though almost every household do their own laundry. Shining, clean sheets are the pride of every lady of the house. Wealthy people may have all their laundry done outside the home but the laundry businesses mainly do carpets, duvets and curtains. They also take care of the more delicate laundry, such as men’s suits and ladies’ dresses, such as wedding dresses. Other clothes are washed at home, although they may be taken to a laundry to be ironed.

With a nearby laundry, you may have an agreement on the boy coming for and returning your laundry and clothes to be ironed on a certain weekday. This way, you may not even need to phone.

Electric and gas bills are delivered to your home. The meter man will come and read the meters once a month and the following week, the man responsible for billing will come around with the bills to collect the payment. If nobody is at home, he will leave a notice at the door. You can only pay in cash, so if you do not happen to have any money with you when the bill comes, it will have to remain unpaid until next month. Sometimes several months go by without the bills being paid for the abovementioned reasons after which you’ll have to pay several months’ bills together. Fortunately there is no extra fee for being late.

Marie Claire

The home is the women’s province and caring for and decorating it are women’s responsibility. For some women it is also their entire world.

The women’s world is smaller than the men’s and they normally frequent the everyday routes in the vicinity of the home: to the work, school or to the shops. A different city quarter or a poorer, and consequently less prestigious, area is often frighteningly strange to them. Ever since little girls, the women are taught to care for their reputation. When moving through familiar surroundings, the women are not, at least in theory, exposed to disreputable influences and they are not in danger of losing their honour. Later, many women never wish to go exploring outside the familiar streets.

House and Garden

Some Egyptian women never go out of the house. Sometimes they make this choice themselves, sometimes it is made for them by the husband. Some women sit at their doorstep but never venture any further. These women find the services brought to the house very important. However, the husband is responsible for calling a male worker to the house and while the work is being done, a male household member will have to be present. During this time, the women of the house will remain hidden in other rooms.

The house calls are also a way to stand out or at least stay in the competition. Workforce in Egypt is cheap as there are so many people. If one shop does not offer service, there will always be a few others nearby who will be happy to provide it at your door.




Photo by Päivi Arvonen

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