People disappear a little when they enter huge corporate buildings. Like small planes on juggernaut aircraft carriers they are swallowed up in the vastness and then eventually spat out. It is perhaps this immense physical scale of the structures in which they work which induces, or exacerbates, the feelings of a loss of identity in employees of big companies.
The offices of a state-owned corporation I went to this week typify this. The building is vast and, like a castle under siege, just manages to hold its own despite being situated on one of Cairo’s main arteries and being under attack by bridges, traffic, people and other buildings. It is of course impossible for it to remain untouched by the frenzy of the street and, stepping inside the building, the blare of the traffic and car horns outside seems to transmute into a sort of palpable nervous tension which swirls around and surrounds the building’s inhabitants like some sort of phantom.
In the lift on the way up, up and up people periodically rushed in and out clutching papers and dispensing a curt greeting to strangers and a hearty handshake to colleagues. I arrived early for my meeting, and was ushered into a small, narrow waiting room containing a prayer cubicle at one end and a wall lined from floor to ceiling with square wooden locker type things at the other. A man finished praying just as I went in and nodded at me as he sat opposite and put his shoes back on, laboriously doing his laces up with a studied exactitude. Above his head was a slightly weird blown-up photo of a silhouetted horse grazing by a tree at sunset in what looked like the American desert. The photo was presumably meant to convey a sense of harmony and freedom, but this was negated by the fact that the horse had been left with a bloody saddle on even during its coffee break, and as I watched the man below frowning at his shoes I suddenly truly understood the import of the phrase saddled with responsibility.
Waiting, I listened to the sounds of the corridors outside: footsteps approaching and disappearing, doors opening and closing, a recording of Qu’ran recitation, the ding dong which preceded the lift doors opening, one hundred phones ringing, the bass of a man ribbing a woman, the screeching violin of her response, glasses rattling on trays…The usual Egyptian office aviary.
A faraash periodically came in and opened one of the wooden lockers extracting various objects from it, all the while talking at the loudest volume to someone at least three rooms away.
Eventually I was taken through the corridors to a tiny cubicle office where I waited for the boss man. In the meantime his colleague and I chewed the fat as I watched the office outside through the glass door, people talking and drinking tea and laughing in silence like a fresco come alive. We discussed boss man, the organisation, boss man within the organisation and the unlikelihood that he would grant me the employment break I was seeking, as boss man’s colleague smoked cigarette after cigarette.
Boss man arrived, and we made our way through the anarchy of the corridors to the green zone of his sumptuous office, huge and awash in leather and polished wood. Boss man was neither huge, nor awash in leather thankfully, but he was polished as most successful corporation men usually are. He was most pleasant and accommodating, but in the way that business-class airplane travel is pleasant and accommodating – it only makes sense at high altitude. Once the plane hits the ground you’re suddenly struck by how cramped it in fact is, how artificial the attempts to dress everything up with champagne flutes and a choice of desserts – sending you screaming to the nearest grimy café for rude service and real food and something human.
Boss man and I took the usual brief saunter through the countryside of my professional life, compared notes on London as is compulsory, and then turned to the last thing I had written.
“I liked it,” he said, hesitantly, “but I thought the F word was a bit unnecessary.”
I looked blankly at him, wondering whether ‘the F word’ was a euphemism for something seemingly banal but taboo within these circles.
“Fucking,” he mumbled with obvious discomfort, while gesticulating with his hand as if trying to bat the disgraceful word away.
“Erm…But I don’t recall using…the F word.”
Boss man was briefly troubled by this mix-up, his eyes darting right and left as he pulled on his chin, but eventually acknowledged that he had, in fact, been thinking about someone else entirely. We moved on after this brief spell of turbulence as if nothing had happened at all, discussing the transitional phase the corporation is currently going through, the people ahead of me in the queue, financial constraints – the scenic route to Sorry No Can Do.
At the end of the meeting as he saw me to his office door boss man said, “we’re happy to have you with us,” which was hugely ironic given that the F word saga had revealed that he did not, in fact, know who I was. But then I wondered whether in fact he knows who he himself is anymore, and whether he reclaims his identity at the end of a working day as he would collect a coat from a cloakroom.