Monday, November 14th, 2016
As a lover of language, I frequently get my panties in a twist when words are appropriated and used for purposes other than their intent, linguistic origin disrespected. I recognize deep curmudgeonly tendencies in my reactionism. Be that as it may, sometimes upon deeper examination of some words (except the word “impact” used as a verb which I will vehemently battle till the end of my days), I often find an interesting meandering path of vocabulary evolution. To wit, I’ve been recently pondering the word “concierge”. Think about this word for a moment – doesn’t it connote elegance, style, protection, a luxury apartment building in, say, the 16th arrondissement in Paris? A handsome gentleman wearing a gold-braided uniform welcoming you with “Bonjour madame”…. Sigh. Now, in recent years the word has been usurped by the medical profession which has coined the “Concierge doctors”, an utterly irritating misuse of this term. But I digress.
The truth is that the word concierge comes from the Latin conservus (“fellow slave”) which puts an entirely different light on the whole thing, don’t you think? But that is one of those strange, byzantine paths of language whereby the original meaning is entirely turned around. For concierges, contrary to being enslaved, are Gods in their own little worlds.
Hélas, I have little experience with the 16th arronidissment of Paris, but I lived in Cairo for a year back in my youth, and there were concierges everywhere. We learned to fear and respect these guys; I’m convinced they and the taxi drivers ran the entire city. In Cairo the concierges are called “bawwaab” (bawwaabi, plural, and you’d better think of them in the plural since the vast majority of Cairo residences housing some 7 million people are apartment buildings and them’s a lot of bawwaabis).
Bawwaab البواب means literally “he of the door” or the “door doer” or more concisely, “gatekeeper”. Being a bawwaab is a pearl of a job. First of all, you get a place to live. That’s a big deal. Second, bawwaabis know everything, and I mean everything, about their tenants. Want to sneak in a lover, a quart of liquor, or have a new television installed? Got to go through the bawaab. If he doesn’t want your lover or liquor or TV to pass through his doors, guess what.
These guys (and they are guys) usually have a room right off the entrance of the building, or sometimes an apartment in the basement – but in my experience, they mostly hang out on cots right near the front door 24/7. Protecting their throne. They are more effective than security cameras.
Now, I suspect that had I better understood the art of baksheesh بقشيش (“tip” – we will not refer to the word “bribe” as it would be indelicate) I might have found navigating Cairo a bit less tedious. Some of my male friends lived in an apartment building with not one, but two bawwaabis, one of them enormous and frightening. Phones in Cairo were not in abundance in those days (I was lucky enough to have one, but I had to shake it up and down several times before getting a dial tone), and any attempts to go up to my friends’ flat even for a brief word were blocked, physically and, perhaps more importantly, morally by this impressive man. Strangely, though, there was a riotous New year’s Eve party at their apartment that I never could figure out – replete with music blasting from the Romantics, large quantities of bad beer, and at least a dozen females, it was a recipe for infidel cavorting. I strongly suspect heavy baksheesh was involved.
Things are honestly not so different here in Boyds (minus the New Year’s parties). My farm has a few bawwaabi and I can tell you, they are worth their weight in gold. I think the US should adopt this form of social monitoring and we would all live cleaner lives.
At my farm, no one gets in or out without my bawwabis’ notice. They alternately walk the perimeter and sit up front watching the farm’s comings and goings at all times. They are not named Abdul or Samir or Hassan – they are Nicole and Henry and Sam, though Sam is not sure it’s entirely his job and sometimes goes up to the neighbors to indulge in a bit of Vodka and pickles (we’re an international crowd out here).
These are working dogs. Livestock guardian dogs. Big, white, fluffy, smiling, cute, huggable, and utterly lethal to predators. Travel anywhere in farmland and you will see these big white dogs dotting the countryside. Laying down. Taking a sunbath. Stretched out and utterly relaxed. On vacation. “My God, they’re all asleep at the wheel”, a casual observer might say. You of little faith, you have not seen a slumbering LGD rise up in a millisecond to address an issue with tiger-like ferocity. Beware, ye foxes and skunks and groundhogs and uninvited UPS trucks. These dogs have no interest in humans they do not know, other than their ability to dole out treats (baksheesh, anyone?). Unless a human were to enter the property sporting a shotgun or evil intent, the dogs could not be less curious. This has led to great frustration on the part of those visitors who desperately want to pet the big white fluffy cute huggable dogs. But when it comes to keeping animals out who might harm their chickens or ducks or sheep or goats or alpcas or horses or emus or any other creature that is tasty to a carnivore,they transcend the cute and show who they really are: fierce protectors.
There has been a lot of talk in our nation recently about working class people. I am working class, and so are my dogs. I feel no more enslaved to work than they do, although I have heard some say it is, indeed, as the Latin would have us believe, slavery to make an animal work. “How can you enslave an animal so?” I counter with, and what would you have them do? Ignore thousands of years of genetics, instincts and primitive knowledge and make them sit on the couch with you to watch NCIS? There are leisure dogs (there are 2, in fact, residing inside my house) who quite like NCIS. But a true working dog whose every molecule is programmed to do a specific thing is ill suited to the domestic life. Work is a biological imperative. Border collies herd. If they are not given sheep, they round up the neighborhood kids. Hounds, alas, are hunting dogs and if they are not out with Guys with Guns, then they work on eliminating the neighborhood’s squirrel population. Livestock guardian dogs are concierge dogs. They are the bawwaabis of the farming world. They live to watch, listen, and protect.
But here is the thing. Late at night, where in the darkness all I can see are white dogs like spotlights gracefully moving about, things change. Night softens the shadows and the quiet brings into relief natures’ sounds. Ancient as great white wolves, these dogs circle each other , leap up, bumping each other, snorting and grunting and growling with pleasure. First one starts, and then the next, and they twist and turn, smile and snap, splay paws on the ground and jump to the side, asking me to do the same. Once, just once, Sam lets out a long, heart-wrenching, high-pitched howl. I twist my torso around one way and the next, inelegantly following them, and under the cold December moon I am allowed to join the White Dog Night Dance. They are no longer bawwabis, and I am no longer just a farmer.
‘Till next time,
“To run with the wolf was to run in the shadows, the dark ray of life, survival and instinct. A fierceness that was both proud and lonely, a tearing, a howling, a hunger and thirst. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst. A strength that would die fighting, kicking, screaming, that wouldn’t stop until the last breath had been wrung from its body. The will to take one’s place in the world. To say ‘I am here.’ To say ‘I am.’”
― O.R. Melling
“His arrival detonated two sheepdogs that began barking even before they emerged at a dead run from behind the garage.”
― Anita Shreve