Many party members applaud at the end of her speech. A series of speakers come after her. But hers is by far the most colorful speech. She speaks about concrete things you can imagine people doing, instead of “measures that increase utilization” like others. The act itself is brief, and afterwards there’s a small reception with food. Lots of people congratulate her. Her brother and his arab friend also join us. She introduces me to several party members, and finally to her uncle. “That was a wonderful speech, dear,” her uncle says when we meet him. “If only you didn’t squander your talents here instead of—”
“Please uncle, can’t this wait for later?” she interrupts him. “I want to introduce you to a friend… She-she helped me a lot with that speech.” He looks at me like he just realized I’m a person instead of service staff. “Hello,” he says before quickly turning to speak to her again. “Please dear, have lunch with me tomorrow, I beg you.” She makes an involuntary grimace, letting her uncle and I know just how much she wants that. “Not if you’re going to insist that I—”
“You ungrateful little—” He threatens with his finger. He stops and sighs. “You’re young and can’t grasp the magnitude of what I offer. Your whole generation is just—” “Uncle, please,” she says taking his hands warmly. “Please let’s talk about this tomorrow, ok?” “Fine,” he concedes. She walks away with a smile, and I follow her.
We spend there another hour meeting people. She does most of the talk while I stay quiet. She looks confident, kind and warm. She looks like a leader. It strikes me how confident she can be in public, yet how insecure and shy she’s in private. Finally we go home, both of us exhausted. On the cab back to our dorm, she falls asleep on my shoulder, reminding me of… I better not say it.
At first I weep in silence to not wake her up. But then I remember: I will never see her grow up. I will never see her get married and happy. Mother took all that away from her. I clench my fist. That stupid, egoistical— “We’re here,” says the cabbie. I compose myself and wake her up gently. She pays him and we walk back to our room in silence. “Thank you so much,” she says when we get there. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Oh please, your ideas were there,” I say. “The speech just needed some polishing.” She looks at me, smiling. “You know you did more than that.” She walks into her room and begins undressing for bed. “Hey, with the elections coming up, we’re going to have a ton of work,” she says as she undresses. I’m sitting on my bed, listening. “We could use your help. I could use your help.”
“I don’t know if I could be that useful,” I say. I get up to go fetch some water and catch a glimpse of her naked body. She looks incredible. Luckily she doesn’t see me, she would be too embarrassed. I return to my room in silence. “Nonsense,” she says. “That way you can quit that job you hate so much and do what you’re good at.” I’m not convinced. “But maybe I—” I try to protest once more. “It’s settled then,” she says. “We’ll work together. I’ll make sure the pay is good, don’t worry.” There’s a brief pause, and her head suddenly pokes through my door to say “Good night.” It seems a new job has found me. With only a phone call the next morning, she hooks me up as “first communications assistant.” She tries to explain what I’m supposed to do, but after hacking through her webbed bureaucrat-talk, I only understand that I will “rewrite stuff.”
Her brother, his friend and my friend from school work at tol too. In fact, they spend much of my first day in the office with us. Her brother is in charge of “human resource coordination,” which as far as I can tell means gathering mobs for demonstrations. The arab guy does whatever my roommate’s brother needs done. He makes coffee, buys food, delivers messages. He’s essentially an errand boy. And my friend from school is the “efforts liaison,” which translates into “making our activities serve the interests of the people paying for them.” I learn all of this not just watching them, but also reviewing memos, messages and other stuff they give me to improve, deliver or archive.
But it feels like they’re holding off. It’s like they don’t discuss certain things when I’m there. The two guys don’t trust me, they see me as an outsider. And I am. All of this is new to me. We work eight hours split in two shifts, with a pause for lunch. When we finally get off, we all have dinner together in a cafeteria nearby and go home. The next day we get there earlier and work another two hours. The first week is hard, but by the second I begin to get the hang of it. I use any spare time I have to study, like they do.
Slowly, I become a member of their small group, mainly because my roommate insists. She pushes them to say “private” things in front of me. For example, when one of our group of protestors demands higher salaries and better riot equipment, she wants to negotiate. Her brother and my friend from school, however, are of a different mind. Her brother summons the group’s manager and four of their coordinators. You may be surprised to learn these angry mobs are not just angry mobs: they obey a rigid hierarchy.
Anyway, as I was saying, he summons them to our office. Although he asks this to be kept “private,” my roommate and my friend from school both insist that I witness the meeting. We all head over to his office and wait. It has zero pictures, no windows, and is essentially devoid of life. We stand against the wall. The protestors enter his office and sit down in uncomfortable, creaky metal chairs. He stands as he speaks to them.
“So you want better salaries, did I get that right?” he asks. “It’s only fair for what you make us do,” replies the manager. He laughs. “Huh. Fair? Are you telling me what’s fair? Who the f-word do you think you are? Nobody! You are only here because I put you here. And you… you have the nerve to come and speak to me about fair!? You’re fired! The f-word out of my sight!” He turns to me and says, pointing at me with his right index finger “call security.” The manager stands his ground. My roommate’s brother grabs the manager’s shirt and pulls him up. “Get the f-word out!” He pushes the manager out of the room. Two security guards escort the man out of sight.
My roommate’s brother comes back, breathes deeply, takes a sip from his coffee and looks at the four men before him. “Now you,” he calmly says, pointing at one of them. “You will be the new manager. Choose someone to replace your old job.” Then he puts down his coffee. “Any questions, any demands?” The newly appointed manager shakes his head. “Good, good, good!” He says smiling. “Now get the f-word out, all of you.”
They leave without saying a word. “You know we could afford the raise, right?” says my roommate, clearly upset. “And they actually deserved it, if you ask me…” she goes on. Her brother stands up and puts a hand on her shoulder. “Sis,” he says condescendingly. “It’s not even about the money. It’s about respect.”