It is common sense not to agree to a flat sight unseen (THOUGH I CAN’T SAY I HAVE NOT DONE THIS IN THE PAST), so I arrived in Cairo in a very transient moment, in the midst of hundreds of other international students trying to do the same thing. I am lucky, because I have a billion (or, like, five) surrogate aunts and uncles who are infinitely gifted in the realm of hospitality and serve as this reminder that I’d be hopelessly lost without this vast, global network of friends, loved ones. I’ve been staying in my old ‘hood of Maadi, which is a fairly Westernised south-eastern suburb of Cairo, and since I grew up in this district primarily I feel very comfortable here. It has seen rapid, rapid development since my family left, so there are more grocery stores and skyscrapers than there were thirteen years ago, but it maintains the same quietness that makes it appealing to a lot of expats, and to girls who need to recover from jet lag, but now that I’ve adjusted to the time zone, it’s time for me to apartment hunt for my picture-perfect, Egyptian flat (gilded Egyptian furniture requisite. Cat-friendly would be nice, too!).

AUC, future Alma Mater and Beacon of Bureaucracy, provides incoming students with a vague idea (in brochure form) of how to go about apartment searching, so, like good little students, my Selected Roommate and I followed suit.

SUGGESTION: “Walk around in pairs, ideally with an Arabic speaker, and when you find a building you like, ask the doorman, or bowab, if there is an apartment for rent.”

Energized by some freshly squeezed ‘asir limon (that’s me, being hoity-toity and evading the obvious English word, which is lime juice), we bopped on down Qasr al-Aini, which is where many government buildings are located (many embassies are in close proximity, as well) and established that, yes, we like this ‘hood (Garden City, if you like the visual) for a variety of reasons. And so we commence wandering into buildings that we like. Tips for the Cairo Traveller: don’t think about what they look on the outside. Just don’t. A lot of these places are less than a hundred years’ old, but a hundred years’ worth of Cairo dirt and dust makes them look Decrepit and (not to be subjective, but…) Ugly. But if you know me then probably you know that I really love Ugly, Dirty things and thus this isn’t exactly a deterrent. Garden City apartments are mostly built between 1905-1940 so, if you can overlook the dirt (Real Talk: if you can’t overlook the dirt then you should not be here), you’ll find some pretty stunning early 20th century architecture up in this piece. But this is bordering on tangential.

There were essentially two things we overlooked when we ventured out. One was Ramadan, and the availability of bowabs. Ramadan, in general, leads to an overall decrease in productivity from the Egyptian Workforce-At-Large¹, so, instead of engaging in requisite bowab activity (watering plants, drinking tea, smoking, fetching groceries, carrying heavy things), most bowabs are sleeping (most WORKERS are sleeping, I should note. EVERYONE is sleeping because they’re HANGRY²!)

Our second major faux-pas was the convenient notion that the bowabs we encountered spoke English. Uh, whoops. Between my roommate (arriving straight from Texas) and I (hi, I’ve taken Arabic courses on-and-off since I was five and still know zilch³), we can manage “please” and “thank you” and “how much?” and “NO” and “WHAT, DO YOU THINK I’M CRAZY?”, but this is about it. The one bowab we encountered who was not napping or hiding from the hot sun hadn’t the foggiest idea what we were trying to pantomime to him (guess I should brush up on charades) and so we left, awkward, dejected, determined to improve our Arabic skills.

SUGGESTION: “Many people get apartments by hiring local brokers, or simsars, who are sometimes bowabs. They might show you a lot of places that are unacceptable, prolonging your search. It’s possible to negotiate out of their fees because landlords usually pay them, but you’re likely to pay half or full month’s rent.”

On Day 2, we went for angle #2: the simsar. Bottom line in Cairo: all venues that you are pursuing will be totally shady in some way, shape or form. That’s the beauty of it: everything here is infinitely more relational, so you’re not finding out about products from stupid Yelp reviews, you’re establishing a network and finding out from experience, or from hearsay, and hopefully, 3 out of 10 times, maybe, you’ll have some success. With all this said, utilizing a simsar is almost identical to using a broker in my old digs of Allston. The only discernible differences will be the Office* and the Service**. Some career fields are just universally sleazier than others, I guess, but at least Egyptians offer you food!

In the end, we didn’t go either traditional route and instead opted for an offer on the Cairo Scholars email Listserv, which serves as another venue for building up a supportive network here. Traditional “networking” and conceptions of that leave a bad taste in my mouth† (I do not schmooze, and never, ever will) but when you’re utilizing networks in a situation like this, you understand why they exist in the first place.

¹I mean, duh. Don’t eat for 12 hours and see what it does for YOUR productivity. At least here, there’s a support network! So much harder for Muslims in the States, in this regard.

²This term explains itself, I hope.

³I am not sure why I didn’t get Baba Cliff’s linguist gene. I thought I had it, but it turns out it’s only an interest in linguistics and not an actual penchant for it. 😦

*Allston brokers will have a nice one with A/C and weird uncomfortable modernist furniture, Cairo simsars will have one that is currently “under renovation” with The Count of Monte Cristo on the bookshelf and a sagging sofa (they will be smoking indoors, of course).

**Allston brokers will forget your name and act stand-off-ish and snooty and insist that there is nothing in your price range in That Neighborhood, Cairo simsars will offer you soda and coffee and cigarettes and insist that there is nothing in your price range in That Neighborhood, and then they’ll say that you’re all family and invite you to Iftar that evening.

†Network theory, on the other hand, is a whole other ballgame…



  1. Pingback: I’ve been around the world. : allston city limits

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