Sunday, 31 October 2010

Kida maktoob

This weekend has been crazy, even by Egyptian standards. I’m not even sure where to start in terms of describing it all, but seeing as I’m having a hard time even remembering what happened before Wednesday of last week, I suppose that’s as good a place as any to begin!

Early last week, Ian and I had started thinking seriously about the fact that we needed to be looking for a new place to live. Turnover for expat flatshares in Cairo seems to be fairly high as far as I can tell from Cairo Scholars, the mailing list that we both used to find our flat in Dokki, and so we felt that there was no point in leaving more than a week to find a new place. The tricky bit seemed to be finding two bedrooms in one flat in the same area we were living in, as we both knew that we’d like to stay there. The one lead we had was a German girl called Lilo, who Ian had been in touch with on email while we were in Sharm last weekend. In all honesty she hadn’t endeared herself to us hugely by sounding a little officious in her messages but we wanted to meet her and see if we got on better face to face. So we met on Sunday evening, saw her flat – which was perfectly nice and certainly much better than the one we were in – and found that she was warmer in person, understandably. I think we both had reservations, but then so did she about us (she specifically didn’t want to live with people who already knew each other). So we left it that she would call us on Thursday with her decision and, knowing that the end of the month was creeping ever closer, we were both ready to move in with her if she wanted us.

By the time Wednesday came around I was starting to feel twitchy. I knew that we had until Monday to find a new home but knowing that we still had to fight Paul (leaseholder) for our deposits made me all the more eager to get things sorted out quickly. So, with that in mind, I organised to go and see a room in a flat in west Dokki, one metro stop away from where we were based, on Thursday. My week had effectively ended, as my boss was out of the office on Thursday and had told me not to go in that day, so after supper and a bit of a rest I decided to head out to salsa for another night of wonderful dancing. There are some real characters on the Cairo salsa scene: a flamboyant guy called Dias (I’m guessing he’s Latino, though he won’t actually tell me!) who is the life and soul of the party; Gad, quiet and shy looking, always dressed very formally and with glasses perched on his nose looking as if they’re about to fall off, but a very good dancer and self-assured lead; Mohamed Aly, a wonderful dancer, full of charm and obviously very popular with all the women on the scene, whose self-professed aim is to “make sure every woman feels like a princess when I dance with her”; Mustapha, who has travelled all over the world and has the most mixed accent I’ve ever heard as a result, who loves London, whisky and parties – parties most of all. I haven’t had as much of a chance to speak with the women yet as I obviously haven’t been dancing with them but many of them are extremely good dancers, and I’m hoping to pick up some dance styling tips from them!

Following the late night on Wednesday, my sole plan for Thursday was to go and see this other flat and then go out to a different place for more dancing. The flat was absolutely beautiful – large, spacious, light, with wooden floors, a huge sitting/dining room area with a large balcony looking out over Dokki, nice kitchen, two bathrooms and three lovely bedrooms. Two of the three (including the one that was free) had their own balconies. I was shown around by one of the two people already living there – Chris, a half French, half American journalist. The other flatmate was Tina – a German girl working in development, specifically water sanitation, who was away for the weekend but who I’d spoken to on the phone earlier. My first impressions of both of them were very positive (and after the experience with Paul I’ve really learned that first impressions can count for a lot, much as I’d like to believe otherwise). I couldn’t see anything not to like about the flat, except for the fact that there was only one room there and that Ian and I had wanted to stick together. Most of all, I didn’t want to leave him in the lurch, as it was basically tacitly understood that the only reason we would move in with Lilo would be so we could continue living together. So it was with rather mixed feelings that I went to meet him and Fuad for coffee and dinner after I’d finished looking around the flat.

Another late but fun night of dancing and by Friday morning I was ready to collapse. The guys (Ian and Fuad) had plans to go to the Pyramids and I had plans to do very little until the evening, when we were having dinner and drinks together. This was all going swimmingly until there was a loud knock on the door at about 11am. It was the bewaab, who has generally been very nice with us (his wife was much more abrupt at the beginning of our stay but I think we won her over by smiling, doing our best to speak to her in Arabic and not being Paul, with whom she apparently used to have big screaming matches). However, bad news was coming. From the bewaab I gathered, through a haze of sleepiness, that the rent for the coming month was overdue by a day (so much for Paul’s assertion that we were paid up until the end of the month) and that Paul himself couldn’t be contacted. Who, he asked, was going to pay the rent that was owed? I explained, or tried to explain, that we’d been told we had paid through until the end of the month, that we were leaving on either Sunday or Monday and that we’d given Paul a month’s notice in which to find new people. The bewaab, while clearly not pleased by the situation, accepted what I was saying. “Bol mish kwayess” (Paul is not good) was repeated several times by both of us, before the bewaab left – phone in hand, presumably to keep calling the elusive Bol. For my part, I promised to email him that evening – something I’d planned to do anyway as a further attempt to recover our security deposit, but which I was slowly starting to realise might prove necessary in order to get him to honour the terms of his own contract with the landlady.

A sunburned Ian returned from the Pyramids with a piece of good news: he had plans to go and look at a room in a nearby flat that afternoon. Off he went to do that, returning quickly with the (even better) news that not only was the flat itself lovely but so were the two people living there (again, a French guy and a German girl). They were going to let him know if they wanted to offer him the room by that evening, we had still heard nothing from Lilo and I think were both trying to figure out quite how to bring up the fact that we each vastly preferred the flats we’d seen separately to the one we saw together. We had some coffee, hung out at the flat for a while and napped, then headed off to Fuad’s for a lovely home cooked meal at around 8:30pm. I’m not sure it had really occurred to me how much I’d missed both cooking and eating home cooked food until I was sitting down to a plate of salmon tagliatelle and a glass of white wine. Much as I enjoy falafel sandwiches and koshary, eating them every day for a month is perhaps a little excessive.Happiness is surely a kitchen you can cook in, a shower that works and a washing machine that bears less of a resemblance to a particularly obstreperous young puppy (in need of constant supervision and keen to chew all your clothes to pieces).

By the time we left Fuad’s house to go to the wonderfully named Happy City rooftop cafe/bar in Downtown Cairo, we definitely felt that this was the right place for us to spend our evening. After all, we had cause for celebration – Ian had been offered the room in the flat he saw (though he would have to stay with Fuad for a week before moving in), I had been offered the room in the beautiful flat I saw, we’d had a chat and agreed that it was best for both of us to take these rooms as we still planned to spend lots of time together whether we lived in the same flat or not, and we’d sent what we felt was a well-worded email to Paul (we even had Fuad check it to make sure the tone was firm enough and that we weren’t being too conciliatory). We spent a good few hours in Happy City, where contentment must surely be mandatory, with our drinks and shisha.

Come 3am we were in a taxi, heading home. Our homes being on adjacent streets, Ian and I said goodnight to Fuad and walked a few steps towards our building. We were about 100 yards away from the building when suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by a group of between 7 and 10 happy (perhaps it’s contagious), exuberant people, talking at speed and in several different languages. They asked us questions in English – the usual where are you from, are you on holiday, do you like it here, what’s your opinion of Egypt kind of questions. It emerged that they were all of different nationalities – Tunisian, Algerian, French, Moroccan, Egyptian – but many of them were there on holiday and they were making their way around the apartments of the few who lived in Cairo, basically going from one party to another. Jumping at the chance to speak French, I spoke a little with one of the Tunisians and explained that I’d lived in France for a while. Then, from the back of the group, a blond man spoke up: “Where in Paris did you live?”. I told him the number of the arrondissement and then my jaw hit the floor at his next question: “Did you live in 4, Passage des Abbesses?”

No, this was not an amazingly persistent stalker but my neighbour from Paris! His name was Vincent and we’d actually struck up a friendship while I was living there based on my ridiculous fear of rodents and him very kindly helping me get rid of a mouse in my flat one evening. He and his girlfriend at the time had later had me over to their flat for dinner. Needless to say, we hadn’t kept in touch (though I had with his girlfriend, on Facebook) and it took us a while to recognise each other – really it was like one of those bizarre dreams that you sometimes have where people from one part of your life suddenly appear in a totally different context. What a small world.

It turned out that the group was on their way to someone’s house and they invited us to join them. Still mystified by the unexpected coincidence and feeling strangely connected to the group because of it, I was keen to go and though I think Ian initially had reservations he decided to come too. We ended up in a taxi on the way to Mohandiseen, talking with one of the Egyptian guys and describing the strange turn of events. “Kida maktoob” he told us. It was written.

So there we found ourselves on a huge balcony belonging to the beautiful flat owned by a member of the group, drinks of all sort on the table, music on, people dancing. They were such a friendly bunch, chatting away with me in French and with Ian in Arabic and English. More people kept appearing as the “night” wore on. By the time we left at around 5:30am the party was still going strong, but we were quite ready to go home and sleep. Little did we know how much we’d need to.

On Saturday in the early afternoon we emerged from our rooms, greeted one another with all the eloquence and communicative ability of cavemen and then Ian went out to get us some koshary and water. Fortified, we were all ready to take ourselves off to a cafe with internet access to do some writing, with Fuad and Ian’s friend Noah. An ominous knock at the door put paid to that idea. It was the bewaab’s wife, with news that the landlady was on her way over to the flat, wanting either £E3000 or our immediate departure. Paul had either changed his number or disconnected his phone, as there was no ringtone when you called him and they had, she assured us, been calling him all day. I checked my emails and there was nothing from him. Slowly it dawned on me – here we were imagining that his contract with the landlady would be enforced and that he would be held liable for the rent for the duration of the contract but instead he was just going to abandon it, assuming that because Egypt isn’t famous for its organisation no one would pursue him, and leave Ian and me to deal with the fallout. There are not enough expressive words in the English language to tell you what I think of him. I’m sure you can use your imaginations!

What choice did we have? We argued our case with the bewaab’s wife, whose response (“I only work here”) was fair enough, irrespective of how infuriating the situation was. We decided to wait for the landlady, thinking we might be able to appeal to her kinder side and wasted valuable time that we could have spent preparing to leave. I kept thinking that surely, once the situation had been explained to her, she would understand that Paul had duped us as much as he had duped her (more so, in fact, as she at least got to keep his deposit while he had weasled off with ours) and that it surely wouldn’t make that much of a difference to her if we spent one more night in the flat and left on Sunday as planned. The bewaab’s wife refuted this in no uncertain terms. There were people who wanted to move in tonight – they couldn’t possibly wait. Oh but if you want to stay one more night you can; you just have to pay £E300. And if you want to stay in the flat for the next month that’s fine too – you just have to pay £E3000 right now. The usual crystal clear logic and coherent reasoning then.

Well there were some tears (me), some angry pacing (Ian) and some choice epithets directed at Paul in particular (both of us) before we got ourselves together and started packing away our things, wanting if possible to leave before the landlady arrived, as I had a feeling she would try to make us pay for all sorts of things we weren’t liable for. Sadly time wasn’t on our side and before we knew it there was a knock at the door and there stood the bewaab’s wife, the landlady (clearly ready for battle) and a teenage girl (her daughter? granddaughter? We never found out). Now this is probably an unfair generalisation but based on the unpleasant experiences I’ve had with the two landladies I’ve dealt with here (the one whose flat we rented in Alexandria and this one) I’ve built up an impression of Egyptian landladies as being rather....toadlike. Actually this is really unfair as I’ve met Aleks’ new landlady and she’s lovely. And Chris assures me that our landlady in this flat is very nice too. I suppose it’s just unfortunate that the two women I’ve had any kind of close contact with in this area displayed so many of the same deeply unattractive characteristics. A tendency to march into the room, flop heavily into the nearest chair (they’ve both been very much on the portly side) and look at you as if you’re something unpleasant on the floor, for instance, followed by the constant repetition – at about three times the volume needed – of the list of things they feel you should pay for, over and over again. This woman managed to even outdo Magda (the landlady in Alexandria) in her shouting (“They need to pay for the cleaning! The air conditioning is broken. What about the electricity and the water! I want my money”).

Ian, further along in his packing than I was, called Fuad so that two of us could start moving bags over to his house while the third kept guard of the remaining items in the flat. Like a star, Fuad turned up within minutes, complete with bin liners to put things in quickly and his negotiating skills at the ready. By this point, the bewaab had turned up with two elder men – one of whom I think may have been the landlady’s husband and the second another property owner, who has some twenty flats in the area I believe and who spoke very good English. This man had obviously been brought along as an intermediary to help smooth things out (note to Julian, Aleks, Arsalan and any other SOAS people reading this – it really does happen!). Though I was in no mood to appreciate it at the time, this man did a wonderful job of explaining our position to the landlady, who, though she made valiant efforts to shout him down with a voice that somehow managed to be booming and shrill all at once, I think finally understood where we were coming from, albeit in a grudging way. With commendable patience, he listened to her shouting and what I hope was our somewhat more reasoned explanation of our point of view (though by that time, thinking of our lost deposit and the unfairness of being told to leave without any notice whatsoever and having a group of people literally standing over us demanding more money as we were throwing our things into bags, I was on rather a short fuse) and he discussed things at some length with Ian and Fuad. The upshot of it all was that he got her to drop almost all of the extra charges she wanted us to pay in lieu of Paul paying them and finally our disagreement came down to one small charge, which we paid in order to avoid the alternative – the police being called to make a decision on what should be done. Actually I almost wish the police had been called, as they might have a better chance of tracking Paul down using the landlady’s photocopy of his passport, and it could have been established beyond a shadow of a doubt that Ian and I had done nothing wrong, but at the same time we’d already expended so much time and energy on the whole situation; we really just wanted to go.

To be honest, I understand where the landlady was coming from – after all, this is a business to her and Paul had absolutely broken faith. I guess you have to be a bit hardnosed, or at least single minded, in these situations sometimes. But there are ways and ways of doing things and it takes a real lack of empathy to see people in the position Ian and I were in, to have had our point of view explained, and to still be screaming as loudly as possible for money. One of the inherent contradictions about Egypt I keep running into is that people here can be generous to a fault in so many ways and about so many things but then sometimes they can also be so single minded about money. And quite often it seems it’s those who are reasonably wealthy – not really wealthy or very poor but wealthy enough to own and rent out a flat that could be nice were it more carefully maintained – who are the most grasping when it comes to cash.

Anyway, finally we left this flat, feeling a strange combination of relief, anger, giddy hysteria at the absurdity of the situation and sheer exhaustion. As both my new flatmates were out of town (though Chris was due to return in the evening) our plan was to drop everything at Fuad’s, go and get some coffee, then move my things into the new flat, assuming I could reach Chris on the phone (he was in the desert, without phone signal). Reaching Fuad’s flat, we had to explain everything to his bewaab, who had, just the previous night, knocked on the door as we were sitting down to eat to announce that I was memno3a (forbidden). Those were literally his words, delivered in a perfectly nice way but to the point nonetheless: you are forbidden. There I go with my wicked female ways once again. This caused Fuad some anger and Ian and me much amusement at the time, though I have to say that having to contend with it and try to explain that only Ian and the bags would be spending any length of time in the flat while carrying the bags up the stairs further tried our sorely-tested patience.

The story ends happily though, al hamdullilah. Bags deposited, we went off for a much needed coffee and found that away from the stress and drama of the whole fiasco we could see the funny side of everything. It even turned out that Ian (what a dream flatmate) had rescued the big bag of tea I’d brought with me from the UK and would have completely forgotten about in the midst of all the drama. I was then able to contact Chris and organise to move into my lovely new flat that night. The whole of this blog entry has been written from my beautiful new bedroom and Chris has been extremely welcoming and helpful. More than anything I’m incredibly grateful that I didn’t have to deal with Paul or the Paul situation on my own – having Ian and Fuad there made such a difference and I think for Ian too not having to sort everything out on his own was a big help. Now that we’re out of there I can say that things have really worked out for the best. We’ve both got nice new places to live in but for all the problems and the stress of the flat we’ve just left, it did at least cause the three of us to meet and become friends, for which I’m very glad. Perhaps it was maktoob.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Tips for Egyptian men looking for western wives or girlfriends

Back in the UK, Julian is currently labouring through the dreaded big job hunt that I’m sure we’re all familiar with. For months I’ve been trying to convince him to pack it in and set himself up as a relationship advisor to Egyptian men wanting to go out with western women (a bit like Hitch in Egypt). He however remains stubbornly convinced that he wants a job that actually has a future so in his absence here are my guidelines for Egyptian men pursuing those elusive foreign women.

(Disclaimer: this is a tongue in cheek exercise in no way meant to denigrate the many, many lovely and gentlemanly Egyptian men I’ve met here, but rather as a way of dealing with the strange behaviour sometimes exhibited by the annoying ones! And not to be taken too seriously in any case.)

1 – Maintain eye contact at all times. This is a cardinal rule because if you don’t focus your gaze on the object of your affections, how is she to realise that you’re interested in her? The more intensely you stare the better. If you happen to be engaged in another activity as she’s walking past don’t let that put you off! Look into her eyes as you drive past her, peer into the window as she passes you on the train. Don’t be discouraged if she seems to be avoiding eye contact with you – just up the intensity of your own stare if possible, or try one of the other helpful hints below.

2 – Memorise the following phrases and use them whenever you can: “Welcome in Egypt!”, “Hello!”, “Ah, beautiful!”, “Very nice!”, “I love you!” Be careful not to say them too casually – if you get the tone of voice a little off they will simply sound friendly, which defeats your purpose. Lengthen those vowels and try to let your voice convey everything that your words can’t. One particularly effective technique is to wait until the woman in question is walking right past you and then keep your voice low as you utter whichever of the phrases first enters your head. This combination of intensity and spontaneity will drive her wild.

3 – Remember, it doesn’t matter what the woman is wearing or what she’s doing: if there isn’t a man standing beside her you should always take it as a sign to approach.

4 – It’s always good to have a talking point when you make contact so be sure that she’s involved in something quite absorbing when you first initiate conversation. If she’s with a friend, maybe you could join them? If she’s jogging on the beach, be sure to call out how much you like sporty women (how will she know otherwise?). If she looks lost or is carrying a heavy bag that’s the perfect time to use one of the helpful phrases in no. 2 – sure to make her feel better no matter what other issues are on her mind!

5 – She might appear to not want to talk to you at first. Don’t be put off by this. Women love persistence – if you keep trying you’ll get a response.

6 – Once you get talking, don’t beat about the bush. Be clear about what you want. A good sequence of phrases might be the following:

“I’m not married yet. I want to marry a foreigner, not an Egyptian woman. Are you married yet?”

7 – Get her phone number by any means necessary, and as quickly as possible. Don’t give her a lot of time to think about it in case she says no. If she seems reluctant, try telling her you want to improve your English. Be sure to say “Let’s be friends”. She’ll have no idea what your real motive is and you’ll have her phone number!

8 – Obviously once you’ve got her number, call her. As often as possible. Try to mix it up a bit so that you call at different times of the day and in the middle of the night. This way she’ll know you’re thinking of her and it’s easier for you to keep tabs on where she is. If she doesn’t answer your first call, try again immediately. Keep calling until she picks up.

9 - If after the 14th or 15th phone call she still hasn’t answered you should try calling from another number. If you can try to call from a few different numbers – you maximise the odds of her answering your phone calls and you keep her on her toes!

10 – Incidentally, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t meet the love of your life on the phone. If one day you dial the wrong number by mistake and a woman answers, keep calling her. All the rules of no. 8 apply. You could always try just dialling phone numbers at random until an attractive-sounding woman answers – it’s bound to happen sooner or later.

11 – If the object of your affections proves really difficult to get hold of, you could always leave it a couple of months and then try calling her once more. Sometimes an eight week break is all it takes to get her to want to speak to you again!

12 – Find out where she lives as soon as you can. This way you can organise to bump into her in the street or even wait for her outside the house if she’s proving particularly hard to get hold of.

13 – If you come across her in the street by chance and she hasn’t seen you, follow her for a short while to find out where she’s going. 10 – 15 minutes should be long enough for you to get a good sense of what she’s up to.

14 – Women love surprises. Why not try jumping out in front of her as she’s walking down the street?

15 – Practise your best checking-her-out look to make sure you’ve got it spot on. This is the only time it’s acceptable to break rule no. 1. Look her up and down, lift one eyebrow and smirk – it works every time. The great thing about this rule is that, unlike many of the others, it can be done at any time and no matter who you’re with. A group of friends? No problem – just make sure they can’t pull it off better than you! Your existing wife or girlfriend? Don’t worry about it – she probably won’t notice and even if she does you’re a man, right?!

16 - Remember, nothing says "I love you" like persistence and dedication. She might get angry on occasion, or threaten you with police or embassy action. Don't be perturbed - true love always wins out.

Good luck!

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The kindness of friends and strangers

I think Egyptians must be among the kindest people ever. I went to Alexandria again at the weekend, as the previous week had been a short one, with the 6th October being a national holiday.

I was in Alex for four days and due to the weekend being crammed with activity and the trains, of course, not running when they were due to run, eight o’clock yesterday evening saw me at the train station, attempting to buy a ticket for either a nine o’clock or a ten thirty train. Nine o’clock or ten thirty? The men at the ticket office were amused. Contrary to what the website and my friends had said, the only train running after eight that evening was a ten o’clock train which was fully booked. No wonder they were amused. In a conversation oddly reminiscent of our Colloquial Egyptian roleplay dialogues at SOAS, I put on my best I’m-reposing-my-trust-in-the-officials face and asked whether they could find me a solution to the problem. The answer? “Just buy your ticket on the train. We can’t sell you one here, but it will work if you buy one on the train”. Simple?

With more than a little trepidation, I sat down at the coffee shop to wait out the two hours before the train left. Though my experience of Egypt tells me there’s a way around almost any rule or regulation if you try hard enough, it’s also common for seemingly simple tasks to become complicated for no clear reason. So, like many aspects of life here, it was obviously going to be a glorious surprise.

9:45 came and I boarded the train, choosing a seat at random and ready to move if its’ rightful owner came along. People entered, many carrying large bags. The train slowly pulled out of the main train station, Mahattat Misr, and cruised along for five minutes to the next station, Sidi Gaber. Here again the carriages were flooded with people, luggage, blankets. I wondered what I was going to do. Clearly the seat I was in belonged to someone else and I had to move but there were people everywhere and knowing I had to make it to Cairo for work the next day, the idea of being thrown off the train wasn’t appealing. My phone rang and Khaled, who I’d seen just a few hours beforehand, wanted to know where I was and how the journey was going. I explained the situation and listened as he lamented my position and then, more helpfully, urged me to call him at any hour if I had any problems.

Before long, the couple who’d booked the pair of seats of which I was occupying one came along and patiently listened as I recounted my tale of woe. The wife patted me on the arm as I made a move to stand up: “No, no. Stay here with us for a while habibiti. Wait till the people have moved and then you can look for another seat.” The husband was already off trying to help other people find their seats, abiding by the principle commonly held to here that if two heads are better than one, ten are better still.

So as the train got moving in earnest and I realised that it wasn’t simply a train to Cairo but an all-night train to Upper Egypt, I made an attempt to move again. Once again this wasn’t allowed and before I knew it two or three other middle-aged men were offering to give me their seats. For the duration of the three-hour journey between Alex and Cairo, these men and others played musical chairs, all of them taking it in turns to perch on arm rests and talk to the others, going off to the area between the carriages to smoke in groups and swapping seats with one another. At one point the man whose seat I’d stolen even came over and offered me a sandwich, as his wife slept next to me with a heavy blanket covering her from head to toe. You can't overstate Egyptian hospitality when you see what a striking part of life it is, how ungrudgingly and patiently those men moved around and shared their seats so that I would be comfortable.

As the train pulled into Cairo train station at 1:15am my phone rang again. This time it was Karim, who had a torrent of questions: “Where are you? Have you arrived in Cairo yet? How are you getting back to your flat? A taxi? What sort of taxi??”. I assured him that I’d take an extra-secure taxi that runs on a meter and send him a message when I got back. Two minutes later and the phone rang again: “Make sure you take the taxi’s number. No, not his phone number you idiot – his license plate! And call me when you get home!”.

A weekend of spontaneous parties, beach trips and feasts topped off by a large act of random kindness. Quintessentially Egyptian.