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House Shopping

What’s up Boys and Girls?  Thanks for coming back!  On the table today is the story of my apartment hunt so far this week, as well as some comments about the expat community as I’m finding it and what I’m quickly learning about Islam being over here during the heart of Ramadan.  It’s been an extremely interesting two days over here, which is not due, in the least, to the fact that my computer completely fried on Wednesday and is now more or less unusable.  As a result, I’ve been jumping from internet cafe to internet cafe to check my email (the main way to keep up on developments with available flats and hear about new ones) and stay informed.

On the apartment front, let me start by explaining the different options for the savy, or not-so-savy, would be apartment buyer.  To start, Egyptian real estate agents, called simsaars, are in abundance throughout Zamalek (the neighborhood my hotel is located in), and it’s been pretty interesting to see how they operate in relation to the landlords, tenants and potential new customers.  In most circumstances, without them, or an inside connection to a current owner, one would easily get taken for a ride trying to find a place.  That said though, don’t let me make them out to be the saviors of those of us who can’t speak great Arabic yet, as they typically charge an entire month’s rent for 3-4 days worth of work!

This whole apartment process has reminded me of the post I wrote a few days ago about watching you money in service industries and being wary of the language barrier over here.  To elaborate on the point from a few days ago about being ripped off without knowledge of the language or inside customs of the city, let me tell the story of my experience with a local simsaar:  Yesterday, as my buddy David (graduated a year ahead of me at UVA) and I were being taken for a tour of a few places in Zamalek, our simsaar told us a story about how the apartment next to the one we were looking at had recently been rented by a number of English speaking students.  They, however, had rented it directly from the bowab, or doorman, and his landlord.  The asking price when with a simsaar was 5000 pounds per month (roughly $1000).  These kids had agreed on 7500, or an extra $450 a month, and the bowab was making fun of them to our simsaar in Arabic, even as he showed us the room!

As you can probably tell, the comments I posted a few days ago about service industries and language barriers are continuing to ring true, at least as far as I can tell.  For that reason, I’ve not only been hesitant to look at places on my own, but also to make use of a simsaar.  The one David and I were working with yesterday came highly recommended, and charges no fees unless you decide to take a place from her, but I’ve still been a little hesitant.  It doesn’t really seem like money well spent when there are apartments being shown independently all over the city.

With this in mind, I’ve spent most of my time scouring blogs, forums, and a nifty little listserv called “Cairo Scholars” to find available places.  Fortunately, I’ve seen a few great ones.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I may have to spend a little more money on a place than I had originally hoped to do if I want it to be comfortable enough to study in.  I’ve seen a ton of places where I think I could easily live, but places that are really conducive to studying and doing work have been few and far between.  Seeing as I’m here to study and take care of business, I’ve decided that this is a case where spending a little extra is well called for.  Nothing’s set as of now, but as soon as it is I’ll be sure to post some pictures of my new place. I do have one in mind that I’m going after; now I just need to find a roommate!

On another note, I’ve been fortunate enough to run into a number of English speaking students and professionals who have been living here in Cairo for quite some time, and they’ve really helped me get acquainted.  My hotel reservation was up as of noon today, and a new friend of mine, Melissa, a few years older than me, a journalist for a local magazine and a Georgetown grad, offered me the spare room in her apartment till the end of month.  It’s only a few days, but it’s already been a huge help.  It’ll save me a bunch of money, even if I only stay the one night, and she’s been a great resource.  She’s been working in Cairo since February and studied abroad here before that, so she’s been able to give me alot of advice.  Another guy, Karim, who just finished the same MA program I officially start tomorrow, has also been incredibly helpful, giving me tips about AUC, Zamalek, and Cairo in general.

Something that I noticed in Jordan, have seen amongst Arabs here, and believe I am now seeing permeating to the Westerners living amongst Arabs here in Cairo, is a sort of sense of responsibility to help those who come to you in need, or even just seem like they could use a hand.  For all I’ve talked about watching yourself and minding the language barrier while traveling here, I’ve found the Egyptian people, just like those in Jordan and the English speakers that I’ve met here recently, to be incredibly nice, helpful and open.  The caution that I’ve urged is needed, but simply because that is the way business is conducted over here.  The Egyptian economy is largely supported by tourism, and those few extra pounds an Egyptian taxi driver might make off of you as a foreigner can go a long way here with the right mindset.  If you ever show that you need help or even look confused or troubled, however, you can always find help here.   You can’t say the same of that for many places at home and in Europe, particularly some of the larger cities.

Interestingly enough, as I reflect on it, in the four Arab countries I’ve visited in the past two years, and in the 4 large capital cities of each of these countries in which I’ve stayed, I’ve never found this hospitality and willingness to help others to be anything less than prevalent everywhere.  Maybe the heat and dust which everyone here has to put up with creates a sort of common affinity that draws people together… or maybe this is more of an observation about stages of national development and the cultures of community which they contribute to than it is a distinction between the Arab and Western cultures.  Or, maybe, there’s something which we as Americans can learn from Arab culture.  I’m not really sure yet, but it’s definitely nice to see and experience, either way.

A final point, which I could probably write a number of independent posts on alone, is the effect Ramadan has on Cairo.  Ramadan, if you don’t know, and I don’t say this in an informative manner as I just had to ask about this myself, is a month long celebration of the time when Allah revealed the first verses of the Qu’ran to the world.  I am not even remotely close to completely understanding everything going on around me, but a few things are extremely interesting.

First and foremost is the fasting.  I can think of few better ways to remind someone to think of something or someone (in this case God) throughout the day, than fasting.  Muslims worldwide fast approximately 14 hours a day for the entire month of Ramadan!  As I understand it, no food and no drinks (including water) from Sun-up to Sun-down.  From what I can tell, this is one part of Ramadan that the large majority of Egyptians follow; if not to the T, at least in general.  It doesn’t really appear to be very socially acceptable, at least here in Zamalek, to completely ignore this prerequisite of the faith.  As both a Catholic and a foreigner, I’m not necessarily expected to observe these rules, but out of respect for the culture I’ve been doing both my eating and my drinking in my room, which has given me time to think a good bit about Ramadan and its meaning to Muslims.

Another interesting thing that Ramadan brings about is the schedule of the day.  Since no one can eat after Sunrise or before Sunset, everyone wakes up early to feast before the sun comes up, and stays up late, eating and socializing.  It throws the entire city’s schedule off.  For example, even Western oriented companies are running work days from 10am-4pm, and more Egyptian oriented services, such as those my simsar provides, are open only 1pm-5pm and then after iftar, when the fast is broken for the day.  This leads to a working schedule of essentially 1pm-5pm, 9pm-1am for many Muslims.  Add to that praying five times a day (which not everyone stops to do everyday, even during Ramadan), and top it off with the fasting already mentioned, and you have an entire month dedicated, literally, to thought, reflection, and dedication to God.  And people marvel at how fervently some Muslims worship…

Alright, that’s it for now.  I’ve gotta catch a bus down the street at 8:30 to head out to orientation at the Campus.  Hope everyone’s doing well, and take care till next time!

– T

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Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Tplofchan
    August 28, 2010 at 3:37 am

    What r u doing about the computer? How about dorm living?

  2. Xuchi
    August 30, 2010 at 1:16 pm

    Very interesting T3, especially with respect to how an entire culture shifts at once for one month. Just be careful, we all love you so much. Xuchi

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