Monthly Archives: February 2006

Cairo: First days

Insanely busy days. I moved into an apartment around the corner from the language school yesterday morning and am sharing the flat with a 23 year old German guy from Berlin called Sebastien whom I met at the school introduction session. We were introduced by the school (ILI) to the flat’s landlord who was an albino Arab called Yasser who cackled a lot and knew how to count money very fast, using a style that seems to be common to all Egyptians. It’s obviously evolved out of having a currency that is entirely note based and in small denominations. I attempted to haggle with Nasser but was on a hiding to nothing from the beginning and I think Sebastien accepted one of his offers just to get me to give up as I sat there trying to think of tricks I learnt from a negotiation training class at work. Given I am paying £150 for the month, it was more for the sport of it than the price.

The flat is reasonably spacious though decorated with furniture from about 7 fashion eras ago and, as with everything in Cairo, every surface is covered in a fine layer of sand and dust and I find myself constantly running a figure over things. Combined with the cockroaches in the kitchen and the mosque next door with the 6am call to prayer, it does sound very good on paper but is a reasonable base and its convenient location is a definite advantage plus there is the bonus of finding wireless internet access being served for free from some other flat nearby. Neither Sebastien nor I can cook so I don’t think we will be spending much time in the kitchen with the wildlife though I may crack and actually buy some bathroom cleaner…

School itself is enormous fun. Unlike the SOAS evening classes where most people weren’t taking things very seriously and didn’t bother to do any work between classes, leading to endless repetition, everyone here is into the language and here to learn. It’s mostly European and Americans, with a smattering of Asians, but there is a diversity of backgrounds which is very refreshing from the professional environment I am used to but the novelest experience is being surrounded by people who are actively trying to be talkative and make friends. There is a cafeteria which is a perpetual den of introductions and extended conversations as people get to know each other. There is a default reaction to introduce you to people you don’t know and bring you into conversations. Within 2 days of being at the school, I have got to know about 20 different people and am actively socialising with 4 or 5 of them. It’s really encouraging to know that there exist environments where building a social group is so easy and so quickly.

Classes themselves are quite tough but are in a format that I have always wanted: formal conjugations with 13 prepositions and formal vocab learning. There is obviously a tried and tested method of teaching Arabic and they have perfected it at ILI. The homework so far has been lightweight but it is proving tough to do classes, Clara work, learn vocab, do homework and socialise in 24 hours. Early days though.

Cairo: Arrival

After whizzing through customs due to getting a visa for gratis from the London Egyptian embassy, courtesy of an Egyptian lady who is in my Middle Eastern politics evening class, I took the customary seatbeltless taxi slalom to my hotel. Egyptian taxi rides are a book in themselves. Each taxi carries about it the scars of battle from the daily bashings it takes on the anarchic roads and none have working seatbelts, nor working meters so each ride is a haggling opportunity. You are supposed to just know how much to pay which means that tourists get robbed blind and locals argue. Knowledge of the streets is non-existant so if you don’t know the way, then the taxi driver will take 4 or 5 stops to ask passing locals before deciding which one was telling the truth

The hotel I had been booked into is the Egyptian equivalent of the Hotel Du Ministere, the Parisian hotel that has become a second home to me. As with the Sheraton, which I stayed in last visit to Cairo, and in common with most public places frequented by Westerners, it had a gaggle of security men and a metal
detector outside the entrance. I remember being surprised that places in Amman didn’t employ similar measures which proved fatal during the bombings last year. Egyptians take security seriously here. A police state combined with a population who do military service means that they don’t lack for bodies and
given tourism is the major input to GDP, protecting Westerners is given unusual care and attention.

Saturday, according to the BBC website, was supposed to be warm and sunny but a freak sandstorm, or “fog” as Omar and Fatma euphemistically called it, shrouded the city all day today and reduced the visibility to no more than a few hundred meters. Under such conditions, your skin instantly dries up – every bit of moisture you have seems to make a rush for the exit and your hands feel like
sandpaper after 5 minutes exposure to the air. It’s rare that I travel and regret not having brought hand moisturiser with me.

As I’ve done most of the tourist things in Cairo, Omar and Fatma took me to the Northern suburbs of Cairo, which I didn’t get a chance to see last time.Mohandiseen and Heliopolis are peppered with colonial architecture which give the place a true Southern Med feeling, yet the total lack of care and attention
means that everything is falling apart and dirty. Entropy is uninhibited here and the bulidings take the full brunt of it which is a shame as architecturally much of Cairo could look like Spain if there was any civic pride in the place. The buildings now act as a memento mori for the pre-Nasser European families
who once packed the then affluent suburbs in the years pre-Suez. It is not difficult to imagine the noisy parties that must have spilled out onto the wide balconies yet one suspects the poverty of the people on the streets has remained constant.

To get out of the “fog”, we drove over to a new shopping mall, Star City, part of a larger complex of hotels and cinemas, that was built recently. As with other parts of the Middle East, the contrast between the streets scenes of poverty and the mall is stark. In it people are paying Western prices for
Western goods from Western brand shops while outside people hustle for 50 piastres (5p) selling packets of tissues on the street. Inside, the mall is of course like any other mall in the world, ex-pats mingle with local families, courting couples and young kids hanging out with their friends, the only visible difference being the prevalence of the hijab and abaya, which are dominant but by no means ubiquitous. However, it is hard to forget what a bubble this place is whilst I sit and watch a film in the mall’s cinema with
Fatma surrounded by kids eating popcorn. I kept phasing out thinking “I’m on holiday” which I am not. Must remember I have to work whilst out here.

Encouraging to see that after only a day my Arabic is getting better and I manage to direct my taxi to my hotel with minimum fuss.