I ventured out today to get my bearings of the city and be able to at least find my own way back to the hostel. I ended up putting a deposit on a flat in downtown for two weeks from now, having not even begun the search.
I stepped off of the sidewalk into the street, stepping haltingly carefully calculating so as to avoid bodily contact with the cars moving around me at barely diminished speed. Hijacking the path of a young Egyptian man in front of me I made it across, he adopting my cause. Unobtrusively (which is rare) he began to speak to me and offered to show me an Arabic language school he knows of, my actual mission for the day. In typical fashion we first stopped at his shop, which happens to sell oils, papyrus wall hangings, and other typical Egyptian souvenirs. Over coffee and my clear expression of no intent to buy I learn that Abdullah and his family are from Fayoum in the south of Egypt, it was his grandfather’s shop and Muhammed Ali shopped here (photos on the wall to prove it). The ceiling is elaborately painted with designs in the style of these old buildings, little lasting has changed about them over the last hundred years it seems. Reluctantly I succumb and buy a small bottle of sandalwood (good for the sun in Aswan where I will go next week) for 30 Egyptian pounds which equals about $6. I also receive a half bottle gift of eucalyptus oil (good for clearing the sinuses, headache, and especially if you smoke, which I do here because shisha is impossible for me to resist).
This episode, which I seem unable to avoid though it is like clockwork, could have been occurring one hundred times over, all across Cairo, and is indeed a repetition of my own previous experiences here. What followed was new to me. Upon hearing that I would stay in Cairo and would be looking for a flat to rent, his friend Mohammed is called on the scene. An apartment broker (the way everything is done here), he proceeded to show me one apartment that was too big, too expensive, and too dark, after haggling with the doorman and waking the current tenant. We spoke a bit about what I was looking for: small, cheap, no a/c, windows that open; with a glint in his eye he turned and lead the way around parked cars and street vendors, down streets at pace I could barely keep up with never mind being able to retrace my steps. Finally we take a left down a small side street, calm and residential, the five story buildings leave a generous strip of darkened evening sky overhead. We walk past workshops still open, men young and old sanding old wooden furniture by hand in the doorways. We arrive to an old building, light 1950’s bathroom green with an ornately carved grass green door, the owner isn’t there. The guys next door working don’t know his phone number. The woman in the window on the fourth floor speaks to Mohammed and sends a piece of paper fluttering down with the number, she doesn’t open the door. The number is wrong. Her husband comes to the window, he has called the owner and he is coming to meet us. We wait.
He arrives, a polished middle-aged business man in a western style suit. We see the first apartment, it is simple, two furnished rooms, an eating area, kitchen and bathroom. Television, fans, cooking pans, hot water on demand, an Egyptian style washing machine that he promises to teach me how to use. They are good people I see that. Tenants pass and great him warmly, the neighbors were respectful while we were waiting, they didn’t open the building to us: strangers. We haggle with Mohammed translating, it is a good price but stretches my budget, he asks 2500 Egyptian pounds originally and comes down to 2000 right away, that is what the Sudanese couple upstairs are paying. My mind is racing it is till too much, this is all happening so quickly, I wasn’t even looking for a flat today, I don’t know if my Greek friend will join me or when to share the expense, should I stay at the hostel where it is cheaper but full of English speakers, will I even stay in Cairo or will I want to go to Aswan…
He agrees to 1800 LE. I don’t want it now but in two weeks. Two people call to take it while we are talking, it’s not going to work. Does he have anything free in two weeks? The Sudanese couple are leaving, they are on their honeymoon, it is the same apartment, the fridge is older but the tv newer. I have to leave a deposit to hold it. He will give it back if I change my mind.
Twenty minutes later I have a receipt written in Arabic and English, signed Mohay, for 1000 LE.