Friday, July 16, 2010

To be or not to be... an Arab

It started when I entered Horus House Hotel in Zamalek with specific instruction from Ashraf to pay about $30 dollars a night. It's on the 4th floor of a rather large building and has another hotel, Longchamps, directly above it. It had a bit of an older feel than my current hotel and with older people working on their laptops in the common area. It was a bit refreshing for me not to see any 20 year old American kids with seashell ankle bracelets. I walked in asked the clerk, in English, for a room. "$60 dollars a night," he asked. "Damn," thought. I should have asked in Arabic. So I reply in Arabic and say that my friends highly recommended the hotel and told me that I should only pay about $30. He responds in English and says. "Nooooo, we've never been $30." So I did what any second chance seeking identity challenged traveler would do. I tried the hotel upstairs. I walked up to the clerk with my Arab face on and asked "Be cam al udha?" The clerk looked at me and said. "Sorry brother, we only have rooms for foreigners." What the fuck! I initially was proud that I passed for an Arab, so I thanked him, turned around and asked what the price of a room would have been. He said it would have been. 200 Egyptian Pounds (about $35), which would have been acceptable for a couple of nights stay in Zamalek until I found my apartment. I had one hotel left the Mayfair. The Mayfair was one of so many buildings in Cairo that I could tell at one point was "The Shit." It was now absolutely acceptable, but not in its glory. There are so many beautiful, Parisian style buildings here with ornate detail, grand lobbies and courtyards that are still impressive, but still force me to wish I was here in their heyday. So, I walk up to the marble check in counter and ask, in Arabic, the two clerks who were telling jokes and generally horsing around, if they had a room. One stops, thinks, looks me up and down, tilts his head to the side, squints his eyes, shakes his head and says, "nah." So I tilt my head squint my eyes shake my head back and give him the I know that your lying, but there's not a fucking thing that I can do about it look.

I walked back to Ashraf's place, a bit confused. Who am I, who should I be? I stopped at a deli to buy a liter of water. The cashier, raises his eyebrows, as if to ask, what do you want? I, in turn, shake the bottle and raise my own eyebrows, indicating that I wanted the price. He responds by signaling "two" with his fingers. I then reach into my pocket, and hand him two pounds and leave. Wow! I just had an entire transaction without giving way any traces of my national origin and without revealing my accent. I'm sure that he would have charged me six pounds if I had opened my mouth. If I can only figure out a way a take the invaluable lesson that I just learned from this clerk and use it to help me find an apartment in the morning.

Every expat that I met (a dozen or so), in the less than a week that I've been here, was going to watch the World Cup game at the "Swiss Club," all I really know about it is that is owned by the Swiss consulate and has a large outdoor beer garden. Among the 2,000 or so people there was Jakob’s friend Francesco, who landed the same day that I did. Francesco is a super nice guy, is in his mid thirties and teaches Arabic in Italy. He told me that he spent the day going from doorman to doorman (boab) asking them If they knew of any apartments. He found one at 15 Al Bustan (The Garden) St., an amazing part of downtown. He told me that I should check it out and I did. I got up early the next morning, walked about 6 blocks from my hotel and found the block that I was looking for. Building numbers are not that apparent here, so I walked into the first lobby and saw the building's boab and asked if it was number 15. "It's 19" he said, "number 15 is two doors down." I thanked him, turned around, and having realized that this was my first experience with a boab, I took the opportunity to ask. "Do you know of any apartments?" "Hold on" he said, with a "ka-ching" smile on his face. "I have a friend who can help you." He goes into the office and pulls out a broker's, card, calls the broker, and puts him me on the phone. I knew better than to get involved with a broker, but also had enough confidence, as an ex-agent myself, to know that I would be able to see right through him and walk away from something I didn't feel right about. In perfect English, the voice on the phone says "Hello, this is Alex" Damn! I thought, the boab tipped him off about my English! At this point I had no choice but to play American. He said that there were no apartments available in 19, but that he did have one in 15. I told him that I was on the way to see the one in 15, but he said that he worked for the management company and that I'd have to go through him anyway. I didn't believe him and it turned out not to be true, but I thought that I'd use this guy to find other places and to help negotiate the 2500 pound ($400) rent for this one if I wanted it. I asked him what his broker fee was and he said, "Just take a look at the apartment and we'll talk about that later." "No, we'll talk about it now," I replied with a somewhat annoyed tone. "We usually get 1000 pounds" ($175) he said. That didn't bother me. I knew that I could get him down to at least half and would gladly pay him much more if he could get me a great place and negotiate with the landlord on my behalf. I’ve paid thousands of dollars in broker’s fees in NY and would gladly pay a couple of hundred here.

Alex sent one of his many minions to show me the place at 15 Al Bustan. The doorman, Nageeb only spoke Arabic, and I had to ask him several questions, so there was no getting around it. He took us upstairs and opened the apartment door to a scene out of a bad 70’s porno. The apartment had tacky sofas, a red dining room set, bad ancient Egyptian stucco scenes, including hieroglyphs… etched into the walls, and somewhat checkered black and white tile. I loved it. It also had internet, a washing machine, an elevator, TV with 300 channels, a six foot bathtub, one air conditioner, was on the 7th floor and was one block away from the Egyptian National Museum and the subway. I called Alex, told him that it was okay, but I wanted to see more and that my budget was 2000 ($350) he said that he had only one in that price range and it was in Dokki (a neighborhood on the Nile on the other side of Zamalek). He told me that he’d pick me up at my hotel, in half an hour. Two hours later, he shows up, driving VW Golf. Alex was a short, very Egyptian looking guy with sunglasses on his forehead and almost acid washed tight jeans… no gold chain necklace though. The apartment in Dokki was a two bedroom, six floor walk up, with patio furniture inside, on a bad block with tons of kids playing on the stairs. He may have just showed it to me so that I would take the flat on Al Bustan. If he did, he was good, because it worked. While driving back I told him that I wanted the first place, but I wanted him to call the landlord and get it for me for 2000, 500 a month than the asking price. If he did, I’d give him 800 pounds. Alex was willing to try but says that there’s a catch. The Egyptian landlord won’t rent to Arabs. He apparently will only rent to foreigners. Alex told me not to speak Arabic when I meet the landlord. “What do you want me to do, wear a cowboy hat and pretend that I think that the sun is the other side of the moon?” I asked, “No, he said, just dress the way you’re dressed now and bring your passport.” There was a time, when I would have found this unacceptable and would never have participated in such self hating racism, but I’m in Egypt and understand that whatever transaction I make, there’s going to be some sorta bullshit involved.

I arrive at my soon to be new apartment building wearing a pressed buttoned up shirt, clogs, a very American looking backpack, with two bottles or water strapped to the sides and with camera and (non- working) iphone in hand. I was approach by the doorman, who I had several conversations with in Arabic the day before. He greets me in Arabic, and I did my best to only sort of understand what he was saying, knowing that I he was about to introduce me to the landlord. It was a bit awkward, when I pretended not to understand him, he said, "You understood me yesterday?" I pretended to barely understand that. I was shown to the landlord's office, and invited in before the broker showed up. He was a well dressed, somewhat soft spoken tanned man. There was a large Chinese caved wooden statue of two dragons fighting each other on his large desk along with various other desk accoutrements. He greeted me in Arabic and I responded in English (I was so paranoid that I think I sounded the way Richard Prior or Eddie Murphy do when they imitate white people). Do you speak Arabic he asked, I lifted my right hand to signal "so-so" and said "Shwaya shway" (that's what Americans do when they pretend that they know more Arabic than they actually do). I think at that point I was in. We made small talk until Alex came, and then went over the simple two paragraph lease. Just as we were about to sign, the landlord, says, "Oh yes, I must tell you that our culture here is different than the culture that you are used to... so no girlfriends staying over, unless you’re married or anything else like that... you know what I mean..." "I don't know what your mean," I said. "I have friends, and I plan to have them over from time to time." "I'm going to live here and want to feel comfortable with whomever I choose to invite over my house." "You want foreigners, but you want them to act like Arabs, when Arabs don't even act like Arabs!" This really struck a chord, mainly because of experiences I had as a summer college student in Palestine. I looked at Alex as if I was going to strangle him. "No, no, you may have guests over for coffee and such, the larger the group the better." I caved, signed the lease, and wrote it off as more acceptable B.S.

I was telling friends this story last night; they said that every landlord gives that speech, and that they don’t like to rent to Egyptians due to tenant friendly rent control laws. The crabby old lady in the apartment next to mine pays 5 pounds ($9) a month. They also informed me that there are different hotel rates for Egyptians and foreigners, which explains why I was refused as an Arab. They put it best when they said, “Sometimes Egypt wants you to be an Arab and sometimes it wants you to be an American.”


  1. Wow Sam!It's refreshing (and disturbing!) to know that the same types of games are played everywhere! Congrats on the apartment. I'll be following your adventure postings...

  2. Love the blog, Sam. And everyone knows you're all Brooklyn....

  3. Brilliant writing...being Anglo-Egyptian myself, and having lived in Cairo for 16 years at one point, I can totally relate!!!

  4. recently have been taking alot of interest in world news and I read about the chaos in egypt thats going on, but recently I have been soaking in prayer and through my prayer god gave me a revelation that told me to open my bible and read and It opened up to Isaiah 29 and Isaiah 30 of the old testament which was all about egypt and how they should surrender to the Holy one of Israel which is God and thats the only thing that is going to bring them peace in there country. and it said for them to put down there idol worships and start praying and knowing the word of the lord jesus christ.