Friday, June 3, 2011

The Hunt

If you thought apartment hunting in the U.S. was difficult, try looking for a place in Cairo. Two and a half days of scouring the streets of a leafy neighborhood near our downtown campus exposed me and my future roommates to the informal economic system that rules many transactions in Egypt – and left us with some insights on everything from where to get the best camel meat in the area to a questionable theory about how the Israeli Mossad is trying to hatch an escape plan for Hosni Mubarak.

For those searching for an apartment in Al-Qahira (Cairo), follow these simple steps:
  1. Pick a neighborhood. Wander down its streets, asking each bawaab (doorman) you pass if there’s an available apartment in his building. We easily spoke with at least 50 or 60 bawaabun (plural) this week. There aren’t really any apartment listings, and those that do exist are mainly for expensive flats for foreigners.
  2. When there’s an open place, head upstairs and check it out. We checked out about 13 apartments, and by the fourth or fifth we knew exactly what we wanted: three bedrooms; a nice kitchen, bathroom, and sitting area; natural light; and girls allowed.
  3. Sit down and negotiate the price. As per “Egypt time,” this might take a while. A cup of tea sometimes appears before you, seemingly from nowhere.
  4. Ask whether it’s OK to have “friends” over to “study” and “eat dinner.” Imply that these friends could be girls. Then have the landlord/bawaab/random person in the apartment intimate that: (1) there are religious neighbors, so you can’t have any girls; (2) they don’t want their reputation ruined, so you can’t have any girls; or (3) you just can’t have any girls. If you’re lucky, banaat can come over but not stay the night. We found a great place with a Nile view, but no banaat (girls) were allowed because of the mutadayineen (religious people) next door. It’s amazing how people feel threatened by what’s going on in other people’s homes – particularly when the perception of pesky, Western sexual debauchery is involved. The public and private spheres clash here to a degree unknown in America.
  5. At all costs, avoid using a simsar – kind of like a real estate broker who just chills around a certain neighborhood and serves as the middleman. They take a cut of your first month’s rent if you end up taking an apartment they show you. They’re pushing and annoying and waste lots of your time.
  6. Once you find a place, go through the contract, sign, and move in! Ilhamdulillah you have an apartment!

Some observations from the search:
  • Almost all apartments come fully stocked with furniture and kitchenware.
  • Once you’ve talked to enough doormen, word spreads through the streets about your intentions. Simsars approach you from all over, as do various people who have a cousin or a neighbor with an open place. People help each other out, hoping to get a cut and make a little cash on the side.
  • Trying to circumvent the craziness of the process doesn’t work.
We finally settled on an apartment near one of my roommate’s Egyptian friends and another CASA student, and only two Metro stops from campus. It’s a three-bedroom, banaat are allowed, and there’s a little ladder to the roof of the next building, which has a panoramic Nile view! The only catch: We have to wait 10 days to move in while they do repairs, but we met the landlady and are going to do a walk-through with her before we sign the contract next week.

The best part: It’s only $200 per person per month, including utilities! Welcome to Masr.

1 comment:

  1. I'm no banaat, but I still think I should visit this place. I hear the banaat like panoramic Nile views.