After four-thousand miles, hundreds of questionable-quality kebabs, scores of hostel rooms where cleaning was a biennial affair, dozens of buses blaring Islamic dirges day and night, four problematic encounters with military and police forces, three forceful ejections from means of transportation in the backstreets of nowhere, two direct experiences of fervent political uprisings, and one overly-intimate session with an Arab ‘masseur’ (Josh is yet to reveal the full traumatic details), the journey is at an end. Cairo – whose name in Arabic translates as ‘The Conqueror’ – has been occupied in triumph by these weary and quite frankly filthy pair of travellers, and thus our adventures draw to a close.
It is not for me to cast a nostalgic eye back over the past three months: the thrills, the chaos and the moments (of worrying frequency) of pure madness. I’ll leave that to the as yet unseen photos which will grace our final blog post. But I will take a nauseatingly self-satisfied minute to reflect on my new apartment in downtown Cairo, from the balcony of which I am writing now.
Finding a long-term place to live in this city requires a heady mix of excessive patience, a high tolerance threshold for sweet tea, and a gracious slice of divine intervention. One can, in theory, contact ‘simsars’ – local rent brokers who maintain lists of available accommodation – in order to track down a flat. Light-years ahead of their corporate European counterparts, Cairo’s simsars are very much advocates of the paperless economy, in the sense that many of them appear to have never set eyes on a leaf of paper, never mind utilised one for business purposes. A typical encounter with a simsar, of which I have enjoyed many in recent days, follows a fairly predictable path. One turns up in a promising neighbourhood and begins asking the ‘bawaabs’ (doormen) of each building if they know of any free apartments. This immediately prompts a long and animated discussion in colloquial Arabic between the doormen, the local grocery store owner, a passing delivery-man and, invariably, a couple of young boys who appear to be hanging around for the fun of it all, all punctuated with violent gesticulations. At some well-defined but utterly random moment, obvious to all present except yourself, the whole coterie will lapse into silence as everyone takes the opportunity to earnestly smoke a cigarette. No explanation as to the substance of the previous conversation, or indeed the availability of accommodation in the area, is offered at any point. At this juncture one of the young boys will fetch some tea for you and lead you to a different group of doormen where your plight will be explained. This new set of characters will nod sympathetically, call over the local grocery-store owner, and start the whole charade again. This will be repeated several times.
At some point in proceedings, usually after about the eighth or ninth group of bawaabs and the eighth or ninth cup of tea, you will be given the name of a local simsar who might just be able to help. Enquiries as to the whereabouts of this simsar are met with incredulous laughter, as he is inevitably to be found sitting on his own in the corner of the local coffeeshop, puffing away on a shisha pipe. He will solemnly order you a cup of tea before handing you his business card and ordering you to call him tomorrow. The business card will have four numbers on it. These will all be in Arabic. All of them will be defunct.
If you are ever lucky enough to be actually shown the inside of an apartment, the fun really gets going. Bawaabs are experts at glossing over the flaws of their building and promoting its charms. Before you have even had a chance to look at the place, taps will be eagerly turned to prove they work (they nearly always don’t), satellite TV will be switched on and all 400 channels will be displayed one by one, and the four pieces of rusting metal balanced precariously in the corner of the bathroom will be optimistically pointed out to you as the washing machine. If the landlord is present, he will aggressively try and dissuade you from discovering the apartment’s negative features. In one flat I checked out, which was ‘in need of a bit of a clean’ according to the bawaab (a master of understatement), the owner actually leapt across the room to physically prevent me from opening the fridge door.
Yet despite its potential to be soul-destroying, house-hunting here actually gives you a fascinating insight into Cairene life and showcases a lot of what is most compelling about this pulsating metropolis. Social networks are incredibly strong and informal – everyone knows everyone else, and everything is conducted through word of mouth. Cairenes love spending time together and have a rich sense of humour, and watching them draw together to help you discover a place to live gives a flavour of how intensely personal and friendly this urban world of 20 million people can be. The process is fraught with difficulties but amongst the trials and tribulations, everyone is always laughing, always smoking, always drinking yet more tea and, overall, making you – a foreigner – feel very welcome. Once I’d finally found somewhere and completed the tortuous lease negotiations with the landlady, I realised that I’d enjoyed the whole thing far more than I thought I had at the time.
And the flat itself? It sits at the end of a bustling backstreet which leads down to the ruins of an old palace. In the shadows of this crumbling edifice are a scattering of coffee shops where old men smoke nargilehs and play backgammon. The building around the apartment has three entrances and three elevators, only one of which is working at any given time (which particular one changes by the hour, leading to a merry exchange of pleasantries between bemused neighbours constantly walking in and out of each entrance in confusion). The flat itself is resplendent in kitsch furniture and has a consistent lurid/dirty yellow scheme throughout. The balcony looks out through the back of a pair of giant metal advertising hoardings onto the Nile. The whole set-up is, in other words, wonderfully beautiful and anarchic, and therefore a fitting conclusion to the last three months.