A Mystery Dinner, or How We Didn’t Get Kidnapped

During the process of finding an apartment, we called around 10 different brokers. When we eventually succeeded in our search, we were faced with the somewhat awkward task of letting those who had shown us apartments know that we no longer needed their services.

We chose to do this mainly by not continuing to call them and most either called to check or did not call us back. This went smoothly for the most part, with many of the brokers congratulating us on finding an apartment and letting us know that if we need anything we should feel free to call.

So when I got a call from one broker, lets call her Fatima, about a week after we found our apartment, I thought it was one that showed us around. She told me the she had not responded due to phone problems and wanted to check and see if we had found a place yet. I explained that we were happily no longer living out of a hotel and was surprised when she then invited Caity and I out to dinner.  I hesitantly responded that I would consult with Caity and call her back. “What day?” she asked. I told her within the next two or three days.

When I spoke with Caity, we realized that Fatima was one of the many brokers we called within a few days of landing but who had never called us back. Why would she invite us to dinner? We had not met her, so it could not be due to our charming personalities :P and we had an apartment already so it would not be related to her work….so why?

However we had already agreed to have dinner so, keeping to my word, we called two days later letting her know we were free the following night. She told us tomorrow would work but did not give an exact address, saying instead we should just get in a taxi and call her so she could tell the driver where we were going.

We asked our Arabic teacher if this was normal. It is not. As we left class, we half-jokingly told our teacher, “see you tomorrow…we hope,” and she told us to make sure that we got the address before handing the phone to the taxi driver. We were going to eat dinner with someone we had never met, at an address we did not know and for a reason we could not divine.

But there we were in a taxi, trying to search for any clue as to what was going on. What did she know about us? From the message we left on her phone two weeks ago, she knew that we were married, recently arrived (as we were looking for an apartment) and that I had gotten her name from an organization called Fulbright. Maybe she just likes to have dinner with foreigners?

We were relieved when the taxi didn’t drop us off in front of a dark alley or abandoned building but instead on the steps of a ritzy Indian restaurant. Fatima arrived an hour late with her son, pulling up to the restaurant in a BMW. A stout woman, dressed in business cloths and a patchy, multi-colored headscarf, she hurriedly greeted us and ushered us past the valet and into the gold elevator.

After we ordered, we started to talk. Fatima asked what I was doing here and I responded that I am on a scholarship to study. “But who are you working for?” I repeated that I was not working. “Well, but where were you working before you came?” she insisted. I told her I was working at an organization in Manhattan but had left my job to come here and study.

The conversation continued and she asked how I got her number. She does lots of business for US companies and organizations, such as USAID, which she demonstrated by handing us a business card of a man in an upper level position that we should know. I said that gotten her number from a list from Fulbright (which she clearly didn’t recognize). We could not help but feel the wind as it left her sails.

Turning to her son, we found out that he had recently quit his job at an advertising agency. It is very hard to get a job in Egypt unless you have good personal connections or wasta. But like most of the conversations during the dinner, this topic didn’t last long and we soon switched to another. “You are living there?! Why don’t you live in Dokki? You are young and need shops!”

As we were leaving the restaurant, we thought that either a.) she wanted convince us to find another apartment through her or b.) she was a socialite and just enjoyed eating dinner with foreigners, especially to help her son practice English. As they drove us to the nearest Metro station Fatima casually passed back two printed copies of her son’s CV. We looked it over but left it on the seat, as we were not sure how it related to us and it was late and we hadn’t started our homework yet.

We walked down into the subway and Caity, the more observant of the two of us, put the pieces together. Fatima was fishing for a job for her son and took a shot in the dark, hoping that I might be a well-connected top official at a US company. That is the only thing that explains the call out of the blue (but exactly one day after her son quit his job), the dinner plans, her son being present, the pointed questions during dinner and the resume at the end.

We arrived home relieved that our mystery dinner turned out to be nothing more sinister than a networking meeting. This was not a normal experience by any standards, US or Egyptian, but it does say something about the job market in Egypt.

Although we were not exactly the type of people she expected to meet, her son did gain from the meeting. The next day Caity spent two hours editing his CV and sent it via email with some resume advice. We might not have gotten Fatima’s son a job, but perhaps we made up for our half of what was actually a very tasty Indian dinner.

Can I give you a business card?

After we were dropped off at our hotel, we were starving. As we were walking down the main street looking for a restaurant, a man started walking next to us and asking us who we were and where we were from (in English as we apparently do not pass for Egyptian :)). We politely told him that we really just wanted to go eat and that we were not interested in buying anything. He responded that perhaps he could just give us a business card from his shop around the corner. It turned out however, that he in fact did not have a business card, nor was his shop around the corner but he just wanted to draw us into his shop to sell us perfume.

The Gift

Coming back from dinner, we fell prey to this trick once more before we learned our lesson. We were stopped from entering our hotel by a young man roughly our age telling us (in English) that we were neighbors, as his store was in the same building as our hotel. We were exhausted but after speaking for a minute or two, he said, “just come quickly and I can give you my business card.” However, upon entering his store, which sold ancient Egyptian style paintings on papyrus paper, he started shuffling through the art, and quickly found a small piece, saying he would paint our names on it in hieroglyphics and give it to us as a gift.

This is one of those times where we should have stopped to think, you can’t run a business by giving out gifts, especially if you are so quick to make the best of “friends”. Instead, we were sitting down, drinking tea and “waiting for the ink to dry”. He then asked us, since he was studying art, if we could look at some of the paintings he had and let us know what we thought. This quickly turned into a process where he chose the pieces he thought we liked (as we were not very interested in the art and could sense where this was probably leading) and then set them aside. He then proceeded to paint our names on the two we/he had chosen, despite our insistent protests that we were very uncomfortable with him writing our names on art we did not want to buy.

The conversation then became more serious as he rolled up the three art pieces and put them into a tube, taping the top closed and handing it to us as if we had already bought it. He said that we were friends and he was not expecting us to “buy” the art at the price listed on the wall, which was boldly listed at $400. He instead said, “perhaps you can tell me what you think the two pieces are worth and what you would be willing to pay.” We frankly had no idea what they were worth, but we did know that we really did not want to buy something, so we somewhat reluctantly said $20 for both.

The $20 piece of art we ended up with. Note our names at the bottom.

His face noticeably changed when he heard the number, which was obviously much lower than he expected or desired. This led to a long, somewhat tense conversation where he told us they were worth far more and that he now could not sell them to anyone else and we responded that he had basically forced us into a position where we had to buy them and perhaps this was a lesson for him to not write names on art before a price was agreed upon (props to Caity for making that last point).  We finally left an hour after we entered, exhausted and on slightly less friendly terms, having paid $20 for one of the pictures (he took the other back but let us keep the “gift”).

We have since discovered that many of the salesmen in tourist heavy areas use a number of tactics to sell their wares to foreigners. First, every person seems to have either lived in the US or have family there, giving them a personal connection to us/our country. We have also had one person ask us where we were going and then inform us that the store “did not open for another forty minutes” (not true) so we might as well see what he has in his shop while we wait. And of course, everyone has a business card, which they conveniently forget to bring with them, but they will give it to us if we go to their shop.

Thankfully, we have only experienced such tactics in the areas that receive lots of tourist traffic. We have elsewhere been greeted with smiles, stories and invitations for tea, which in one case lead to a 30 minute conversation in a kitchen wares shop with the owner who also writes drama pieces for the local paper and whose nine year old son was nationally recognized for his poetry. Those are the conversations that we most enjoy, and he didn’t even have a business card :)

Apartment Hunting in Cairo

We had almost everything sorted out before we arrived, except the slightly important point of where we were going to live. In some ways, looking for an apartment in Cairo is just like looking for one in New York, it is hard to do it in advance, the quality of the apartments will be anywhere between “built 50 years ago and never updated” to “just refurbished with Paris in mind” and there is even a Cairo Craig’s list.

Our Bedroom

We arrived with the idea that we wanted to live in an area called Garden City, which we heard was green, quiet and within walking distance from our language school and future work places. We even had a very specific idea of what type of apartment we wanted (something like our apartment in the US but with balconies!) and even a price we thought we should pay.

Unfortunately, finding our dream apartment was not as easy as we hoped. Over the course of four days, we looked at twelve different apartments, spoke with five different samasir (brokers) and even resorted to wandering around different neighborhoods asking the bowabs (a person who sits outside of an apartment building and helps its residents with whatever they might need) if there were any open apartments in their building. Nothing quite matched what we were looking for. However, as we had gradually learned more about the different neighborhoods, we became a little bit more open-minded and broadened our search.

Our Living Room

We were still living out of a hotel room when we were able to meet with the local Baha’is, one of which we connected with through a friend in Brooklyn before we arrived. We went out for dinner with a group of them who turned out to be the sweetest people we had met so far – incredibly friendly, welcoming and really fun! It came out during our conversation that we were still looking for an apartment and to our surprise, one of the people at the table said that he actually had an apartment not located in one of the neighborhoods we were looking at, but we could stay there while we were continuing our search!

He picked us up the next day and took us to a neighborhood called Ma’adi, which is south of downtown Cairo but still connected by one of the two metro lines that run through the city. It turned out that the apartment was perfect! It has a large kitchen, bedroom and living room as well as an extra room and an incredible balcony where we could sit and eat breakfast. We decided that this would be a wonderful home for the next year. To top it all off, our new friend/landlord is an Arabic professor at the American University of Cairo and said that we should just give him a call if we ever need help with our Arabic work!

As we are settling into our new home and looking back at our first crazy week, it seems that our apartment search was much more a process of letting go of our attachment to exactly what type of apartment we thought we wanted and opening up to the possibility that there was a place that we were supposed to live, one that provides what we need now and in ways we might not yet see. Although we had reservations about the neighborhood beforehand, as we heard that Ma’adi was full of Americans, it turns out the foreign portion is farther south and we are the only non-Egyptians we have seen in our area, but yet still not so far from peanut butter and Heinz ketchup. Best of all, there is a Baha’i community close by that welcomes our participation.

Our Balcony

When we work in a direction that is best for us, we receive confirmations that we are on the right path or meet continued resistance if we are not. It is unfortunately my nature that when a door seems closed, I will try and force it open instead of trying another that might open much more easily and lead me to when I should be. As this apartment search showed us, once we let go of our attachments, doors swing open, in this case literally.

Arrival and an Argument

After a long ten-hour flight, our plane made a graceful turn into the airport and gave us our first close-up view of Cairo: the Pyramids of Giza – the one landmark that we could recognize by sight! After we collected our bags, we were met by Marian, a representative of the taxi company hired by Fulbright to take us to our hotel. She was very sweet but interrupted our conversation to speak very firmly (in quick, forceful Arabic) to a younger man wearing jeans and a long sleeve button up shirt who had been walking closer to us. She was soon in some type of argument and loud enough to draw the security guards in the lobby. The scene continued for about ten minutes as she very firmly explained herself to the guards, gesturing at the man and at times pointing to the pistol which was openly tucked in the back of his pants.

After the man left to stand outside and Marian seemed finished making her point with the guards, we asked her what happened. She said that the man had given her a rude look and she does not appreciate it when men give her such looks and so she had made her views known.  It was an interesting first experience in Cairo: a strong women demanding respect and an un-uniformed man openly carrying a firearm and seemingly unaffected by the whole interaction.  If our first weeks are any indication, our time here is going to be filled with interesting and at times weird (even by Egyptian standards according to our Arabic professor) experiences.