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.