Sunday, May 22, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Tenant Advisory

Have you ever been driving down the road, look out your window and say, “Hey, that looks my washing machine on the back of that motorbike”? Then you realize, “Hey, that is my washing machine on the back of that motorbike.” No? This hasn’t happened to you? Well, you just haven’t been living.

This picture is of my 25-year old washing machine and yes, on the back of a motorbike as it was taken to get fixed. While you can find many nice apartments – for a comparative New York rent price – and full of modern-day amenities, my apartment came equipped with what I feel is 1949 (just post-WWII) furnishings. And here’s a newsflash, good luck getting your Egyptian landlord to replace or repair anything.

My landlord even made a guest appearance to my apartment (thank God I’d just cleaned and hid the alcohol – being a single female, she might assume that I was a debaucherous, trouble-making tenant) and commented, “Wow, all of the things in here are really old.” Hey – good eye there Sherlock! Don’t get me wrong, my apartment is nice, but when my landlord wanted to raise the rent – I had to ask why since she refuses to pay for the constant repairs that need to be made and hasn’t done any renovations in the apartment in approximately 10 years!

Upon my departure, I will be taking my bathroom sink. Eat that.

There are no landlord/tenant laws in place to protect either the landlord or the tenant. For instance, many landlords actually use what would be considered gender/race discrimination in the US as a means of denying leases to potential renters. And not only that, you can have a bowab (doorman) that makes your life a living hell.

First of all, most Egyptians love being in everyone’s business. If you are a single female, be wary of having men in your apartment while you are alone or late at night. Also as a point of interest, should you require a repair man of some sort in your apartment, you also need to make sure you have another man present, ie a friend or colleague.

If your bowab and/or neighbors are looking for a reason to get rid of you, they will simply call the morale police to say that you are a prostitute. I know a German female that lived in a place on Road 9 – expat central – in Maadi. Her building’s tenants were mostly very conservative Muslims (women wearing the niqab) and constantly sent police to her apartment, harassed her landlord to remove her immediately, and would repeatedly send people to knock on her door throughout the night. She had other female friends over and the neighbors sent the police to investigate as they made claims it was a harem.

In addition, any single man has to be aware of the same situation. Foreign men have to be careful about being caught with an Egyptian female. And likewise, Egyptian men who are single can incur problems for having female guests and it can even spill over into family problems. The bowab, neighbor or landlord may call the Egyptian tenant’s family to disclose the activities that have been going on within the apartment. In a similar story, I knew of an expat man in his late-40s who’s landlord saw him with an Egyptian female. The landlord knew the woman and her family and told the man, “What you do is your own business, but you may not have her over any more.” And thus that short-term relationship was over.

I am lucky. I’ve only met my landlord once (that surprise visit in over three years was the first and only time I’ve ever seen her). My bowab is completely terrified of me. My next door neighbor is from Texas and a good friend of mine and I’m friends with others in the building. On the flip side, I’ve heard complete nightmare stories from other friends about landlords and bowabs being all in their business, neighbors causing unrealistic and horrible problems, etc. I even heard a friend recant a story of walking into his apartment from vacation to find his bowab just chilling on his couch.

However, if you’re looking to move to Egypt, don’t be surprised at the difficulty or just difference in landlord/tenant transactions compared to other places like the US. And don’t be surprised at the racism. Although it’s a horrible thing, Egyptians are even racists against other Egyptians. Some landlords refuse to rent to other Egyptians and even say bluntly “foreigners only.” And there are no legal ramifications for this discrepancy.

Once again, you can change leadership within a country, but until its people change, everything will remain the same.

Place of the Week

Cuba Cabana
28 Road 7

My friends and I were looking for something different yet not too far from home and I’ve always heard rave reviews about Cuba Cabana – so we decided to try it. You will not be disappointed as this restaurant/lounge has such a nice ambiance with the entrance and dining area being open air. That being said, unlike many other places, we did not struggle with the usual aspect of open air seating: flies. There is also a little water fall directly in front of the bar (non-alcoholic FYI) and tvs all around.

The food is a combination of Latin cuisine with also a Lebanese menu (dubbed Tanoureen). Although I didn’t see it for myself, there is a separate area called the Q Club, separated by glass partitions, that offers all-you-can-play pool for LE 40. I also heard there was a minimum charge, but my friends and I each ordered dinner, special juice drinks, coffee and shisha, so if there had been a minimum charge – I’m sure we greatly exceeded it (supposedly the minimum is LE 75).

The mixed taquitos
Johnny had the mixed taquitos (chicken and beef) served with a Caesar salad. I loved his the best. My friend Rachel also confesses that the taquitos is her favorite thing. If that's not an endorsement...

I had some special dish that was supposed to be shredded beef, but as you can see, was more like cubed and similar to an Asian stir fry. I wasn’t as big of a fan. FYI don’t get the rice if you’re like me and hate the Egyptian-style cinnamon method.

Pinar had a little lamb dish from Tanoureen. Sorry, no photos available.

Service was wonderful, company was excellent as always and the atmosphere was really wonderful. I felt like I was somewhere other than Maadi.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Missing Tourists

Despise fanny packs? Hate brokers? Come on over to Egypt, the land of the missing tourists. USA Today reported that Egypt had seen a dramatic decrease in tourism from 75% to 90% based upon events during and after the so-called revolution and rightfully so.

On Friday, I went with a group of friends to the Sakkara pyramids – a first for me despite my nearly three years in Cairo. I want to clarify that the Pyramids in Giza (the Great Pyramids) are different from this set of pyramids, but on my visit to Sakkara, I was amazed at how desolate it was. While it was great for my friends and me as we got to venture into various chambers without fuss, long lines and very little money, I have to wonder how these guides who thrive off of the tourism industry (among many others) feel about the revolution now.

From a chamber at Sakkara usually filled with tourists
Even as my friends and I went for a cold one and some grub overlooking the Great Pyramids at Barry’s Oriental Restaurant, the usual vibrant tourists were almost nonexistent with various brokers for touring operations literally jumping on our car, in front of the car hindering us from moving, reaching through the windows (like that’s going to persuade us more) were nearly the only bunch out and about.

And as recently as yesterday, clashes erupted between the army and protestors outside the Israeli embassy (located in Giza, ambassador's residence in Maadi) resulted in over 350 injured and 150 arrested, according to the Daily NewsEgypt. State-run news agency MENA said the protesters managed to push aside barricades placed around the embassy building and attempted to storm the embassy itself to tear down the Israeli flag, which prompted the police action although several protestors denied this.

If my personal observation is any indicator, the protestors – while I’m sure not all of them – did attempt to storm the embassy and destroy property, Antiquities Museum anyone?

The Daily News Egypt also reported that Rana Sharabasy, a 21-year-old political science student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said army officers were seen to be carrying cans of tear gas throughout the day and so there was always the possibility that they would be used. “There should have been more warning. … They [riot police] just started shooting. They just started the tear gas right away. I didn’t hear them say anything about the whole thing.”

Can someone please send the memo to AUC students and faculty that many of us have already received? It’s the same one from the military saying that protests will no longer be tolerated. Didn’t you get that? I believe it was sent out over a MONTH AGO. No offense Ms. Sharabasy, but I believe that was your warning.

Later in the article, a 19-year old student at Ain Shams University Islam Amin Ali was shocked over the use of force by Egyptian police. Apparently that “no protest tolerated” failed to reach Ali’s university either. “We are not declaring war on Israel; only the Ministry of Defense can declare war. … I don’t have a gun and I don’t want to shoot someone. We just want to cut the diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. … Israel is our enemy,” he said.

And thus that statement alone leads me to question the education that Ali is receiving. Excuse me Mr. Ali, it’s good that you don’t wish to declare war on Israel as a) the old school Soviet machinery that your country is currently using will not withstand a fight against the highly trained, specialized forces in Israel and b) it would require the Egyptian military to perhaps up their game and actually participate in the training exercises given by foreign forces (ie US company Raytheon and foreign military forces). Bravo.

Nevermind that, forget the foreign aid that you so enjoy from the US as that will be dropped immediately or substantially decreased after straining relations with Israel.

And finally, protestor Mohamed Effat said military officers told the detainees that the Israeli flag shall never be removed, cursed the youth of the revolution while saying “enjoy military prison.”

And this is shocking?

The beginning of the revolution was started by affluent Egyptians who knew what they wanted. Unfortunately, opportunists have come on board taking away from the very thing people like blogger Wael Abbas fought for. Instead as I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the economy is suffering and the only thing that is changing is the instability as it continues to dwindle even more. Simply put: think before you speak and GET BACK TO WORK AND/OR SCHOOL PEOPLE!

A police officer told me, “Egyptians changed Egypt and Egyptians will destroy Egypt.”

For a more comprehensive view on the economic pitfalls of the revolution, please see this well-rounded article from Reuters: Post-Revolution, EgyptianTourism Remains in Disarray

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Letters from Egypt: Child Labor

One thing that I always discuss on my blog is the way my attitude has changed after living abroad, and my view point on child labor is one of the greatest examples I can provide. There is a difference between sweatshops which imply forced labor and child labor.

Sweatshops refer to unacceptable conditions with often a very dangerous work environment, long hours which do not coincide with the pay scale and could also overlook standard child labor laws. Child labor refers to children under 16 years of age working to help support their families, mostly from poorer countries. UNICEF estimates that 158 million children from 5-14 are currently employed, representing one in six children in the world. Naturally, child labor can also come with its negative connotations, but for the purposes of this blog entry, I want to highlight a different view than what we normally think about.

I recently returned to Cairo from a week in Shanghai, China and immediately hit the ground running. I ended up going to the Sakkara pyramids for the first time. Once we left the pyramids, we stopped by a carpet weaving school where we were given a private tour. This tour was free as the carpet company likes to show others what goes into making Egyptian carpets and their overall process. My friends and I made jokes that we were going to a child labor camp and then our guide said, “I want to take you to see the kids weaving.” We all looked at each other wondering if we’d heard correctly.

We saw the silk worms and how the silk is harvested for these carpets and then the different steps. We went to where the young girls were weaving and were amazed at what we saw. First of all, children 10 years of age audition for particular schools (there are various carpet schools in the area). Normally these applicants are from families that have been carpet makers for years. The children shadow more experienced makers for two years, two hours a day twice a week and make LE 15 (about $2.50).

At night, the children are sent to school, paid for by the carpet company while still earning their wages. This particular school takes 140 children each year after various tests to pick the most talented. The guide said, “We try to pick those that have talent and can replicate a pattern, but can also add their own touch.” After the training is over, workers earn LE 40 (almost $7) an hour with commission being divvied among all employees for any carpet sold at the center.

This size carpet as viewed from the back takes up to 14 years to complete
My apartment came with these types of carpets and I rolled them up and placed them in my spare room because I thought they were ugly. However, this experience gave me a great appreciation. To weave 1 sq meter takes about two months. A carpet that has 3,000 sq meters will take around 14 years to complete (silk costing $85,000). The knots are so intrinsic and requires a great deal of skill – which goes back to my initial point.

Living in the US, I would be mortified about hearing that companies like Walmart were forcing children in third world countries to make products that we take for granted. However, watching these girls demonstrate how to make this knot, they were proud of their work. They were excited to show off so to speak. It goes back to the fact that many times we think because it is illegal to work in the US until you are 16 years of age that this should be applied across the board. Newsflash: what works for us doesn’t work for others.

These children at this particular school were happy because this is once again a very specialized skill. In addition, their families have carried on this tradition for God only knows how long. This is a very proud thing for them which is the difference between sweatshops and child labor. Many children who are from poorer countries want to work to help out their families, and you can’t fault others in this particular circumstance. What you have to realize and appreciate is that many of us were lucky not to have to resort to this, but just because we didn’t grow up in such an environment doesn’t mean that we can easily chastise company owners or families for having their children work.

No I do not condone poor factory conditions or the unfair treatment of workers, so don’t misconstrue this entry. However, I think that many of us need to realize that the world consists of more than just what is in our backyard. You never know someone’s life until you try to walk a mile in their shoes.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Letters from Egypt: America’s Muslim Cowboy

Photo source: Mother Jones
I received an email citing the US Embassy’s operational status and imagine my surprise to visit the Cairo branch’s website and find this story “America’s Muslim Cowboy Ambassador” amid the likes of Obama’s speech announcing the death of Osama bin Laden,  Secretary Clinton in Cairo, Documenting the Egyptian Revolution, etc.

The US Embassy in Egypt’s Cultural Affairs Officer Andrew Mitchell is moonlighting as a talent scout, and his side job has apparently paid off (although to whom it paid is still up for debate). Egyptian American KareemSalama was chosen by Mitchell to participate in a six-week, US-sponsored tour of the Middle East to promote diplomacy. The Oklahoma-born Salama refers to himself, a “devout Muslim,” and just so happens to be pursuing a career in country music.

Mitchell saw this as an opportunity to dispel the generalization that country music represents a conservative, Islamophobic society. He said, “We can show them: Here's an Oklahoma cowboy who not only doesn't hate Muslims, he is a Muslim!"

And this is our embassy’s choice for a cultural affairs officer? I’ve looked into the requirements to work for the Foreign Services and I’m astounded that this article would a) make the front page of the embassy’s site and b) would have such banter coming from one of its spokespersons. However, I understand the overall thought process of Mitchell, I just believe it was poorly executed (and tragically reported).

Photo source: Wikipedia
Thus Salama came onboard for the six-week program saying, "I like to focus on a message of reconciliation and bringing people together.” But what really baffles me is how he would like to spread a message of reconciliation and togetherness when he has no idea about the very region he’s visiting – which was made apparent when he was unaware of the mounting tensions in Bahrain. He said, “I’m pretty woefully ignorant of Bahrain in general.”

Another eye opening quote came from Salama when asked his opinion about politics: "I'm not a politician and I don't like to talk about politics," he explains. "I told them that I don't answer political questions. And the press corps was like: Why? And I said because, at the end of the day, I think it's a waste of your time. Most of you have never voted in your lives or effected any change in the government whatsoever. And the intelligent person always focuses in their lives on the things that they can actually do something about."

Given the fact that I’m sure Salama was presented with a detailed itinerary of all the countries he was to visit on his tour and his failure to remotely research current events or the region in general, deductive reasoning allows me to believe that he doesn’t answer political questions not because he feels it’s a waste of time, but simply because he remains oblivious to current affairs in and outside the US. Bravo. I totally understand why Mitchell chose him for a diplomatic tour…

However, one of the most laughable parts to all of this is when the US embassy worker Mitchell says that this type of cultural exchange program help combat terrorism, but offers a hypothetical scenario that is, for lack of better words, genius (sarcasm all the way):

“...a kid meets Salama and is later approached by a jihadist who insists that America is ‘the Great Satan.’ That kid is going to say, ‘Wait a minute, I met an American. And he was a Muslim. And he was nice. They are not all the Great Satan.’”

Dear Mr. Mitchell, are you sure you live outside the US? I have to wonder to what extent you’ve mingled with locals in Egypt (excluding of course your drivers and maid). Your statement sounds as though it’s derived from someone who reads reports in the comfort of their own home, but never gets out and about to better understand the region and its society/culture. By the way, this tour is part of a larger diplomacy scheme that costs US taxpayers more than $100 million each year.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diplomatic efforts. However, can we actually get those who ingratiate themselves into the society and culture so that we can better understand and have a mutually beneficial partnership instead of wasting US tax dollars?

US Embassy Functional Update:

Email sent from the US Embassy in Cairo:

The US Department of State alerts US citizens that, given the continuing improvements since the January 25 Revolution, the ordered departure status for the U.S. Embassy has been lifted as of April 29, 2011 and the US Embassy in Cairo has resumed normal operations.  Given that Egyptian security services have not yet fully redeployed, the Department alerts US citizens planning to travel to Egypt to the possibility of sporadic unrest. The security situation in Luxor, Aswan, and the Red Sea Resorts, including Sharm el Sheikh, continues to be calm.

This Travel Alert replaces the Travel Warning dated March 29, 2011.

Until the Egyptian civilian police has fully redeployed, police response to emergency requests for  assistance or reports of crime may be delayed.  The Government of Egypt continues to enforce a country-wide curfew.  As of April 28, the curfew hours are from 2:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m.  US citizens should respect the curfew and remain indoors during these hours.

 All airports, including the Cairo airport, are open and operating; commercial airlines report flight availability.  Travelers should contact airlines or tour operators concerning flight schedules.  US citizens who reside in Egypt should keep their travel documents up to date and maintain sufficient funds on hand to depart by air should security conditions change.

 The US Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations in Egypt, as even peaceful ones can quickly become violent and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse.  Should security forces block off the area around the US Embassy during demonstrations, and US citizens should not attempt to come to the US Embassy during that time. US citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to carry identification and, if moving about alone, a cell phone or other means of communication that works in Egypt.

 The US Embassy is open for all routine American Citizens' Services by appointment.  US citizens needing emergency assistance do not need an appointment.  Visit the Embassy website ( to check the latest changes to Embassy hours or services.  US citizens with routine phone inquiries may call the Embassy's American Citizens Services section at 2797- 2301, Sunday to Thursday from 1:00 p.m. until 3:00 p.m.

For emergencies after business hours and on weekends and holidays, US citizens can contact the Embassy Duty Officer via the Embassy switchboard on 2797-3300.  The US Embassy is closed on US federal holidays.  US citizens in Egypt are encouraged to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  By enrolling, US citizens make it easier for the Embassy to contact them in case of emergency.

For the latest security information, US citizens traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department of State's Internet website at where the Worldwide Caution, Country Specific Information for Egypt, Travel Warnings, and Travel Alerts can be found. Follow us on Twitter and the Bureau of Consular Affairs page on Facebook as well.

The Embassy is located at 5 Tawfik Diab Street (formerly known as Latin America Street), Garden City,
Cairo.  For emergencies after business hours and on weekends and holidays, US citizens can contact the Embassy Duty Officer via the Embassy switchboard on 2797-3300.