“Another near-death experience, but hey, I’m here now with the glories of the pyramids in front of me, smog behind and prospect of 2 hours on horseback calms the nerves. I just hope that the driver has a nap to compensate for his late Ramadan nights and demonstrates his usual skill and equanimity behind the wheel on the return journey.
With an estimated 17-20 million inhabitants and a population density higher than any other city in the world, Cairo is not for the faint-hearted. Those who take the trouble, however, to explore its many layers of history and interact on a daily basis with its policemen, shopkeepers, caretakers and ironing men will - while at times bristle with frustration- also come away with a wealth of stories and compensations to mitigate its trials.
Those who choose to live in its gated communities can also find a pleasurable niche, strolling the golf courses and sipping cappuccinos in air-conditioned cafes in the company of the most stylish of Egyptian women.
Whatever you want, well virtually, you can find it in Cairo. It might take a while to learn how to distinguish between the man who actually doesn’t know the place you’re headed for, but doesn’t want to admit it, and he who does, but in the end you’ll usually get there and, at least in central areas, find someone with the requisite vocabulary to secure a sale. If not, efforts to decipher your strange version of Arabic will be accompanied by a smile of encouragement and often result in interesting, if not planned, purchases.
With a dinner party in the diary and time at a premium, head for one of the out-of-town supermarkets or expat-populated areas. You will find shelves well-stocked with, well OK at times, dusty and past their sell-by date ingredients or, more often than not, bump into someone willing to share their private supplies in return for a coffee or promise of return.
Be advised, though. No matter how strong your sense of adventure and resilience, there will be times when you need to withdraw from it all. Apartments may not be your or your children’s cup of tea, but for many they are the only option on offer as a home, unless you are prepared to move out from the centre or more popular and established suburbs. Houses with Western standard bathrooms and kitchens are pricey and soon snapped up in central areas.
Ongoing building works all around and dust-bowl gardens might weaken the lure of the rather optimistically named newer residential developments - Beverly Hills, Palm Springs and the like on the outskirts of the city. Can you, as the roadside adverts claim, fulfil your dreams in these areas with their burgeoning infrastructure of roads, pools, cinemas and shopping malls? Maybe not, but with some energy and curiosity, Cairo certainly has the potential to keep you enthralled for the duration of an average company or embassy assignment, as it has me for the past 2 years.
What is perhaps remarkable, given these conditions, is the equanimity with which Cairenes go about their normal business. It is easy to raise a smile and even the worst traffic transgressions are dismissed relatively lightly most of the time. Crime rates are amongst the lowest in the world, despite the poverty (20% of Egypt’s population lives on less than US$2 a day), and it is not unusual to have purses and phones left in taxis or cafes returned with small monetary acknowledgement appreciated but not demanded.
It is easy to establish a good rapport with shopkeepers, most of whom are honest if sometimes opportunist when it comes to haggling the price of souvenirs in touristy areas, and all are willing to help with directions, although not always qualified to do so. With a smattering of Arabic, you can probably make yourself understood and understand, but definitely interpret any hesitation as ‘I do not know, but really don’t want to disappoint you’!
As a foreigner, I have rarely if ever felt intimidated or unwelcome, although sometimes the object of curiosity. Many long-term residents comment that more women are wearing head scarves than in previous decades, and, out of respect for local practices, modest dress is generally to be advised. Within the confines of the Gezira Sporting Club in Zamalek and suburbs such as Maadi of Kattameya, there is greater tolerance of shorts and strappy t-shirts etc, although here, too, young girls may occasionally attract unwelcome attention, as anywhere I suppose.
Ramadan is a trying time for all. Most Egyptians fast and nerves are put on edge and productivity plummets while people adjust and recover from late night and early morning feasts. With the exception of during the iftar meal at sunset, when calm descends and you can zip from one end of the city to the other in record time, the traffic is simply appalling.
On the positive side, it is a time for charity and hospitality. Individuals and organisations set out tables on the street and provide free meals for the poor and invitations to iftars, and sohours – further meals before the day breaks - provide great opportunities to get to know colleagues, friends and their families better.
At other times of year, too, Egyptians tend to be hospitable to foreigners. Many of the more affluent speak excellent English and French – in fact often better than their Arabic – and welcome the opportunity to share memories of their time abroad or discuss, often with misgivings, the current state of affairs in their country and the world as a whole. While invitations to their homes in Cairo, often shared with several different generations of family members, may not be as forthcoming, it is not uncommon to eat out in one of Cairo’s many quality restaurants or to be invited to stay in their summer homes outside the city.
A big plus of living in Egypt is definitely the abundant, flexible and affordable domestic help available. My husband still marvels when the local laundry comes and picks up shirts for ironing and returns them neatly pressed for a modicum of the price back home. I revel in the maid’s willingness to come in to clear up the day after late dinner parties, and that I don’t have to worry about the layer of dust which accumulates daily in the house.
As soon as word is out of your arrival, you’ll probably be inundated with offers of service from Philippinos, eager to work to increase their remittances back home (often, it seems to me, to rather ungrateful sons!). They have the reputation of being dependable and honest and often double up as baby-sitters with usually adequate English to deal with most situations.
More and more Sudanese are seeking positions as maids and Egyptians are employed by some, although some Muslims may not wish to stay on late to baby-sit. This can be a complication but in any case, many advise newcomers to employ foreigners, since their potential loss of a work permit is a useful deterrent to theft and other misdemeanours.
Drivers can also be very useful, particularly if your Arabic is limited. In addition to dropping and picking up (and, crucially parking in between) it’s handy to use them to pay bills and source goods when your networks fail you. The Community Service Association (CSA) in Maadi, British Community Association in Mohandessin, embassy (the US and British embassies at least have Community Liaison Officers (CLOs) who are usually happy to pass on details, and school contacts are all helpful in this regard.
Whether you live in a flat or house, you will probably also have a boab – caretaker – and, particularly in central areas, car attendants to park and wash your car. Paid monthly but with extra payments for holidays and feasts and the odd tip for carrying shopping and the like, it is worth asking around to ensure that you are paying the going rate for these.
Paying more than your Egyptian neighbours is pretty par for the course, but on the whole expats are not expected to take on the family responsibilities that long-term local employers do – paying medical bills and the like, although, of course, this is sometimes appropriate and appreciated.
What did we do without mobile phones? Without them, the hours I spend being driven about Cairo wouldn’t be half as productive. As it is, I can usually depend on good and affordable services in most parts of Egypt through one of the three main operators. I can even get my emails through my handset, though some of my more important messages have been known to go astray.
In the home, telephone and broadband internet services are generally easy to install and maintain and although quite pricey, broadband is, for many, a must to ensure good communications with the outside world. I can talk to the world nearly for free using Skype and usually without too many echoes or interruptions.
Most expats can follow their favourite sports or TV series if they choose the right satellite provider and, again, can do so without breaking the bank or knuckles through sheer frustration at getting people to come when they said they would. A bit of asking around and questioning of company reps (most of whom anticipate an expat’s needs and fancies) should enable you to satisfy your particular passion – sport, films, documentaries, Eastenders or Desperate Housewives. Showtime and Orbit are two of the most popular, but there are others, many advertising, along with broadband providers such as Link.Net and Egypt Network, in the CSA and BCA magazines.
Cairo is the sort of place that you need an oasis, but depending on the time of year and your budget, they can be hard to find. In recent years, traffic and pollution has led many to move out to suburbs or residential developments such as Maadi or Kattameya and minimise the reasons to travel downtown. This, and the rising expat community, has had the effect of increasing rents and making older villas with gardens a rare commodity in Maadi, with most new arrivals renting flats in leafy streets, in preference close to the schools, shops and restaurants catering to foreigners.
Mansoureya, GKattameyaarana Farms and Sakkara are other options where houses with pools can be rented out. Mosquitoes and nocturnal dogs can be a problem, and there are no shops to speak of, but the air is fresher and it feels much less pressured somehow.
With time, families with young children in particular are moving out, many to developments to the east of the city – off the Alex Desert Road – such as 6th October, or the above mentioned and rather more glamorously named Palm Springs and Beverly Hills, which have shops, cinemas and pools. They are similar to the gated community of in the west. These and others nearby are currently favoured by expats over the east of the city as they are within easy reach of Maadi, where many multinational companies have their offices.
Zamalek is much closer to the downtown area – an island opposite the Egyptian Museum, with a number of 5 star hotels and embassies. Villas are almost impossible to find, and prohibitively expensive, but there are stylish apartment blocks which house wealthy, or formerly wealthy, Egyptians who, while they may have come down in the world, are still able to afford this central location due to an absurd rent act which enables parents and their children to pay minimal rents for prized locations.
The lack of rental income often results in landlords minimising investment in lifts and communal areas, which can be off-putting and continue to irritate and inconvenience once you are in. For single staff or young married couples, though, flats in Zamalek, Mohandessin, Dokki and Agouza remain a popular option, particularly if they are working and do not want a long trek back into town for an evening’s entertainment.
Health and hygiene
Had someone told me before coming to Egypt that I’d eat sushi and live to tell the tale, I’m not sure I would have believed them. While there is no room for complacency, the casualty rate amongst resident diners and those passing through, even those bold enough to try local fare in non-touristy eateries, is surprisingly low.
Bottled water is widely available and rather more palatable than the highly chlorinated tap water. Most expat homes have filters fitted to taps, enabling them to use the water for the kettle and for the fruit soaking and vegetable washing regime recommended. With many farmers in the Nile Valley catering to the export market, good quality and organic produce is on sale in most supermarkets and grocers and is much tastier than the nuked stuff back home. Some of my best photos are of vans precariously piled with carrots and cauliflowers wending their way towards the city, shedding their load as they hit potholes and swerve around cars.
Should you need medical or dental treatment, most companies and embassies have a panel of recommended specialists – the notion of general practitioner not being widespread here. Most reputable doctors and dentists have a good standard of English and provide good advice and care. Some expats opt to return home if under-going major or potentially complicated treatment, although the benefits have to be weighed up against the cons of disruption to family life.
Many doctors only have a licence to practise at certain hospitals, another factor to take into account, as levels of hygiene, particularly amongst the auxiliary and nursing staff, can be less than satisfactory in certain establishments. Make sure you have good insurance, as in the case of an emergency it has been known for some to be denied treatment unless payment is made upfront.
The traffic in Cairo is certainly the most immediate health concern. A visiting friend of mine once took 25 minutes to cross a single-lane road downtown, finally dragged over by my children, emboldened by months of living here and the realisation that timidity will get you nowhere. Don’t expect any concessions for young ones either. While positively doting towards children, particularly the small, blonde type, get Cairenes behind the wheel and assume consideration at your peril. Egypt has one of the world’s highest death rates on the roads and even if you avoid accidents, your stress levels sky-rocket.
Each week, congestion seems to get worse (and is virtually intolerable during Ramadan) and many expats choose to employ a driver to avoid the responsibility of negotiating the overcrowded and ill-policed roads, and to find parking spaces and run errands. If you do drive though, the golden rule is to avoid eye contact so that your fellow drivers don’t take that as authorisation to pull out or push in. A sturdy 4x4 also intimidates at least some into submission to the rules, although white minivans still show an unhealthy disregard for safety and vehicles’ bodywork.
The average age and condition of cars, while improving with the arrival of cheaper new models on the market, are still major contributors to air pollution in the city. A cocktail of toxins from cement works on the outskirts of some of the leafy suburbs, rubbish burning on roofs and street corners, and dust from the desert and innumerable building sites imbues the city.
Now officially the most polluted city in the world, the physical and psychological affects of seeing and breathing in fumes and dirt every day detract considerably from living here. Many suffer from asthma and generally complain of lung and chest infections, especially during the autumn when the ‘black cloud’ caused by burning rice stubble descends on the city. At this time of year, the secret is to get out to the nearby desert, north or Red Sea coasts on a regular basis. You’ll find yourself much better able to cope with all aspects of life in this mega-city.
Obviously, over the past few years terrorist attacks have taken place in Cairo and Red Sea resorts. In fact I arrived the day of the Sharm El Sheikh bombings. I did my bit to support the local tourism industry by heading there the next week anyway. I’m sure that a lot of Brits (and they were the majority) also did so because of the then recent attacks in London, the attitude being ‘if they’re gonna get me they will’. In truth, what with a very obvious police presence and security measures, I feel safe here….. well, apart from the traffic.
Whether it is physical escape that you are seeking or relief from the daily routine, there are many fabulous options when living in Cairo. Red Sea resorts abound – some as little as 2 hours from Cairo along an 8-lane and under-used highway. They offer all the delights advertised in the travel brochures back home, although not necessarily at the same discount rates (though flash a resident’s card for local price). Many Egyptians have houses here and on the Mediterranean coast and are quick to offer hospitality during the summer when the heat of Cairo can defeat even the most resilient.
Again, be prepared for the traffic. A 3-hour journey can easily be doubled on a Thursday or Saturday evening when the workers travel up to join their families by the sea. Once you’ve left the city behind, though, generally the roads to other destinations such as the Sinai are fairly empty, although slow-moving trucks can hinder progress and mean night-time travel, which, especially given the lack of adequate lighting and road markings, is not to be advised.
The more adventurous and less luxury-loving might enjoy camping. It really can be an out-of-this world experience, as little as 3 hours outside Cairo, with no company but the stars, shy desert fox, very occasional (at least in my experience) scorpion and, if you are unlucky, police escort, a throwback to the early 90’s when there were some incidents.
Desert driving courses and desert guides are available for the more ambitious traveller wishing to visit some of the more remote regions and oases, such as Bahariya or Siwa. They’ll give you tips on manoeuvring sand dunes and on the areas to avoid for fear of setting off land-mines, a legacy of the Second World War.
Further afield, there are regular flights from Cairo to domestic destinations such as Sharm El Sheikh, Luxor, Aswan and to countries in the region, in Europe and beyond. Whether it is beaches, sea-life, monuments or nature, though, Egypt really has it all, so be sure to exhaust these options before leaving it behind.
In Cairo itself and its environs, there are also places to leave the city stresses behind. In central Cairo, there is the fabulous and recently completed Al Azhar Park adjacent to the Southern Cemetery and City of the Dead and truly awe-inspiring medieval Islamic quarters. In one of the residential areas, Zamalek, is the Gezira Sporting Club which is a veritable haven. With many facilities including swimming pools, clay tennis courts, running tracks, croquet and bowling lawns, golf course, stables and cafes and restaurants in which to idle away the hours, it provides welcome respite from the frenetic pace of the city and opportunities to get to know the local community in leafy surroundings.
In Maadi too, there are the Maadi Club, Degla Sporting Club and Wadi Degla - a favourite dog-walking spot, not to mention, for those with kids enrolled there, Cairo American College which opens its facilities to families after school hours.
Further out, also on the outskirts of the city too, where a rising number of expat families choose to live to escape the pollution, there are golf clubs and sporting facilities set among spacious family homes, all to help you unwind and socialise. Kattameya is one such development, although there are plenty of others opening up complete with supermarkets, cinemas etc.
There are regular free publications targeting the expat community – BCA magazine, CSA etc catalogue a whole variety of clubs, gyms and classes of various descriptions, available at a cost usually much more reasonable than in Europe. Both in the centre of town and in popular expat suburbs such as Maadi, if it’s Arabic, yoga, spinning, quilting, culture or horse-riding you are after, you will find a host of options and plenty to recommend more. What with the rich and varied culture of the city itself, you need never be at a loss for something to inspire and rejuvenate you when spirits are flagging.
Having spent two Christmases and many family birthdays in Egypt, I feel that I have begun to exhaust my list of ethnic present options. They have all had camels (of the stuffed variety), lamps, spices, scarves and onyx ornaments at one time or another.
In other respects, however, I am perpetually amazed by the increasing range of goods available. Carrefour stocks all my favourite breakfast cereal brands and some fairly passable local imitations, cheeses, jams, biscuits, sauces, wholemeal flour etc etc in addition to the wonderful fruit and vegetables which, although more subject to seasons than in the UK, are always appetisingly stacked up.
There are some pretty exotic fresh foodstuffs available too –lemon grass, asparagus, oyster mushrooms (on occasion) and ostrich eggs, to name a few. There’s no guarantee they will be there from one day to the next, so, if you can plan ahead, grab them when you see them.
Fishmongers stock king prawns, sea bass, mullet, squid and other tasty fish previously unknown to me (one called ‘deniz’ is particularly yummy grilled) and although I tend to shy away from them in the hotter months, others provide good quality imported frozen fish and meat throughout the year and will home deliver promptly on demand.
Butchers have a habit of hanging recognisable carcases outside their shops which can be a little unnerving for those of us used to portioned and packaged meat, but lamb and chicken are always in good supply. Bacon, ham and pork sausages are always on the “to bring” list for visitors. Supermarkets generally don’t stock them, but they and the local alternative - beef bacon – can be found if you ask around.
In the clothing department, there are lots of cheap cotton t-shirts and young clothes available from branded stores and the shopping malls scattered around the city, although the quality is variable. Imported designer wear for the more discerning customer is often shockingly expensive and many Egyptians and foreigners stock up during their annual trips to Europe or the States. I am told reasonable shoes can be obtained for both children and adults, but I’d still like to know where, as I have singularly failed to find a shop stocking a good selection of school shoes or a stylish and lowish-heeled court shoe for business or evening jaunts.
Electrical goods, computers and the like can be bought and serviced at reasonable prices, although perhaps not always the newest model. Where there is limited local demand – say, for breadmakers, you may need to import it which can be difficult with customs being a government department best avoided at all costs.
And to pay for all this? Easy. There are banks on every street corner it seems; credit cards, dollars and cash are widely accepted and you can open accounts at local or international banks such as HSBC, Barclays and Citibank. Egypt is keen to be a part of the international community and helping it to spend money is a must.
Posting to Cairo?
Take a deep breath of clean air and think about it hard. I’ve loved it, but won’t be too sad to leave, despite the many friends made and places visited. I feel I’ve aged because of the sheer size, pace and dirt of the city, but am also aware that scarcely a day has gone by when I haven’t felt stimulated (if not rejuvenated) by something I have seen, experienced or understood for the first time.
It requires effort and sometimes that flags and I’ve certainly yearned for a more gentle and peaceful existence. Bottom line, though, is that I feel enriched by the experience and will leave with a fondness for the place and the people which will, I suspect, stay with me for many years to come.