As the year draws to a close, students at AUC have finally begun planning for next semester. Class registration has started (although deadlines are usually pushed back, and my adviser doesn’t seem to exist), finals have wrapped up, and many international students are preparing to return to the States. In my case, I’ve also been faced with the task of finding new housing for the next six months or so.
The student housing at AUC is assigned by semester, which means that you’re supposed to reapply for it bi-annually. The majority of students (especially international students) don’t live in the dorms for the entire year, for a few different reasons. First of all, most international students are in their third or fourth year of college. They’ve lived on their own for a few years now, which makes it hard to return to student housing. This is not to mention the fact that AUC dorms are much more regulated than American university dorms: boys and girls are completely segregated, parents have to excuse you from a curfew, and you must sign in and out of campus. In addition to these rules, campus itself is about an hour away from anything- food, entertainment, etc. The only “restaurants” on campus are McDonald’s, Subway, pizza, and a place called Tabasco, which has been lovingly nicknamed “Nasty Tabasci”. Dorms have kitchenettes, but they aren’t very cooking-friendly and are notorious for their lack of ovens, packed refrigerators, and dirty dishes. Needless to say, I’m ready to get out of here!
So, apartment-hunting became the task at hand. In Cairo, it’s kind of an art, especially as a non-Arabic speaker. Alex was a huge help because he had a friend who was willing to help us out, who we referred to as “Irish Ahmed”. Almost everybody in Egypt is named some combination of Mohammad, Hassan, Ahmed, and Ali, so we end up getting creative to differentiate between our similarly-named Egyptian friends. Irish Ahmed speaks Arabic and English, and has been studying in Egypt for about three years now, but was originally from the States, so he was a perfect mediator. Most students end up having to pay a broker, so we really lucked out!
Irish Ahmed knew of a building that had a few apartments available for rent in Dokki. Dokki (pronounced Dough-ee, because K’s in Egyptian colloquial Arabic are silent) is an area that’s kind of in between Giza (where the pyramids are), and Downtown Cairo. It’s not the most exciting area, but it’s a nice place to live- it basically consists of a few embassies, research institutions (most notably the Behoos), and some restaurants. I had originally been expecting to find a place in Zamalek, or Downtown, but I quickly realized the drawbacks of living in those more popular, crowded areas. Zamalek and Downtown are more expensive and full of expats. Dokki is a more family-oriented area- when we first went to visit, we were surrounded by elementary school kids in uniform returning home after a long day of classes. It’s also a more legitimate Egyptian experience- we were the only non-locals in sight.
So, we met up with Irish Ahmed in Downtown Cairo one day at the end of November, and hopped on the Metro to Dokki, which was only a couple of stops away. About five minutes later, we walked out of the station, down two blocks, and arrived at the building! The owner, a doctor, had driven in from a couple hours away to meet with us, and soon arrived to let us into the apartment. It was huge, and one of the cleanest places I had seen since arriving in Cairo. We got a quick tour of the place (it has two living rooms, a dining room, two balconies, three bedrooms, and two bathrooms) before sitting down to talk. Alex and I discussed the place in excited whispers as Irish Ahmed chatted with the owner and an Egyptian man, Oncy, who served as a kind of landlord. I had never gone apartment shopping before, so I didn’t really know what to look for. I just thought it looked nice! Alex pointed out the attributes of the place: it was located on a quiet street, but had major streets within walking distance in three directions. The flat was also normally rented out to long-term families, who tend to take better care of the place than short-term renters- and the evidence of this was obvious.
In addition to the place itself, we were lucky to find such a great landlord and owner. Oncy was extremely hospitable, offering us tea, coffee, soda, and even pictures to look at. He had kept great care of the flat, and spoke a good amount of English. He and the owner were also both Coptic Christians, which was evident in two respects: the flat was decorated in crosses and pictures of Jesus, and they didn’t care that we were mixed gender roommates. Score! The owner lived a couple of hours away, so she wouldn’t be meddling with us too much, but Oncy lived a few minutes away, which would be great for when we needed help with repairs or basic apartment utilities.
After whispering amongst ourselves for awhile, Alex and I decided to go for it! It was a great find, and Irish Ahmed agreed. We were also being offered a pretty good price for such a huge place, especially considering the fact that the two of us would be sharing a three bedroom flat. We poured over the contract, with Irish Ahmed translating, and had the apartment starting the next day- December 1st. After arranging a time with Oncy to meet up the next day to get our keys and pay the deposit, we set out, giddy with excitement. We had an apartment!
Irish Ahmed showed us around the area a little bit more, pointing out the various metro stops, stores, restaurants, and AUC bus stops. We walked down one of the major streets, passing hookah shops, ahwas (coffee and tea houses where men play backgammon, watch soccer, and smoke shisha), before hopping on the Metro to return Downtown. After thanking Irish Ahmed, Alex and I realized that we had about an hour to kill before the next AUC bus arrived, so we indulged in some KFC (or ‘dejeej kintucky’) to celebrate. It was a strange feeling- we were really living in Egypt now, not just camping out on campus at an American university. It took awhile to sink in, but the more I thought about it, the more confident I grew in our decision, and that’s saying a lot- I’m usually a victim of buyer’s remorse!
The next day, we returned to Dokki to meet up with Oncy. Alex and I took the Dokki bus from the AUC new campus, but ended up getting completely lost- we later realized that we had walked in the complete opposite direction that we were supposed to. Oops. One hour and a taxi ride later, we finally made it to our building, and Oncy welcomed us inside. Oncy has ended up being one of my favorite people in Egypt so far. He kind of reminds me of an Egyptian Mr. Bean- he’s skinny, always giddy, and almost feminine in the way he carries himself. That being said, he’s ridiculously nice. Upon entering the apartment, he ushered us into the kitchen to show us that he had bought us groceries! For the next hour or two, he meticulously led us through the apartment, showing us how to turn on lights, air conditioning, vacuums, and various other appliances. My personal favorite was his lesson on how to listen to the radio, which he referred to as the “24-hour music player”. Haha!
We had originally planned on taking the 4 PM bus back to campus, but quickly realized that this was not going to happen. Oncy, in his efforts to be as helpful as possible, is extremely detail-oriented. While his instructions for using the hot-water heater were appreciated, the information on lightswitches went a little overboard. Nonetheless, we stood and nodded our heads, polite smiles on our faces as he finished making his way through the house. His tour also proved to us that the flat was beyond fully furnished- some of my favorite new possessions are the numerous chandeliers, purple toilets, TVs (offering news channels in English, Arabic, and French, Coptic Christian televangelists, and movies dubbed over in German!), and a sweet collection of fishing poles! The kitchen had more utensils than I knew what to do with, we have five beds between the two of us, and Oncy had left us a vast collection of reading material- including a kid’s book entitled “Spending Time with Jesus”. Keys in hand, and deposit paid, we quickly became the proud new residents of 6 Zahraa Street.
Since then, Alex and I have been slowly moving into the place. We officially moved out of the dorms on December 24th, and have ended up on various adventures during our attempts to buy groceries, Christmas decorations, and linens (which are surprisingly difficult to track down). As time passes, we discover new quirks about the place- it really seems to have a mind of its own. Sometimes, the elevator decides to respond immediately, while other times it stubbornly pouts at the top floor of the building until repeated button-pushing coaxes it down. Our shower is similarly moody- it’ll treat you to warm water every other shower or so. Nonetheless, the place itself is spacious, quiet, and comfortable, and our neighbors and doorman are pretty welcome to the idea of foreigners living in their building. Time will tell whether or not we ever conquer the shower and elevator, but for now, it’s not too bad!