12 – Finding a Home
Warning: it’s a long one. I’ve wanted to write this post for a while now. Not only was it a glaringly obvious gap in coverage of this year’s Egyptian year abroad, being, after all, the first thing you need to deal with on arrival in this cramped, hectic and dusty new world – but for cathartic reasons too, this needs to be done. I am fairly sure now that this tiny corner of the Leeds Student is about the only space left on the internet not being stringently monitored by our landlady’s Satanic little helpers.
In summary. My flatmate, D, is a Muslim of Somalian origin: quiet in the public sphere, thoroughly easy-going, a bookworm and a shower-singer and above all, very slow to anger. D has just spent three hours dragging a mop across one room in the house until, as demanded, the floor sparkles with the same incandescence as our offensive new chandeliers (installed while we were away over Christmas – “My mother,” eulogises Spawn Number One while we hold back the vomit and Mother checks for dust on the undersides of the sofa arms, “she has wooonderful taste…”). This is the latest in our efforts to prove to Madame, who, incidentally, has kept a key so she can routinely come and rifle through our suitcases or check for four layers of mattress protector (apparently a necessity, you know, for all that sperm and incontinence we leech from every pore), that we do not need to hire an expensive maid on our behalf. “It smeeeells,” whines Spawn Number Two, on encountering a curry cooked with stock and not pure undiluted cologne. D has not showered in four days, as Madame began to oversee the installation of mains gas before getting bored and cutting off the operation midway. The internet is out due to a bill she has neglected to pay, and we can’t heat any food. In the midst of this, the phone rings. “Sorry,” D whispers in a nervous telephone voice, “there is no Hari here.” Puts the phone down. “But I’ll take a message for the Snake Bitch.”
I ought to specify at this point that this is not an ordinary tenant-landlord relationship in Egypt, hence the outrage expressed above. The process of selecting a flat takes no more than a few days due to the abundance of empty homes – point at any building on the skyline, and likely as not there will be somewhere there for rent. Following the very briefest of tours and some finger-counting, the actual transaction is about as rapid as topping up mobile credit, and involves about as much sweet-talking. Most Egyptian landlords show up an absolute maximum of once a month and communicate mostly in grunts; once the money has changed hands, the place is yours, and any problems encountered are now yours to deal with. Most Egyptian landlords will not accuse you of breaking already-broken and then surreptitiously hidden furniture, or of sabotaging plumbing only equipped to deal with summer weather. Or threaten to throw you out over absence of a mattress protector (have I mentioned that yet?) clearly intended to cause acute mental strain and near-collapse. Rant over. Honest.
A pleasant surprise during the intense period of house-hunting is just how much your relative peanuts will afford you, especially compared to last year in halls. Every apartment we’ve seen has been, for the most part, ‘luxuriously’ furnished; in girls’ rooms, lace and pastel colours abound, and a living space without fake gold-leaf or polished mahogany is a sheer impossibility. Certainly, the wallpaper may be peeling – but the Egyptian answer to such domestic strife? Put another armchair in front of it! An inch of dust on the shelf? Clutter it with china ornaments of Disney characters, or in our landlady’s case, Bo Peep. An exploded microwave with a judiciously-placed Qur’an on top is a-ok, and if live wires are hanging from an unexplained drill-hole the size of a fist, PUT ANOTHER WALL-SIZED MIRROR ON IT. IT’S FINE.
Most landlords are relaxed enough to not see the necessity for a contract – most Arabs are exceptionally grounded, unfazed by a bit of damage, and highly trusting. And also know that half the household appliances already don’t work. A general rule to bear in mind, however, is that mixed accommodation is not usually allowed; some of the SOAS students got round this by pretending to be married, but girls especially need to be wary when having guests or parties as males entering the flat may go entirely without question, or be an eviction-worthy offence. This in our case seems particularly ironic as we have a non-negotiable boy ban but seem to be fair game for our dribbling and elderly doorman (no matter how Arab I try to be on this matter, nobody else has been blinded by our whiteness to such an extent they have accidentally fallen up ten flights of stairs and landed on my face). A short rant in Arabic to the other doormen, who are less easily thrown by the sultry jeans/hoodie combo and probably have daughters not pushing 90, sorted things out – and generally security guys are immeasurably friendly and approachable. Between bouts of clumsy molestation ours even make us tea.
If the prospect of going out into Alexandria alone to find a place is too daunting, the Institute can help in this department; the neighbourhood surrounding the ACL Centre in town is fairly upmarket (and by upmarket I mean £600 a month for four people) and sorting out a flat to rent is a fast, uncomplicated and stress-free endeavour.
And if it looks like it’s not going to be? RUN. Run screaming through the streets of Alexandria, a trail of haram juice and false promises in your wake, and pray to whatever God there may be no-one has yet decided that a fingermark on a doorknob is a legally binding contract and your cringing delicate little soul now belongs to the Antichrist Almighty, whose accusing finger currently points at a drip of grease on the side of the vegetable drawer. For those of us for whom it’s already too late – don’t worry. The weather’s getting warmer, the Imodium’s running out. As a parting nod to dearest Madame and channelling Sharon Osbourne at her most badass… I know exactly what I’m going to do with that mattress protector.