Friday, August 31, 2007

A Night in Carrefour

"It's kind of late," I said, looking at my watch. "What if Carrefour closes at ten?"

Could it be that all the traffic was due to thousands of Egyptians pouring out of Maadi City Centre mall, all at the same time?

No, silly Marie. It wasn't too late. The masses were trying to get IN to Carrefour, not out of it.

Our driver gave up on finding a parking space.

"I will wait here." He parked the car in the middle lane of the parking lot. "If someone comes, I will move."

All righty then. Cairo newbie Yasir, Craig, and I bravely blocked and pushed through the crowd and made our way into Carrefour. Must... have... smoke detectors.

In his blog, Yasir said it reminded him of Mecca during Hajj. I haven't been to Mecca (for obvious reasons), but I have been to department stores on December 26th. And to Wal-Mart the afternoon after Thanksgiving. You get the idea.

"Do you have your phone in case we get split up?" Craig asked me this just before being swept away by a wave of veiled women keen to get to the underwear sale.

Yasir snapped us out of the shopping malaise that overwhelmed us after we searched through both hardware and electronics. He found a man with a badge.

"Do you have smoke detectors?" He pointed at one on the ceiling. I helpfully said "BEEP BEEP BEEP."

"Yes." The man motioned straight ahead into the household electronics section. We triumphantly followed his instructions. Craig wrestled six small children to the ground as they blocked our path, snarling that we wouldn't reach microwaves, phones, and certainly not smoke detectors.


Yasir addressed another man. "Smoke detectors. You have?"

"BEEP BEEP BEEP!" I was glad to help.

This man led us back to the hardware section.

He may have been trying to lose us, as he walked briskly. He led us right to where he thought there might be smoke detectors.


He addressed a co-worker. "La. Yes, we have no smoke detectors."

Saddened, I thought perhaps I'd steal some from a hotel. Yasir asked the nice man where we might purchase smoke detectors. The nice Carrefour man described a place downtown, near Tahir Square. A place named... Bavaria.

Bavaria! Of course! When I think of Bavaria, I always heat up. Mind you, this is due to fury related to the sudden departure of my German ex-boyfriend, not related to smoke or fire. Doesn't matter. I won't forget the name of the store.

With great relief, we slowly zigzagged to the front of the store, where we were funnelled through a small "No Purchases" gate. (I felt shamed--is this the intent behind the "No Purchases" distinction?)

Then Craig led us across the hall to the quiet air-conditioned Radio Shack. He walked straight into the corner, to the shelf labelled "SECURITY."

A gleaming white smoke detector twinkled at me.

Relieved, I picked it up and kissed it. But wait.

"That is a camera," said the sales clerk.

A spy camera disguised as a smoke detector? Given the shortage of smoke detectors in Egypt, it wouldn't exactly be unobtrusive. They'd be better off disguising a camera as a half-empty pack of Marlboros.

But there was a smaller, round piece of plastic.

"Smoke detector!" I held it aloft triumphantly. "I'll take four, please."

"That is the last one," said the sales clerk sheepishly. "In all Radio Shacks in all of Cairo."

Yasir laughed outright and said "Don't be ridiculous. You're lying to me." The sales clerk giggled and went to look for the last smoke detector in Cairo's packing materials and missing back.

Twenty minutes later, we gave up on the missing parts. The last smoke detector in Cairo was only a half a smoke detector. Defeated, we fled Maadi City Centre and began the long drive back to Zamalek.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Safety Measures

"Where do we stand on acquiring ourselves with our parent company? Employee health insurance? The auditors? And what about insurance on our computers?"

I was getting an update from our office accountant, and as an afterthought, I added: "And buy some smoke detectors while you're at it."

A blank look. "You know, when there's a fire they go BEEP BEEP BEEP."

"These are not common in Egypt."

"So what. We need them. It's stupid to buy all that insurance if we can't even be bothered with the cheap kind--smoke detectors."

And so we put the secretary--who spends much of her time staring at the wall--to work calling around to find smoke detectors. When she informed me that a number of agencies would call her back tomorrow with quotes on sprinkler systems, I became annoyed.

"No, not a system. All we want is four battery-operated smoke detectors. They are white. They are round. They screw into the ceiling. They go BEEP BEEP BEEP."

She nodded uncertainly and went back to studying the Cairo phone book. "Call Radio Shack," I yelled across the room. The secretary smiled and looked a bit terrified. "Why is this madwoman beeping and yelling at me, and why doesn't she learn Arabic," is perhaps what crossed her mind.

That night, I went to Alfa Market. They didn't have any smoke detectors.

No matter, I thought. Tomorrow night during our burger run to Ma'adi, we'll go by Carrefour. That's like the Wal-Mart of Europe, and there's a king-size one in Maadi. Surely, they can help me with my beeping problem.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Burger Hype

The world's best hamburger is in Egypt.

Before recruiting a couple of good sports (Craig and Cairo-newbie Yasir) for the long trek down to Maadi to visit Lucille's, I read 40-or-so blogs and Time magazine, all claiming that Lucille's had either the best burger in 1) the world 2) Africa 3) Egypt or 4) Cairo.

My company driver had never heard of Lucille's. But Craig's co-worker called him to give directions. Unfortunately, he either didn't listen, is not too sharp, or else he is terrified of me—big, scary Boss-Woman.

"You were supposed to turn after the bridge," I heard Craig mutter. The driver cheerfully sped ahead into the thick of an open-air market.

"He's going to pull a U-ey. No, not here, don't pull a U-ey."

He pulled a U-ey.

"It would help if you stopped before flinging the shifter into reverse." Ouch. Poor car.

We found Lucille's eventually, just down the road from the Maadi metro station. We had to wait about ten minutes for a table, and then hilarity ensued as we attempted to get various condiments on the side. Ultimately, we each ate what we were served.

"So? Is it the best burger in Africa?"

I chewed slowly. Char-broiled. A nice taste. Soft buns. Not bad. Pretty good, in fact. It reminded me of the taste of the burgers in New York at Corner Bistro in Greenwich Village.

But best burger in Africa? I dunno. It's better than Burger Queen in Addis Ababa, which is probably the best burger in Ethiopia. I never tried a burger at Le Petit Bistro in Kampala, but given how incredibly delicious their steaks are, I'm betting their burgers are also pretty damn good. I can't claim to remember every burger I've eaten across the continent, but I think there are probably some good burgers in South Africa.

Is it the best burger I've had in Cairo?

I can't think of any others I've eaten in Cairo. I may have had one a few weeks ago, but I'm not sure. It was definitely the best burger I've had in Maadi. Possibly the best in North Africa. It was a fine burger.

Will I go back? Maybe. I don't eat a lot of burgers these days, but a change of scenery is nice.

But next time, I'll take the metro.

That's Ms. Marie to You

My office has a car and driver now. Or rather, Captain M and I have a driver (the same driver who got the boot two weeks ago). It's a perk. My predecessor—the man who confused company property with his own—had one too. I am wracked with guilt at the cost, but Captain M wanted a driver because he is sick of hearing about taxi drivers being obscene to me.

Our driver is probably tired of me already. One of the first things I did was insist that he put the car into PARK when he was outside smoking. Now this may seem like a fairly obvious thing to you or me, but he had just left the car in DRIVE and pulled up the hand break.

The second thing I did was say that if he refused to drive with headlights at night, I was not going to get in his car anymore. This may seem like an obvious thing too, but for whatever reason, lots of people here drive without headlights after dark. "To save power," commented one of the staff, which sent me into a rant about alternators and power generation.

The driver might wish he hadn't taken the job after tonight. First, I made him drive Captain M and I to hunt for the Captain's new flat, then he had to take Spanky home, then come back to take Captain M to Mohandiseen. Then I made him drive me and two friends half an hour away to Maadi in search of the best burger in Cairo and four smoke detectors. And I didn't even buy him a burger.

"What time should I pick up Madam?" He had called Captain M earlier to get details on when to meet me at Hotel Flamenco.

"Don't call Marie Madam. She is not Madam," I heard him say, exasperated. Then, with a glint and a sideways glance at me, he raised his voice and declared in English: "She is not Madam, she is Madwoman."

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hint for Tourists

If you come to Cairo and want to see the pyramids of Giza, don't go first thing in the morning. While it sounds like a good idea in theory, there is a haze that covers Cairo most mornings.

Here's the view from my balcony, Saturday morning at 7:30 a.m. and later at 10:30 a.m.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Book Stress

"Put the book down slowly and back away."

My pal Edward Readicker-Henderson was counseling me by e-mail. I'd just written him in a panic. I'd read two paragraphs of Craig's autographed copy of Eat Pray Love, the bestseller by Elizabeth Gilbert, when I wrote him that this book was WAY too much like my next book.

It's starts out with divorce, then an affair, then depression, then a global search for recovery.

"Um, I don't like where this is going. The situation in Uganda wasn't a divorce but it was the same idea, but with us running from a hippopotomus the next day, and then I found refuge in making comic books in Kuwait."

I read a few more chapters. The writer is funny, clever, honest. "How will I ever match this?" I e-wailed.

"Stop reading now, until you've finished your own book. PUT IT DOWN."


I'll read Lonely Planet Egypt again instead.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Dime Store Outing

I love the two-pounds-fifty store! The only problem is that it's usually too crowded, thus my attempts at buying fuzzy dice and stuffed happy-face bananas are usually thwarted. The only other place I've seen stuffed happy-face bananas is Coney Island, where I used to win them at skee-ball.

I can't help my interest in bargains. It's hereditary. My mother loves the dollar store and my grandmother used to take me to the dime store when I was a kid. Of course, even then, nothing cost a dime anymore.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Merci Canada

It was 9:30 on a Thursday night, and I was working on the outline for my next book ("Curse of the Hippo: Recovery Across Ten Countries") when our French-Canadian printer sent me a note.

"Dear Marie, pages 5 - 7 - 10 - 32 - 58 are corrupt. Please upload PDFs of these pages again. Merci."

What? That's impossible. Single pages in the middle of multiple page PDFs are corrupt? And yesterday Michael Kraiger downloaded them--same pages, same file, same server--and proofread. They were fine.

"Dear printer, These pages were fine when viewed in the New York office yesterday. Please go back to the original download and try again."

"If they are fine in your office, please just upload them."

"Dear printer, I am not in New York, I am in a hotel room in Egypt, where it is night and my upload speed is a blazing 600 b/sec, therefore this book will miss shipping if you don't go download the PDF again and open it properly."

Silence. Maybe I scared him. I halfheartedly made new PDFs and started uploading. An hour and 20 minutes later, a little over half the first page had gone up when I got a "broken pipe" message.

I swore, changed out of my pajamas and into my street clothes, and went out to a wifi-enabled coffee shop on a Thursday night. That's like a Friday night in the US or Europe.

The night was sweltering. Some nights in Cairo, we get lucky and the winds cool the city down. It wasn't one of those nights. Nevertheless, I sat outside at Cilantro, to avoid the smoke that wafts down inside from the "Smoking" section.

Thirty-year-old Peugeot and Lada taxis roared down the adjacent street that ran alongside the Nile. Clop clop clop. The occasional horse-drawn carriage went by, the horses trotting and disturbingly skinny for their jobs. Cigarette smoke didn't hang near me, but the milder aroma of apple tobacco permeated the air from the shisha cafe next door. The fresh waiter who used to harass me no longer worked at Cilantro, and I cursed silently at my company's printer and at myself for having a managerial job across three time zones. So easy for them to ask for an upload, so complicated for me to fulfill this.

An overhead air conditioner splattered water over my screen, but the uploads zoomed along. A bug bit my ankle.

And then I ordered a strawberry smoothie. I was sitting by the Nile on a summer night, shishas to my left and horses to my right. I sipped smoothie through a straw and thanked the printer for an atmospheric evening out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Neptune, King of Yamama

How grand it must have seemed when Yamama Centre was first built in Zamalek in 1989!

The oldest mall in Cairo is a near ghost-town these days but for the gym on the 8th and 9th floors, and the two-pounds-fifty store on ground level. I've looked at the few shops that are left and they are pretty sad excuses for stores.

But try as they might with their faux obelisks and pyramid roofs, the malls of Nasr City and Heliopolis can never hope to overcome the original mall in the arena of sheer tackiness. King Neptune, a giant beanstalk, and Pegasus adorn the center court at Yamama. Viva Yamama.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Captain M likes Zamalek.

It's where I live, a neighborhood of embassies and expats on the northern tip of Gezira Island. Zamalek has trees and restaurants, smaller streets than surrounding areas, and less traffic. For the last two weeks, our office meetings have all been on Zamalek, either in the hotel I am staying in (Flamenco), the hotel that Mr. Fixit was in (Marriott) or in the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf nearby.

"I think I might move here," announced Captain M a week ago. Spanky—his cute young lieutenant who lives with his family directly across the river in Agouza but can't afford Zamalek himself—seconded the notion.

"I will visit all the time."

I remembered when I was looking for a flat in January, how rentals are found by asking bawaabs, or doormen. They often have the keys but don't usually speak much English. I had gone through a real estate agent, but Captain M can speak Arabic. His accent gives him away as a foreigner (thus prices are as high for him as for me) but at least he can communicate.

The Captain and I have been pounding the pavement talking to bawaabs. Or he talks. I stand around trying to convey legitimacy without conveying impropriety. He's already had to explain several times that I am a colleague, that he is only searching for a place for himself, not for him and this older blond American woman.

"Mare-ee, you only like the romantic buildings," declared MoAz, a visiting graphic designer from our Kuwait office. I'd kept pushing Captain M into 1920s lobbies with decorative ironwork and antique elevators.

Captain M has started picking out "romantic buildings" on his own, chosen for their upkeep and cleanliness. Last night, he addressed a bawaab that sat in front of a lovely, well-kept building.

"There are no available flats here," said the bawaab, "but my friend there knows of one." He whistled to a limping man in a galabiya (flowing robe). The man had a lazy eye and stood at an angle even when he wasn't limping along. His limp had a jerking motion as he led us down the street to a dirty building.

Captain M looked at me with skepticism and I shrugged. A plump woman in a headscarf accosted the limping man and started yelling at him in Arabic.

"He owes her money," whispered Captain M. Up we went into the dirty building, led by a cleaner, younger friend of the limping bawaab.

"3,000 pounds," announced the friend as he unlocked the flat and let us in. That's $526.

It was disgusting. Filthy, with dusty old furniture and a 20-year-old fridge in the hall. A washing machine sat in the hall also, full of wet clothes.

"Um, no thanks."

We fled. Outside, the limping bawaab was now being yelled at by four men in addition to the woman.

"Yalaa, let's get out of here," I whispered. Captain M and I trotted off at a brisk pace. About half a block later, Captain M said "They are following us."

"Don't look back."

"Mister! Mister!"

We walked faster.

It got to the point where it was obvious they were chasing us, so we finally stopped. The limping bawaab could walk fast when he perceived a commission was at stake. I felt like I was in a zombie movie, pursued by men who were on our scent.

"There is another flat."

We followed. "After this, just tell them I am tired and you have to take me home." I was tired but Captain M was fighting off a cold and carrying $2,000 in cash, but in 10-pound Egyptian notes. Our company funds for the next month. He was more tired than I was, but we were cornered by the strange limping bawaab and his friend.

They took us into a nice building. Up we went on the elevator to the tenth floor.

This apartment was incredible. Beautifully tiled, brand new top-of-the-line stainless steel appliances, three-phase updated electricity. Two balconies, clean, and recently renovated.

"1,800," drawled the landlord.

"Take it," I mouthed at wide-eyed Captain M.

A few minutes later, we understood why it was such a bargain. "I think he means dollars."

Oh. Of course. We are obviously foreigners, so he is talking to us in dollars.

We asked a few questions and politely excused ourselves. The limping bawaab and his friend started arguing with the owner about their commission should we take it. Captain M hit the down button, opened the elevator door, pushed me in, and hit "Close."

"Yalla." Let's go.

We sped away as they argued, and ran from the building all the way to the Algerian Embassy, keeping up the pace until we'd rounded the corner and disappeared from view.

"Dollars!" We laughed. "No way. Total overkill." I looked back. No limping doormen were chasing us. They were probably still upstairs, arguing and yelling at the owner.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The End

And just like that, things go back to how they were.

Or not quite how they were. Captain M has been promoted to head of the Cairo office after his stellar performance over the last few weeks (which means I get to go home on schedule). I fired an employee who did not cooperate with me the day were were tossed out of our office. And the troublesome former EIC has gone now, leaving me the job title along with the job I've been doing for the past year and a half.

Why would someone do something like that? Why would someone hold 15 jobs hostage and close an office and demand... money? Respect?

What did he really want and why did he do that?

The big boss, who in a former life was a clinical psychologist, says we can't know, to stop trying to understand, that sometimes "break-ups suck."

But still I wonder. The EIC firmly believed he was right. That he had contributed so much and been taken advantage of.

From my POV, he was more trouble than anything else. He had power issues, ego problems, and knew nothing of desktop publishing or comic books. It was always a ridiculous dance around him, and in the end, he was sidelined (to my relief and surely the relief of a few others as well).

For the first week that we were exiled, I did all the legal paperwork. I re-incorporated, this time without his name as the registrant. (That's why he was able to close us down.) With help, we surreptiously acquired our own lease which he had given up. I got the serial numbers and receipts for the computers as part of proving all the equipment was ours, not his.

The second week, we rallied the employees, passed out laptops, and made up fake assignments for his "spy."

"Find out prices on desks, chairs, fax machines, and phone," I told her, though we had already acquired our old office at that point. No doubt she dutifully reported back that we'd found a new office and were buying furniture. Perhaps this helped lead to his giving up, to agreeing to give Mr. Fixit all our possessions in exchange for a mere receipt. No, at first he asked for many things. But Mr. Fixit did not waver--"Dude, you have no leverage and do you really want to go to court"--and in the end walked away with the key in exchange for only his signature.

We've changed the locks and installed Captain M in the boss-desk.

And now, I get to go back to work. Back to the routine of the day job. But now, I have a new mission. Train up my replacement. And then go home.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Cairo Dining High Life

Last night, Captain M and I spent 36 pounds ($6.31) on two pasta dishes, caprese, soft drinks, and bruschetta at Dido's. Earlier in the day, my friend Dana and I had lunched on fuul sandwiches for 1.50 pounds (twenty-six cents).

But the rest of the week, it's been the high life with Mr. and Mrs. Fixit. There is not much getting around the cost of hotels in the summer here as it's high season, when tourists from the Gulf take over the hotels and better neighborhoods. Last night, Captain M and I looked at some apartments for him and were told they were eight month rentals--summers were reserved for tourist income. Anyway, the Fixits stayed at the Marriott and we've given Mr. Marriott a lot of our company money lately, for food as well as lodging.

Two nights ago, we ate at L'Asiatique on riverboat Le Pacha 1901. The Captain and I both had Thai dishes while the Fixits had sushi. It was a nice, expensive restaurant but I am dubious of the honor it received--third best restaurant in Africa in 2006. It was good but I can definitely think of more than three better restaurants I've eaten at across the continent.

More appealing was the night before at La Bodega. Granted, I'm not the biggest Cairo dining expert, but I suspect this is the best restaurant in town. Cool, atmospheric, tasty, and reasonably priced by western standards.

We seem to have nearly resolved our work crisis here, so soon Mr. Fixit will go back to Kuwait, and Captain M will be back to eating in coffee shops with his friends, while I'll be cooking soup on the hot plate in my room and getting carry-out food. But it's been a nice vacation in spite of the business adversity we've faced.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Ramadan Lanterns

Last night, I took the crazy multi-culti mess of our Kuwait-based Cairo team—Mr. Fixit (Hong Kong), Mrs. Fixit (Thai), Captain M (Oman), me (nomadic American)—to the tentmaker's bazaar around Bab Zuweila.

"What are those?" The non-Muslims among us were wide-eyed at the pretty colors outside the bazaar.

"Ramadan lanterns," answered Captain M, nonchalantly. "What? Why are you guys so excited?"

Ramadan lanterns are cool.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sounds and Lights

"That's the Sphinx?" Captain Muneer's voice was thin with disappointment. "It's so... small."

In our haste--undercover operations, getting a new office, filing papers, looking for a pink Mac--I'd forgotten to warn my Omani friend. The Sphinx, or Sphink-es as is said by many here, is rather wee and unimpressive. And dwarfed by its huge triangular cousins.

Mr. and Mrs. Fixit were in town from Kuwait, so we all piled into a chaffeured car that I'd booked with a creepy guy hanging around outside the Marriott and driven down to Giza for the Sound & Light Show at the pyramids.

I'd heard it was lame and it was. Though to be fair, it didn't put me to sleep as quickly as the Luxor Sound & Light Show did years ago.

Mr. Fixit was chortling during the narration. I tried to shoot him a piercing "Cut that out" glance but this only resulting in me giggling as well.

"The Rosetta Stone brought tears to historian's eyes as they were able to read love letters, such as 'I'd rather be with you than eat or drink.'"

There was also a remark about Alexander the Great being "handsome as a barbarian" and a part where a slave was saying something like "Beat me, master." It was just ridiculous.

But as I've said before, any day that you get to look at pyramids is a good day. No, wait. I didn't say that. I said Any day you get to look up Ramses skirt is a good day. Same idea.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

More Money than Sense

"Mr. Fixit, Captain M, and Mr. Susan Storm: You are to go across the Nile to convene with the Bureaucrat. He is expecting me and me alone and is working deeply undercover. He will be shocked at your arrival, so Mr. Fixit--you'll have to manage him."

"I can handle the Bureaucrat."

"Good. Meanwhile, Lieutenant O and I will meet at the Apple store to acquire classified documents. We'll reconvene here at the hotel in a few hours to make PDFs of the next several months editorial assignments on our laptops."

Everyone had brought their chargers but there was only one power outlet, so we were later reduced to "I only have four seconds left, plug me in, quick!"

The team hopped into a taxi to go across the NIle, while I got my own taxi to go to Mohandeseen and meet the lieutenant. In we went to the computer store to meet with the sales rep.

"Just pretend we're here to buy more Macs. I'll handle getting the papers we need at the end."

How to keep the sales rep talking to where he is so engrossed he just hands over anything to get our business?

He showed us some tower Macs.

"Is that one more powerful than what we have now? O, what do we have now? But it looks the same. Why would I pay so much more? We already have that kind. How much were our old ones? Can I see the specs on them?"

"Yes, yes, of course. But first, look at these new ones..."

"They are very pretty but I don't see the difference between these and the old ones? What did we have before, O? Do you have the paper on those? Can't we just look at the receipts so you can explain the difference to me?"

"We'll get it, ma'am."

"Would that Mac Mini work for our purposes? It's really cute."

"Not powerful enough, Ma'am. You will need the tower."

"But I like laptops. Can't laptops do the same thing?"

"Look, here are the specs." The sales manager showed me the specs. I had started to relish my role, which was obviously "rich American with more money than sense."

"Specs? I don't know what those numbers mean. I rely heavily on O here for all my information about computers. Do they all have USB ports? Can they all go on the internet?"

The salesman still hadn't even winced. I guess I was pushing him to see if he'd laugh or smirk, but he was cool. Lieutenant O was smooth too, not batting an eye at my declaration of ignorance. Maybe enjoying the moment, since I'd outPhotoshopped him in record time last night.

"What about Wacom Tablets? How much are those?"

He went off to get the Wacom Tablets. I was starting to lose interest in the game, so we left shortly after. We got in the taxi to reconvene with the team.

Lieutenant O is a mild, kind fellow. When he teases, he does it with respect and a smile. He sat in the front seat in the taxi, and then turned around to face me with a grin as he mimicked me in the meeting with the Mac salesman.

"I like pink. Do you have any pink computers?"

I reddened. Perhaps I'd played the role too well.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Beach--the Place for Veils

I know that when I think of the beach, the first thing that leaps to my mind is buying a veil.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Bokra Fil Mish Mish

"You are the company. The company is not an office. The company is not computers. The company is you, the employees."

I was standing alongside a mural of Grimace, the Hamburglar, Mayor McCheese, and Ronald McDonald. It hadn't been on my mind to hold an employee meeting in the kids birthday room at McDonald's when I'd woken up that morning, but things often don't go exactly as planned.

When I finished my inspirational speech, the sales manager wandered off to sell our comics to the manager for her Happy Meals. I was approached by the Arabic-language copyeditor.

"Will there be compensation for this?" A translator spoke for him.

I stared at him blankly. Compensation for being unexpectedly evicted, only to be told in McDonald's that you have a job but no office?

"You're joking, right?"

He shook his head earnestly.

"All the promises he made to us."

Bokra fil mish mish. When pigs fly.

I let loose on him, raised my voice and semi-yelled that I was having a bad day, that I didn't mean to be a bitch, but now was neither the time nor place to ask for more money, that we didn't even have an office. I wasn't nervous or excited—mostly I was just tired and annoyed that I was expected to rise to this challenge when I barely had any interest in holding down a regular job—and made a mental note that it was good of him to offer me the opportunity to show I was in charge.

(It later turns out that he's been asking something else, maybe for an apology from the bad guy in this scenario. Or maybe not. I better apologize to be on the safe side.)

And afterwards, the young woman who'd been offended by the harlot's jeans and T-shirt last week approached me timidly.

"You said some very bad things."

Bitch is so awful??

I suppressed a giggle. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ignore the Elephant in the Room

Let's take a moment out of our international business intrique theme to admire my new toaster, courtesy my pal Craig.

I haven't used it yet but I did have the opportunity to take it to the hotel bar. The toaster was not asked for proof of age.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Al-Boot, the Sequel

What is it with me and the boot? Twice in JC and now once in Cairo, during one of the few times that I was in a private car.

There's nowhere to park in this city. Freelance parking assistants hang around and guard spots, guide drivers into the spots, then demand baksheesh.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Band on the Run

I knew I had a good team here and in Kuwait.

I didn't know I had a GREAT team.

We were unexpectedly evicted from our office on Sunday morning. The guys have been out pounding the pavement since, looking for a new office—a department on the run, a production crew with their G4s stripped from their grasp (good luck with those password-protected Macs without power cords, dude, and isn't Firewire a marvelous fast tool in the way it can take away all someone's bargaining power in about 15 minutes.)—while I deal with executive matters in three time zones, hunched over my laptop in coffee shops. The Kuwait team, meanwhile, has picked up the slack without a hitch and without the merest grumble.

I should paste in something about not being killed, being stronger now. It's true. We're people without an office, a group without Macs except for personal laptops, but with these guys showing up for work after I gave them the week off, I think we're unstoppable. But all I can truly think about is iced coffee right now. And sleep. I'd love to sleep for a long time.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Too Tired to Blog

Some days, you go to work and push papers around.

Then there are days when a misguided former employee whose name is on the lease decides he wants thousands for the privilege of having been fired, closes the company, throws everyone out, and you are forced to flee with hard drives, subscription lists, and a five-pound Arabic-English dictionary. And then you run with 15 employees.

No one has arrested me yet. Hoping for the best. I don't want to go to jail anywhere, much less in Egypt.

It is disappointing how easily money corrupts people. How someone would hold 15 careers hostage in exchange for his own financial gain.

It goes without saying that he can stuff it. Bokra fi mish mish. That's like saying "On a cold day in hell" or "When pigs fly."

Saturday, August 04, 2007

It's Kind of Like Camping

I've made a few modifications to my hotel room.

First, I have a towel stuffed across one door to an adjoining room. Cairo is full of chain smokers, and I seem to have one on either side of me. What I really need are two of those stuffed dachsunds that keep out drafts.

Shannon suggested I set off the smoke detector a few times and blame it on the smokers. Maybe I could get the hotel to move them away from my super-sensitive smoke detector.

Next I have my mini-kitchen.


And in a week, I'm adding Craig's toaster to the mix. He's leaving. Don't worry about Craig's lack of toast, he can use my toaster in New Jersey. I don't even mind if he uses my salad spinner.

And if you're wondering "Is Marie really better off in the hotel instead of in a flat with a nice kitchen," your answer can be had here, in this photo of a typical kitchen in a reasonable Zamalek apartment.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Almost Legal

I braved the heat, metal detectors, female guard barking "Camera?", and bewildered masses to go to the second floor of Mugamma in search of a visa.

Mugamma is the hulking gray bureaucratic government building on the south end of Tahrir Square, near the Egyptian Museum and Nile Hilton. It's a scary place, and in summer, a hot place.

But it's not so hard to get a tourist visa, so I am starting with that one. You just do what everyone tells you to do, sweat a lot, fill out forms in blue ink, pay 11 pounds and 10 piastres, then go away for a while.

I have a tourist-resident visa good until January. Being an official tourist makes me think I should go to the Pyramids Sound and Light Show or something. Or visit the King Tut artifacts at the Egyptian Museum. Or fight with a taxi driver.

Not sure I could work up the energy for the first two, but the third is inevitable.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Jealousy without Borders

I manage 15 people in the Cairo office. Somewhat ineptly. I'm not a manager. I'm a writer. And sometimes I fake that I'm an editor. But really I specialize in being Marie. That doesn't pay very well, so here I am, pretending I can be some kind of general manager in a country not my own, managing people I barely understand.

But I understood them yesterday.

The secretary brought her cousin to work. A few weeks ago, she brought her nephew. I am a bit baffled by this as where I live it is not appropriate to bring family and friends to work, unless it is cleared in advance.

The secretary's cousin lives in Italy. She pranced in, wearing heels and tight jeans and T-shirt, with her hair and makeup flowing.

A little later, one of the women came in to my office, face creased with disapproval. (We only have three women out of 15 employees. Two of the three voluntarily wear the hijab. All are young and all have insatiable appetites for attention from the men in the office.)

"This creature is horrible. Have you seen the way she is dressed? It is not appropriate. You should always dress with respect to the culture you visit."

I glanced at my own jeans and short-sleeved shirt. And my hair was down today. The difference was the shoes, the make-up, and the age.

I made a non-committal noise and changed the subject. "Do people often bring their friends to work in Egypt?"

Later, the young employee fled the office she shares with four men. The "creature" was in there. The employee was outraged.

"I cannot stand the way they are talking! She says she wants to download a song and then they all jump up to help her! It is like, like..." Her voice streamed off. She lacked the English.

"Dogs in heat?" I finished brightly.

"Yes. I couldn't stand it any longer. I had to run away."

To the safe haven of the only other woman in a T-shirt. But me, I'm no threat. I might as well be seventy years old and retired to these young people. We laughed conspiratorily. Her with jealousy, me over universal behavior of us mammals.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Bridging the Gulf

Have you ever tried to explain Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo to a Gulf Muslim who has never seen South Park and whose first language is not English?

It was tricky. But I think I succeeded after first telling him the plot of the South Park movie, an academic film in which Canadians and Americans went to war over farting Canadian entertainers, and Saddam Hussein was the gay lover of Satan.

His response?

"So it is a realistic movie, not like this stuff," as he pointed to a comic book.