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.

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