I arrived in Cairo by night and a friend came to pick me up at the airport. I lived with him for a few days on Hoda Sharaawy Street, looking for a flat. He showed me how to deal with taxi drivers, how to catch microbuses. With him I tried my first fuul, aubergines, potatoes and sugarcane juice.
Pelle came to Egypt three years ago. He speaks Arabic fluently. He took me into small alleyways and through tangled paths amid the tall buildings of Cairo. Every sentence, gesture, expression of Pelle's looked spontaneous. Everything in the city looked surreal to him. Everything I knew at that time about this infernal city I had learned from him. Above all I could feel the peace in the middle of that mess: how tiny paradises were hidden in that hell of cars that hinder men.
I started looking for a flat with him, too. The first time we went to Agouza, where he used to live. Once there, I felt lost. The place seemed eerie, I didn't have any reference point. I felt alone and far from anything I knew. Pelle asked the Saidi doorkeeper of his building about a certain flat. This old man, dressed in a long dark galabeya, had deep wrinkles due to his old age. He was very kind with me and he showed me the home of the teacher living on Pelle's upper floor. Unfortunately he didn't know the day when the flat would be available. One evening the Saidi offered me a cigarette. I refused but he said, according to Pelle's translation: "None of this in the Saidis' kingdom".
I accepted a cigarette and I smoked it. His semsar (housing agent) friend, Mohammad, who used to sit all day in a cafeteria, took us to old and dilapidated flats. He used to complain about a continuous rise in rents that had reached vertiginous sums within a few months. We were searching in a central area, full of foreigners, especially Sudanese, ready to pay huge amounts, but Mohammad could not believe how a flat for LE500 per month could go for LE1,500 one month later. We visited a yellow building in Abdeen, in the middle of the rubble of near-by buildings and the loudspeakers of a mosque. Here a woman showed us a flat: filthy walls, broken chairs, split-up windows, not bad. Waiting for the keys, we visited the upper floor where 15 Russians used to live. They went out to attend the Orthodox Christmas mass. While they were passing I noticed red hand prints on the staircases' walls: signs of the Eid of Sacrifice.
In one flat, Pelle told me, used to live an Italian girl. When she came back to Egypt from holidays, she found the lock had been replaced; a French guy was living at her place. No sign of her stuff, but she recovered some of it after a trial. The owner tore the contract, saying: "Words matter more than documents". Pelle, viewing my astonished expression, said, "But you could take the Perrin's flat".
I didn't know much about this French girl, only that she had had a serious accident. Disappointed, I decided to try responding to foreigners' announcements. I went to Dokki, where two German guys were living in a skyscraper. Later I visited the flat in 88 Kasr Al Aini Street. I liked that flat from the beginning but I couldn't afford the rent alone. So I had to look for flatmates. That same day, the French girl informed everybody by e-mail that she could not come back: her pelvis was shattered by a microbus while she was crossing the street.
So I visited her small flat. The price was LE1,700. Good light was came through the windows. The building was located at the corner of Mohammed Farid and Mohammed Mahmoud streets. The smell of subsidised bread came up through the staircase. That alley was very dull. The doorkeeper had a inquiring glance, seated on a plastic chair in front of a carpenter's workshop. Here and there a tiny electrician, a grocer, a tailor and a fuul seller came out. A group of old men would play cards outside a garage, near a small gym. There was a tiny cafeteria each side of the street, a laundry service, a mechanic, a juice seller. Cars stopped suddenly; stray dogs and weasels turned around.
I kept open all three possibilities. The teacher's flat fell through because of her uncertainty regarding the date of her departure. I might accept the 88 Kasr Al-Aini flat with the German boy. Finally, I went for the flat of the accident.
But how did I find the Kasr Al Aini flat? And why did I refuse to live in it? Kasr Al-Aini shares the districts of Garden City, Mounira and the popular area of Sayeda Zeinab. It is so crowded that the noise of horns and people's nerves are felt by pedestrians. There is continual coming and going of young foreigners: feasts, music, the attitude of young people looking so impressive to Egyptians when they realize how such joy is unavailable to them. Indeed, while the old doorkeeper of their building questions every person who enters, asking who is he and where is he going, in the Kasr Al-Aini building the coming and going is continuous, day and night, unchecked.
On one January night I was waiting for a woman at the main door of No. 88, while a blond boy stood aside, near a juice seller. Mrs. Mona was looking for new tenants on the third floor. Her home was big and ancient but only foreigners, such as rich Saudi Arabians or Arabs from the Emirates, could afford the LE3,000-3,500 rent. This middle- aged woman with long hair had rarely visited that home, available only for rent. She passed it off as brand-new and stated that a Spanish woman, who had lived there before, used to pay LE3,500 by herself.
In a meeting at the French Institute of Culture of Mounira, near No. 88, I glanced at a girl. She understood that I was looking for a flat and before talking, she handed me a scrap of paper with the number of Mona, the owner of her upper flat where she had been living with a Canadian. The next Sunday at No. 88, Mona arrived by jeep, parked it near a petrol station. I was already there, waiting in a near-by cafeteria with my friend Pelle. The flat was open. We entered.
A woman was cleaning the rooms and an electrician was repairing cables. The flat appeared in the sunlight in its colonial guise, wooded with ancient doors, white windows, a small hall, another one with old sofas and a small balcony, a sitting room with a long wooden table and ancient furniture, two rooms with two beds, another balcony, a bathroom and a half, and a kitchen. It seemed that those walls could talk, tell stories of feasts, dances, meetings. A dim light penetrated from the windows and cleared the colours.
My friend Pelle, called khawaga by the attendant, was speaking in Arabic with Mona, though not about the rent. I was waiting for the arrival of a possible English flatmate. The Englishman, short and blond, arrived after a short delay. He visited the flat, but when he was about to sign the contract, he asked for a private chat with me: "My woman lives upstairs and her flat is so similar to this one that the idea of living here bothers me. I'm sorry, you may think I'm crazy, but I would rather quit."
I did not expect that and said to Mona that everything would start again from the beginning. She gave some extra time. A few minutes later, a German girl arrived. I wrote an announcement on a list on the internet that brings together Cairo's foreigners. The German girl, breathless, visited the flat.
She gave her verdict with a glance: "Everything is false. They painted it but it's old. It's a swindle, have you seen the toilet, the old kitchen? How cold it is!" Pelle, impressed by the words of the German, said: "Look at the shutters, but don't worry!" However, to my eyes that place had a special charm; it looked like it belonged to the past. The German girl would not consider that. Therefore, I asked for extra time to look for a new flatmate. A few evenings later, I returned with a German boy. Mona came over with the keys. The German found the flat amazing and we decided to rent it together. Some evenings later, people continued flowing into No. 88, foreigners with their black bags full of alcoholic drinks. The street was full of the laughter of long-haired girls. During a feast, the German told everyone how he had found the flat and what a bizarre Italian he had met.
"At the first meeting," he was saying, "we were just talking about life in Cairo and my need to learn English. I had visited the flat with him and had decided to take it. However, a day later the Italian called me to retract. When we met, the Italian told me that he had found two cheaper flats. And he left all three possibilities open until the last minute, as every good Egyptian should. The first was on Hoda Sharaawy in the building of a friend. The second in Abdeen, left empty by a woman involved in an accident. In order to compensate for changing his mind, he showed me the small and dark flat in Hoda Sharaawy, a hole where a blond and curly- haired teacher used to live. This flat could be shared for a cheaper price. But I could never accept it, I longed for a romantic and ancient 'colonial' home on the Kasr Al-Aini. I easily found an American and later, during a football match, a Palermitan with whom to share it".
This was my first weak in Cairo as a foreigner. After years, I'd like to swear at Italians who pointed me to the flat I finally chose in Abdeen, at the water pump that had to be turned on, at the rough and mean owner living in the same building, at the doorkeeper who controls night and day the coming and going, at the staircase full of cats, bones, plastics, dirty as a continuation of the alley, at the dust, at the heat that makes the nights so oppressive.