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Moghamarat Monica: The 'Foreigner Only' Frustrations of Renting an Apartment in Cairo

What happens when a sharp-tongued Egyptian with a Canadian passport tries to rent apartments in Cairo’s ‘foreigners only’ world?

“I don’t need someone to teach me my manners, I need someone to sign off on this piece of paper so I can leave,” I said as I waited for my landlord to sign off on essentially receiving his apartment nicer than he’d handed it over. That morning, following a few days of passive aggressive messages, I was informed that I needed to be out of the apartment within the span of a couple of hours or else I owed him another month’s rent. He was just trying to corner me into giving him more money, because he dodged my calls to come sign off on receiving the keys to his apartment. That’s one way to start your Tuesday morning.

Since then, I’ve moved three times, frantically apartment hunting through every avenue I know. My entire experience – asking around, talking to bawabeen, scavengering through Craigslist, scouring the ‘Accommodations’ Facebook group, and dealing with brokers – can be summed up in one post:

Posted by Muhammed Hussein

I get that brokers rent apartments to ‘foreigners only’ because foreigners won’t call their bullshit and give them a hard time about every little detail the same way Egyptians will. I later learned that brokers jack up the prices for foreigners, too, because I guess foreigners are made of money. So, what happens when brokers, landlords, and bawabeen come across an Egyptian by birth – and by the sharpness of her tongue – who whips out her Canadian passport to rent a ‘foreigners only’ apartment?

Scenario One: Playing the Foreigner Card

Before learning why brokers rent to foreigners, I was told to pretend I don’t speak any Arabic and go see ‘foreigner only’ apartments. I showed up with my Sudanese-Canadian flatmate and, my goodness, you should’ve seen how well we faked our broken Arabic to complement our very Western English accents. Except this broker didn’t understand English. Or speak it. But he still insisted on communicating fully in English despite our explanation (read: plea) that we understand some Arabic. Basic questions like “how’s the water pressure?” took a good five minutes of back and forth that felt like everyone was speaking in tongues. He then started making appointments he didn’t bother showing up to because he went to sleep at 6 AM. As you can imagine, that’s when he found out that I’m quite fluent in rad7.

New broker; new apartments. After finding a place I liked, I phoned the new broker and told him I’m looking to rent with a Swiss flatmate; we agreed that him and another broker friend would be there for us to sign off on a contract. Great, right? I guess I didn’t specify that she was Pakistani by birth and Swiss by nationality, because both brokers and the bawab were equally baffled to be sitting across from two brown girls.

Reiterating my agreement with Broker A to Broker B prior to signing, the bawab interjects. That’s when all hell broke loose.

Me: “What do you mean we need to limit our visitors?”

Bawab: “Well, just the guys, they can’t always be here.”

Me: “We didn’t agree to this. So when can they be here?”

Bawab: “Not every day, maybe every once in a while… “

Me: “Are you going to keep a schedule of who walks in and out of my apartment?”

Bawab: “No, no, it’s just guys.”

Me: “So you’re going to keep a schedule of when guys walk in and out of my apartment?”

Bawab: “They just can’t be here late.”

Me: “How late is late?”

Bawab: “It’s not an exact time, just don’t have someone come at 6 PM and leave at 1 AM and tell claim ‘well, he didn’t spend the night’.”

Me: “So when are you going to kick them out? What’s your cutoff time? Be forward with me.”

Bawab: “We won’t kick anyone out.”

Me: “So we can only have visitors every few days, and they can’t stay for long periods of time, and they can’t stay past 1 AM…”

Broker: “No, no one said 1 AM.”

Me: “He just said 1 AM.”

Broker: “No, no. He just means they can’t be here at an indecent time.”

Me: “I already asked you to specify what time if you’re going to be this particular about it, because I don’t want someone knocking on our door telling someone they have to leave.”

Bawab: “No one will knock on your door. I have nothing to do with you.”

Me: “Then why are you arguing with me? What’s all of this about, then?”

Bawab: “You’ll just have your notice to leave the apartment the next morning.”

Yeah, that didn’t end well.

Since when did tenants need permission to have visitors over, anyway? How is this a thing anyone can control other than the tenants? ‘No crazy parties’ I understand, but limiting visitors based on their gender is absurd.

Scenario Two: Fool the Foreigners

Broker B tried to play buddy buddy with us after the bawab’s attempt at policing our existence, so claimed he had an apartment for us at a particular price. I wouldn’t be able to see the apartment since I was travelling, but my flatmate could do it. She made sure to express to the broker that her Arabic was very minimal so he could speak some English.

Capitalising on the fact that I wasn’t there and she wasn’t fluent in Arabic, he got her signing off on a number far higher than we had agreed because she wasn’t aware that we had previously agreed to a lower number. Cue Monica making phone calls and sending aggressive messages from all the way in Canada because the broker had tried to fool the foreigner. Perhaps this is why they don’t rent to Egyptians.

I managed to get a hold of the landlady herself, who told me that she never intended to rent the apartment for the price we were told. Figures. She subsequently fought me to the death about giving back my flatmate’s deposit, claiming she lived in Canada before and knew that, in Canada, if we cancelled on such short notice, there would have to be a penalty. “Canadian rental practices differ drastically from renting in Egypt, so there’s no basis for comparison – otherwise we wouldn’t even need to have this conversation.” And that’s how that ended.

Scenario Three: Egyptian Expectations on Foreigner Lifestyles

After a while, you get used to the questions. Before I could ask anything about any apartment, this would happen:

You know Ahmed Helmy’s 3asal Iswid, where he ends up having to show his American passport just to get anything done? Yeah, it was kind of like that, except not even the passport was enough. We weren’t their definitions of foreigners, what with our dark skin, hair, and eyes – what with my command of the Egyptian culture and dialect and tendencies. Let’s be honest, they didn’t just want foreigners with a passport, they wanted certain foreigners. They want Western foreigners who don’t have Eastern tendencies; Western foreigners who won’t ruin their place like an Egyptian would, who won’t be as careless, messy, and destructive. At least according to this person…

It’s not my Canadian passport that’ll make me courteous. It’s not my Canadian passport that’ll make me take care of an apartment. It’s not my Canadian passport that’ll ensure I’m not rambunctious. It’s not my Canadian passport that means I’m a good person. It’s not my Canadian passport that speaks for my ethics, values, manners, and tendencies.

That has nothing to do with my passport; that has to do with who I am and the way I was raised, and I was born and raised Egyptian.