Apartment searching in Cairo

University of Alaska Anchorage journalism student Linda Hardyman is spending a year abroad in Egypt. Each week, the Northern Light prints her first-hand account of her experiences in the Middle East. This week Hardyman delves into the logistics of apartment hunting.

CAIRO, Egypt—A week before final exams, I learned the university was closing the apartment I was living in, and I could either move into the dorm or find my own place. One of my roommates and I decided to use this occasion to experience life in Egypt outside the protective shelter of the university housing and transportation systems.

Looking for an apartment in Egypt involves using a broker. They work for a commission paid for by either the owner or the renter. Between classes, papers, exams and other end-of-semester deadlines, we met with two different brokers and looked at six places before finding the one we wanted. It’s furnished, in a nice neighborhood, with building security, and it’s only a two-minute walk to the subway station. We enthusiastically placed our deposit on it and set up a time to sign the lease.

When we arrived on the designated day our broker introduced us to the building manager, and we went upstairs to have a final look around before signing. The lease was written in both English and Arabic, and we went over it carefully, clause by clause, making a few changes to fit our particular circumstances.

The manager’s English was limited, and to compensate for this he spoke in a loud voice, and after every sentence he would say, “You understand?” He asked my roommate if she was married, and when she said yes he bluntly stated that he was looking for a wife because his died while giving birth to their fifth child. He then looked at me and asked if I was married. I almost said yes—but I didn’t.

The broker perked right up and said not to worry because he could find me a husband. I assured him I didn’t want a husband, but he kept insisting on how much fun they could be. Then he pointed to the manager and began to tell me what a great catch he was. He even pointed out I wouldn’t have to worry about giving birth because he already had five kids. The manager just looked at me and said, “You understand?” I did.

The tone of the discussion was lighthearted and jovial, but I decided to take a second look at the contract I was signing just to be sure there weren’t any added bonuses. The entire conversation reminded me of buying a not-so-good used car.

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Once the lease was signed, we all piled into the broker’s car and headed to the owner’s apartment to get his signature. The apartment owner, wearing a Middle Eastern style gown and a bath robe, greeted us at the door. The smoke-filled room had beer cans on the tables and there was a group of guys sitting around eating fast food; it looked as if we had broken up a party. A few places for us to sit were cleared off, introductions and greetings were made and we were offered tea.

With the formalities out of the way it was time to start negotiating. This was a surprise to me because I thought everything had already been agreed upon. The broker and the manager sat together on one side of the room with the apartment owner on the opposite side; my roommate and I sat in the middle. I felt as if I was a spectator at a strange sport where I couldn’t make out the rules. I sat there watching a volley of Arabic words, most of which I didn’t understand, being sent back and forth across the room. When I learned the owner wanted the rent paid six months in advance, I thought the deal was off. The negotiations went on for hours.

In the end, the lease was signed, the broker and the manager negotiated a 10 percent fee paid by the apartment owner, the changes we made in the lease were approved and we were set up to pay on a month-to-month basis.

As I walked out the door, I had no doubt in my mind that I’d started a new chapter in my book of Egyptian adventures.