-Where were you born?
-In which country and city are you living now?
-Are you living alone or with your family?
With Mr S.
-How long have you been living in Egypt?
Am now going into my 7th year in Cairo, 3rd with Mr S
-What is your age?
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Egypt?
I studied Arabic at university (in Scotland) and as part of our studies we had to spend 6 months in Cairo. I was not enamoured with the city, or the people. Before entering my final year, a friend I was studying with convinced me to return for one month to take a language course. I eventually agreed, returned, and fell in love with the place. I decided then and there to return the following year when I'd graduated.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
Getting a one month tourist visa can be done on arrival at the airport ($15). After one month, it can be renewed for up to three months. This rule has just been introduced (previously it could be for up to, and sometime over, a year).
To get a work permit a company has to sponsor you. First you need to get change the visa status to 'temporary resident' and then you get the 'temporary residence with work permitted'. An HIV test is also required (unless you are married to an Egyptian citizen). Without company sponsorship it is impossible to get this type of visa. Company sponsorship is not easy to come by once in the country, in part because the company must argue it cannot find an Egyptian to do the job and must employ nine local staff for every foreign staff member.
In short, to get a working permit was very hard.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
It was impossible (in 2002) unless I wanted to pay BUPA ridiculous amounts, as I was here independently i.e., no company paying my way. There is now a local company that provides local health insurance (http://www.horizon-online.com). I was with them for a year (later my status changed) and they were very professional. As it is local, there is no medivac abroad, but you can get treated in any hospital or with any doctor and they will reimburse within two weeks provided with appropriate documentation and receipts.
-How do you make your living in Egypt? Do you have any type of income generated?
I found a job a few months after I got here. It was not easy. First if you are hired locally, more often than not you are paid local wages. Fair enough in principle, but when local wages will barely even cover your rent in a shared apartment, it makes the search pretty tough. There are (or were) plenty of companies that did not want a work permit, so in reality, it was not an issue.
The biggest problem was that interviews often seemed to be with middle-aged men who saw a girl with blonde hair and almost offered a job before the interview began. Inevitably, the jobs offered involved working closely with said man and were neither what I was looking for, nor what I was qualified to do. Other job offers were purely because I was foreign, and my qualifications (or lack of them) were ignored. One example was being offered a position as a manager of a textile factory. Part of my job description would be to travel to Europe to do sales. I had never set foot inside a factory (had no real interest either) and certainly had no idea how to handle a workforce of over 100, never mind how to sell a peanut to a monkey. When I suggested that there may be a lot of Egyptians who were far better qualified and experienced to do this job, I was told that I would be an asset because I was, wait for it, blonde! Needless to say, I declined.
Currently I freelance for a market research company in the UK. The work is online and I found it through a friend who worked for the company.
-Do you speak Arabic and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs.
I do speak and read Arabic. It does help, however, it is better to learn in an established language school. There are plenty of courses for expats, but outside the top (and that doesn't necessarily mean expensive) language schools, I don't see the students being pushed enough. It's not necessary to be fluent at all, but to be able to hold a semi-decent conversation helps. With focused study, it can be done in 3-6 months at places like the French consulate or Kalimat in the colloquial/ameya classes. Learning just the bare minimum, from what I've seen, leaves people extremely frustrated and doesn't actually help much.
As for local customs, it is definitely important to be aware of them. Conservative dressing is commonly cited, but also physical affection in public, touching of any sort with the opposite sex can raise eyebrows.
Some customs are rarely explained to foreigners. One example is the concept of tipping and paying more for taxis. Essentially there is a feeling amongst the majority of foreigners that they are being, or going to be ripped off, because they are foreign. In the case of the black and white taxis there are no set fares, payment is an agreement between you and the driver. A taxi driver will often take a poor Egyptian for a nominal fee and a rich Egyptian on the same journey for a much higher fee. The concept across Egypt is that you pay according to what you can afford (within reason of course!!). As a foreigner you pay more because undoubtedly, even if you are on a budget, you have more money than poor Egyptians. Most of the time it has nothing to do with being ripped off, it's more of a social welfare (unless you are a tourist, or going to or from either a tourist site or a major hotel). With tipping, it is not an optional extra: this is what pays the waiters' wages. A bare minimum of 10% is paid, with many Egyptians leaving more than that – again, based on how much they can afford.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes? Describe your favourite recreational activities there or those that are available.
I'm a bit of a nomad at heart, so I don't think I have ever been homesick. I go to Gold's gym here and it's well run. There is riding in various stables in Giza (not at the Pyramids, the horses are overworked). There is a desert valley/canyon called Wadi Degla near Maadi (the expat suburb) and it's a good place for walking dogs, running and cycling. At the weekend, there is are almost unlimited possibilities: desert camping, trips to oases, windsurfing, kitesurfing, diving, snorkelling, hiking, health spas, golf and probably more I've forgotten. There are also numerous art and craft classes on offer in Maadi by CSA, the expat community centre. The Cairo Opera House has an online programme and some good performances from local and international artists.
Swimming is something I miss. As a non-American and someone without children, or a company that pays for club membership, I have access to no swimming pools. Some of the 5* hotels have pools available for day-use, but cost wise, it's too expensive to have it as a regular activity.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
We plan to stay in Egypt for a couple of years more and then move abroad again.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it? (or give a ballpark figure on how much a home with X number of rooms would cost in your area)
We are renting. In Maadi (expat suburb), nice apartments are priced in US Dollars (or occasionally in Euros) and for 'Western' type apartments it's usually $2500 - $6000 depending on the size. We know someone with an apartment for $3000 with three bedrooms and bathrooms, someone else who had a semi-detached two floor house with a swimming pool for $2000, someone else with a triplex on the top of a building for $6000, someone else with a colonial villa, large garden and swimming pool for $6000 and someone else an apartment for $1000. The quality of the finishing, the state of repair and proximity to the major schools all affect price.
Outside Maadi, there are compounds where new unfurnished villas with pools located near golf courses cost upwards of $7000/month. At the other end of the spectrum, student-type budgets can rent places for $100/month. For female students, these may not be in areas they are comfortable living in, but for male students, they're fine.There's also plenty of options inbetween.
-What is the cost of living in Egypt?
It's cheaper than Europe, but getting more expensive, as it is elsewhere. If you buy local products, life is definitely cheaper. If you opt for imported products then the cost can rise substantially.
-What do you think about the locals? (also how they treat foreigners)
I have to divide this into three categories:
- First the locals working at tourist sites: often extremely annoying, pushy and rude.
- Second the locals who work in Maadi (expatville): not particularly welcoming, but also not unwelcoming, they see many foreigners come and go and too many rich foreigners complaining about minor problems and flashing their cash and flaunting their foreignness.
- Third, Egyptians in most other places: really lovely, warm, friendly. They can be anyone from shopkeepers to taxi drivers to social peers. If you are lucky enough to make good friends with people from this group, particularly social peers, these are probably the best friends you will ever have. Superficially, customs may be different, clothes may be different, body language may be different, but underneath, as people, they are just wonderful. Unfortunately, it is this last group, ironically the majority, that it is hard to get in contact with as an expat, especially living in Maadi. The only way I know about them is through my previous work, making friends through dancing salsa and meeting those friends' friends and living outside Maadi for years.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Egypt?
Positive: the people, great weather, money goes further expanding the range of opportunities and activities available and often leading to ample time for a full and varied social life, exposure to another culture.
Negative: being confronted by stark poverty, frustrations about not being able to get simple things done, and as a woman not being able, in many cases, to be listened to properly, traffic, pollution.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Egypt?
Egypt is an extremely hard environment for professional life. This is not something that can be fully appreciated on a 'look-see' trip. Frustrations are not insignificant, and often arise from ridiculous time-wasting activities that cannot be circumvented and result in long working hours.
Similarly, life outside the office is full of ridiculous problems in the house that on the face of it could be solved in ten minutes, but in reality take silly amounts of time. Problems with cleaners (essential to have as the dust levels are incredible) are another bane, nannies – one lady left her baby with her new local nanny only to come home and find nanny breastfeeding her child - and repairmen can take over your life if you let them; the list of these problems is long. Most of them are not life-or-death problems, but multiply individual problems like this by ten and they can send you around the bend. Again, understanding just how frustrating and time-consuming solving seemingly minor problems can be is impossible until you are here.
As for life as a woman in Cairo, single or not, harassment on the street is extremely commonplace. Baggy, OPAQUE clothes, particularly tops (note: not wide necklines that reveal any more flesh if you bend forward) and jeans are wardrobe staples. Not essential in Maadi, but best elsewhere.
Money and misc:
- Try not to pay in exact money, try to get change wherever possible as it is always needed.
- Keep money in multiple places – handbag, trouser pockets. On the off chance that you have a bag stolen or get pick-pocketed (in seven years it has happened to only one person I know, but just in case), you won't be out of money.
- Major chains accept credit cards, the majority of shops and services are cash only.
- Keep a photocopy of your passport in your bag (legally ID is supposed to be carried at all times, but a photocopy is allowed of passports).
- The women's carriages are in the MIDDLE of the tube/metro trains, not at the front (it changed a year or so ago, but most travel guides have not updated this info).
- It is considered extremely ill mannered to shout at someone in Egypt. It is far more effective to calmly ask for a manager, or try another route of questioning. Smiling, albeit through gritted teeth, while doing this is also more effective. Shouting will get a reaction, but respect will often be lost on the spot. Egyptians do shout, but not in the first instance. As a foreigner, you are expected to show more respect.
- If you have a bag with alcohol in, it is best to carry it yourself. Many, but not all, Muslims in Egypt may not care if you drink it, but most would just rather not come into even indirect contact with it.
- Buy suntan lotion abroad. Often bottles in Egypt are out of date, or fake!
- Buy a car seat for your child(ren) abroad as (I have been told) the selection here is not great.
Key to being happy in Egypt is not to look at what is going wrong, but to focus on the things in life that go right – even if they are small. A great deal of patience is required to live here happily. Constant complaining, a favourite pastime of many, sours what is potentially a highly rewarding experience.
At little note: if you are thinking of moving to Egypt and would like to know whether a deal you have been offered is enough to live on, please give a little detail of yourself. A budget for a student or recent graduate would be different than for an engineer with kids and 20 years experience. Voluntary and private sectors are different too. Also, add what you like or want to do in your spare time, because this will impact what area of town you can/should stay in and rents you can expect to pay.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Egypt?
I have a blog Trailing Grouse (http://trailinggrouse.com) which I update regularly. There are archives going back nearly three years and a directory of some useful places.
A good source for Egypt 'tips' is Whazzup Egypt !!! (http://whazzupegypt.blogspot.com).