Finding an apartment in Cairo mostly involves walking around aimlessly and sticking one's head into the doorways of random apartment buildings. One then has to find the bawab, or doorman and ask for a "sha'a" or apartment. Most of the time they'll say no.
In our case, we were quickly picked up by a Simsar, or real-estate agent, who led us around Zamalek, the leafy island in the Nile. We fell in love with the second apartment we saw and wanted to sign for it right away, hoping to avoid an exhausting day of flat-hunting.
The owner, Ashraf, met us in the apartment's living room and shook hands with me and my flatmates, Jess from Univ. of Rochester and Caitlin from UMich.
Ashraf embodies what I would imagine an Egyptian mafia boss to look like. His hair is slicked back and he wears shiny, shiny shoes that end in points. His cigarette bobs up and down between his lips as he runs wads of cash through his hands, counting the bills in record time. He uses his deep voice sparingly, clearly aware of its intimidating effect.
He offered us the place for more than we were willing to pay, saying he had previously made an agreement with three boys also studying at AUC for that price. We had to decline and left, crest-fallen.
We spent the remainder of the day trudging from one dissatisfying place to another. We finally collapsed at GAD, our favorite downtown Egyptian diner, for dinner and sat in frustrated silence, considering our options.
Suddenly, I saw that I had a missed phone call. It was Ashraf. All troubles were forgotten instantaneously and we tried to come up with a bargaining plan.
It turned out that the three boys had found the apartment too expensive and that he was now willing to give it to us for less (a likely story, as this logic not only didn't make sense, but he now claimed that they went to Cairo University, not AUC). We arranged a meeting for the next day, where we finally sealed the deal.
Lesson learned: never assume that the price given in Egypt is the actual price or that it cannot be bartered down. Sometimes leaving and showing no further interest can work in your favor.
My last few days have been spent settling into the new apartment, which has Nile-views from all three bedrooms and both balconies. It's light and airy and the bathrooms are comparatively clean. Of course, there are always hidden problems. The kitchen smells like there's a decomposing body under the sink (a thorough cleaning of the cabinets and walls has helped this somewhat), and showers are only sometimes warm and rarely hot. But I'm not complaining because living off-campus was the best decision I could have made. The students in the dorms are under strict surveillance, cannot have visits from members of the opposite sex and those on-campus have NOTHING to do, as they're in the middle of the desert.