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Notes to prospective teachers

Living and Working in Egypt

Introduction
The joy of working and living abroad is that one can embrace opportunities to really get to know other races, cultures and lifestyles, experience the differences that still remain between people and countries (despite the best efforts of TV companies to homogenise the world) and better one’s work practice and future prospects.

However, it is not uncommon for teachers moving to another country to be overwhelmed, or even dismayed, by the differences they find: seasoned ex-pat teachers will usually take ‘the weird stuff’ in their stride, but the international teaching scene is littered with tales of teachers who ‘couldn’t cope’ and went home early, which is, of course, a disaster for both the teacher and the school involved.

Which brings us to the reason this introduction to living in Cairo has been written.

With the right information, and support from your new colleagues, living and teaching in Cairo can and should be a very positive experience; by attempting to paint as full a picture as possible we hope that you will have a better idea of what it really is like here, and that, perhaps, you will decide to come and see for yourself why so many people are drawn to stay in Cairo (al-Qahira, “the Vanquisher”) – the capital of the country they call “Mother of the World.”

What’s it like in Cairo?
In a word – different. To quote Omar Sharif: “Cairo, my home. Marvellous and maddening, full of secrets and surprises, peopled with the whole spectrum of humanity.”

Security
Egyptians are a friendly people – “welcome to Egypt” is a phrase that we all hear daily. Even with the changing times, this remains one of the safer Capital Cities in the world although, of course, one should always avoid taking unnecessary risks or presenting an easy target for the opportunistic bag snatcher or pickpocket.

As this wonderful country evolves, following the changes which began in 2010, the advice given to foreign residents has, from necessity, to evolve to match. Thus, we now find that foreign embassies advise that one should avoid large crowds, demonstrations or other potential flashpoints. In reality, this is not difficult as the majority of protests or gatherings tend to concentrate in a select few locales, which are easily circumvented as we go about our daily routines. Indeed, we are very often unaware of any current events until we switch on the television!

Sadly, unrest in the Sinai has somewhat curtailed casual drives to this excellent region, but flights to the major resorts and dive centres are regular and cheap, and security in the main tourist areas, such as Hurghada, Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab,  remains very good.

Day to day
Living expenses are, at times, ridiculously low, meaning that catching a cab, impulse shopping or dining out regularly are pleasures one doesn’t have to save up for, as in so many other countries. Living expenses are, at times, ridiculously low, meaning that catching a cab, impulse shopping or dining out regularly are pleasures one doesn’t have to save up for, as in so many other countries.

The single most complained-about phenomenon here is the traffic. At first encounter it seems madcap, hectic and immensely scary but, as with most things in life, a little time acclimatising is usually enough for most of us to come to terms with it and even (say it softly) for some of us to enjoy driving here. Downtown, the heavy traffic is cause for some quite severe air pollution, but as you move into the suburbs, or even further out, the air quality improves rapidly – our school is 30 minutes from the suburb of Heliopolis, on a good day, and the difference in the air between here and central Cairo is remarkable!

A common and ever-present irritation when living here is dust. Considering Cairo is surrounded by desert (in fact, about 90% of Egypt is desert!) this is hardly surprising, but it does mean that leaving windows open for the day while at work is not always a good idea, especially when it’s windy, or when the Khamasin, a hot southerly wind from the desert, blows in the spring.

Of course, being a desert country, one immediately thinks that the climate here is hot, hotter and hottest all year round, but this is not the case. Although summer temperatures do peak in the 40’s Celsius (when most of us are on holiday elsewhere), it actually gets cold in the winter, especially at night, so a jumper or light coat is a good idea. Fortunately, the cold period is a short one and autumn and spring are delightful.

Practicalities
Egypt is predominantly a Muslim country – only around 10% of the population are Coptic Christian. Unlike many other countries, Muslims in Egypt are generally very tolerant of other faiths and respect Jews and Christians as “people of the Book,” but it does make sense to make sure that one does not cause offence, especially on first arrival in the country.

Egypt is predominantly a Muslim country – only around 10% of the population are Coptic Christian. Unlike many other countries, Muslims in Egypt are generally very tolerant of other faiths and respect Jews and Christians as “people of the Book,” but it does make sense to make sure that one does not cause offence, especially on first arrival in the country. Foreigners, especially women, usually wear sensible clothing. Loose, comfortable cotton clothing with highish necklines and hems below the knee, tops usually with sleeves or half-sleeves for the ladies, and sports shirts or T-shirts with light slacks for the men being the usual conservative choice for most. Obviously, women displaying bare midriffs or wearing mini skirts and the like will inevitably attract unwanted attention or comments – this can, at times, be intense and upsetting. It should be remembered that Muslims of both sexes are required to be ‘modest’ in all things, so some of our western clothes and manners can sometimes seem shocking; if in doubt, common sense and some sensitivity will rarely steer you wrong.

Egyptians love to talk, especially with visitors to their country, but until you have been here a while it is probably best if you avoid any intense discussions on politics or religion – technically, an attempt (real or imagined) to proselytise here could result in deportation! Generally, though, you will soon find plenty of opportunities to make Egyptian friends and feel comfortable, relaxed and able to discuss everything and anything even more freely than we normally do back home.

Shopping
There are very, very few things you cannot find in Cairo shops. From the crowded and exotic souks to the latest and brightest malls and supermarkets, one can find almost everything imaginable on sale here – often at bargain prices. However, if you love Branston pickle, you’ll have to bring a supply with you! Fast food stores with familiar names sit side by side with traditional street-food vendors and one can easily find every class of restaurant from cheap and cheerful to snobby and pricey. There is a tradition of home delivery here that continues to astound in its variety; Lebanese, Italian, French, Mexican, Indian, American, Chinese, Thai and, of course, Egyptian and Middle Eastern are only some of the choices one faces. Eating out is generally very safe and quite affordable and the older hands at school are always only too happy to share their favourite places. Despite being predominantly Muslim, Egypt has an abundance of bars and restaurants where one can find beers, spirits and wines – the attitude to drinking here is quite accepting and relaxed – and there are a number of companies who will deliver a good selection of drinks to your door for a very nominal charge. For those feeling homesick there are even a few clubs catering for the ex-pat community: fish and chips on Thursday night is one very popular option!

Clothes, electronics and suchlike are plentiful and as varied in availability as in most high streets back home, although book lovers will find the prices high and the choices limited; we tend to do a lot of book swapping between ourselves, or visit the British Club’s library. Alternatively, if you have a ‘Kindle’ you can download your favourite books from Amazon.co.uk.

As for medicines, one can find just about anything available in Europe, usually quite cheaply. It can provide a jolt when you first realise how much more than the actual cost of any medication the prescription fee is when paying back home! Also, most drugs are available over the counter, with no need for a doctor’s note.

Leisure
Of course the major tourist attractions rank high on the list for first-time visitors – it never fails to astound just how close the pyramids and sphinx are to the city of Cairo, and major sites of interest, such as Saqqara, Abu Sir and, of course, the justly famous Egyptian museum, are all easily reachable. Beyond the obvious tourist destinations though, lies a whole world of fascinating and intriguing possibilities. Stroll around Coptic Cairo, dive into the narrow alleys of Khan el Khalili, breathe the heady aromas of perfume essences, shisha bars (water pipes filled with aromatic tobaccos) and Turkish coffee; linger over mezza as you watch the world go by your table, haggle for “Rolex” watches or rugs; listen to authentic Bedouin musicians or a jazz band; watch in amazement as Sufi dancers whirl in a kaleidoscope of colour.......there really are too many options to list in a short piece like this.

Of course the major tourist attractions rank high on the list for first-time visitors – it never fails to astound just how close the pyramids and sphinx are to the city of Cairo, and major sites of interest, such as Saqqara, Abu Sir and, of course, the justly famous Egyptian museum, are all easily reachable. Beyond the obvious tourist destinations though, lies a whole world of fascinating and intriguing possibilities. Stroll around Coptic Cairo, dive into the narrow alleys of Khan el Khalili, breathe the heady aromas of perfume essences, shisha bars (water pipes filled with aromatic tobaccos) and Turkish coffee; linger over mezza as you watch the world go by your table, haggle for “Rolex” watches or rugs; listen to authentic Bedouin musicians or a jazz band; watch in amazement as Sufi dancers whirl in a kaleidoscope of colour.......there really are too many options to list in a short piece like this.

In addition, you can catch the latest movies in any one of the many cinemas that abound – at the City Stars mall, for example, there are usually at least a half-dozen U.S. or British movies to choose from, and societies like the French Cultural Association regularly show classic movies or the latest art-house shorts. At home you can affordably arrange to receive one of the three major cable networks showing everything from Hollywood blockbusters to the English Premiership, as well as BBC World, CNN and Al Jazeera English for news, and a good selection of special interest TV channels.

For the more active there are any number of gyms and sports resorts with all the usual facilities – pools, tennis courts, golf courses and driving ranges and so on. Once here it pays to ask around to find the best facilities for you, at the most affordable price. Alternatively, it’s easy to be active and social if you like clubbing, since there are a goodly number of discos and night spots which stay open until half past very late. Did we mention that Cairenes never seem to sleep?

At Home
Although apartments here are becoming pricier by the day, it seems, it is still possible to find an attractive and well-furnished place to live, with a little effort, and within a sensible budget. Many people moving here for the first time find it awkward that most of us have a cleaner to keep the house tidy, especially when they realise how little it costs (a month’s wage can be less than a good meal for two Downtown) but it should be remembered that, by offering employment you will be helping to support, in all probability, a large extended family. Similarly, you will find that your apartment block has a boab (doorman) or two, for whose services you will be expected to pay a trifle each month; it’s worth it, for their duties include keeping the building tidy, arranging repairs in your flat, finding a plumber or electrician and making sure that the delivery boy doesn’t outstay his welcome or overcharge you. A good boab is worth his weight in gold, in all truth.

Utilities are not overly expensive here – although the electricity bills do rise during the summer months (when your air conditioning will be on practically all the time) the gas bills are a pleasant shock, amounting to very little each month. If only somebody would invent a gas powered AC unit!

Money and Language
The language most often heard in Cairo is colloquial Arabic, but it is possible to get by using only English. However, making the effort to learn just a few phrases in Arabic really pays off, since the difference in people’s attitudes and reactions when you try to talk to them in their language is remarkable and, of course, haggling over a taxi fare is so much more fun! Having said that, a recent innovation is the ‘white’ taxi, an innovation where quite new cabs with air conditioning work only on the meter, and fares do NOT need to be argued over. An essential, though, is to get to grips with the Arabic numbers, or at least how they are written, otherwise working out the price of anything can be a real challenge. If you can read from 1 to 10 in Arabic you can get by.

Since the basic necessities are quite cheap, it is possible to live extremely well on a salary which, looked at with British expectations, can seem quite low. As an example, a full-on supermarket shopping trip for a family will see two trollies fully packed with enough to stock up the store cupboard, food for a week or two and plenty of steak, chicken and pizzas to fill the freezer for, perhaps, LE 1500 or less. Asda price doesn’t come near, in truth. Travel is similarly cheap, with tickets for the Metro or for the tram system (confusingly also called the Metro) mere pennies, and short taxi rides commonly costing LE 7 to 10, or less than one Pound Sterling. Train tickets to Alexandria, Luxor or other major destinations are also very cheap.

With the low cost of living here it is quite easy to afford some quite spectacular holidays during the school year. Common destinations include the Red Sea, where the diving is spectacular, and where you can get PADI certification cheaper than just about anywhere in the world; Jordan, with Petra high on the list of “must see” places; the Mediterranean, with southern Europe and Cyprus easily reachable; South Africa and its neighbouring countries, for the ‘must do’ safari holiday. Of course, one does not, normally, attempt to visit countries which are subject to turmoil or disturbance, but there are still many other holiday possibilities within Egypt itself in addition to the Red Sea resorts, desert safaris and oases being very popular, for example.

Summary
Hopefully you will now have a somewhat better idea of the appeal of Egypt, and Cairo in particular, for foreign teachers and workers. There are dozens of good books which are targeted at tourists and which can furnish you with a lot more details than here; Lonely Planet is excellent, as is The Rough Guide. The American University Press in Cairo publishes a good selection of books which are invaluable, especially “Cairo, The Practical Guide” which sells for LE 80 or so.

There are innumerable societies and interest groups in Cairo which, together with new colleagues and new friends can make a stay here busy, sociable and enjoyable: there really is no reason at all to feel left out or isolated (unless you want to, of course.) And after a very short time most of us feel right at home and not at all a ‘stranger in a strange land.’

Any of the ex-pats at the school will be only too pleased to add to this brief introduction, and give their perspective – just ask. Then, Insh’Allah, we’ll look forward to showing you some of the above mentioned delights in the near future.

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