Are you doing OK in Cairo?

It’s been almost three weeks in Cairo, and this is the first time I can put my thoughts together to write a few lines. 

On the personal side, I first had to decide on a place to live. Work is in Nasr City (closer to the airport), which is not the most happening place in town. On the other hand, the city centre is 17 km away. So I went for a trial and error approach, given that these days, short term flat rentals give you this option. First week, I opted for a small thing close to the office (5 m cycling). The part of town was super busy, and the flat dark and cold. Not the best idea. The second week, I went for Heliopolis, a suburb with a nice turn of (last) century neighborhood. That was fine, but a bit isolated. Weirdly, the commute (6km) went across big axes which were not easy to cross with a bicycle. I had also a weird, New York based landlady who was trying to control my life on the basis of the reports from the doorman (e.g., are you feeding the cats? Do you cycle to work?) The third week, given that my son was coming, I opted for Zamalek in the Gezira island (I thought I had to entertain my visitor). Nothing is more central, and at the same time it’s a bit of a place that feels secluded back in time.  The commute (16 km) is in fact quite feasible and the neighborhood is incredibly rich and diverse. So, after a few days, I decided to settle here, found a broker, and walked around the island for an afternoon. I visited some interesting places which were not all suitable to living, and finally found my two bedroom small spot in a 1940/1950s building, fourth floor, super quiet street. It’s furnished with simple 1950/1960s stuff which have a bit of a retro feel. I love the wooden floor. Most importantly, I got myself a Boukhara carpet as a housewarming present.

Cycling in Cairo is really an adventure. In a way, it’s scary as streets were not designed for that. It’s either made of clogged small streets or 5-lane express ways that go fast. But in fact, with good lights and a bit of situational awareness, it’s very feasible. From Zamalek, I leave at sunrise, go through Tahrir square, the empty souk and then the city of the deads. It’s very scenic. But the difficulties do not stop with riding, they also come with parking. Anywhere you show up, they welcome big, noisy, and polluting 4WDs. But when you arrive with a bicycle they look at you as if you were a menace to society. The first answer is NO NO. So it takes a bit of innocent look and then they find you a spot. The regional office is a bit of an exception. I am a source of amusement for the security guards. The position I hold gives me the privilege a dedicated parking lot where I park my bike, leaving enough space for the administrative assistant of the department to park her car. She is quite happy to make use of the spot. My GIANT bicycle is holding well so far, even though the gear control broke. I found a bicycle repair shop in the Zamalek island. He ordered a shimano replacement which he got overnight and I was up and running in no time.

So what about life after cycling and looking for a place to live? Have not started to experiment too much, but I can’t wait to explore more. Cairo is big, chaotic and noisy, but it’s also bustling with life. Somehow it feels good to be more part of what life is for the majority of the world population (rather than in place so privileged like Geneva). I already did the pyramids twice and look forward to exploring the mosques, the Egyptian geographical society and the millions of treasures that Cairo holds.

I should also say a word about work. My daily professional life has changed a lot in three main ways. I am working in the Eastern Mediterranean region, at the regional office level and in a director position. About the region, it’s really a source of fascination. I like a lot how the culture, the language and the religion bring a bit of unity in diversity. It’s also stunning to see what the organization has been able to achieve in countries that have faced protracted emergencies. It’s a daily luxury to work with a diverse team, mostly diverse from within the region. The nationalities range from Iranian to Pakistan and Morocco (with of course many Egyptians and a few outliers like Sri Lankans and odd Europeans). Our regional director is a wise compassionate man from a country that has been quite smart at avoiding taking side at some of the recent polarized conflicts. I take a lot of pleasure at observing the various cultural patterns and how they function together. At lunch, the Egyptian administrative assistants order food and we picnic together. It reminds me of how we used to do that when I worked for an Indian institution in Chennai. About the regional office level, I discover a new way of operating, being really the second line of support to countries after the country offices.  The regional office also comes with its own set of procedures and rites, like the regional governing bodies meeting. So there will be a lot of learning. About the director position, it’s working better than I had anticipated. I was a bit afraid to have to be in a big office waiting for things to sign. I actually discover that there are a lot of proactive things one can do in this position to support the team, help them on the strategic side and work at an intermediate connection between daily work and the senior management. Last but not least, I like the building a lot. It has this regional feel and the office space is very pleasant. 

So in conclusion, I can only say: So far so good. I really want to reassure you that I am doing well in a nice livable spot, doing a lot of funky cycling, and making lot of wondering discoveries at work. And you? Are you having fun? Is your daily life bringing you its share of surprises and excitement? Well, if you face a dull moment, come and visit, I have a home now with an extra room.