I had always wanted to live in Cairo but my wife, who is Egyptian, was unpatriotically reluctant. "Don't worry," I said. "It won't be forever." Finally, she agreed after I secured a book deal to write about the Egyptian desert.
At first, we were going to rent, but in the posh suburb of Maadi, where we wanted to live, it proved too expensive. A large detached villa in a pleasant garden can rent for £3,500 a month. A ground-floor apartment with a strip of garden is cheaper at £1,300 a month.
Not so different from Oxford, the place we had moved from. We found out that buying is much cheaper. A two-bedroom apartment can be as little as £15,000. A four or five-bedroom apartment was around £50,000-£70,000 in the new part of Maadi.
I could just afford that, just, without a mortgage. Long ago I had dreamed of being able to slap my money down on the table and pick up a set of keys without awaiting the verdict of the building society.
Everyone had warnings about buying in Egypt. "It'll take two years to find the right house. Get a private detective to spy on the neighbours first. Make sure they don't sell it twice- and if they do, move in first." No one, however, suggested a carrying out a survey.
There is a certain amount of red tape to be followed, but no one is scared of failing to comply" alongside all the rules is a parallel universe of vague illegality. Take registering the property once you've bought it. This requires the seller to pay a tax. Unregistered properties are common since a notarised sale is also legal, though not as legal as registration. Nothing is black and white.
Finding a house is easy, when you know the system. First, you'll need a simsar, a man known to every doorman on the street as the guy who knows what's for sale. To find a property, visit an area you like and ask a doorman who the local simsar is, and then arrange a meeting.
Almost immediately, we were shown a ground-floor apartment, with a garden, in fact several strips of "garden", all around the base. On top were 10 more storeys. My wife thought all that concrete bearing down on us would be oppressive. But the price was excellent - they were asking £40,000 and I, in pidgin Egyptian, beat them down to £37,000.
Then, my wife glimpsed new defects - a dripping air-conditioner over the kids' play area, and, worse, veiled heads peering down on to the patch of concrete I'd visualised as a place for barbecues and ice-cold beers. It seemed a weak excuse not to buy the place. In England, we routinely ignore the neighbours. Egyptians do too, but they hate being disapproved of. And as Egyptians are more communally-minded than us, if you live in the same building you're expected to get on with neighbours - even if they do annoy you.
After two months of looking, we found another apartment. It was huge, and, importantly for me, had high ceilings; 300sqm, five bedrooms, a huge kitchen, a living room like an art gallery. And very cheap - £47,000. What can you get for that in England?
In Egypt, the weather is brilliant - 300 days of sun a year. The beach is an hour from Cairo and the desert is amazing. Of course, there are the bombs and the traffic - but bombs are everywhere now and at least the Cairo traffic never stops moving - red lights are for driving through and one-way streets merely elicit an ironic shake of the head.
The negotiations were over quickly. We paid the asking price in cash, in notes. We insisted the vendor register the place, but then became embroiled in argument about who payed the simsar his commission (2 per cent).
What next? The neighbours are hardly noticeable. And the doorman cleans my car every day. I also notice that petrol is 10p a litre and food is half the price that it is in the UK. I notice, too, that it takes quite a long time to run from one end of the flat to the other; as well as the fact that the pyramids are visible when the smog isn't bad. And it still feels good to have lived a out a dream - to have slapped the money down on the table and walked away with a home.Reuse content