Thursday, November 06, 2008

Was I supposed to let the monkey try the dates BEFORE I ate them?

Needless to say, I have more stories of Cairo than I can possibly type and I've only been here a few days.
Sooner or later I need to get back to you with more - such as the tale of negotiating a higher rater with the camel man if that meant the camel would RUN, or perhaps the tale of the man baking bread in the same taxi that was taking me downtown - but for now I just want to quickly tell a story that will drive home how absolutely byzantine this place is. Unbelievable. The layout of the buildings, the way people talk and behave, and, of course, the bureaucracy. So, as a case in point, I went to buy some liquor.
Let me first explain that I was buying this liqour with and for Alice, who has lived here about 2 and a half years. There are a few Egyptian liquors and wines, but they receive low marks - not surprising considering this is a Muslim country. However, one can only purchase imported alcohol from a duty-free shop. These shops are spread throughout the city, at least the portions of the city where a foreigner might be expected to go.
As a side note, Alice largely forbids me from going to places in Cairo where a foreigner might be expected to go, so this was a special trip. In the non-foreigner areas I've been meandering around, I've discovered that I a) appear unbelievably French, hopefully because I haven't shaved in three weeks (and that makes me look French?) and not because I smell (I apologize to all of my French friends for this shameful and inaccurate stereotype), and b) if I claim to be Canadian, everyone who hears me will immediately say, "Canada Dry!" Really. Everyone. EVERYONE.

On another side note, I started this post a couple of days ago and am only now finishing it, so I've stopped claiming to be Canadian. If I claim to be American in Cairo now that it is post-election, I am likely to get a round of applause. Frequently accompanied by the words, "Really? You elected the dark one?" I'm not making this stuff up, people.
Anyway, back to the duty-free shops: they are, as I said, spread throughout the city. However, one may only buy liquor from them using a foreign passport, and showing the time-stamped Egyptian visa proving you entered the country less than 36 hours ago. Within that 36 hours, you are allowed to purchase a maximum of 3 bottles of imported liquor, and then not again. (Unless you fly out of the country and re-enter, and get a new visa.)

So I'm in a duty-free shop to buy liquor, because it seems foolish to waste this rare opportunity for Alice. Here is the process one uses to make a purchase:

You enter the shop, and, of course, everything is behind a counter. While you are waiting for someone to help you, you ponder the bottles you can see on the shelves. After a very short wait - there is a cluster of people behind the counter - someone comes to help you. We'll call him, hmmm, "the bottle toucher." So the bottle toucher asks you what you want, and then takes them off the shelves and places them in front of you. Lets you pick them up and take a look at them. Ask questions about them. And then, confirming that is what you want to buy, he writes down on a little slip of paper the names of the three bottles. (In Arabic, of course, which is a rather beautiful language to look at, I must say.) You do not take the bottles. You do not take the slip of paper.

The slip of paper is taken a few feet down the counter to a second man, let's call him, "the form filler." The form filler takes the slip of paper from the bottle toucher, and then looks up at you, waiting. You figure out he wants your passport, so you give it to him. Perhaps he asks a question to confirm what is written on the slip of paper. Then he types the names of your three bottles into his computer. He looks at your passport. It is possible that the form filler types information from your passport into the computer as well - it is hard to be sure. He does not print the form. He, instead, takes a blank form from the desk in front of him and hand-writes the information of that copy. He puts the hand-written copy into your passport, at the page with the time-stamped Egyptian visa, and hands the passport back to you.

You shuffle to the left. There is now a short line. In this short line is a pretentious Australian man. (It is possible this step is not included at every duty-free shop.)

After listening to the pretentious Australian man, you arrive at a regular office desk, behind which stands a woman we shall call, "the receipt creator." She takes your passport and the handwritten form. She ponders your passport at great length. It is hard to read the time-stamped information, but she concurs that you are, indeed, a recent arrival. She enters into a register the amounts of the 3 bottles. These amounts, presumably, were written in Arabic on the form by the form filler. She prints out two copies of the receipt. The receipt creator then hand-writes, in your passport, next to the time-stamped Egyptian visa, the fact that you have purchased not 1, not 2, but your full allotment of 3 bottles. (There will be no repeating this process at another duty-free shop down the road.) She also writes this same information on both copies of the receipt. (You will not get to keep either copy of this receipt, by the way.) She signs her name in your passport, beside the information she has just entered. She signs both receipts. She asks you to sign both receipts. And then she hands your passport back to you, and hand a copy of the receipt to another man. For variety, we'll call this man, "Winged Hermes."

So Winged Hermes takes your receipt and carries it across the extremely small shop, to, yes, another man. This man will be called, "the money taker." The shop is, as I've said, extremely small, so Winged Hermes traveled, approximately, 9 feet. The money taker shows your receipt to you, and announces the amount of money you owe him. You hand him a credit card.

I'm going to skip over the part with the credit card, imagining that this part of the process will be familiar to all of you. It ends with you in possession of a receipt you can keep, and the small duty-free shop in possession of a small amount of your plastic money. Plastic money which will, I'm guessing, largely go toward paying significant labor costs....

And, finally, the bottle toucher, who was watching the last step of the process with the money taker, goes over to the spot on the counter where your bottles are still sitting, places these three bottles in a plastic shopping bag, and hands them to you. You are free to go.

If it isn't clear, let me mention again that Cairo is a bit byzantine.
And, as you may be able to guess, it will be hard for me to relate many stories quickly. However, I'll try and relate a few more. Oh, and if I don't have a chance to type it here, everyone MUST remember to ask me about Trash City. Oh, yes. That's a place.


Blogger ginsy said...


4:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


The Australian line was pure genius.

6:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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11:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't ask about the Byzantine process that led me back to your blog some 14 months after your last post...
tell me about Trash City. I'm in Siberia and last night at midnight the room announced, in Russian, that it was midnight. It hasn't done so for any other hours, but the room-- I mean it-- disembodied voice of god-- told me it was midnight. In Russian. Does Winged Hermes speak Russian?
Now tell me about Trash City!

9:14 PM  

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