Postcards from the Edge

Shortly after arriving in Egypt in 1999 I was introduced to the world of appearing in Egyptian films as a foreign 'khawaga' movie extra by Tony, a fellow guest of the Venice Hotel. It was one of the hotels in the building next to the 'El Tawfiqia' market in central Cairo. Tony had been living in the hotel for months and taught English at the American University in Cairo. He was a black American from the Bronx, New York.

And he was very distinctive: ebony and muscular, short, wore the clothes of a basket ball player, and moved with a pumping swagger, thrusting through life. He'd fight for every extra Egyptian pound and would 'never turn down pussy - for the case of a rainy day.'

His given name was Jack, but when he walked out of the hotel through the crowded market the Egyptians would all call 'Tony! Tony!' for he had played a character Tony in a small role in an Egyptian movie.

The movie extra business functioned with mysterious Arab middlemen who would appear at downtown hotels catering to young foreigners and, for a percentage, hotel staff would recruit curious backpackers who would be happy to spend a day experiencing an Egyptian film set for a few dollars.

Following Tony's aggressive advice, when approached by one of these middlemen, a dangerous looking fellow with a scarred face, in the market, outside the hotel, I agreed to recruit amongst my friends demanding for myself the usual fee which would have been paid to the hotel. I found a couple of interested friends - Petrus, who was 47 and Dutch and spent six months of every year working as a machinist in Holland and six living in a different country every year, and Charles, a huge blonde Californian who looked like a surfer and, like me, was an English language teacher.

On arrival at the film complex near the Pyramids, we were given soldiers' uniforms but few instructions. The most interesting part of the day involved being a soldier in a scene where a bomb went off. Petrus played an officer whereas Charles and I were guards, as a large black car drove up and halted. The tech crew placed a bag of petrol on top of a small charge. It went off with a bang and a sheet of flame. I ran about like a headless chicken, not knowing what I was supposed to do, which was fine as that was what I was meant to be doing! After, I was able to watch the recording of the scene in the technicians' van. The fake bomb produced a realistic on screen explosion.

The day ended on a sour note as the middleman paid us only half what he'd agreed; caveat emptor! I was able to practice the Arabic curses I'd been taught.


Despite seeking a job through the standard route of supplying CVs and registering with recruitment agencies, when I obtained a position as a teacher of English language, it was once again through a informal network of middlemen - or in this case middlewomen. A Frenchwoman and teacher of French who had converted to Islam and lived in the adjacent hotel recommended me to an enterprising young businesswoman whose brother was chauffeur to the manageress of a firm with a contract to supply English teachers to an oil company drilling in the Red Sea. A week or so of intense training later, with a queer, tense feeling in my stomach, I boarded a company plane and flew to Sinai with returning oil workers. I was met at the airstrip by the manager of the training centre and driven to the company compound. In contrast to crowded, noisy Cairo, filled with multi storey buildings, the desert compound was filled with bungalows. At the side of one road stood a wrecked Israeli tank from a war decades earlier.

Like the company employees, I had a schedule of ten days on followed by nine days off. Out to sea, gas was flared off from rigs and burned around the clock, as it was uneconomic to liquefy the gas and transport in to where it could be used.

How can it be possible to teach English to Egyptians without speaking Arabic? You have to teach from a text book with plenty of pictures, and continually question the class. Once one person understands, he can help the others. The actual teaching, and making rapport with the students, was easier. Balancing being friendly with being a teacher rather than a friend, but accepting nightly invitations to drink tea or play sports, had more difficult aspect to it.

My other experience as an English teacher was rather different. My friend Tim from South Africa taught English to a class in a Cairo school, and one of his pupils did not like the school's method of teaching. The fellow, a successful lawyer, asked Tim to teach him privately outside the school. Tim did not think this proper so referred him to me. We met and felt we could work with each other. But I lived in a dormitory, so did not have a classroom. This posed a problem. We arrived at the bizarre situation where my student would drive to collect me and we would go and spend an hour in a tea shop or restaurant, or one time on a traffic island in the middle of a busy street, and conduct a lesson!


Economists are prone to what has been dubbed 'physics envy'. In physics, there are a few basic laws - for example Newton's Laws and the laws of thermodynamics - which can explain the vast majority of phenomena. Whereas in the real world, economics doesn't obey a few basic laws as anyone who has tried to make economic forecasts will appreciate! As a physicist, I am prone to trying to explain the world I see around me with a few rules based on my own experiences though really, it is as difficult to forecast events in life as it is in economics …

That said, I think that it is easier to find a job through asking around - perhaps hotel staff and other backpackers, on arrival in Egypt and perhaps other Middle Eastern countries, than it is by applying through placement organisations. And I suspect a resourceful reader who makes his or her way to Egypt will find it as possible to make a living as I did.


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 by David Stapleton

Posted on Monday, June 12, 2006 at 15:03 by Registered CommenterJam | CommentsPost a Comment