Living and working in Egypt
It’s been 7 months since I’ve left Cairo, Egypt and to be honest with you, I couldn’t wait to leave, but now, as I’m writing this, there’s a part of me that misses Egypt. I will be splitting this post into two sections; work and living, as I feel they brought two different experiences. I know many have had a different experience, so don't take this as gospel. This is what I experienced and I thought I'd share it with you.
Working in Egypt
What I will share with you below is what I feel is consistent amongst the schools in Cairo, from having conversations with other teachers and what I have observed at other schools. I don’t feel it’s fair to review the actual school I worked at, but more of what the culture and experience would be like working in an international school in Cairo, Egypt.
I was in Malaysia before this and when I told my Egyptian students that I was moving to Cairo for work, they questioned me why and warned me about the behaviour of the students. I knew my students in Malaysia were respectful and generally well behaved, I thought maybe compared to these students, they may be bad, but surely they cannot be as bad as the students in some of the schools in the U.K.
In my opinion, they were not that bad but they were very intense and I found many of these students (not all) had consistent traits. They were loud in and out of the classroom and they lied to save face. Obviously, I cannot stereotype this across all the students I taught, because I had some amazing students too but there were enough in each class to make life difficult as a teacher. Classroom management has to be strong if you are to teach there, as I’ve seen many teachers crumble and students can make the most of it. I feel classroom management is one of my stronger aspects of teaching but I was really challenged by both students and parents in my first year. For my second and third year, it was a lot easier, as students knew what to expect from me and I kept it consistent.
The biggest challenging factor in my opinion are the parents there. I had so many emails and confrontations when they didn’t like something I did or if their child got into trouble. They could turn up at your office or to your class anytime and they allowed it in my school. I have seen many colleagues leave or have been sacked due to the influence of parents and as majority of these schools are owned by Egyptians, they are a paying customer and because of that, they seem to have the right to tell us teachers how to do their job. School management are always in a tricky position of whether to support a teacher or not but more often than not, the parents always win. Students know how to play their parents in these situations and the next day they are in complaining about the teacher. When I became Director of Sport/HOD in my second and third year, I was having a lot of parents emailing me and confronting me about why their child didn’t make the team or begging me to allow them to be in the team. As you can imagine, these situations become very awkward.
As a country itself, the procedure to get work visas are not easy and all the teachers in my first year were on tourist visas. Once, we all had to pay a fine (it got reimbursed) when we left the country on one of the holidays because we overstayed our tourist visa. In my second and third year, I did get a work visa but it did look sketchy. Resources are hard to come by too. We were a well resourced school and our facilities were amazing. Probably the best in Cairo, but we had to order our equipment/resources a year in advance from U.K/US because of the import/export procedures of the country. I do believe this is more down to the country and their procedures rather than the schools itself.
Our school did not pay the best salary. and there were other schools that paid a lot more, but it’s very cheap to live there so saving potential is huge. I know for those who had commitments back home, really struggled with the salary, but then again, that’s all informed in the contract before you get out there.
I found working in Egypt was intense because of the demands of the students and parents (obviously not all) but like I mentioned before, enough to have an impact. This was consistent when I spoke to other teachers from other schools too. It was definitely the right move for me, as I grew so much as a professional but I was getting burnt out and could not have maintained it for a long time. Having said that, I was fully supported by my colleagues and management and had such a positive experience professionally but my main reason to leave the country was down to my personal and social life.
Living in Egypt
My experience of living in Cairo is a mixed one. I was speaking to my wife about this post, and she said, when people ask her about her experience of Egypt, she doesn't know how to quite answer it. I feel exactly the same. I find it difficult to sum up or to put in a few words. There were parts that were frustrating and parts that we loved, but in the end, we had to move due to wants and needs.
We got to choose where we live. Our school was in New Cairo (A lot of international schools are here), so we had a choice of whether to live in Maadi, where it had lots to do but it was an hour commute in the evening OR we live nearby, where the commute is 15 minutes, but there's not much to do. We decided to live in Maadi and sucked up the long commute. We felt we made the right decision, but I'm not going to lie, the traffic is ridiculous in Cairo and the commute did get to me, especially in my final year. I was not getting home until 6.30/7pm most evenings, when my day started at 7am.
Living in Maadi had its benefits though. Majority of expats lived here, who were mainly teachers, so there were some social events to get yourself involved in. The variety of restaurants in this area were good and a lot were walking distance. Maadi was a nice place to walk/run around, but only Friday and Saturday mornings when there was hardly any traffic. It's very green, quirky and lots of streets to get yourself lost in. But like most places in Cairo, the buildings were run down, so quality of housing was not good and with expats living in the area, they hiked up the prices to double what the locals would pay because the landlords/agents knew what allowances we were getting from the school.
Traffic is beyond ridiculous in this country. The mentality is that 'every person for themselves' and you really feel/see that when you are on the roads. Luckily, schools provide buses to pick/drop us to and from school, so you don't have to worry about driving, but seeing/hearing/experiencing about road accidents is very common in Cairo. Honking is their favourite thing to do when they drive and they don't care what time of day, so getting used to sleeping in a noisy environment takes some getting used to.
There is a language barrier there with not many of the locals speaking English. The students and parents were fine, but I'm talking about your every day people that you see in the shops, taxis or on the streets. I don't see that as a bad thing. We took classes each week and made a very good friend with our teacher Mariam. It's another way to absorb the culture and connect with the locals. I was never fluent and found it difficult after the basics, but I knew enough to get by.
I think partly down to the language barrier, my social life was non existent. I realised in my time living in Egypt, how much of my social life came from playing competitive team sports and that was pretty much non existent here for expats. There were good enough private facilities to play and I did play football and tennis on a weekly basis, but that was pretty much it. I was a very lonely figure on the weekends and I didn't mind it for a year or so, but it did start getting to me. Most of my colleagues were older and just wanted to do their own thing, so there was hardly any interaction outside school hours. It's just how it was, but I had to make a change. I didn't like the person I was becoming.
I think my favourite thing about this country was the historical sights. There are just so many and you really feel like you've gone back in time. They make new discoveries almost every 6 months!! I remember being fascinated learning about Ancient Egypt when I was in primary school and then to see the history in front of your eyes is mind blowing. Imagine, the pyramids and the River Nile becoming the norm because you've seen it so many times. Cairo itself has so much history in there that it could take you weeks to get through it all, but places like Luxor, Aswan, Alexandria, Siwa and Dahab offer better experiences in my opinion because you are away from the hustle of Cairo. My favourite place was Luxor, seeing the valley of kings, the surrounding temples and hopping on a hot air balloon over it all. The shame is that the infrastructure in Cairo is almost non existent so getting to some of these places can be difficult and very frustrating.
When I tell people that I lived in Egypt, it does bring me joy that I got to have a very unique experience. You were absorbed into the culture and way of life. I don't feel like you get that living in Malaysia or some of the other Middle Eastern countries I visited and I think that is down to how much easier it is to live in those countries as an expat. Sure, there were many frustrations living in Egypt, but there was equally or more positives that came from living there too. My professional experience was a good one. The workload was heavy but that was partly my fault because of how much I took on. I know that if I stayed, the school would have helped with reducing my workload, as they were always supportive of me. Ultimately I wanted to leave because I did not want to live that sort of life anymore. I wanted a better lifestyle with a better social life. Something I instantly got by moving back to Malaysia. Living in Egypt made me reflect a lot on the things that I missed and what made me as a person, and I've kind of come back to Malaysia trying to make up for lost time. Whilst I'm still relatively young and I can still move ok, I just want to make the most of it while I can. I didn't feel I could do that living in Egypt and that's not a criticism of the country, it's more to do with what I want and need at this moment of my life.
Shukran Ya Misr
(Thank you Egypt)