The Case Against Egypt

It's been just over seven months since I moved to Egypt. I flew out of San Francisco with Amr, Isso, and Nader after spending two weeks with them to take part in the Techyon accelerator by Consensys. At the time, I was consulting Amr et al on Elkrem, a futuristic startup developing hardware for blockchain-connected devices.

I had a plan as I was going to Egypt. When I was taking that Turkish Airlines flight out of San Francisco, the rough plan was to continue consulting with Elkrem for a couple of more months, and then join Swvl. Swvl was/is an upcoming Egyptian startup, and we agreed that I would help kickoff their machine learning efforts and start out their Berlin office that they planned to open in early 2019.

The plans, as has often been the case for me, changed in the first couple of months of being in Egypt. I didn't feel comfortable working with Swvl, and I found Elkrem to be a much more exciting growth opportunity for me.

Since then, Elkrem has rebranded into Elk, and we're on the verge of launching our first product on Kickstarter later this month. It's both nerve-wrecking and exciting!

Committing to Elk though implicitly implied committing to Egypt given that the whole team is here, and I was OK with that, at least for some time.

Now that I spent a reasonable amount of time here, various factors have now convinced me that staying in Egypt may not make the most sense in my case.

Choosing where to live is a big decision and there are so many variables at play. Reflecting on my time in Egypt and elsewhere, there are roughly four components that I would now assess when considering a place.

Environment is the general setting that I'm immersed in within that location. This includes variables like my home, my office, my roommates, whether or not I'm living with my parents, my commutes, the air quality, internet speeds, access to healthcare, etc.

Experiences are, broadly speaking, the set of activities that I do within that location. That includes work, social gatherings, trips, parties, study groups, or whatever set of activities I choose to indulge in.

Relationships include all the people (and other animals) in my social circles - friends, family, professional connections, acquaintances, etc.

Connectedness is how connected I feel to the location. Several factors come into play here, including my identity and how compatible the culture is with my own. I would naturally feel more connected to a place that I had spent a significant amount of time in before, a place where I speak the language, and where my values are similar to the values of the people in that location.

There has been some slow developments within me that has decreased Egypt's score in my book. I won't be hasty and get into those just yet. I'll instead go through each component, one by one:

Environment (4/10)

I am currently living in Obour with my parents. My brother, sister-in-law, and nephews are temporarily staying with us as well. It's a big pro for me that I get to see my family so frequently and get to play with all the little ones.

Unfortunately, that's where the pros end. I love seeing my family so often, but I also like to have my own space. The family dynamic doesn't, for example, make me feel comfortable enough to invite friends to sleep over. I'm also unable to refurnish my room with my minimalist taste, or change the lighting that I don't like in the house. We also live quite far away from my social circles so it's really hard to meet friends on weekends.

I did try to gain independence when I moved to Maadi, a central neighborhood in Cairo), last January. I stayed there for two months with a Romanian roommate. The area was pleasant and the apartment had a nice setup, but it also was a piece of shit. The furniture was hideous, the kitchen was filthy, the internet never worked, and they started a construction project where they worked late nights next door. Not to mention that it was expensive (over $500 for me and my roommate combined) which, to me, is ridiculous given the price norms of Egypt and the quality of the place. I've seen over 20 apartments to move into in that area, and they were all trashy, expensive, and only accessible via a network of shady brokers.

The only way to have a nice independent life in Egypt is to buy an apartment, or lease one long term and redo all the interior from scratch. This isn't a commitment I am comfortable with at this stage.

Health is also a concern for me. I'm not happy with the air quality nor the healthcare available here. While healthcare here is really cheap, I don't trust the healthcare system here to care for me on anything of significant medical complexity. I'm happy to have my teeth cleaned here every once in a while and maybe a checkup here and there, but beyond that I don't have a lot of confidence. There are plenty of cases that made me arrive to this sentiment, but that's not something I'll dive into here.

There are some other pet peeves that make life more difficult here. For instance, it's really hard to buy nice electronics or fitness equipment since the selection is very limited. Most of the selections are offline anyways so you'll have to go to the markets to find them and be clever and witty enough to not get ripped off in the process.

Legally, I'm on a tourist visa and need to exit and reenter the country every few weeks. This is something that's nearly resolved in theory, so hopefully that won't be an issue anymore soon. But to this date, for example, I don't have an active driver's license because I'm legally not a resident anywhere.

To keep this post from getting unwieldy, I won't get into more macro issues affecting my environment like politics.

Experiences (3/10)

Experiences is the area I think Egypt lacks the most for me. Don't get me wrong there are countless beautiful places that I can go to - Sinai, the Red and Mediterranean seas, Upper Egypt, the Pyramids, etc. The list goes on and on. These are all great cultural and nature experiences.

However, what Egypt in general lacks that's really important for me are experiences that enrich me at an intellectual level. I'm talking technology meetups, study groups, quality conferences and talks, the opportunity to network with experienced people in my industry, science workshops, etc. I found these types of events to be very lacking here, and that is a huge problem for me. It hinders my development at a fundamental level, and in my opinion is not something that I can ignore at this stage of my life. To have an impact I'm proud of on the world, I need to mingle and learn from a lot of smart, experienced, educated people in my field and other fields. I unfortunately haven't been able to pin that many of them down.

Relationships (7/10)

Obviously the proximity to my family is a huge plus for me. Additionally, my Zayed friend circle is one of my absolute favorite friend circles, and I feel certain that I'll know that group of people for decades to come.

I'd say in terms of family and friends I'm definitely satisfied. Although, spending years in the West I would've like my friendships to be a bit more gender-balanced, but that's quite hard to achieve given the culture here.

Work connections are mixed. On the one hand it's not difficult to reach influencers like investors, for instance, but on the other hand it is difficult to build a network of talented engineers.

Connectedness (6/10)

I was born in Egypt. Most of my childhood was in Egypt. All my high school years were in Egypt, and part of my university life was in Egypt. My native tongue is practically Egyptian Arabic. There's no question that I feel connected to Egypt.

But, I am also a foreigner...

You see, Egypt doesn't give out citizenships, and for the first 9 years of my life me and my family were officially Palestinian refugees residing temporarily in Egypt. Fortunately at age 9 we immigrated to Canada and became Canadians 3 years later.

Citizenship aside, for the vast majority of my life I had strong feelings of connectedness to Egypt and the Arab World at large. I say "most" of my life because my strong feeling of connectedness to Egypt and the Arab World at large has waned down quite a bit in recent years. This is a very deeply rooted topic that I intend to discuss in depth in future posts, but part of the reason I feel less connected is how Egypt has been treating Palestinians in the past few years. Had it not been for our Canadian passports, me and my family would've had to deal with a lot of heat from the Egyptian government. Not too long ago my uncle and aunt came to visit us from Gaza, and the Egyptians made sure to exercise their power of making their way to Cairo and back a living hell, even though they're both in their 60s and clearly not a source of threat. I've also been noticing a rise in feelings against Palestinians from the Egyptian public in the past few years.

I've largely become incompatible with the culture here. I have undoubtedly been influenced by my travels and I personally value liberty, the pursue of knowledge, minimalism, experiences over belongings, caring for the environment, punctuality, discipline, and not being nosy. That's almost as opposite of an average Egyptian as you could possibly be.

The solution, of course, is to lock yourself in a "culture bubble". I've done that in large part, but that only takes you so far. You still have to deal with society, no matter what you do.


Anyways, this post ended up being a bit longer than I had originally intended. There's so much on my mind, particularly around the feelings of connectedness and experiences.

I'll start exploring alternatives to Egypt as a base, and I'm going to start with Berlin. Earlier today I booked a flight to Berlin for later this week and will be there for 11 days. I'm hoping that visit will help me freshly assess it as an alternative to Egypt's Cairo.

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