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Crime & Me

February 2007
For the month of January and February, Ronit and I were blessed with the presence of two good friends from San Francisco, Matt & Mary, who were Ronit’s roommates a few years back and Mary was Peace Corps Senegal with Ro prior to that. The following story was adapted from Matt’s email to his friends and family in regards to this story. I took some minor creative license here, but for the most part, they are his words.

Mary and Matt thought it would be nice to rent an apartment for the month they were in Cairo.  They found a real estate agent online named Baher, who was on several different real estate websites, which for Egypt seemed pretty credible.  They arranged to rent an apartment from him and wired him a little money to secure the reservation. He was very professional, emailed back promptly, then picked them up at the airport, brought them to the apartment, they signed a lease, gave him the months rent and he gave them the key. 

Off to a good start for their month long visit to Cairo, the agent leaves and Matt & Mary settle into their new “home”.

About 30 minutes later an older robust gentleman shows up with his large friend.  They didn’t introduce themselves, but rather walked into the apartment and began playing with the phone and the TV, smoking cigarettes; in general making themselves at home.

Due to the language barrier it took a while to find out this guy was actually the landlord, and what he really wanted was the rent money.  Simple enough, thought Matt, and explained to the landlord that he paid Baher the entire amount, so he can collect the rent money from the agent. Thanks SO much for stopping by. But apparently that did not sit well with the landlord, and repeated attempts to reach Baher were unsuccessful. After a long discussion, (during which the landlord told them to go sleep somewhere else), they agreed to pay the security deposit, so that they could stay there and sort it all out in the morning.

The next day Matt got a hold of the Baher, who explains he gave the money to the landlord and the landlord is crazy...  and heres where the story gets interesting.  When the landlord came by again later that day, he told Matt he had never met Baher before, and had received no money from him.  Matt called the agent and tried to hand the phone to the landlord, but the agent hung up the phone... and wouldn’t pick up subsequent calls.
Being Egypt, whenever there is a dispute, it is best to bring in as many people as possible.  In this spirit, the landlord's daughter-in-law comes by to translate.  She states (from a completely neutral perspective) the way apartment rentals work in Cairo, is that it is common for the owner and the agent to not know each other, and that the initial contact is over the phone and the owner tells the building’s guard to let the agent in.  This is indeed what happened, however no one could explain why it was incorrect to give the agent money.  In the US, possession, is 9/10ths of the law, and Matt & Mary would have stayed in the apartment and let Baher & the landlord work it out; but when the landlord brought his large friend, they had little chance of being squatters.

So the entire group, Matt, Mary, the landlord, the muscle, and the daughter-in-law all head over to the tourist police to sort the mess out.  The tourist police are very friendly- they offer coffee, tea, Egyptian food... Matt & Mary hadn’t eat this well on their entire 9 month trip.

They tell their story several different times to several different police officers, with the help of a translator at times, and over many cups of coffee and tea. At one point the landlord corroborates the story, which builds Matt’s street cred, considering, as it turns out, the landlord used to work for the tourist police.  As the evening drew on, a new and very animated cop came in.  Matt repeated the story for the 8th time, but this officer seemed to be keenly interested. When he asked for the agent’s name, and Matt said “Baher,” this detective’s face lit up; “Baher Mahmoud Salaam …” the names flew out of his mouth like sweat dripping from a fat man’s brow, as he ran to an overstuffed filing cabinet.  After a quick search, the detective pulls out a thick file on Baher.  Apparently this wasn’t the first time Baher had pulled this scam.  The thought made Matt & Mary feel simultaneously better and worse; they were glad they weren’t the only suckers out there, but if the cops knew about him and had this thick file, why hadn’t they done anything about it? They could have shut down his website, froze his bank account, arrested him… anything to slow the criminal down.  It didn’t bode well for Matt’s chances to see the money again.  He gave Matt his card, so they could keep in touch throughout the investigation. His email was

There was more carousing, more coffee, more Koshary, Fuul, and Tamayea to eat; lots of yelling and a general sense of camaraderie.  One of the 16 cops now assigned to the case got the brilliant idea to try calling Baher. He actually picked up, and repeated that he gave the money to the landlord.  They asked Baher to come down to the station and straighten it all out- to everyone’s shock and surprise, he didn’t show up.  Matt made the suggestion that perhaps they could try to catch him if they set up a sting operation and pretend to be someone else looking for an apartment.  This sets the police station abuzz! “What a fabulous idea!” they thought, “This could work! We’ll actually catch him in the act! Why didn’t WE think of this?” The new “team” set up an elaborate plan to nab Baher at the airport.  After 6 hours at the tourist police, Matt & Mary headed back to “their” apartment exhausted. This would be their last night at this place, since despite pleadings with the landlord, he was unwilling to let them stay in the apartment until he got paid. Matt & Mary were unwilling to pay the $600 in rent twice, especially for an apartment worth about ½ that amount. So they were forced out, and came to stay with us in Maadi. We were thrilled to have them, but their only hope in getting their rent money back was to catch Baher.

The following day, Matt and Mary set up a fake email account to do a new apartment request.  Of course they have to do this from an internet café, since there is no internet access at the police station.  They pretend to be George Smith from the UK and Baher takes the bait like a hungry sea turtle.  At this point, this sting was on!

Matt gave the cops the fake inbound flight time and told the agent to have a sign that says George Smith on the top and Baher on the bottom.  The evening of the sting, Matt and Mary headed down to the police station early, so they could get the plan all worked out. It was clear to Matt & Mary that there had seldom been such excitement at the tourist police station (remember, they don’t even have internet).  The cops all seemed to be getting fired up for the chase; slapping each other five, and giving quick pep talks in Arabic. Pro-Killer repeatedly splashed water on his face, slicked back his hair, and put on some aftershave. Probably just to be like Magnum PI. Matt declined the Tom Selleck aftershave offer, and quietly sunk into his 44th glass of tea.

After all the cops were primped for the sting, they took Matt & Mary in a sedan with two other cops to the airport, accompanied by a sort of pickup truck converted into a paddy wagon with about 8 cops, and on the way they linked up with yet another paddy wagon (remember the part about getting more people involved?).  Keep in mind that despite the dozens of officers involved, there was only one who actually spoke English well.

At the airport, the cops fanned out to conduct the chaotic unsuccessful search and then asked Mary and Matt to try and walk around and ID Baher (as if he wouldn’t recognize them and quickly dart the other direction?) After awhile, Mary saw someone that looked really close, but it was not him.  Mary almost had this innocent Baher look-a-like locked up at the mercy of two paddy wagons full of fired up tourist police. Luckily, the nab was called off in time.

One of the team brilliantly asked Matt to call Baher, but Matt had to remind the cop that Baher knew his number and wouldn’t pick up.  So Matt bought a phone card and used the pay phone to call the agent.  In his best British accent (think a cross between Spinal Tap and Borat) he inquires with Baher, who tells him that he sent an assistant from his office to make the pick up.  The next minute the cops have a man in handcuffs with the sign just as they had asked- it was even in the same font as Baher used in his emails.

From there, things started to move quickly. Everyone was fired up about a “successful” sting op, and they moved quickly to the paddy wagon.  Matt tried to get to the one cop who spoke a bit of English, but he was actually handcuffed to the prisoner and surrounded 8 other officers all talking Arabic at once.  Matt tried to suggest that the assistant should tell Baher that he picked up George Smith and they should meet at the apartment, a fine plan, which could lead to the catching the actual criminal; but no such luck, the English speaker couldn’t hear him over the roar of the paddy wagon.

The caravan then drove to the Sheraton hotel at the airport, where there is a tourist police office.  They questioned the "assistant" for hours, and took their time filling out their report.  From what little was translated, Matt picked up that Baher was told on the phone there had been an accident.

Next, they went to a separate police station, waited a while, then to a court house- a scary, abandoned looking building, soiled on the outside and grimy on the inside. They were told they will see the judge and should speak "small small English", but after waiting another 45 minutes, they are transferred back to the police station without seeing the judge.  The assistant went to jail and Baher was still at large.  After hour 10, they went home.

Three days later, Baher had not surfaced, and Matt & Mary left for a Nile Cruise from Luxor to Aswan.  Three days into the cruise, Matt got a text from Pro-Killer saying they arrested Baher.  After returning to Cairo, they visited the police station again, (a place they were more familiar with than any of the tourist sites) and ID his picture.  While at the police station, Pro-Killer was reminiscing about the sting operation and how “successful” it was (a point Matt & Mary would silently contest).  He said to them, “This whole events, it make for good book. You should write this book. Call it ‘Crime and Me.’” Matt pondered the new title. He quite liked it. With Baher in custody, and Matt with a possible new career, there was a small glimmer of hope that perhaps they might see their rent money before leaving Egypt. 

However, from there, the wheels of justice churned slowly. With only a week to go before heading on to the next country, Matt & Mary sought legal help to work with their case after they depart. They stopped by the US Embassy, where they are told the Embassy cannot assist with translations, but they can give them the number of some attorneys who will help with translations.  After making some calls, they finally settle on an absent-minded professor attorney, who, after hearing their story, decided to take their case pro bono. Just 100LE (about $17) for various paperwork. No big deal.  Matt & Mary explained they really just need some help with translation and follow up, since the Embassy can’t help with either of those.

All is set, says the lawyer, who just needs to get a Power of Attorney to complete the case work for them.  So Mary & Matt head back to the US Embassy, and pay $30 for an English version of the power of attorney form, which they have notarized.  When they bring this to the attorney, however, he is baffled by the fact they got one in English.  Why, Matt asks, would he get one in Arabic that he can’t understand? It may as well be a menu to KFC. The attorney says the English one won’t work, and they will need an Arabic version. The office to get this form was, of course, closed for the day.  So the following day, they meet one of the attorney’s assistants to go get the form. The assistant immediately requests money for the services, so they spend another few hours arguing over this point.  When they finally settle, they go to an unmarked government building, and start wandering around, asking different people where to go to get the power of attorney. After a long struggle, they find the place, an unmarked desk, in an undesignated office, where 4 people stand around stacks of paper.  However, the person behind the desk tells them they need to buy a “non resident” power of attorney, which costs 350LE (about $60). They can get temporary resident status if they apply for it in an unmarked building on the other side of town.  But that place is, of course, closed for the day. If they can get a resident stamp on their passport, the Power of Attorney will cost about 5LE. Even after they managed to get the document, they would still need to have it translated.  When they asked the attorney about this, he suggested going to the American Embassy.

At this point, 2 days from leaving for Turkey (never to set foot in Egypt again), they were, of course, frustrated with the entire system. The lawyer never explained the necessary procedure and how much everything would cost. Even if they managed to get the power of attorney and have it successfully translated (possibly costing another $75), that was no guarantee that the attorney would even do anything. AND, if the attorney did do something, it was still a slim chance that Baher would cooperate and give them any money back.  The whole effort seemed so fruitless at this point.  Why travel all over town on their second to last day in Egypt, to get some meaningless stamp in their passport for the opportunity to save money on a document they may or may not need to have someone they don’t know perhaps help them to get money they may never see?  They gave up, and spent their last day in Cairo enjoying the city.

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