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What Copyright? And other various things about the cost of living

September 14, 2006

Numbers can play funny tricks on you, espcially with money. The amount in my wallet is worth what it means to me in pounds, and what it means to me in dollars (never exact, as I’d rather divide by 5 instead of 5.75) and what it means to the Egyptians I pass by in the street.

According to various sources, the poorest Egyptians will make 400 pounds a month. Last night I took out 500 pounds from the ATM, and this morning, when I checked my bank account, that equates to 87 dollars. I’m carrying more money on me than a local will make in a month and it’s not even a hundred dollars.

Aside from books, and other larger expenses, it’s easy to live cheaply here, even in places that cater to the more wealthy AUCians (13,000 US a year for tuition, which in Egypt is the kind of education only available to a small section of the population). Today, I got a penne with carbonara sauce and a cup of green tea, plus tip and service, 20 pounds all told (3.50 US) and this restaurant could be considered mid-range. My trip to Koshari Tahrir the other day set me back 2 pounds (or for their special, koshari and coke, 5 pounds), which is a measly 35 cents.

But other things aren’t so cheap. Our laundry situation, which, if we had washers, would probably cost me 20 pounds a month ballooned to 108 pounds for three weeks worth of clothing. That’s 20 dollars, including tip and various ATM fees. Not a huge deal, considering how much I spend on food, but suddenly, 108 pounds sounds like an exhoberant amount of money.

And the numbers don’t get me across the board either. 108 sounds too much for laundry, but 12 for a cappucino sounds fine (it works out lower than Starbucks anyway). Spending 20 pounds at dinner is okay, but 30 pounds is moving into more expensive territory (even though it’s barely 10 bucks). Is it simply the number that alerts me to thinking that 20 pounds=20 dollars? Thinking in gineeh – the Egyptian word for the pound- makes me both overconfident that the 500 pounds in my wallet will last me the month (most likely two weeks) and forgetful how much I’m spending because everything is so cheap.

Which brings me to my school books. AUC’s bookstore is much like any other university bookstore: highway robbery. Nothing will make your heart stop beating then looking down on your reciept and seeing you’ve paid 775 of anything for three books. I had to calmly remind myself that a novel was 190 pounds, not dollars.

But instead of buying used or swapping books, the AUCians have resorted to a different tact: copying entire text books (which works out to about 1/8 of the price) and then returning them to the bookstore. AUC, to their credit, has figured it out. They only allow books to be returned after two days and sometimes not at all. (full disclosure: I tried doing this with one of my books, but they refused my return based on “the change of condition” which was an unfortunate smudge on the top. Now I have one smudged book and one humongeous copy of the same book. I figure its karma.)

Regardless of AUC’s steps to prevent mass book copying, the copy shops are happy to oblige. In fact, many professors will select certain sections of books, or prepare course readers and give them to the copy shops to mass produce for a whole class. How can they do this? Much like the traffic lights, copyright laws are either a.) non-existant b.) ignored. But as a purely economic arguement, the AUC bookstore charges American prices to Egyptian students who are, while better off than a large number of Egyptians, don’t take out 500 pounds out an ATM without thinking about it.

Yet, this semester, book mistakes and all (I am now eating the cost of books I bought too hastily and now am in different sections for) it will probably cost me 300 dollars, with a pound here and there for specific copies of readings that the teachers assign. At GW, there is no way I would be able to leave the bookstore, even choosing mostly used books, without dropping at least 500 dollars.

Is it fair that my money, which I’m easily able to access with generally little fees, makes my modest checking account look like an offshore bank? Should I spend my money at places that Egyptian making 400 pounds month would go to? Is okay that when I walk into a store without set prices that I will automatically get ripped off? The economics of the situation is a little dizzying, but I do know two things: Koshari Tahrir is so good I would pay more for it and living in Egypt is going to make me a cheapskate.

I’m doing my own laundry in the bathtub next time.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Faith J permalink
    September 14, 2006 12:23 pm

    this is brilliant. please collect these into a travel narrative when you are done and get published! i miss you and i love you!
    p.s. i made popcorn the other nght and it was ok, but it wasn’t zen.

  2. Debbie Semenza permalink
    September 14, 2006 10:24 pm

    Hi Taylor! You don’t know me, but my name is Debbie Semenza and I work with your mom. I’ve heard much about you and your trip, but after reading many pages, I feel like I’ve met you. I’ve been fascinated by your accounts and your pictures – but even more by your writing. You are a wonderful writer with a terrific sense of humor. My fifteen year old son keeps checking on me at the computer. I’m sure he thinks I’ve lost it. I think you are brave and adventurous and look forward to the continuing saga of Cairo. I hope you get to those pyramids soon, but I really enjoy you describing the everyday sights. Much more fascinating and informative than CNN! Be well!
    PS This is the first blog I’ve ever read or responded to. It’s cool!

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