Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Job Interview at the WHO in Alexandria, Egypt

In 1994, I answered an ad in "Computerworld" magazine looking for a computer programmer working for World Health Organization of the United Nation. The UN--moving at the usual glacial pace of governments the world over--sorted through their pile of résumés and eventually mine popped to the top. So, perhaps six months later someone from the WHO called my voice mail and left a message. I had long since found other work and had forgotten completely that I had applied for work there. So when the voice message asked that I ring them up in Alexandria I thought this meant Alexandria, Virginia. I puzzled over the 5 or 6 digit phone number so tossed it in the trash. I did not know then that the phone call had come from Alexandria, Egypt and not Alexandria, Virginia.

If you've ever read Frank Kafka's "The Trial" or even "The Castle", one of its many themes is that the wheels of government always move foreword if at a somewhat leisurely pace. So the bureaucrats at the WHO let another few weeks go by then they called their Washington, D.C. headquarters and asked if those people there would call me at my Maryland home. Finally I got the message and on Thanksgiving I went to Dulles Airport to pick up an airline ticket which had been paid for in advance in Egyptian Pounds.

I had been working for Andersen Consulting on a computer project in Greensboro, North Carolina. I did not want to tip off my current employer, so it was fortunate that the Egyptians do not celebrate the American Thanksgiving holiday. For on the Thanksgiving holiday I hopped on a plan at Kennedy Airport and flew nine hours to Cairo for an on-site interview at the WHO office in Alexandria. I would go and come back all in 5 days.

When I got on The Air Egypt 747 jumbo jet it was clear I had already left American even though we were still parked in New York. Because women wearing burkas and tchadors crowded into the plane while annoying Arabic music played non-stop. This non-stop music soon causes a non-stop ringing on my head.

I had flown to Europe a few times before so was used to the 6 hour hop across the pond, but as I looked down at the Pyrenees Mountains of Spain I was beginning to grow weary as we had 5 more hours to go. My arms were still aching from the many shots I had gotten to ward off diseases of the third world when I settled back in my seat for the remainder of the trip.

When we arrived over Cairo it was if we were circling a lunar landscape because there was not a bit of green grass in all that desert. The 747 landed and parked far away from any building. There was no gangplank nor jetway connecting the airport to the jet, so we simply climbed down from the airplane on a very tall ladder.

Most people queued up a immigration but I was met by the WHO travel agent who whisked be through security and into a waiting Mercedes. I certain felt like some kind of diplomat at my VIP treament. But this was just another bit of WHO largesse. For the Mercedes, which would have cost maybe $30 in the States, costs over $100,000 in Egypt because the import tax was more than 100%.

I wish that I had had time to do a proper bit of reading before I went to visit there. Fyodor and other travel guides do nothing to give you a proper perspective of a country. You would do better to read what learned men have had to say. For example, if one travels to Italy they should read the travelogues of D.H. Lawrence, Geothe, or Mark Twain. Likewise a traveler to Egypt would do well to dig into Gustave Flaubert's account of his trip.

Leaving the airport, we drove past dusty buildings and zipped down dusty highways cluttered with dusty cars. The highway had stripes painted on them but no one paid any attention. It was each man for himself as the drivers jockeyed with each other for a bit of open road.

It grew dark as we headed to the suburbs. I asked the driver to take me to Giza so I could see the famed pyramids. We turned left and right through the meandering streets which had grown increasingly dark. I had just read a Tom Clancy novel--I have since given up on that grocery store genre of literature in favor of belles lettres--where Clancy's character Jack Ryan had disguised himself as an Arab and infiltrated a neighborhood such as this one. So I was worried that I would be kidnapped or taken away as in a spy novel. But this was in the days before Al Qaeda, the Achille Lauro, or the increased militancy that has since taken root in Egypt. But I was not without my worries.

We pulled into a cul-de-sac and I hoped out and my driver hired a horse and tour guide to take me to the pyramids. A small boy was engaged to lead my horse by its rein. I was worried that I would be robbed as this surreal episode evolved around me, so I hoped on the horse clutching my briefcase in hand. We headed off into the desert night with my Bedouin-looking guides.

I should not have been worried because the trip was pleasant. A cool breeze stirred the night air while the pyramids loomed large in the distance. I could see where the Phoenix's nose has been blasted off by vandals. It is amazing that this--a national and irreplaceable Egyptian treasure-- was not guarded by a fence. One could simply ride up to the pyramids and then go inside.

We went back to the cul-de-sac and piled again into the Mercedes. Cairo is great because all one needs to do to get a beer is pull over the curb and some boy will sell it to you.

We set out on the road to Alexandria. It was quite a far trip and there is only one gas station en route. At that gas station we filled the tank with petrol while some boys played soccer in the parking lot and other boys washed car--not just the windshield but the entire car. I enjoyed my first puff of tobacco from a hooka and tea from a samovar. American pot smokers would call this a bong, but it more subtle and refined. The otherwise harsh back tobacco wafts pleasantly through the water which cools the same. It let one felling mellow and content.

I got to my hotel and a few Swiss but there were no Americans. I went to sleep and in the morning heading over to the World Health Organization headquarters.

One would have to visit the WHO on a job interview to realize how ridiculous it would be to work there. The pay package is generous: free housing and a generous salary. And you would be able to hire a driver, a maid, and a gardener all for pennies on the dollar. Further you could use your international status to import an automobile tax free and then sell it to an Egyptian at treble the price.

But to actually work at the WHO would require me to toss out all I believe regarding work ethics and work quality and settle into bureaucratic malaise. The man who I interviewed was a rude, haughty, condescending Burmese who treated his staff like peasant workers. I also interviewed with Africans whose only qualification for their post seemed to be that they had been royalty in their countries or had otherwise been cronies of the local despot. Most of the people in the computer department were Indian which was an odd forshadowing of the situation that reigns in the states today.

I was not offered the job largely because I knew more about computer software than computer networks and they wanted a network engineer. That would have been easily to assertion without me flying over the ocean but I was grateful for the trip nevertheless.

The one American I interviewed with tried to unnerve me with prying questions that pointed to supposed gaps in my curriculum vitae. I scarcely paid attention to what he said, because our meeting was interrupted by loudspeakers calling the faithful to prayer. I settled back and called downstairs for tea. At the WHO, when you want tea you just pick up the phone and a boy will bring it to you.

The next day I hired a cab for $20 for the full day and rode out to see the sites. The famed library at Alexandria--which had housed the Great Books--had burned some 1,000-plus years ago along with the lighthouse that stood over the harbor. A few important works by Greek philosophers, poets, and playwrights were lost forever. (According to Thomas Cahill, Catholic Monks saved the rest. Read "How the Catholics Saved Civilization".)

We traveled out to King Farouk's palace. He had built this boudoir on the beach so he could fornicate with his mistresses away from the prying eyes of the capitol. Everyone liked the late King and hated the current ruler. (I have since forgotten who that was. It was not the fellow who signed the Camp David Accords and thus paid with his life. Nor was it Nassar who had brought socialism and Soviet alliance to the Egyptian state. Nor was it Murbarak who is the current leader. So it was---the other guy whose name I cannot recall.)

Abandoning my cab I set out of foot. I tried to walk the beach but it was chock-a-block with high ride apartment buildings and not much sand. So I headed into a mosque. I took off my shoes and walked across the many carpets that stitched together comprised the floor. Muslims where bent over in prayer presumably pointing toward Mecca. No one seemed to mind this non-believer entering their midst.

I went to the market to shop and picked out some silk for my wife. I needed to exchange some currency but when I came back to pay for the silk the shop was buttoned up tight. It was 2:00 and the shop would not open again until 5:00.

In hindsight I wished I had bought Egyptian cotton, but instead I bought my wife a silk dress and my son something that looked like a snow suit. It never snows in Egypt so this garment was oddly out of place. I ducked into another shop to buy a scarf for my wife and a young girl modeless it for me at the behest of the shop owner. Egypt is and was more Westernized than the rest of the Middle East. Not all women wore the otherwise obligatory burkas nor tchadors. This girl wore nothing on her hair at all.

I was a bit annoyed that everywhere I went people flocked to me to ask money--I felt like a tourist attraction. The most embarrassing situation happened at a restaurant. I ordered red mullet and my waitress asked if I would buy her a beer. She did not want to share it with me--she just wanted a beer to quaff down by herself. Or maybe she was looking for a date. Anyway I was annoyed and confused all at the same time.

I stepped back out onto the street and was annoyed again by the way Egyptian drivers treat pedestrians. In the civilized west we yield to persons crossing the street. But in Egypt they try to run them over--literally. Cars would actually push up against pedestrians in the slow moving traffic to push them out of the way.

I went by the travel agency and picked up $700 from the WHO simply for traveling there. We went back to Cairo. On the way I bought pomegranates and pomegranate juice. At the airport Saudis were easily picked out because they wore very white garments. The Egyptians generally did not like the Saudis who generally traveled to Egypt to do what was not legal in their own countries.

Finally, I needed to call someone from Andersen Consulting who wanted to talk with me about working on their computer project in Denver. So I sought out a telephone. I found a room where a man wound up a crank telephone. He pointed me to a private booth and then connected my call. I did not tell the person I talked with in Denver where I was calling from because, as I said, this trip was made in secret. It was surreal to be phoning the states from this odd and ancient place.

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