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The Yellow Pages Have Been Around In Cairo For Some Time Now, But Are They Actually Useful?

by Samir Raafat
Middle East Times, January 19, 1997

With the coming of the information superhighway, Internet and cellphones, we are allegedly in the telecommunication age. A side effect of this cyberlution is that direct contact and person-to-person talks are gradually disappearing as more and more people chart their lives on either a desk top or lap top computer. We've seen movies where 'surfies' never leave there suburban home in, say, California. Instead, they perform their professional duties on-line with offices and companies located at the other end of the United States. They order pizzas and fantasize sexually simply by clicking or touching their computer screens. Their neighbors, who are probably doing the same, don't even know what they look like.

All of that is not going to happen in Egypt just yet. Not in the next few years and not after the next generation of modern technology has swept through the Western World. Why? Because we still haven't realized the full potential of the old conventional telephone, except, perhaps, to gossip, exchange recipes and make appointments.

The other day I needed a new computer software fast. Not wanting to take part in the sweaty rush and adding to the existing pollution by driving around in circles looking for a parking space, I decided to call-in. I was going to give it a go at tele-shopping.

By the sheer size of the special newspaper supplements each time there's a compufest in town, I already knew Cairo abounded with computer outlets. My suspicions were confirmed when I glided over the letter "C" in the 1996 Yellow Pages. If you don't already own one, this is quite an impressive directory that has grown steadily these last few years; another indication that Egypt's privatization is alive and kicking. Here was an opportunity to put the reliability of these ads and entries to the test.

The roster of computer retailers and consultants runs a few pages. From big computer agents listing internationally known brand names, to the small one-man outfit selling Korean clones out of a tiny 5th floor apartment located on the fringe of the desert. Addresses, therefore, would be good indicator to the reliability of the service and merchandise. Or so I thought.

With no special order in mind, I thought I'd start at the top of the list and work my way down in search of a good deal. I had no clue then, that by the time I'd finish this excruciating telethon, I'd have a sore throat, high blood pressure, and a broken telephone to boot.

I started with the "A" (e.g. ABC Computer Ltd.). After about nine rings, someone answered. He didn't know what I was talking about and hung up. At my second attempt the same exasperated voice explained that this was a private residence and he had never heard of ABC Computer Ltd. Obviously, the advertiser had moved. It happens all the time. I'll try the next entry under computers.

This time I'm greeted by a chirpy female voice who inquired whether I was an individual or a company. Yes, they had what I wanted but I had to speak to someone in sales. Unfortunately, the person in charge was out on a call. Could I call later.

My third call, was to one of leading computer dealers in Cairo. Surely they're big enough to have one salesman on the road and another to take telephone inquiries. The numbers listed in the Yellow Pages were all busy. Obviously this so-called "biggest computer dealer in town" hadn't heard of hunting lines. Ten minutes later, a reply. "Please hold on" said the indifferent voice and before I could utter a single syllable I was placed on hold. At least I had the benefit of Mariah Carey's renditions of the theme song from the movie "The Bodyguard." The hold lasted two songs.

When the operator finally came back, she informed me, with no traces of guilt in her voice, that this was indeed EFG Computers, but that I had reached the wrong department. She then proceeded to soliloquize a whole set of numbers before abruptly hanging up.

I called the first number. Busy. The second number. Also busy. The third number. Same thing. Still in a challenged mood, I decided to retaliate by going on automatic redial mode. Thank God for my Panasonic phone that sports all these gadgets: hold, mute, redial, flash etc. After a few redials, an answer! "Who gave you this number?" said an official-sounding voice. When I explained, The Voice told me that I had reached the excessive offices and that there was nothing he could do. I would have to call the original number back. The Voice also implied that I had confused the operator, hence the error. Damn The Voice!<

Called the original number and listened to Mariah Carey some more. At last, the operator. Either she recognized my voice or she had been told off by The Voice who must have called her on an internal line, for she immediately put me through to sales. By now, I too had become super irritated. In fact, my mind was racing with all kinds of sarcastic, nasty comments I would pass on to the owners of this major company next time I ran into them at any one of Cairo's endless G&T (gin & tonic) affairs.

Sensing the trenchant edge in my voice, the salesman who took my call thought better of it and transferred the call to his superior. Now, I was dealing with a very confident female voice who was seemingly trained to make callers feel intimidated or in the wrong. "Hmmm," said the high and mighty salesperson-executive, "you are better off talking to 'warehouse'. Only they can tell you if we are in stock." And no, regrettably she couldn't transfer my call. But she would gladly give me the relevant numbers so that I wouldn't have to go through the operator. I thanked her through gritted teeth. By now I could hardly wait for the next G&T affair.

At this point the relevant section in my large Yellow Pages directory was swarming with doodles and numbers and very ugly symbols I don't care to describe here. Somehow, the page looked like one of those blotters that adorned government desks in the days of the squeegee ink pen.

I dialed 'warehouse'. Ring, ring, ring.... No answer. Call again using redial. All the while I was debating if I should call it a day or whether I should apply more persistence. Meanwhile, I could feel my blood pressure mounting. At last, someone comes on the line. "Yes I believe we've got what you want, but to make sure, please call back tomorrow."

"Why tomorrow? Why not now?" I bellowed. My response must have sounded like the bark of a rabid Doberman. The shocked man at the other end spluttered out something unintelligible , thought better of it, and hung-up. It was a silent 'click' at his end and a 'SLAM!' at mine. Miraculously my handset didn't break in two.

After several attempts at yoga-like exercises in self-control, I start again. The masochist in me had taken over. This time I called OPQ Computer Co. which claims to have the widest range of software in Egypt. "OPQ Company is no longer in business. It went bust a few months ago. This is Kentucky Fried Chicken. Would you like to place an order?"

Discouraged from my two-hour long attempt at finding a simple piece of computer software, I call a friend and ask him to make me a pirated copy. "No sweat. Consider done. Pick it up any time." My splitting headache suddenly started to dissipate.

You've all had similar experiences or heard comparable stories. Now you've read mine. Most of us have painfully come to realize that the availability of Yellow Pages and other copycat directories and expensive trade magazines, is no sure indication that we've moved forward. On the other hand, we've reached a stage where excuses of "come back tomorrow" and "the person is out of the office" are no longer acceptable. They have become aberrations as we move into the 21st century, and as products become more and more identical. As we saw in the above incident, the alternative to the hassles and headaches was going for a pirated copy of the software. By extrapolating on a national scale this means a loss in state revenue and a missed opportunity for the tax-paying entrepreneurs.

Don't you agree it's high time we started to walk all that talk on 'privatization'?!

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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