After countless generations not venturing far from the comforting embrace of the Nile valley, why have millions of Egyptians left Egypt?
Am Mohsen, the local neighbourhood barber, greeted me warmly and we sat for a chat fuelled by high-octane Egyptian coffee. “Don't they have hairdressers in Belgium?” he asked me as he eyed up my unkempt Afro.
As his scissor-hand was obviously itching and restless to set to work taming the growth, I compromised by asking him for a shave.
“I want to open up a smart hairdressing salon for men and women in Belgium. What do you think?” he asked. His question somewhat surprised me, since Am Mohsen – with his constant, unfailing routines – has run his little shop, stuck in a decades-old timewarp, for as long as I or anyone in the area can remember.
With his razor hovering around my lathered neck, and my not wishing to get too close a shave, I decided it was prudent not to disappoint him too suddenly! “Well, it's an idea. But why do you want to leave Egypt?”
“After a lifetime here, I want to get a taste of how they live outside! So many people are leaving the country, why shouldn't I try my luck?”
Am Mohsen had a point. Every time I visit Egypt, I realise that more of the people I know have left the country. Some have headed for the regular Egyptian destinations, such as Europe, the United States and the Arabian Gulf. Others have gone to more exotic destinations, such as Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the former Soviet republics and even China.
Luckily, my last visit at the end of December coincided with that of several of my friends. We stayed with Hatem, one of my oldest and dearest friends, who was back in Egypt, with his Italian girlfriend, for a few months to spend time with his mother. A diplomat's son, Hatem has spent a good part of his life outside Egypt and has never entirely settled in there.
“The thing that repels me the most with Egyptians is their hyper-subjectivity,” Hatem admitted. “What draws me to this city is the utter sensual overdrive of Cairo, the very organicity of it, always.”
Hatem, who has spent the last few years flitting between Europe, South Asia, the Arab world and Egypt, does not yet know where fate will land him. “Settling down, [in terms of] geography, is beyond me, though India remains dominant.”
His younger brother, Karim, who recently got married to his Egyptian sweetheart, moved with his wife, Hanaa, to Costa Rica, where they are both doing post-graduate studies. “The nature here is great but the culture super bland,” he told me.
“I left because I realised people did not treat each other as humans ought to … because it's overpopulated … because I always feel intimidated by big brother,” he explained.
Ahmed, a good friend who used to teach English with me at the British Council, was also visiting Egypt while we were there. Over drinks and “mazzas” at Estoril, an old-world downtown bistro popular with intellectuals and artists, we caught up.
Ahmed, who decided to move to Paris in 2001 with his French wife, admitted that he was quite torn by the idea of leaving. “I left Egypt for personal reasons … [but] I was at a point in my life, though, where I wanted to experience living in another country so I didn't mind leaving.”
Ahmed, who grew up in West Africa where his father was in business, felt that he could have lived in Egypt for a few years more before he would have felt restless and, being an Alexandrian, he was enjoying making Cairo his home. “Living in France has its advantages and disadvantages: leaving friends behind in Egypt was a hard decision, especially as I feel that it's not very easy to make friends here,” he admitted.
Some friends have left Egypt in the hope of making the world a better place. I have Egyptian friends doing aid and development work in Africa and Asia. Unusually for Egypt, one female Cairo acquaintance, Yasmin, is working in development in Kenya.
Lobna, another female Cairo friend, is a doctor who has travelled widely to help the needy. “I joined the Ford Foundation's Cairo office in 2002 working as a programme associate in reproductive health,” she explained. “This introduced me to work on HIV/AIDS, so I happened to travel a lot around Africa.”
Lobna is currently in Germany working on her PhD and raising her young daughter with her German husband. But she hopes to return to Egypt in a few years.
Although many of my friends and I have left Egypt for lifestyle and qualitative reasons, there is also the age-old economic driver. A friend who grew up down the street from my Cairo family home also happened to be in town. Like old times, we stood out on the street under one of our apartment buildings chatting while leaning against a parked car.
He told me about life in Saudi Arabia, where he and his wife were now living. “It's materially comfortable in Saudi but it's still so hard to live there, especially for my wife,” he explained. “I have to admit that the intolerant brand of Islam they practise there has put me off religion.”
“But what can we do? We need the money,” he shrugged.
That said, other parts of the Gulf – such as the United Arab Emirates – are easier to live in, friends tell me. Maged, my old flatmate in Cairo said: “What drew me to Dubai, like most people, is money.”
“Dubai is not a place that many people can ever refer to as home as it is very superficial and ‘plastic'. But, to be honest, I currently don't have a vision … Ya'ani, if I find a job in Afghanistan with good money and a good career, I will move instantly,” he continued.
Sherif, an old college friend, told me that he had moved to Kuwait because he couldn't find a decently paid job in Egypt, but was pleasantly surprised by the treatment.
“Locals here are number one … and this is to be respected compared to some countries where foreigners, especially Europeans or Americans, come first,” he said. “Here you know your rights and your duties. It is very organised. At the end of the day, if you respect the law, you live well and you enjoy the facilities.”
“As for Egypt, I love it, but I feel irritated by the continuous struggle, nothing is easy, even the simplest needs,” he lamented.
Although I had lost touch with Sherif, we renewed our acquaintance through Facebook. Most of the Egyptian friends I have managed to get back in touch with through that online social utility are no longer based in Egypt.
“Well, Khaled, you wanted to know the reason why I left Egypt. It is very simple. I LOVE CHINESE FOOD,” Bassem, another college friend, joked from Beijing.
“Seriously, there are many reasons: a lousy economy, lousy discrimination, a lousy political situation, a lousy working environment and [poor] salaries,” he counted off. When I probed on the question of discrimination, Bassem, who is a Christian, replied: “Religious discrimination is a major thing. But the social one and the ‘wasta culture' are surely causing a lot of desperation.”
In Egypt, the culture of nepotistic string-pulling, “wasta”, is widespread and, hence, known by many colourful names, including, for some bizarre reason, “kousa” (courgette). People resort to it for many things, from finishing off paperwork to getting a job, and people like me who refuse to utilise it, often have to jump through hoops.
Nicholas, another old college friend who immigrated to Canada in 2000 to join his Canadian-Egyptian wife, finds talk of religious discrimination in Egypt exaggerated.
“I consider my immigration to be for economic reasons… and I have arguments by the hour with people who badmouth Egypt, for honestly, I have nothing bad to say about the people or the country. It's not perfect, but it's not the hell that some of the Copts here would have you believe,” he opined.
While there is a certain level of disguised and even blatant religious discrimination in Egypt, and occasional clashes occur, most Egyptians see themselves as Egyptians first. As I recall, the only reaction that Nicholas's Christianity elicited at university was owing to the unfortunate coincidence that his nickname sounded like the Arabic slang word for “fuck”, which provided hours of entertainment for the student body.
Another old college friend, Amr, who moved to neighbouring America in the mid-1990s, sees his presence in New York as far more than simply economic. In fact, when we spoke on the phone, he sounded so American in outlook that I hardly recognised the laidback Egyptian youth I once knew.
“When I moved here, it blew my mind. The constitution and the equality of everyone here before the law makes me want to spend the rest of my life here,” he told me. “At first, I missed my friends and social circle, but I have now built a good life here.” Although Amr admits that things have become tougher since 9/11, he says that the system provides enough protection for minorities for it not to affect him.
And this exodus of Egyptians is not just among my friends. According to the last census, in 2006, nearly 4 million Egyptians, from all walks of life, now live abroad. The true figure is probably much higher, because many Egyptians who spend some time in Egypt or are abroad illegally are still officially domiciled in the country.
Egyptians are traditionally one of the world's most settled and sedentary peoples and have, since antiquity, held the belief that there is no place like home. The lush Nile valley, buffered by the desert and the sea, has given Egyptians a kind of island mentality, despite the country's central geopolitical and cultural position. Egypt is endearingly known as “Umm el-Dunya” (mother of the world) and el-Mahrousa (the divinely guarded).
The increasing mobility of Egyptians in recent decades has triggered a lot of debate between the pragmatists and realists, and the romantic guardians of Egyptian pride, who accuse Egyptians abroad of treachery and ingratitude.
But mobility has done Egyptians and Egypt a lot of good, and some bad. On the plus side, labour, particularly at the educated end of the market, has become a major Egyptian export, with remittances from Egyptians abroad rising constantly. They currently stand at over $5bn. The flight of millions of workers also reduces the fierce competition for jobs at home.
On the downside, Egypt is suffering a massive brain-drain as its brightest young seek fortune and self-actualisation elsewhere. But Egypt has launched a number of efforts to transform this haemorrhaging into a “brain gain“. One youth-led Egyptian NGO has launched an innovative programme called Egyptian Expatriates for Development.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 15 January 2008.