Nearly a year ago now, and just a few hours before I was due to travel to Jordan to study journalism at the Jordanian Media Institute, I went to fetch some of my clothes from the laundry next door to prepare for my trip. The moment Abdel Baset, the laundry’s owner, learned that I was leaving for Amman the next day he started telling me the story of what happened to him there some twenty years before.
Nearly a year ago now, and just a few hours before I was due to travel to Jordan to study journalism at the Jordanian Media Institute, I went to fetch some of my clothes from the laundry next door to prepare for my trip. The moment Abdel Baset, the laundry’s owner, learned that I was leaving for Amman the next day he started telling me the story of what happened to him there some twenty years before. He was bubbling with enthusiasm as he told me how he’d gone to Amman with no plan and no guarantee of work and on his first day there had decided to go to the district around the Husseini Mosque, where most of the Egyptians were working. Perhaps he’d find someone to help him, he thought, but lucky man that he was he got into a fight with a cleaner and the pair of them were taken to the police station.
“The officer was a thoroughly decent man,” Abdel Baset recalled: “When he heard I was looking for work he offered me a job at his sister’s house. I agreed on the spot and I moved to her place to work as a guard on the gates of a mansion I could never dream of living in.” It was there, at the mansion, that Abdel Baset spent, the happiest days of his life, he said. The owner and his wife were generous and treated him as one of the family.
After a few years had passed he decided to take a holiday and return to Egypt. “The wife booked me a ticket at her own expense and maybe you won’t believe it, but she took me to the airport in her fancy car and told me: ‘Stay in Egypt as long as you like then come back to us whenever you’re ready. Your position is secure.’ But I didn’t go back to Jordan and with the money I’d saved I started this business. I don’t know why I didn’t go back, perhaps because things wouldn’t be as good the second time round.”
I wasn’t as fortunate on my first day as Abdel Baset, whose luck led him to mansions. The only person I knew in the country was an Egyptian, a young man who was a friend of one of my high school classmates. He suggested I come and live in an apartment that was home to a number of other Egyptians working in Amman until I could find more suitable accommodation of my own.
My first night there I found myself in a room whose only furniture was a few scattered mattresses, on which lay five young Egyptian men all deep asleep, exhausted after a hard day’s work. There were twelve of us living there in all.
Mohammed Abou Shaeysha was one of these men. He had come to Jordan after running out of options in Beirut, to make a living and hopefully to start building for the future. Mohammed had been working in a pasta factory in Lebanon and when he arrived in Amman could only find work as a tea-boy in a company’s offices. He took the job while he waited for another opportunity to come along. When I asked him why he had left Egypt, he told me: “I had this business raising chickens in our little village. I was good at it, but one of my relatives insisted in getting involved and he ruined it, so I decided to leave it all to them and get out.”
On finding out that I had left dentistry after just a year and had come to Jordan to study journalism, Mohammed was shocked: “Why did you do that? You could have lived like a king in Egypt!”
“I’m just like you, Mohammed,” I replied: “We both left one place for another and moved from one job to the other for the sake of a goal.”
During the two weeks I spent in this apartment, I noticed how they would stick together to try and lessen the burden of their homesickness. Those with work would pay for those who didn’t have a job, until things got better for them, and when one of them fell ill, the others would rush him to hospital, refusing to leave until they could bring him home again safe and well.
Political developments in Egypt ensured that Egyptians in Jordan could not work in peace. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power what was referred to as a “suppressed crisis in relations between the two countries” resulted in Egyptians in Jordan being subjected to an increasing number of searches, with all those not in possession of a valid work visa deported.
There are an estimated 600,000 Egyptians working in Jordan, half of them not legally registered. When I interviewed Egyptian Ambassador Khaled Tharwat following the fall of the Brotherhood government he told me that the problem would not be sorted out until the embassy arranged for then Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to visit Jordan to personally address some of the issues.
The thing that all Egyptians in Jordan have in common is the belief that they will go home. The Egyptian worker sees himself as on a clearly defined mission: to make as much money as possible in the shortest possible time. He works multiple jobs across a number of different trades until he’s done what he came to do. For him, life only begins when he gets back to Egypt.
On the other hand, during my time in Jordan the Media Institute sent me to attend a seminar in the Austrian city of Salzburg. On my first day there, a few Lebanese friends and myself decided to go for a stroll in the city centre. We asked the hotel to organize a taxi for us and fifteen minutes later the car came, driven by a man who looked like an Arab. When he found out his passengers were Arabs he started talking to us in Arabic, and I could tell from his accent that he was Egyptian.
“Which town in Egypt do you come from?” I asked him. He answered that he came from Aga, in Dahqaliya. When I told him that I came from the same governorate he replied in the same Egyptian accent, “Right then, you better ride up front next to me, sir.”
Like most Egyptians in Austria, Alaa had first smuggled himself into Italy then moved on to Austria. He had started looking for a job and in a few months managed to marry an Austrian woman, thus securing himself a residence permit and Austrian citizenship.
The next surprise came when Alaa informed me that he owned a taxi firm with another Egyptian, and that this other Egyptian also intends to go home. “I never think of going back,” he said. “Why should I? Life here’s as good as it gets. Water, greenery and a bit of dignity.”
After last year—in which I moved from country to country and from one job to another—I have concluded that Egyptians locate their hope in travel and departure. There are those who go looking for money and nothing else and return when they have what they want, and those who travel in search of a dignified life, and when they find it some other country, never consider returning to the homeland in which they have lost their most basic of rights.