A year ago, I had to return to Egypt and leave Doha, the place I called home for nine years. Last week, I was at the Embassy of Qatar in Cairo to apply for a tourist visa to see my friends. I was told that none were being issued. I did not ask why. There was a chance it could have been due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but there was a bigger chance that it was my passport; my Egyptian passport which has been rejected before. I could not take the risk of knowing. I wanted to tell them that the process should have been different for me. I wanted to say that my dad had worked in Doha for a decade. And that I too have lived, studied, worked, loved, and created memories there. I was not simply a tourist looking to explore a new place. I wanted to say that I craved glimpses of a life I had built for myself. Yet I only mumbled a thank you and walked out onto the street, crying as I waited for my Uber to arrive.
In the car, I closed my eyes and remembered our house in Doha. In a sea of beige compounds, we had four cats in our villa and twenty strays outside of it. My mom had planted a small garden of rosemary, basil, mint, and lemon trees and complained every morning that the cats had bitten the leaves. But we never sent them away.
As I sat, stuck in Cairo traffic, I thought of how much I missed driving. My bright red Hyundai was a loyal companion in Doha. I particularly missed the lonely road trips northwest to Zekreet. As I drove, I used to pass by my university and three huge buildings, which I pretended were Giza’s pyramids; a mind game that brought me comfort as I approached the road’s luring puddles.
Grief comes in waves and this one was hitting hard. When an old friend once told me she passed by the mall close to my house in Doha, I had wanted to tell her that it was never mine. In an Arab expats’ compound, our small villa’s rent was paid for by my dad’s work. I lived in that house for years but could never repaint it or stick a nail on its walls. Whenever I shared my frustration and need for making changes to the house, my family reminded me that the gulf is not a place to which one migrates. It is a place from which you eventually leave. It is a transit point of in-betweenness.
In a country of two million, 300,000 were Egyptian. Ranging from blue collar workers to doctors, engineers, and consultants, my family was one of the privileged. In my head, I divided the Egyptians I met into the newcomers and the assimilated. Like your typical Cairene, I used to assume everyone was from Cairo. I slowly learned that most families come from other cities, especially the delta. Their money, however, resided in the Fifth Settlement, 6th of October, and Sheikh Zayed cities.
As the ride took me towards the same small Giza apartment I was raised in, I thought of the words of migrant workers in Doha; of how they advised me to invest in real estate and not in an expensive education. They told me to buy cheap and secondhand and to save and send my money back home. I think of their words now and feel ashamed of how much I have missed the comforts of Doha, the constant chillness of air conditioning, the long shopping strolls in the mall, and the ease of spending on unnecessary luxuries.
On my last morning in Doha, when everything was packed or sold, I stood in the emptiness to take one final look at the house. It looked exactly the way it had when we had first moved in. For the first time in nine years, I thought of the past residents. I wondered where they were from. I teared up thinking I would never know who lived in my room. I would never know what they did for a living, what they liked to make for dinner, or how they found their way out of this house. They did not leave any traces for me to find, and here I was, leaving none to those who will come after me. I thought of the cats outside and prayed that the new residents would feed them.
My mind then wandered to the day my dad told us we were to leave Doha. We joined other Egyptian families who were asked to leave during a pandemic with no direct flights to Cairo. When I went with him to book our tickets, a fellow Egyptian welcomed us. He apologized for what we were going through and told us he had booked hundreds of tickets heading to Cairo in the span of two weeks. He explained that we could fly via Kuwait or Lebanon. However, he advised against Kuwait. He had also lost his job and was booking his own flight via Beirut, because “they do not hate us.” My father looked defeated, and it made me resentful. Something in him seemed to break at that moment.
After landing in Cairo, my father was changed. A rotten seed was planted and continued to grow until its leaves eclipsed his heart only months later. I thought of how expected his death was, yet still sudden and abrupt. My heart darkened thinking of how he lived on a peninsula for ten years, but rarely visited the beach. I thought of our separate journeys that never seemed to find a crossover, yet always collided; of how we shared the same space yet led starkly different lives.
It took me a year of denial to understand; it is not easy to feel erased and it hurts to be forgotten. I was brought back from my reminiscences by the Uber driver telling me that I had arrived. I stepped out and, walking away, surrendered to the thought; Giza wouldn’t remember me either. When I leave this street, it will be like I was never here. My fleeting presence will be remembered by a few dislocated pebbles, the pressed dirt my steps departed, and a stranger’s eyes I accompanied for a moment. I took a deep breath and thought of a new friend I met recently. Not knowing of my recent dislocation to Cairo, she told me stories on the beauty of being present and the romance of leaving no trace behind. I smiled at how at ease she looked then. This time I did not cry at the thought of being forgotten.
Mariam Diefallah is a childbirth doula, educator, and writer from Giza, Egypt. Her work has been published in Jadaliyya, Jeem, and Asymptote Blog.
Egypt Migrations is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to join or support the organization.