Interviewer: Alya Osman
Location: Kuwait (Virtual Zoom Interview)
Language: Arabic (Transcript translated by Osman)
Length of Interview: 51:33
Description: A 48-year-old man who was born in Kuwait discusses his childhood memories, returning to Kuwait for work at the age of 33, and why Egyptians over time have migrated to the Gulf.
Alya Osman: Could you please tell me your name, date of birth and region of birth?
Interviewee: My name is [redacted], I was born on the 24th of October 1972 in Kuwait.
Alya Osman: When did you migrate and where did you migrate to?
Interviewee: There were two times or two ‘stages’ – the first was that my parents migrated to Kuwait a long time ago, back in the 60s. They got married there and I was born there and I lived there from 1972 to 1984. And we returned [to Egypt] at my dad’s decision, he decided that he’d had enough of what they referred to as el ghorba. The situation there was that they always felt that they were foreign and far away from their home and family and friends and all of that. So, he decided to return to Egypt. So, all of us, my dad, me, my mother and my brother returned in 1984. And we completely forgot about Kuwait as an experience, it had just become childhood memories. And I lived here [Egypt] until 2003. I had gotten married and had a child, and by pure coincidence, I got a job offer to move to Kuwait and one to move to Dubai at the same time. Of course, when I heard ‘Kuwait’ it brought back all those pleasant childhood memories. And because I had a daughter, I felt that raising in Kuwait was much better than in Dubai, at least by my criteria. So, we went, me, my wife, and my daughter. I left Egypt in 2005 and I returned in 2020. 15 years. The first [migration] was 12 years, and then I lived in Egypt for a long time, then back to Kuwait for 15 years. I came back to Egypt last year, November 2020.
Alya Osman: Both for your parents and for you personally, what were the reasons that you decided to migrate and leave Egypt?
Interviewee: In terms of my parents, in that time – that is the 60s and 70s – people had started migrating to the Gulf in a much more massive way than before. And people started to notice the social differences that started to emerge between Egyptians who stayed in Egypt and those who travelled to the Gulf and were able to save money and return. To put it more plainly, people always felt that those who returned from the Gulf were able to save years from their lives in terms of acquiring the basics, like an apartment, those traditional things we think of in Egypt. People wanted an apartment, a car, a plot of land, etc. And people who travelled to the Gulf during that period were able to save a decent amount of money and “speed up” achieving their dreams as it were. That was probably the goal when my parents migrated. In terms of my migration, it was different because it was more about a changed lifestyle than saving money. I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to go to Kuwait or Saudi Arabia or any country in the Gulf to save money and come back. I went for a different, better lifestyle, and a better education for my daughter. That might’ve driven 80 percent of the decision. The stress in my job in Egypt may have driven the remaining 20 percent of the decision. As you know, there are generally two types of migration. Sometimes you migrate with the goal of settling in a country, getting its citizenship, living, and working there officially and permanently, and you don’t set a return date at all. This is probably more applicable to Canada, Australia, the UK, and the U.S., because these countries relatively encourage settling there. New Zealand, Ireland, countries like that are searching for certain people with certain skills and they attract these people, allow them to live there, provide them with certain benefits. This stuff is obviously not applicable at all to the Gulf countries. There’s no such thing as becoming a citizen in the Gulf countries unless you meet conditions that are almost impossible. And citizenship isn’t a right. In some European countries, if you’re born there or live there for a few years, you’re automatically qualified for citizenship. But in the Gulf, it’s not like that. Gulf countries only give you citizenship if they want to give you citizenship because of a massive achievement, and it’s an executive decision by the ruler of the country. So, people who go to the Gulf know that they’re going to leave eventually. This is the biggest difference between the Gulf and other countries, especially for Egyptians. You go knowing that you’re going to leave. The question of when you’re going to leave will either be your decision, as was the case for me, or that you’re going to be forced to leave because of things like termination, job losses, changes in the labor or immigration law, etc. This is the major difference between the GCC and other countries that Egyptians often migrate to.
Alya Osman: Was it the case for you that you always knew you would come back to Egypt? Or did you consider migrating to somewhere else from Kuwait?
Interviewee: From the very beginning, I decided that I would go to Kuwait for the duration of my daughter’s education. I was trying to create some stability for her, me, and my wife. I didn’t have a plan that I was going to move from point A to B to C. I wanted to go to Kuwait and stay there for a period. And, by the way, I had planned to stay there for 5 years and come back to Egypt. I also felt that this would be best for my daughter’s schooling because these were the foundational years. So, if she went to a really good school during these years it would be enough, and we could go back to Egypt. This isn’t to say that there aren’t excellent international schools in Egypt. But, in Egypt, sending one child to a really good international school will cost you 30 percent of your income. This wasn’t the case at all in Kuwait. I was able to send my daughter to one of the best schools and the fees didn’t constitute nearly as much of a proportion, not even 3 or 5 percent. This was a massive reason that I migrated and stayed. But, as the years go by and you start to accomplish your goal, two things happen. First, you move on to a bigger goal. You say, “I want to save X amount of money” and ‘X’ keeps growing. The goal keeps drawing on and the years keep passing by. Second, I travelled in 2005, and by the time the 5 years were up and we were preparing to return, there was the 2011 Revolution. And everyone started warning us not to return. People would say, “what are you going to do for work when no one here can find work?” There was a massive economic slowdown and a lot of people in Egypt lost their jobs. So, me going there would only exacerbate the problems. At that time, there were also a lot of Egyptian migrants who started returning to Egypt, like Egyptians who worked in Libya or Iraq. All these people became a surplus in the job market, so the idea of moving back and looking for work became really difficult. Those were the reasons that the years kept passing by until they became 15 years without me noticing. [smiling]
Alya Osman: You’ve spoken a lot about work, I’d like to know more about both what your parents did in Kuwait and what you did. I’m also curious, after 15 years had passed, what made you decide to return to Egypt?
Interviewee: In the 70s – I’d like to keep comparing that period with now – people who left Egypt to work in the Gulf mainly worked in three fields. Some were skilled laborers, such as electricians, plumbers, house painters, construction workers, and this was the main class and biggest proportion of Egyptian migrants in the Gulf. The second biggest class was teachers. Gulf countries at the time often relied on Egyptian teachers since they among the best in the Arab World, as well as Syrian and Palestinian teachers. But Egyptian teachers were also ahead because, historically, Egypt used to send volunteer teachers to Kuwait for free at a point. So, there were historically good relations between the two countries. The other main class, which was much smaller, were people who went to work in the private sector, especially accountants and lawyers. Most Egyptians in Kuwait during that time were either laborers, teachers, accountants, lawyers, or consultants. It would be very rare to find an Egyptian working outside these fields. Doctors mostly migrated to Saudi Arabia rather than Kuwait since there was a greater need there at the time. When my parents migrated, my mother was a teacher, which was very typical. My father was an applied arts graduate, so he was primarily an artist, but he worked in the Ministry of Education in art direction. So, he oversaw everything related to art in the Kuwaiti national curriculum textbooks. So, they both worked in the government and in the Ministry of Education like a lot of Egyptians who went there. These dynamics changed during the period that I migrated [in 2006.] Some categories stayed the same, there were still a lot of laborers, teachers, lawyers, and accountants. But two major new sectors for Egyptians were banking, which I worked in, and medicine. In the last 15-20 years, Kuwait became attractive for Egyptian doctors. It’s also important to take into consideration – and this was one of the reasons I spent so much time there – the change in the foreign exchange rate. This was a massive factor for everyone who migrated to Kuwait in the 2000s. When we migrated, one Kuwaiti dinar was worth exactly 18 Egyptian pounds. By 2011, one Kuwaiti dinar was worth 60 Egyptian pounds. So, you suddenly found that there was a massive shift in whatever lifestyle you were trying to achieve in Egypt. Because the whole process is that you save money and transfer it home in Egyptian pounds, and now the same amount of money could get you much more in Egypt. My situation was slightly different because saving wasn’t my main goal. It was mainly about having a better lifestyle away from the over crowdedness, the pollution, the massive school fees, the stress of my job. In Egypt, I would leave to go to work at 8 am and come home at 8 pm. And at least two, two and a half hours were spent commuting. In Kuwait, I would get to and from work in seven, eight minutes and head home at 3 pm. This gave me a lot more time to spend with my wife and daughter.
Alya Osman: You’ve brought up the fact that a lot of people migrated to Kuwait both in the 60s/70s and early 2000s, so I was curious to know whether there were people you already knew in Kuwait before either migration? And, generally speaking, what was your relationship with other Egyptians in Kuwait?
Interviewee: Again, I have to compare the two periods because there was a massive difference. When my parents migrated, Egyptian communities were very, very close-knit. For a lot of reasons. I think the biggest reason was that there were no social alternatives. I mean, first of all, Egyptian television didn’t broadcast in Kuwait, so you couldn’t see any Egyptian films or shows or anything. Communication-wise, to call your family back in Egypt you would have to walk all the way to the central telecom building to book a time slot for a call. They would either transfer the call to your home phone in four or five hours, or you would go back to the telecom building and wait for a chance to use the phone. So, I think Egyptians at the time had nothing but each other. To have any social life, you would have to socialize with your Egyptian co-workers, friends you already knew from Egypt, Egyptians that you met there, etc. So, gatherings of family or friends were the only form of entertainment in Kuwait. And I keep coming back to the word I mentioned in the beginning, it was the only thing that lightened the feeling of el ghorba. Spending time with other Egyptians, talking about the same things, eating the same food, having a lot in common, would make el ghorba feel lighter. As for when I migrated, things were very different. By the time I migrated, you could watch all the Egyptian channels on Kuwaiti TV. There also began to be a sort of wealth of experience from the generations before that you shouldn’t share your life or personal news with a lot of people. And I think this was the result of a lot of generations’ experiences where everyone knew everything about everyone. And I think this is a general pattern around the world, people share less about their personal lives with others. Everyone is focused on their own plan and doesn’t really tell everyone what they’re up to. I think people, especially outside Egypt, became more concerned with keeping their life private, and this led to some distance. Having Egyptian channels and having access to a mobile phone, being able to call your relatives back home in seconds, all of this made us closer to Egypt and the idea of ghorba started to fade. It wasn’t really ghorba. You were in a foreign country, but you were a second away from all that is familiar. So, there was no “ghorba.”
Alya Osman: That makes total sense. I’d also like to know, having left Kuwait and returned to Egypt for a time, how was Kuwait different when you returned as an adult only having those childhood memories?
Interviewee: It was a whole other country. Simply. It was as though I went to two different countries. The biggest and first shock when I went back was that I was searching for the building I grew up in and it had been demolished. [laughs] So, that was a truly awful feeling. I was emotional because these were my childhood memories and the building no longer existed, the entire street looked different. The architecture was different, everything was different. The people were very, very different. When I was there, I was a child, so I only had to deal with children. Our biggest problems were our football matches and chocolate and who ate what and who did what. When I went as an adult, that entails business, and family issues, and a social life, and a political landscape that we left behind in our country that was changing. That was the first shock, the non-presence of my house. And that was almost a headline for this new stage: there was nothing left from what you experienced waiting for you now. And I can’t not mention, especially in the case of Kuwait as opposed to other Gulf countries, the importance of the Iraqi invasion. I think that the Kuwaiti people emerged from this experience with a lot of challenges and lessons. It was a traumatic experience and I think this changed a lot about Kuwaitis’ perception of themselves and of wafideen (Kuwaiti word migrants meaning ‘arrivals’). That’s us, we’re called wafideen, we’re not really called anything else. I also think it affected their sense of safety and security, and it made a lot of people relatively aggressive. At the time my parents lived there, the Kuwaiti people were, and some of them definitely still are, very hospitable and kind and sincere. But I think they emerged from the experience of Iraqi invasion with a lot of scars. They were no longer as friendly, and this is not to make any generalizations, but this is what I noticed. People became very different. Interactions were not as sincere, comfortable, or easy as when my parents were there. And I mainly pin this back to the trauma of the invasion. So, the difference between the two migrations was massive. And it also has to do with the natural progression of time. The changes in the world changed people as a whole. People everywhere are very different from what they were 20, 30 years ago in the way that we live.
Alya Osman: I’d like to know more – though this might apply more to your parents since you were born there – whether you faced any challenges adapting to your situation as Egyptians living in Kuwait?
Interviewee: No. With my parents’ migration, we had no difficulty integrating with the Egyptians there or with living in the country. That wasn’t the difficulty. The main difficulty we experienced as children that my parents might not have experienced was what would now be referred to as bullying. Back then we didn’t have these labels, there was no awareness of ‘bullying’ as we understand it today. We were bullied 24/7 at school. I mean, though school was five days a week. [laughs] But we were often bullied and by people from different nationalities, you can’t just limit it to the locals. Being Egyptian at that time… Egypt had signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1973. It was very necessary for Egypt, but the Arab world didn’t see it as such and saw it as a form of betrayal to the Arab nation, because Arab people had very set perceptions of certain countries. So, the fact that the Egyptian leadership signed this peace agreement brought on us, as Egyptians abroad, a lot of bullying, mocking and a degree of despisal. It would get to that sometimes. We were seen as people who betrayed a very important cause for the Arab and Muslim world, which it definitely is. But certainly no one betrayed anything. And when the years passed by, most countries ended up doing the same. So, I think our difficulty adapting as children mainly stemmed from the way the Arab world saw Egyptians at that time. In 2005/2006, adapting was much easier. If you talk to kids born in the late 90s, early 2000s, they all speak the same language. Like my daughter says, everything is globalized. People in Kuwait, Egypt, and the U.S. are watching the same shows, maybe even at the same time. [laughs] There’s been a sort of synchronization between people’s beliefs across generations. People are more or less on the same page. And this became reflected in us, too, though we’re much older. There is more connection. So, it wasn’t difficult at all for us to integrate into Kuwaiti society while still preserving our identity. And this is mostly the case for people who are middle or let’s say upper class who migrate to these countries, who arrived well-educated and were able to hold onto their identity. Whereas people who are simpler or less fortunate don’t always necessarily preserve their identity. You can find a lot of Egyptians in Kuwait who speak in the Kuwaiti dialect, and it’s very common among the lower classes. But we were perhaps more fortunate and so we were able to maintain a certain distance that allowed us to preserve our identity. I went as an Egyptian and came back as an Egyptian with my same dialect and opinions on certain things.
Alya Osman: I think it also has to do with the necessity people have in dealing with the local population, but that is definitely a difference that exists.
Interviewee: Definitely, I agree. It might be that working in certain jobs where you interact a lot with the locals, speaking in their dialect gives you a certain sense of security or makes you feel less foreign. But I personally never felt that this helped. Because the local populations there – especially in the private sector, and there’s obviously a difference between the private and public – you were evaluated based on the value you brought the organization. It was as simple as that. The dialect you spoke in didn’t matter. If you only spoke Swahili but you brought in a million dinars for your company, it would still be very much appreciated.
Alya Osman: Going back to the first migration, what was your experience of going back to Egypt after living in Kuwait your entire life? Did you use to visit Egypt a lot or was Egypt relatively foreign to you?
Interviewee: That’s a heavy and difficult question but I’ll answer it. [laughs] In both periods. Did we visit Egypt? Yes, we visited Egypt but when you go somewhere on vacation it’s totally different from going to live there for good. Even at the level of problems or things you don’t like, you know you’re only staying there for 30 or so days, so you don’t have to live with anything you don’t like, you just have to be patient about it. When we moved back in ’84 to settle permanently, it was a shock. For [me and my brother], at our age, it was what they call a civilizational shock. A massive cultural shock. First, Kuwait was at its economic best at the time. It was called ‘the pearl of the Gulf.’ They were far ahead of other Gulf countries economically because they were among the first to take advantage of the discovery of oil. They had a lot of money, and an insane amount of wealth, so they did things no other countries in the Arab world were really doing at the time. So, as a child, I lived in a place that had every mode of comfort, pampering, entertainment, and joy. Everything. At the time, things that would be released in the U.S. would be in Kuwait a month later. For example, a new American device would drop in Kuwait a month later, because you had the means, i.e. money. So, when I came back to Egypt in 1984, it was the final years of the economic infitah and the first years of… I don’t know what to call the economic system at the time. It was a cocktail. President Anwar Sadat had opened up the economy and then President Mubarak’s era, economically… had no real structure. Economically, I’d personally call it the surrealist era. [smiles] There was no clear plan, I don’t know what we were trying to do. But, for sure, we were in a difficult situation economically in Egypt. There was a lack of resources everywhere. The first day I went out in Egypt, the first time I went out on my own, I was robbed. [laughs] I was carrying money, everything was new to me and I didn’t know that I had to be careful. I didn’t know that you couldn’t walk in the street with money in your hand, even as a child, you had to put it in your pocket. I vividly remember this experience because it shook me. I thought, is this possible? Yes, it was. So, the first return was really unpleasant and full of shocks. The lack of resources… even, as a 14-year-old between childhood and being a teenager, the things I enjoyed were really small and frivolous, like a particular chocolate or type of juice. At the time, there was only one chocolate company in all of Egypt called Corona. It was an Alexandrian sweets company, and they were the only company that made chocolate in Egypt. And they’d use whatever recipe and just change the cover every now and then and give it a new name. [laughs] Having just come from the wealthiest country in the Gulf, they had almost unlimited resources. So, even as a child, you had variety in all the silly little things or brands that you cared about. They were all materialistic things, but they mattered to me at that age – I felt a massive downgrade across my life. Surprisingly, when I returned the second time – though I would return regularly and I was seeing the developments happening in Egypt in terms of infrastructure, services, etc. – I was surprised to find that I appreciate life in Egypt so much more now. Put some sectors aside. For example, the service sector will always be bad in Egypt, we’re good at a lot of other things but it’s not our thing. But the realm of social life that’s available in Egypt, the sporting clubs, the cultural life: bands, music, the opera, novels… there’s a massive difference [from Kuwait.] I honestly felt that I wished I had returned two or three years earlier. I can say that, despite some challenges, I’m happy to be back in Egypt this time. It’s totally the opposite from the first time I came back. Is this just a result of maturing? No, it’s also the facts on the ground. Egypt is a lot more open and developed, and there are way more avenues to have a fulfilling life than there were before.
Alya Osman: I’m also curious – when you think of your migration experience as a whole, both as a child and adult, how do you feel that it’s changed your life? Do you feel that it has changed your relationship with Egypt or the way you think about the future?
Interviewee: The first time around, migration affected my life quite negatively. I felt that coming back to Egypt downgraded the quality of my life, and that affected me emotionally for many years. I was in a worse school than before, and a lot about our lifestyle was worse than it was in Kuwait. You know, kids at that age are somewhat fragile and problems seem bigger than they are, so that affected me very negatively at that age. But the positive, as a child, was that I knew that the world is much bigger than what we traditionally saw of it. This is the benefit of any migration: you see new systems, new cultures, new things, or modes of entertainment. When I came back this made me feel that, here in Egypt, with the massive human potential we have, that we deserved better. But there are so many managerial issues that stand in the way. So, returning was quite disappointing. But living my childhood abroad was a very happy experience. I kind of struggled to integrate when I came back to Egypt – we have a phrase, ‘tifl el khaleeg’ [Gulf kid]. It’s a real thing, it might even be in the dictionary at this point. [laughs] But tifl el khaleeg is pampered and spoiled and lives a leisurely life in the Gulf then comes to Egypt and condescends. Like, ‘oh, you guys don’t have this type of AC?’ or ‘oh, you guys don’t have this chocolate?’ So, they’re seen as over-spoiled kids. They’re not really, they’re just kids who got the chance to live a more leisurely, privileged, and stable life and that’s not their fault. But that was my first experience. I really didn’t appreciate coming back to Egypt in the 80s, at all. And if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have taken the decision to come back. The second time around, things were quite different. At my job, I had a very senior position, so I enjoyed a level of comfort and respect that was perhaps more than what I expected. I was back to a very comfortable, organized life. The difference wasn’t that Kuwait fell behind, but that Egypt developed a lot. So, this time around, I didn’t feel a gap returning. The countries were very similar. And this time I wasn’t tifl el khaleeg, I wasn’t a child who didn’t see any of the shows or speak to his family or hear anything about Egypt and so came back confused. This is no longer the case, now you have all the talk shows and everything at the tip of your finger, you miss nothing. So, I came back to Egypt as though I had left it yesterday. You know that feeling? And that’s the difference between then and now. Back then, you left for 12 years, and they felt like 12 years. This time I was gone for 15 years and felt like I had left yesterday. That sums up the difference between the two migrations.
Alya Osman: I promise this is my last, last question –
Interviewee: No, no, go ahead, this has been very interesting. You reminded me of a lot of things that I hadn’t really thought about before.
Alya Osman: Do you see yourself ever migrating again?
Interviewee: Honestly… off the top of my head, my immediate reaction is “absolutely not,” and I think that would be a hasty answer. Would I like to migrate again? Initially, no. But if I get to a point in Egypt with the same reasons that made me migrate in the first place, then I will probably migrate again. It depends on how the country will treat you. There are things here that are difficult and exhausting despite the major developments. It’s one of two things. If you adapt and you’re able to tolerate the differences between your country and the country you lived in, you will be fine. A lot of people come back from the Gulf countries, Kuwait and otherwise, and they can’t adapt to the changes they see. And I personally know a lot of people who moved back to Egypt for one, two, three years then migrated again. They couldn’t deal with the new life, and the changes that happened over the years. And they left, and they never want to come back. So, for me to say that I won’t leave would be being dishonest with myself. I do think that, in certain circumstances, I might find myself unable to stay here and wanting to leave. So, it’s likely that I could migrate again, but I don’t prefer it. I don’t see it as option number one or even number two. I will try to stick to the place I’m at in my life, both physically, mentally, in every way. I am keen to stay in this stage I’m at in my life. El ghorba mesh helwa. And I don’t know if this is an Arab or Egyptian thing but no matter how… if you’ll allow me, one of my friends had given me this example. He had migrated to the UAE and came back after six months because he couldn’t cope. I was talking to him and asked how he could come back so soon, that it was a waste of an opportunity, and he said, “there’s no soul.” There’s no soul. He said, “you know the difference when you watch a Liverpool football match versus an Ahly or Zamalek match? The stadium there is nicer, the cinematography is better, the crowd looks better, the players are bigger and worth more. But when Liverpool scores you don’t feel it inside [your spirit.]” But come and watch what happens here when El-Ahly or El-Zamalek score a goal in a poorer stadium with worse players and a much simpler crowd. People scream in the streets till sunrise. This is the difference between migrating and staying in your country. It’s the difference between a Liverpool/Manchester match and an Ahly/Zamalek match. How you feel. Even though everything there looks better – but you have more love and joy for the thing that doesn’t look as good. Because it’s yours.