Interviewer: Diogo Bercito
Location: Espirito Santo, Brazil (Virtual Zoom Interview)
Language: Portuguese (Transcript translated by Bercito)
Length of Interview: 41:28
Description: 30 years old, he was born in Banha to a Muslim family. He worked as a poet and a journalist in Cairo. He left Egypt in 2014, after his disillusionment with the outcomes of the 2011 protests. In Brazil, he created a company to export coffee and black pepper. Covid, however, has hit him hard. Even with his current financial challenges, he says that Brazil is his true home.
Interviewer – Could you please tell me your name, date of birth, and place of birth?
Interviewee – Well, my name is Mohamed [redacted]. You can find it written correctly in the [consent] form. I was born in [redacted] 1990. In a city that is part of the metropolitan part of Cairo, 45 kilometers north of Cairo, named Banha. With an H. B-A-N-H-A. I was born there. My father is from that city, from the rural parts, and my mom is from Alexandria, a city in the north of Egypt. I lived in Egypt most of my life. In my childhood I had only a gap. My father moved to Qatar to work as a university professor. We moved there with him, stayed some years, and then I came back to Egypt. I went to university in Egypt, Cairo University. I studied literature and Arabic language. I worked some years after my formation in Egypt and got here in Brazil for the first time in 2014 and, after that, in 2016, I decided to stay in Brazil. I went back to Egypt before that but I came back to Brazil in 2016 and I decided to stay, work in Brazil.
Interviewer – Let us go back a bit, then, Mohamed. You said your father was from Banha. Was his family traditionally from that place? Were they there for a long time?
Interviewee – My father’s family had—they still have it—lands in the rural circuit of Banha. It is a family, let us say, of upper-middle-class. In that rural region, it was considered a family of superior means, [higher] than the average there. My father left Banha to study in Cairo. There was no university in Banha, in that period. Only middle school. And we have a family house there, of my father’s family, until today. I was born there because when my father met my mom and they married, they lived for a short period in that city. That is why I was born there. But then they moved to Cairo and most of my life in Egypt was in Cairo, not in Banha.
Interviewer – What part of Cairo?
Interviewee – A neighborhood called Maadi, I do not know if you know it. Maadi. Where I had my school, where I had my studies. Part of the fundamental school happened in Qatar, as I said. Then I went back to secondary, [in English] high school [in Portuguese] in Cairo, and then I went to university in Cairo.
Interviewer – What did you study, Mohamed?
Interviewee – Arabic language and literature.
Interviewer – Alright. How was your life, what do you remember from your life in Cairo? What did you do to have fun, for example? How was your routine, let us say?
Interviewee – Look, in the university years…. I entered university in 2007. I graduated in 2011. It was calm. I liked what I was studying. I chose it on purpose. I had a passion for poetry. I liked literary texts a lot. I wanted to be a poet. Then I joined the University of Cairo, in a department in which many famous Egyptian writers taught and studied. A lot of very famous writers, in the past. I took part in the literary activities, in the cultural activities. I formed along with a group of colleagues something like a literary family of the writers in the university. Some of them are now known journalists in very known newspapers. I also took part in literary competitions, I traveled a lot to a lot of countries, of places inside Egypt. There they do not have states, they have governorates. I do not know what would be a good translation in Portuguese. Like a district. It is not a state. It is much smaller. I traveled a lot in Egypt to present my poetry, my literary texts. I won prizes, some from the Ministry of Culture, there in Egypt.
At the end of my university years, I began acquiring political interests, a little. Those were the last years of the Hosni Mubarak government, who was president of Egypt for 30 years. We, my generation, we did not like him. We had not known another president. We were also looking abroad, seeing how democratic countries were changing their governments. There was a certain level of assistance from the government to the people. When we compared that to the government in Egypt, we did not like it. We had a different knowledge of the world because of the internet, which was something that became very frequent in that period. In my last year at the university, my poetry and literary interests intersected with the political world. I made friends, people that were inside political movements and also wrote poetry and took part in those things.
In my last year at the university, in the year of my graduation, the Jasmin Revolution happened in Tunisia. The beginning of the Arab Spring. We saw that as a good sign. We could copy that and make a peaceful revolution, popular, in Egypt. So that we could convert the political regime into a more open, democratic, plural regime. I was arrested for a short period at the beginning of the revolution. Then I went back a lot to the protests. Then I began my career, I got involved in journalism. We thought at that time it was a vanguard of the revolution. Journalism that spoke about democracy, freedom, morality, minority’s rights, etc. I worked in some TV networks, broadcasts, newspapers. I wrote a column to what are known newspapers today in Egypt. Until 2013. 2012, first.
The government of religious right—which had been elected—took power. The Muslim Brotherhood. Our position vis-a-vis the Muslim Brotherhood changed a lot. Before the revolution, we saw them as part of a wider political movement. We did not agree with them, but we accepted them as part of the movement against the dictatorship. After the revolution, we began seeing them as an opportunistic group. As a group that used democracy to put their ideas in government, ideas that do not accept the rights of others, of minorities, of LGBT people, of the people that are marginalized in society. They were also conservative, and we were more open than that. In 2013 we supported… We got involved in protests against the Muslim Brotherhood, their government, their president Mohamed Mursi. Until the military coup of 2013, which at first we supported.
We thought it was another opportunity for change. Because part of the transition that had happened in 2011 against Hosni Mubarak was also a military movement. Change happened because of the protests, the pressure from the streets, from political movements. But who did the act itself, who took power from Hosni Mubarak, was the army. Until then, we did not have a mistrusting vision of the army. Yes, we did not like it that the country would remain ruled by the military. But we saw a chance of having elections, etc. And the country was kidnapped, sadly.
The same thing happened in many historical revolutionary models. At the end of any popular movement, there is a popular upheaval, economic. It generates frustration. The normal citizen gets tired of revolution, protests, conflicts. What do the people look for? They look for a strong man. A powerful man who can rule the country with an iron fist. Impose order, force in a regime that puts things in their right way. That happens even in democratic regimes, like in Brazil. In the periods in which people are frustrated… There in the United States, with the calls of Trump…. People have this need, as I said, in many historical models it happened. It happened in the French Revolution, with Napoleon Bonaparte, in the Russian Revolution, with the rise of Stalin… It happened in many historical models. And I believe that history has a… I will not say a tendency… But we can learn some things with what is similar. Human beings are the same human beings [everywhere]. If you look at the popular phenomena, between one country and the other, you can find many similarities… The circumstances that make a dictatorship rise [in power] also have many similarities.
Migration is always tied with great frustrations. It happens also in many historical models. When there is a big fault. The feeling that you will not succeed anymore. Defeat. Historical defeat. The defeat of the ideas in which you believed. I felt that. I felt that personally in 2014. 2013. After the conflicts that happened in the streets, sadly much blood was spilled. I felt that I could not take it. I began looking where to go. And at this moment I lost my job. I had a good job in journalism. I made good money. After 2014, gradually there was no space left for you to say what you wanted. Newspapers began having limits, let us say, censorship. You could not say what you wanted. You were not welcome anymore in some places. Some newspapers in which I wrote, for example, I cannot write anymore for them. They do not accept me. So I felt I was in a tight spot, in 2014.
Many people at that time began traveling to Turkey. But I did not like the idea of traveling to Turkey because of ideological reasons, in the first place. I saw that Turkey was becoming an ideological center for the Brotherhood after they had left power. They were looking for shelter in a country that was every day more conservative. Power there was more authoritarian. Erdogan in a year or so… I do not know if the date is correct… He amended the Constitution to stay in power until, maybe, his death. They were not thinking it was bad. That sent a signal that all that they said about democracy was not right. Also, Brazil at that time, 2013, was still a country that looked a bit… I do not know. It gave indications that the economy was getting better. It was also a country that did not have racism. Of course, there are cases of racism. Like anywhere in the world. But there is no constitutional racism. The racism that wider parts of society support. Brazil more than any other place in the world was made by immigrants, I think that there is a racial diversity even more than the racial diversity that exists in other countries of the New World. For example, the United States does not have that diversity. Argentina is almost a white country [he is interrupted].
Interviewer – Let me just ask you something, interrupting you. The fact that there were many Arabs in Brazil, a Syrian-Lebanese community, did it influence you in any way? Was it something that you thought of?
Interviewee – No, no. I was not looking for a place with a lot of Arabs. I was looking for a place with a minimum of freedom, inclusion, and democracy. And opportunities to work, live, and stay in that country. I was not looking for a place with many Arabs, no. On the contrary. I never lived in Brazil in the regions with a lot of Arabs. The Arabs in Brazil have centers. There are places in which they are concentrated, like São Paulo, even some neighborhoods. But I lived in Brazil in Belo Horizonte. I now live in Espírito Santo, in a city north of Espírito Santo. There are almost no Arabs. And I also looked for inclusion. I was not looking to live inside a ghetto. Inside a small community inside a society… No. I wanted to become part of the society that I was going to.
Interviewer – Was it easy, becoming part of it? Did you face any challenges of language, traditions… How was becoming part of society, as you were saying?
Interviewee – Of course there are difficulties. It is not easy. But I planned my migration. In Egypt, before traveling to Brazil, I had Portuguese classes. I tried learning everything I could about Brazil, to know how its people were living, what they were thinking, its culture, its life, its food. Life there. I even studied geography to decide which city I would choose, etc. In the very beginning, my Portuguese was not good. I am still studying it. Of course. Not even a native Brazilian can say he is very proficient in Portuguese. In the beginning, I did not speak it well, but I spoke enough to communicate. A very simple communication that solved the basic needs of life. Getting to Brazil I had classes again. I took middle school textbooks. I read history, geography. To know how people think you have to have a look at their education system. Everyone comes from the education system. If you look at what is there you can know what is inside their heads.
Brazil helped me adapt, in truth. The Brazilian people helped me. It is not as difficult to adapt to Brazil as it is in other countries. I did not migrate to other countries but I know stories of migrants in Europe, communities that are not too cozy, receptive, you know? The Brazilian people help you. If you say something wrong, they correct you. Everyone helps you. It was hard to find work in Brazil. I began working in, I do not know if you remember that, the period of the crisis. I got a job in the beginning when I got to Brazil. Researcher in a private research institute that did opinion polls, strategic research, etc. But I did not last long. They fired a lot of employees, including many Brazilians, something which perhaps helped me overcome it. It was not personal. Brazilians were suffering. I became friends with people who had higher education and were looking for any job, even cleaning. I saw the suffering of the Brazilians and I shared it. I accepted it. I chose to be part of Brazil so I had to accept the good and the bad.
Interviewer – Going back a little bit, Mohamed. I had some questions about your travel to Brazil. How was the visa process, was it hard to get a visa? Did you receive help from any organization, did anyone help you, or did you come by yourself?
Interviewee – I came by myself. I sold some things that I had in Egypt to finance my trip, the first months that I stayed in Brazil. But the visa and the other things were not difficult. I asked help from Brazilian friends to find a job, afterward. But not from organizations.
Interviewer – Mohamed, what was your first impression, arriving in Brazil? You arrived in Minas Gerais, right? What impressed you more? What got your attention?
Interviewee – Many things. First, the superficial difference of things. Even the soil has a different color. In Egypt, we have either white sand, in the desert, or very dark sand, around the Nile. In Minas, I found red sand. Something that I never saw before. The plants, fauna, and flora. I managed to see a monkey crossing the street, which is something you do not see in Egypt. I was also impressed with how Brazilian society, especially in Minas, has strong family links. It is something that you do not find easily in regions of Western culture. I do not think that Brazil is a Western country. It is a Latin country, with a different civilization than Western civilization. I do not know if you read Samuel Huntington’s book, dividing the civilizations in five… He also noticed that the Latinos are a different civilization than the Western civilization. So the family links. How people mistrust others, but as soon as you gain their trust the treatment changes… After you spend time, have patience, becoming friends with Brazilians… You become one of them.
What else I noticed? That society is organized, including civil society, let us say, the organizations, work unions, these things… They are strong in Brazil in comparison to back there in Egypt. I also noticed that Brazil managed to take advantage of the cultural, human components that are part of it. The Italians, for example, who came to Brazil, taught many things to the Brazilians. The Lebanese taught the Brazilians many things. Even the native culture, the indigenous people. Even today you find cities with native names, food with indigenous roots, origins. Brazil is this. If you compare Brazil with any other New World country, you know… Because we do not compare Brazil with Germany, a traditional country. We need to compare Brazil with Australia, United States, Canada. Brazil is a very interesting country. In Australia, you do not find cities, food with indigenous names. In Brazil you find it. You find diversity. You find opportunities for each person. What else can we say about the differences, of what I noticed in Brazil? If I remember anything I will say it during the conversation.
Interviewer – Alright. Mohamed, in the begging you said you went to Brazil in 2014, returned to Egypt, and came back to Brazil in 2016. Why this period in Egypt?
Interviewee – After some time in Brazil I did not find a job. I needed to go back to Egypt until I found something that would help me remain in Brazil. Also, I thought during that time of investing in the Portuguese that I had learned. Find a job outside politics, the problematic world of politics in Egypt. In tourism, for instance. I spoke Portuguese, besides English. But it did not work. The time I spent in Egypt, I think it was different. I ended up again involved with politics. Some of the people that joined me in the protests were arrested. I did not like it.
Interviewer – What years are we talking about? You arrived in 2014. When did you go to Egypt?
Interviewee – I went in 2015 to Egypt.
Interviewer – And you came back in 2016 to Brazil.
Interviewee – In 2016, yes.
Interviewer – Alright. Mohamed, do you have Egyptian friends where you live? Is there an Egyptian community or do you have no contact?
Interviewee – Look, in Brazil, I worked on many things. As I said, first, as a researcher. Giving talks about the Arabic language. I worked as an editor. After that, I founded my own company. A small company that exports agricultural products. It is not going well, after Covid. But before it exported coffee, black pepper there. In this company, we are two partners. Me and another Egyptian. He arrived in Brazil after me. Maybe he is the Egyptian that is the closest to me. I know more people but I have no strong links. I also have an uncle who has lived in Brazil for a long time. But we are not close. He lives in another city, far from me. A community, no. Rarely I made friends with Arabs. In Minas Gerais. I had a very strong relationship with an official translator. A Syrian old lady. Sometimes I would eat, dine, in an Arab restaurant that in that period was owned by an Egyptian man. We talked. But he was never a friend. Also, the Arab community in Belo Horizonte, here in Brazil, is mostly concentrated in the regions around mosques and Orthodox churches, these things. I do not attend these places. I did not make friends. I did not meet many people.
Interviewer – Mohamed, how do you keep your connection with Egypt? Is there any Egyptian tradition that you keep at home? Do you cook mulukhiyya? Do you listen to Umm Kulthum? Is there any “Egyptian” thing that you do?
Interviewee – Absolutely, absolutely. I do all of the things you mentioned. I cook Arab food sometimes. I even taught my spouse to make some Arab, Egyptian food. In Belo Horizonte, there were many options to buy ingredients for cooking Arab food. Here, not that much. But I can buy it on the internet, on Mercado Livre. I listen to Umm Kulthum, certainly. It is something on the blood, that you cannot remove. I also speak with my family through social media, Whatsapp, those things. Some of my Egyptian friends are in the diaspora too. Germany, United States, Turkey. There, here. I also communicate with them. With friends in Egypt too, but the ties, when you are for a long time far away, abroad, they get weaker. But I still call. Asking if someone is sick, etc.
Interviewer – And you follow the news, I assume?
Interviewee – Certainly I follow the news about Egypt through the internet. But I do not get too involved with what is happening. I do not know. It is not like before. When I was there, things were directly related to my interests. When you live in a country… You gradually get interested in what is happening in this country. You want to know what is happening there [where you came from], of course. You do not cease being Egyptian, being Brazilian, being Italian. But your focus gradually is more on the new life that you found.
Interviewer – And this life in Brazil is for the short future, the middle future? Do you plan to spend your life in Brazil? What are your plans?
Interviewee – Look, Brazil is at least a home to me. Today it is a home. Even if I leave Brazil for some reason I will come back. Life in Brazil is not bad. It got worse now because of Covid and the policies related to Covid. But until 2018, 2019, I liked it a lot. I even made good money. More, let us say, than the average of a Brazilian. Brazil, I noticed, has more opportunities for people coming from abroad. Brazilians criticize that. That there are more opportunities for foreigners. Now I do not like the recent situation in Brazil. But I would not leave it forever. Even if I leave it to work, to make money, make something… Brazil now is… You know… is part of me.
Interviewer – Mohamed, you mentioned a wife. I think I heard a child in the background. Did you marry a Brazilian woman or an Egyptian?
Interviewee – I married a Brazilian and we got a son who is half Egyptian half Brazilian.
Interviewer – So you have a family already, you already created roots.
Interviewee – Yes, yes. I stayed five years in Brazil. I married last year. Not many years ago. Honestly, it was not part of my plan. Marry in Brazil, stay, create roots. But it happened.
Interviewer – Mohamed, is there anything I forgot to ask you? Something you think is important to include, as we finish our conversation? Something you think is important for people to know about your story…
Interviewee – I do not know. I think that most of the important things, most of the information that is part of this research… I think you can find it in what you recorded. If you remember something, if you want to ask for an explanation of a specific point, you can call me, contact me on Whatsapp. I authorize you to use what I say on Whatsapp. No problem.
Interviewer – Alright, Mohamed. Thank you very much for your time, for your participation. Thank you a lot.
Interviewee – Do not mention it.