Interviewee: Moha ElGendy
Interviewer: Diogo Bercito
Location: Brasília, Brazil (Virtual Zoom Interview)
Language: Portuguese (Transcript translated by Bercito)
Length of Interview: 41:06
Description: 69 years old, ElGendy was born in Cairo to a Muslim family. She migrated to Brazil in 1975 with her husband, an agronomist. At that time, there was a high demand for such professionals in Brazil. They lived in the state of Goiás, in the mid-west. Moha narrates her struggle to adapt to a new, less conservative culture—and also her feeling of belonging there.
Interviewer – Could you tell me your full name, date of birth, and place of birth?
Interviewee – Sure. The date of birth is November 8, 1951.
Interviewer – November 8, 1951, right?
Interviewee – Yes.
Interviewer – What is your name?
Interviewee – It will be hard for you to understand it. But I will tell you: Mehtab Rafat Mohamed ElGendy.
Interviewer – How do people call you in Brazil?
Interviewee – The nickname, since I was a child, is Moha.
Interviewer – Moha.
Interviewee – Most of my friends, acquaintances, neighbors… They all call me Moha.
Interviewer – Alright. Where were you born, exactly, Moha?
Interviewee – Cairo. Downtown Cairo.
Interviewer – Downtown? Do you remember in which street, exactly which part of downtown?
Interviewee – I never went back there. But I know the neighborhood. The neighborhood is called [she later clarifies it is Sheikh Zayed City].
Interviewer – Tell me a bit about your family. Has your family always lived in Cairo? Did they come from any other part of Egypt?
Interviewee – The family’s origin lies is the south of Egypt. By origin I mean my mother’s grandfather. He came in that period, during which Turkey had absolute power over Egypt. Some people came to take control of the land. They settled there, in the south. Not the south, the middle of Egypt. But after that, for example, my grandfather already moved to Cairo, lived in Cairo. My mother and us, we are basically from Cairo.
Interviewer – What did your parents do for a living? What kind of word did they do?
Interviewee – My mother was a housewife. She studied until college, then went to Law School. At that time it was very difficult for a lady to study. A lady. To study, enroll in a university. It was a shame to the family. You could not do it. She stomped her foot and managed to do it. But they did not let her work. My father was an agricultural engineer. Sadly, he died too early, aged 33 years old. He did not manage to fulfill the dreams that he wanted to fulfill.
Interviewer – What more or less was the family’s social class? Was it a middle-class family or what?
Interviewee – It was an upper-middle-class family. Differently from most migrants… I am not saying that I am better than them. No. It is not about that. But generally, in that period, those who migrated outside of Egypt were people of very low income. A lower class. That kind. My husband and I migrated… Better said, he migrated to Brazil because he was too active. God bless him. He was too active. He could not work in that place in which he had been placed. In the ministry of Agriculture. He was also an agronomist. Sitting down in a chair, in an office… It was not his thing. Therefore, he wanted to migrate to fulfill some of the dreams that he began here in Egypt and was not able to finish. Thank God he managed to do that in Brazil.
Interviewer – Let me just go back a little bit. Did you meet your husband still in Egypt?
Interviewee – My cousin. My cousin in the first degree. It was easy.
Interviewer – So you knew each other from the family. You married… How old were you when you got married?
Interviewee – I was 22. He was 28.
Interviewer – At that time, did you study, did you work? How was your life, Moha?
Interviewee – I studied. I was in my second year at the university. He migrated three years before me. Before marrying, with no commitment. He went to Brazil. He came back to marry. Of course, the family was very worried about my studies. It is so far, will she be able to finish her studies? In my generation, it was a generation in which you had to complete your higher education. They got very worried but ended up conceding and accepting that I would marry and travel.
Interviewer – In what year did you travel?
Interviewee – 1975. Seven-five.
Interviewee – 75? Ok. You were around 20 years old, still.
Interviewee – 22 years old. You do not need to calculate it. I will be 70 years old pretty soon.
Interviewer – 22. Very young, right? So help me understand it: your husband went to Brazil looking for opportunities. Why Brazil?
Interviewee – At that time, Brazil would always put ads in the newspapers here. Saying it needed agronomists. At that time in Brazil, higher education was something rare. In 75. Brazil requested [agronomists] through newspapers and ads, all that… Announcements. It needed agronomists. People who knew about cotton. And my husband was specialized in cotton. So he traveled. I will not tell you it was easy. He spent a whole year without finding a job. But he kept looking for it. The language was one of the factors which delayed him this one year. Regarding his first job, it was in the company Ciba-Geigy. Ciba-Geigy has a branch of medicine and an agricultural part. Agricultural products. Insecticides, pesticides, those things. He worked in Ciba-Geigy as an agronomist to visit the areas in which cotton was planted to start selling the poison they bought. The product. Thank God it was very successful. He worked very well. He ended up leading a team. His name was put in Switzerland [where the company is based] because he sold more than his share. It was the first time that happened. They sent a lot… His name is searched for in Switzerland until today.
Interviewer – That is great. Tell me a little bit, then: when you heard you would go to Brazil, what did you think? Did you know anything about Brazil? Were you afraid? Were you interested?
Interviewee – Honestly, I was 22 years old, I had never left my family. It would be the first time that I would leave them. I would be free. At that moment, it was an adventure. I embarked on this adventure with his word that we would come back in two years.
Interviewer – To Egypt.
Interviewee – But I loved it. No, In Brazil. We would spend two years in Brazil and then we would go back. But the Brazilian people are very welcoming. They welcome so much us. It is such a happy people. A very receptive people. I did not feel at any moment that I was far from my family, that I was facing anything strange. No. I felt a lot of tenderness, a lot of love, a lot of attention from all the people that I met. That made me like it more. This idea of going back after two years was beginning to… In my head: no, I do not want to return. Mostly because I was returning every six months to keep studying. In those two years, I went back four times. I did not feel so much the absence of my family. After two years, I finished my studies and we decided to stay longer. And we stayed. After almost five, six years, we managed to make a life in Brazil, a life that we live.
Interviewer – And you already had a daughter, is that right?
Interviewee – We already had a daughter. We had a daughter. We had the second one, too. This did not take it from my head: I want to stay here! I am happy here. I am working it out. Besides that, the language was hard to learn, because of this thing of traveling. Six months in Cairo, to study, then return to Brazil. You do not learn it. In six months I had forgotten it when I got back from Egypt, and I had to go back again. I think that I got too delayed. I got delayed ten years [in comparison] to the people that went and stayed. But soon after that, it worked out. No one can take me from Brazil. It is over.
Interviewer – That is great. That is great. And was there something that impressed you, that got your attention when you arrived in Brazil?
Interviewee – The cultural part. The cultural part. It frightened me a little. Because freedom, at that time, between guys and girls… This thing of dating… These things were too strange, comparing to [what happened] the same period in Egypt. There was not this thing. Dating did not exist. There was engagement. And the fiancé could not hold the fiancée’s hand. Only after marrying. I came with this mentality. And to find what I found… It was a shock to me. But now it does not shock me anymore.
Interviewer – You got used to it.
Interviewee – Yes.
Interviewer – What about food, for example. Did you find it weird? Different?
Interviewee – Some small things. Small. Because the Brazilian habits are very similar. The Brazilian habits. Brazilian and Egyptian. Very similar. Is there rice every day on the table? Yes. Be it in Egypt or Brazil. Are there vegetables every day on the table? Yes. Here and here. Meat, a type of meat? Yes. Bread, the basic, there is no change. None. I struggled with very silly things in the beginning but I ended up acquiring, enjoying, and using. I had never heard about boiled corn. I thought it was horrific. Now I prepare it with a lot of pleasure.
Interviewer – There are things that are the same, for example, sugar cane. [In Arabic] Sugar cane. Which is exactly the same, right?
Interviewee – Exactly, exactly. Many things are the same. Also, there are many identical words. So life was easy. It was not difficult for me to adapt to another continent, on the other side of the world.
Interviewer – And you worked in Brazil? Did you study? How was your arrival?
Interviewee – Unfortunately, after I graduated, that dream that I would work, fulfill myself as an engineer… It was not fulfilled. I had a daughter while I was studying. When I finished my studies I had yet another daughter. To [validate my diploma in Brazil] I would need to study Brazilian history. I lived in Itumbiara, Goiás. At that moment you could only do that in Rio de Janeiro. I could not leave two daughters…. [someone interrupts her] No problem. I could not leave two daughters, a husband, and go alone to Rio to study the history of Brazil. I barely knew the history of Egypt. I gave up my dreams because of my family.
Interviewer – You went to Goiás, then. Did you live there the whole time or did you move out afterward?
Interviewee – I stayed 17 years in Goiás.
Interviewer – Alright. Until the 90s, more or less.
Interviewee – Exactly. Exactly that.
Interviewer – Where did you go?
Interviewee – To Brasília, directly. But before that, I lived two years in Goiânia. Because it was when he was transferred to work as team leader, those things. We needed to live in Goiânia to be in the middle of all the farms. Centralina farm [?]. Santa Helena Farm. Rio Verde. Itumbiara. He needed to be in the center. The company, Ciba-Geigy transferred him to Goiânia. I stayed two years in Goiânia. It was then that I saw that he was working too much, giving too much experience, and no one valued it. I suggested that he opened a company. For himself, particular. He thought of that. He really moved back to Itumbiara and opened his own company of insecticide, herbicide. Buying from Shell, Bayer, Ciba-Geigy, and so on.
Interviewer – So the job worked out. It worked out pretty well.
Interviewee -Yes, thank God. It had a lot of success.
Interviewer – Moha, you had said it was easy, that you felt embraced. So there was no instance of prejudice? Some in Brazil are prejudiced against Muslims, Arabs, Egyptians. You were not the victim of any prejudice, then?
Interviewee – None. None. It was what made me feel at ease [inaudible].
Interview – The audio is breaking a bit.
Interviewee – … very nice with me. Very attentive, tender. It was really good. Prejudice I felt two years ago. In Brasília.
Interviewer – How was that?
Interviewee – A lady. One of those very blond ladies [inaudible]. In practice, she said: leave my country, you are a foreigner. Because of my accent. You are a foreigner, leave my country.
Interviewer – Alright. Let me just ask you again because it was breaking a bit, Moha. Two years ago, in Brasília, a blond woman told you to leave the country because she was bothered by your accent. That is it, correct?
Interviewee – She was bothered by the accent and with my… I wanted my right to park in a spot for disabled people. She did not let me do it. Because I am physically impaired. I have a paper from Detran [the local driving authority] proving that. But she did not allow it. When she left her car, [inaudible] and: you do not have the right to be here, go back to your country, you are not Brazilian. That shocked me so that I filled a suit against her.
Interviewer – Really?
Interviewee – I know my rights. Of course. Of course. Because the foreigner, the migrant, like us… I do not know if everyone does this or not. But I saw him, he who had arrived before me [presumably her husband], he advised me to do that. And it worked. To study the Brazilian Constitution very well. What is my duty, what is my right. I took it seriously. I already know what are my duties and my rights. I already had Brazilian nationality. I am already Brazilian. I have a Brazilian passport. I am Brazilian, body, and soul, too. She had no right to do that with me. Really, I wanted to defend my rights. To make it clear that I am Brazilian just as she is. Moreover, that blond lady is not Brazilian. Her grandfather, her great grandfather is from Holland, Germany, France, I do not know where.
Interviewer – Did you win the lawsuit?
Interviewee – I won it. I won it. I won it but I did not want to extend it. I could have won more and complicate her life. But I did not want it. I wanted to show her that I could. Only that. I am Brazilian and I can. And I made it very clear verbally in front of her lawyer: I can complicate your life. I know you are a farmer. I know that if this lawsuit drags in the justice system you will never get bank loans. Because she is a farmer. I know a lot of things. But I will not do it. Not to complicate your life. I just want you to know that I am a Brazilian, the same as you. Only that.
Interviewer – Alright.
Interviewee – I am too good of a person.
Interviewer – I see it. Moha, changing the topic a bit. You lived in a small town in Goiás. Did you know other Egyptians? Was there an Egyptian community there, or only you and your husband?
Interviewee – In that small town there was no one. Absolutely… No one spoke not a word in Arabic. When I moved to Brasília, there were almost 12 families, something like that…
Interviewer – Egyptians?
Interviewee – … [12 families] that I know, of course. Yes.
Interviewer – You…
Interviewee – [Talks to someone else] There is no problem. Why? Yes, wait just a bit, please.
Interviewer – Of course, of course.
Interviewer – [Her mobile falls on the floor] I am sorry [Inaudible].
Interviewer – I am sorry, the call is breaking. I am sorry, it broke a bit. Could you repeat that?
Interviewee – Can you hear me now?
Interviewer – Yes, yes.
Interviewee – Ok. I am sorry about what happened. It fell.
Interviewer – No problem. So… Living in Brasília in the 90s you had Egyptian friends, right?
Interviewee – Yes, yes. But what happens is that, in all that time, even after finishing my studies… Every year I went back to Egypt to spend two to three months. Every year I went there. Brazil, to me, is my land. I come here [to Egypt] to spend two, three months of vacation… After that, I go back to Brazil.
Interviewer – Tell me, Moha, where exactly are you now?
Interviewee – I beg your pardon?
Interviewer – Where exactly are you now?
Interviewee – I am on a beach on the north coast, Mediterranean. I am on my sister’s chalet. We are making a barbecue. We came to spend some time.
Interviewer – And today is precisely Eid al-Adha, is that right? You are celebrating with the family…
Interviewee – It started yesterday.
Interviewer – … that is why I saw people passing behind you, right?
Interviewee – Yes, it started yesterday. The first day.
Interviewer – Alright. Talking about when you were in Brasília… Did you go to the mosque? Was there an official community of Egyptians?
Interviewee – It was not a special group. I always went to the mosque. Myself and my daughters, my husband. Something very usual to us. I am already transmitting it to the grandsons too. My eldest daughters are transmitting it to them too. They already know they are Muslims. They already know that… The other day, one of the grandsons was very upset. When he was 8. In school. Because his name was different. The only Muslim at school. He felt bad because of that. Until a Jewish colleague appeared, a Jew. By chance. Both became close friends. They are the only different ones, with different names. Different religions. Incredible as it might sound, the Muslim and the Jew became close friends.
Interviewer – A Jew not of Egyptian origins, of another origin?
Interviewee – No. Of other origins. Yes.
Interviewer – Of those 12 families that you mentioned, in Brasília, were they all Muslims, or were there Jewish Egyptian families, Christians?
Interviewee – No. The majority of them are Muslims. There are two Christian Egyptian families. But only two, three tops. I do not remember it well. Two or three. The rest are Muslims.
Interviewer – Moha, what about the Syrian, Lebanese migrants, the others who spoke Arabic… Did you have contact in Brasília?
Interviewee – Yes. Until today. Certainly. Because we meet through the embassy. Receptions at the embassy, national days, parties, religious parties… The ambassador does things in his house. We always meet. Besides that, we are already friends. Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians… From any place. There is a large group that keeps in touch until today.
Interviewer – Because of this common origin, common language. It exists because of that, a community?
Interviewee – Yes. I think that it makes it easier. Not only because of that. My best friends are Brazilian. For example. The best. Those with whom I feel at ease. That I feel comfortable with. My Brazilian friends. Brazilian, Christians. I admire them a lot. I like them a lot. I feel that about them and they feel the same about me. They are Brazilian.
Interviewer – Moha, how do you keep Egyptian traditions home? Do you prepare, I do not know, mulukkhiya, for example? What do you do that is still Egyptian, at home?
Interview – Now I live by myself, after my husband’s passing. I live alone. More than ten years. Before Covid it was something. After, it was already something else in the whole world. Before Covid, it was sacred that every week my daughters with their husbands, the grandchildren… A weekend for me. In my house. Eating Egyptian food. Each one asks… Because they like it. I prepare it with all the pleasure in the world. I meet with my daughters after their jobs, during the week, once a week. Me and my three daughters, just that. No husbands, no grandchildren, no one else. Just us. We have a snack, dine, have a pizza. Anything. We chat. It is a traditional thing. After Covid, it changed a bit. But we still meet. This year. Last year it was hard. This year we meet every week too, but outside any house. In open areas. If necessary to book a table on the side, a table in front of it [inaudible].
Interviewer – Your audio is slightly frozen. Can you repeat that?
Interviewee – Your video stoped.
Interviewer – My video?
Interviewee – Absolutely. What part do you want me to repeat? It is breaking.
Interviewer – Can you hear me well? Is it working now?
Interviewee – [Inaudible] Yes.
Interviewer – Can you hear me now?
Interviewee – [Inaudible] It broke again.
Interviewer – What about now?
Interviewee – I can hear but not… Now, I can.
Interviewer – Yes. Let us try again, then.
Interviewee – What part did you not hear?
Interviewer – You were telling me that you go to the restaurant, but you sit on different tables, now with the pandemic.
Interviewee – Not separate tables. We book the table on the side, the table on the front, and the table on the [other] side so that we are a bit isolated. But we meet every week.
Interviewer – Moha, what is the relationship of your daughters with Egypt? Is that a close relationship? Do they keep Egyptian traditions at home?
Interviewee – A little. Not a lot, but they keep a little. Because the Brazilian culture… I do not know how to explain this, but I will try it. For example, there was a period in our life in which our daughters had grown up and thought that they understood it much better than the mother and the father. That they owned the world. There was conflict. The result of that conflict was that we said: we will go to a psychologist, we will do family therapy. In reality, this conflict, I could have been the one causing it. Why? I come from an upbringing, of traditions, very different from Brazil. This thing of respecting the mother, of the mother always being on top, other things too. For them, no. Not in Brazil. You respect me, I respect you. If you do not respect me, I do not respect you. This did not exist to me, in my head. Today, I accept it more, comparing to four, five years ago. I understand more. The culture is different. The upbringing is different. The habits are different. They are right, then. They are thinking correctly. It is I that need to understand them. It is not them who need to understand me.
Interviewer – It is a long work of adaptation. Even after decades there, there are still issues for you to adapt to, right? Between Brazil and Egypt.
Interviewee – Exactly. Three, four years ago I started to adapt. Because I understood. Someone explained to me. This person that I trust a lot explained that, really, they were raised there, born there [in Brazil]. They have the habits of there. Of course, there are Egyptian things, Muslim things. Those are kept, thank God. But there is a part about independence… Absolutely independent from the mother, the father. It is on their head. Things that when I was their age I could not do. Even after being married, even with children, even living in Brazil. In my head, it was that. So there were some conflicts.
Interviewer – Moha… [He is interrupted] I am sorry, go on.
Interviewee – [Inaudible]
Interviewer – I was going to ask you if there was anything you would like to add. Something that I might have forgotten to ask you. [Silence] I think that your video is frozen again.
Interviewee – [Inaudible].
Interviewer – I cannot hear you. Let us see.
Interviewer – Hi, Moha. Your audio is off. Let us see if you can… You need to click down there, on the audio… I cannot hear you. If you look down there, in the left lower corner, I think, where you see a drawing of a microphone… [Inaudible] Now, yet. It is only breaking a bit. Let us turn the mobile sideways?
Interviewee – Can you hear me?
Interviewer – Yes, yes. Now I can. Did it work? There is no audio, again. Now it works.
Interviewee – Can you hear me?
Interviewer – Yes.
Interviewee – Can you hear me now?
Interviewer – Yes.
Interviewee – Great.
Interviewer – I am sorry for all this trouble, Moha. It was the last question.
Interviewee – Do not mention it! Do not mention it!
Interviewer – Was there anything you would like to add, that I might have forgotten to ask you about your life in Egypt, in Brazil?
Interviewee – There is nothing on my mind now. As I said, I feel Brazilian. I do not know what you want to know. So I am at your disposal. You can talk. You can ask me, and I will answer.
Interviewer – It was only in case you had anything that you thought was important for me to know about your experience. There is no problem if there is nothing.
Interviewee – This experience of moving to another country and live there, to like it so much… It is not by accident. It comes from other things. Besides the people, the tenderness, the attention… Besides all that, I also liked the Constitution. That my rights are being protected. Acquired and fulfilled. It is not only talk. This makes my life much easier there [in Brazil]. I have my rights and I am managing to go on. This is an advantage that I have in Brazil. I do not want to talk more about this. Do not forget I am in Egypt.
Interviewer – It is understood, what you wanted to say.
Interviewee – Great.
Interview – Alright, Moha. Thank you very much for your time. I am sorry for the technical issues.
Interviewee – Any question, anything you want to ask, ask me. I am free.
Interviewer – Alright. Alright. But I think that is all for today. Thank you very much.
Interviewee – Is it satisfactory like this?
Interviewer – Yes, a lot.
Interviewee – Great. Thank you very much.
Interviewer – Thank you.