Migrant Dreams: Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States

Interview with Samuli Schielke

Samuli Schielke’s latest book, Migrant Dreams: Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States (AUC Press, 2020), is a vivid ethnography of Egyptian migrants to the Arab Gulf states. It investigates the imagination that migration thrives on, and the hopes and ambitions generated by the repeated experience of leaving and returning home. In the following interview, the author talks about the origins of his book and his research focus, his work as an anthropologist, and the challenges and realities of work migration in the Gulf and beyond, as well as its effects for Egyptian society.

How did you come up with the idea of writing this book?

Cover of the arabic edition of Migrant Dreams: Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States entitled حتى ينتهي النفط (Until the End of Oil), translation by Amr Khairy, 2017.

The idea began in 2006 or 2007 when I was doing fieldwork in Egypt about religious and other hopes that young men pursued. I did not originally plan to write about migration, but it was on almost everybody’s mind. My wife Daniela Swarowsky joined me in Egypt, and she was struck by the contrast of discussions she had had in the Netherlands and Austria with Moroccan and Egyptian migrants, who described their choice to migrate as a mistake, and the desire of young people in Egypt to migrate whatever the cost. She decided to make a documentary film about the contrast and disconnect of the dreams around better life on the other side, and I joined her in the production. The outcome was a documentary film called Messages from Paradise #1 about young men in an Egyptian village and older Egyptian men who had migrated to Vienna in Austria. Daniela also made a second part, Messages from Paradise #2 about the Dutch-Moroccan youth who return to their parents’ homeland for summer vacations (both films are now freely available online at http://www.zimweb.nl). Around the same time, some of the people I knew from my fieldwork in that village, moved to Qatar as workers on a temporary contract, and I decided to follow them to see what that was like. That was in the autumn of 2009, and that is where the book begins, with short but very intensive and rich fieldwork I undertook as the guest of Egyptian workers at a security company in Doha. It was probably the easiest fieldwork I’ve ever had. Usually anthropologists need to spend a long time to get to know people and gain their trust. This time, I met a group of men who all found that the country and the company were giving them less than was their right, and who did not feel at ease at telling their families and friends how hard their life was; so they really wanted me to see it and talk about it. And I promised to them that I would.

Was it so simple – just meet with the workers and then write about it?

The book is hopefully an inviting and engaging read, straightforward and narrative-based compared to most academic books. But it took me a long time and many detours to get there. Back in 2009, I thought the migrants to the Gulf were just a sidetrack of my research, but the topic kept growing because I kept meeting some of the people who returned to Egypt after a few years abroad. At the same time, I became increasingly interested in imagination as a topic, and started thinking more systematically about the dreams that motivate migration, and how the experience of migration changes them. But it took me over five years until I started writing. It was supposed to be an article, but Daniela encouraged me to rely more on my field notes and write in a narrative-driven way, and the text grew in length until it was a book. At the same time, there emerged the possibility to translate and publish it in Arabic, and so it happened that the first edition was published in Arabic translation by Amr Khairy in 2017, with the title حتى ينتهي النفط (Until the End of Oil, referring to one of the book’s protagonists who wanted to go home after one more year, but acknowledged that he will stay working “until the oil runs out,” i.e. as long as there is money). The Arabic edition was very successful and I got a lot of very useful feedback from readers who themselves had lived in the Gulf. It was the best peer review one can ever get, and so when I finally found a publisher for the English edition of the book (it was difficult at first, but as soon as the American University in Cairo Press heard of it, they immediately wanted it, bless them), I could add two and half new chapters that were largely inspired by reader feedback to the Arabic edition. That’s a rare luxury and something that makes me especially happy.

You decide to focus one migrant in particular – Tawfiq, a young Egyptian man who you describe as “a peculiar, exceptional person.” Why did you focus on him?

I also describe his experience as “common, even typical” in many ways. But when we look at individual humans, nobody is typical. Everybody is peculiar in one way or another. Add to that the fact that anthropologists often learn a lot, especially from people who themselves have an analytical take on their society – a desire, and a skill, to reflect on their life. Tawfiq is that kind of man, and he is very good at it.

Focusing on the trajectories of individual people – not as atomistic units, but as members of families and societies – allows us to appreciate details, motivations, and experiences that are shared by many people, and which would remain invisible if we were to try to give a broad, representative account. Accounts of the latter kind are already available, but with Migrant Dreams, I wanted to show some of the personal and societal hopes, frustrations, and small moments of accomplishment that drive the worldwide process of migration.

You suggest that “working in the Gulf for money is a moral, spiritual condition, and imagination is a scarce resource.” Could you elaborate on that idea?

We tend to think of the economy as something detached from the moral aims for which we need money, and of imagination as something that is free from material constraints. But this book is all about the moral projects people need money for, and about dreams that are not free. I think that the economy, morality, and our hopes and dreams are not autonomous realms. They often reproduce each other, and when that happens, it becomes a very powerful and compelling process, where people both want to, and have to, participate. That’s why, everywhere, we see houses being built in migrants’ countries of origin (worldwide, not only in Egypt), even if they don’t live in them: the house seems like a safe and profitable investment; it is the morally right thing to do and as such it is expected by families and communities of the migrants. Many people are motivated to migrate – in the first place because they dream of building a comfortable house. Houses have emotional, moral, and financial value, and in order to understand how compelling it is for people to build those houses, even when they know that they will probably not live them, it is important to think of these different dimensions in combination.

Construction of new houses on agricultural land, built with migrants’ money, 2019. Photo: Samuli Schielke

The conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf are generally challenging. What is their biggest hardship: the monotonous nature of their job, the meager salary, the poor accommodation, the sponsorship/guardianship policy, the lack of legal recourse for claiming unpaid salaries, limited transportation, racism…?

I would call them exploitative rather than challenging. But I wouldn’t know how to separate these hardships. They add up together to a powerful system of exploitation in which people are compelled to continue working for profits that are meager but nevertheless better than packing up and going home. A more paradoxical hardship is that, especially when people do manage to make some profit out of their work, it becomes more difficult to return home, and they end up staying for one more year, and then another and another, and so on, “until the oil runs out” as one of them told me.

You state that “Egypt is a migrant nation.” What is the long-term effect of migration on Egyptian society?

I don’t know yet what the long-term effect of this will be. This is something I hope to follow up with new research among Egyptian diasporas. But already now we can see that migration has created families and communities that exist across distances, between villages and cities, and between Egypt and countries abroad, and long-term absences and a degree of estrangement have become prevalent features of people’s lives. Overall, it has given conservative and Identitarian movements new strength while at the same time distancing people from traditional ways of life. Egypt, after the first forty years of international mass migration, has become a society that is overall very conservative but no longer traditional. Additionally, especially among higher-income migrants, migration can also produce a greater plurality of lifestyles. I find it striking, for example, how many of the people among the young urban intelligentsia in Egypt have grown up in the Gulf. This is also something I hope to look into in my future research.

Migrants, whether from Egypt, the Maghreb, Bangladesh, India, or Nepal, work in the Gulf to make money – money that as you say, “creates choice but also alienation.” Does the latter outweigh the former?

The quote refers to an argument by Georg Simmel, who wrote a very influential book called The Philosophy of Money back in 1900. In my book I say that the money that low-income workers in the Gulf are after, comes with rather less choice, because it is needed for specific moral purposes, such as getting married. So the situation is different from Simmel’s theory. The alienation migrant workers experience comes from working far from home for tasks that have no other meaning for them than earning money; but overall, people have little choice over where and how to work, and what to spend their money on. Again, this is true mainly of the low-income workers who make up the vast majority of Egyptian migrants in the Gulf. There are also people who migrate for well-paid and highly skilled jobs, and they also tend to have more choice, as well as less alienating living conditions – for example, they can bring their families with them.

Departure of a migrant to Dubai, 2014, with unfinished houses in the background. Photo: Samuli Schielke

Despite the hardships that migrants face, migration for many still implies hope. Is that a good thing? Since money is at the center of much of these hopes, powers of the imagination, and dreams, what happens to dreams that cannot be bought with money?

I don’t know if it is good or bad. It is the reality of the world we live in. As for dreams that cannot be bought with money, much of the book is actually devoted to such dreams, which involve, for example love, poetry, revolution, and religion. The crux is that it is easier to have such dreams when you first have enough money and material resources, a bit of surplus time and space to think, reflect, and search. The exploitation of migrant workers worldwide is so effective also because they are put into a situation where it is so difficult for them to have other dreams than those that are conventionally expected and can be bought with money.

Migrant workers by law are not allowed to settle permanently in the Gulf. If they were allowed though, would that change anything with regards to their financial security and social mobility?

It would be a major improvement. Then many people would settle permanently in the Gulf and make it their home – at least those with higher incomes who could afford to rent apartments and pay for schooling. And they would make political claims and would want to be recognized as citizens with equal rights and obligations, as do migrants and their descendants in Europe and North America. Which is why the Gulf monarchies do not want to allow it.

Do you think that if there were more economic opportunities for young Egyptians in Egypt, fewer workers would migrate to the Gulf? Or does the powerful dream about making it in the Gulf ultimately tempt migrants to try their luck there regardless?

As long as there is a large income gap between Egypt and the Gulf, there will be large-scale migration. Egypt also has a very high rate of population growth, and it is difficult to create jobs for so many more people coming of age every year. However, more opportunities in Egypt would definitely mean that the pressure to migrate would be less strong than it is today. People would be under less pressure to accept dubious offers and exploitative working conditions. More highly qualified people could find good jobs in Egypt and stay.

Meanwhile, the dream of migration is so irresistible to many young people precisely because it is difficult. The risk seems worth taking because one usually tends to hope for more than what one can eventually gain. And because it is so difficult and expensive to migrate in the first place, people can’t easily come back after a couple of months and say: “Oh well, that wasn’t my thing, I’ll try something else instead.” But that dream would eventually fade without the global inequality that marks some people as employers and others as workers simply because of where they come from.

A part of this interview was first published on the AUC Press Blog.


Samuli Schielke has been working as a research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) since 2009. From 2008 to 2014 he worked with the artist and curator Daniela Swarowsky on the documentary films Messages from Paradise #1 and #2, which question the dream of a better life away from home. As of this year, Schielke is working on the research project, “The Search for a Normal Life,” funded by the Fritz Thyssen foundation. This project addresses a key paradox of globalisation: the possibility of a stable, normal life at home relies on destabilising processes of growth, expansion, and mobility. Central to his research are the trajectories of men from rural regions in northern Egypt, which stretch along translocal migration networks in Egypt to Western Europe and the Gulf states.


Citation: Migrant Dreams: Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States – Interview with Samuli Schielke, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.11.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25670


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