Academic journal article Refuge

Microbuses and Mobile Homemaking in Exile: Sudanese Visiting Strategies in Cairo

Academic journal article Refuge

Microbuses and Mobile Homemaking in Exile: Sudanese Visiting Strategies in Cairo

Article excerpt

Introduction

My Sudanese friend Khalda lives near the end of the Ma'adi-El Marg line in 'Ain Shams. The Metro, completed in 1989, had cut her 90-minute commuting time to her downtown Cairo job in half.

One afternoon, I met up with Khalda as she was leaving the office. "I told Majdy that I would stop by for a visit later," she said.

"Will we still go to visit Samira this afternoon?" I asked.

"Yes," she assured me, "but I have to be home early because Fatima's mother is sick and I have to pass by."

We set off on foot to the nearby Sudanese Victims of Torture Group office for a quick visit with Khalda's activist friends, then hopped on the Metro for two stops to the Ramsis station, where we boarded a Toyota microbus, waited for it to fill up with passengers, and set off through the late afternoon traffic to the suburb of Nasr City. An hour or more of slow going in the summer heat brought us to the refugee family we had planned to visit. Khalda's long day would end after several more social calls in her own neighbourhood, another hour away by microbus.

Khalda's visits that day in 1996 encompassed three discrete and far-flung neighbourhoods in Cairo, then home to some 15 million residents and including a rapidly growing number of forced migrants seeking safety and security from the hard-line Islamist government in Khartoum. The time Khalda spent traversing the city on public transportation far exceeded the short visits with the various people in her interlocking social networks. An unmarried secretary in her mid-twenties, Khalda had fewer and different social obligations compared with those of married women with children or her male counterparts, but still spent a good deal of her free time calling on other Sudanese. Sudanese in Cairo have seen their social networks expand from a previous focus on kin and neighbours to include sets of colleagues old and new, acquaintances and fellow activists from Cairo's burgeoning NGO movement, and the relatives and friends of these individuals, most moving to and through Cairo seeking asylum, medical treatment, or temporary escape from the oppressive political climate back home. With high levels of unemployment and depression in the community, most Sudanese in my study found solace, mutual aid, and entertainment through social visits and were prepared to travel long distances to achieve these benefits.

For people forced to live in an unfamiliar setting for an indeterminate length of time, home may take on a heightened meaning, as if experienced for the first time in the breach. Yet, as Brun and Fabos (2) note, home for forced migrants in protracted conditions of displacement is both contextual and fluid, experienced individually and socially, and connects local, national, and political dimensions. For Sudanese exiles, Cairo in the 1990s became a canvas for a particular set of notions about home that were as ephemeral as they were tied to long-standing historical identities. The Republic of Sudan, carved out of Greater Egypt in the twentieth century, had provided "Sudanese" a sense of national homeland for a relatively short time; identities shared with Egyptians, such as "Arab" and "Muslim," fellow anti-colonial independence fighter, and "brother" in an ancient Nile Valley civilization endured. But "home" for Sudanese in Cairo was also connected to particular Sudanese ways of being and doing, of a moral world view that provided Sudanese Arab Muslims with a distinctive ethos. In the 1990s, this ethos was to be challenged by a rapidly developing political and economic crisis that required Sudanese to make frightening choices on staying in Egypt or seeking even less familiar alternatives, and postponing indefinitely any "return" to the dusty streets and low-slung dwellings of northern Sudan.

I have argued elsewhere (3) that Sudanese in Cairo, during the politically uncertain 1990s, nurtured an identity that enabled them to participate in Egypt's official "brotherhood" discourse while cultivating a private Sudanese ethnicity based on what they determined to be their superior propriety in Muslim and Arab norms of behaviour. …

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