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1 Three years after its release in Arabic (Schielke, 2017), Samuli Schielke’s book is published in English by the American University Press in Cairo. The book gives an insight into an unpublished part of his work as an anthropologist, focusing on the migratory experience of Egyptian men in the Gulf countries. In a sense, it is also an overview of his last ten years of fieldwork in Egypt. It is the result of encounters and friendships that allowed the author to follow the hopes, ambitions and journeys of several men from the Nile Delta, over a decade. His analysis thus underlines long-term continuities and places little emphasis on the effects of the 2011 revolution, often highlighted in works on contemporary Egypt. In choosing to enter through dreams, expectations and imagination, his reflection is in line with his previous work (Schielke, 2015). It constitutes an original approach to migratory projects and disconnections between pre-migration expectations and reality.

2 Through the experience of a privileged interlocutor, Tawfiq, who between 2009 and 2019 alternates stays in the Gulf and return trips to Egypt, the author invites us to consider Egypt and the Gulf not as distinct entities, but as two elements of a system where villages of the Global South, become the “suburbs” (p. xv) of the metropolises of the oil monarchies. The argument is structured by a double tension: on the one hand, a permanent condition of cyclical instability linked to the comings and goings of migrant workers, and on the other hand, migration as a factor of social mobility but also of pressures and conflicts. Samuli Schielke emphasises both the agency of migrant workers and the structures that constrain their aspirations and achievements.

3 Surprisingly, the author keeps the theoretical part and literature review for the last chapter. He justifies his choice in the preface, stating that he prefers an empirical approach. The latter is reinforced by a writing style that oscillates between analysis and narrative, which allows a direct insertion into the ethnographic work. The numerous excerpts from interviews and fieldnotes give the reader an overview of the raw material of the research. The book is based on a co-construction of knowledge, with two chapters having been added following feedback on the Arabic version. The book therefore stands out for its readability and writing that is as close as possible to the experience of Egyptian migrant workers in the Gulf. It is divided into fifteen short chapters that can be organised into four movements.

4 After an introduction, the second chapter focuses on migration as a “total social fact” in Egypt, just like marriage or the military. It is the opportunity for a necessary clarification of the Arabic vocabulary used to describe the different migratory experiences. The author differentiates between the concepts of higra (migration in the sense of definitive departure, of rupture), safar (a more neutral concept of travel without limit of time) and ghurba (the experience of the foreigner, alienation suffered during disconnection from the known environment). The book focuses on this latter concept.

5 From this point, until chapter six, the book embarks on a movement on confrontation with the Gulf societies and on the experience of the foreigner. Samuli Schielke draws on a short field study in Doha with bank guards. He analyses the kafala (guarantor) system and the working conditions that are part of a form of exploitation. He highlights the daily resistance, the “making do” of migrant workers. The author describes a restricted perimeter of life, marked by homosociality and national communities and by a form of “subaltern racism” (p. 25) which pits migrants of different origins against each other and which plays into the hands of the Qataris and their system of domination.

6 A third movement revolves around ambition and dreams. Chapters seven and eight take up Georg Simmel’s analysis of money as a source of both freedom and alienation. Financial gain is a driving force behind the dreams that lead people to leave and then to stay. Chapter nine focuses on the importance of dreams and the mechanisms leading to their perpetuation despite disillusionment, especially with regard to fast and easy money. The author describes the social pressure that hinders frank communication between migrant workers and their communities of origin about the difficulties they encounter. This pressure thus consciously pushes them to feed the myth of success, or at least to exaggerate it. In this way, the dream becomes “inevitable” (p. 53). Following Appadurai (1996), the author describes these expectations of migration as a good example of “imagination as social practice”. The twelfth chapter deals with the perpetuation of life in migration. Relative financial success makes it difficult to return to the place of origin: the benefits are sufficient to push individuals to stay, but remain too small to allow a definitive return. Such a return is constantly delayed, maintaining an instability linked to a succession of short-term contracts. Thus, a “less-than-real life” (p. 78), which is supposed to prepare for “real life” in the village, extends indefinitely. These close links between financial gains and various aspirations lead the anthropologist to highlight a double dimension of dream. On the one hand, a dimension of imagination, between desire for adventure and emancipation. On the other hand, a more rational and accountable dimension that focuses on money and migratory remittances as means to ensure a comfortable life. This distinction reminds us that dreams and imagination also have their limits and that the relationship to money can take a moral and imaginary dimension.

7 The last part underlines the mutations induced by migration on the country of departure. These changes are so pervasive that “one cannot understand Egyptian society today as separate from the Gulf and other destinations for Egyptian migration” (p. 83). The effects are financial, cultural and transform the landscape, with the construction boom in the countryside and on the outskirts of the cities. Migration often modifies the relationship to religion; the Islamic revival of the 1970s is partly linked to it.

8 The book concludes with a theoretical chapter on dreams and imagination that structure a shared reality. Samuli Schielke shows the passage from dream to reality, the transformations of expectations through the experience of migration. He places his work at the intersection of economic and cultural approaches to migration, emphasising (inter-)subjective experiences. Finally, he asks the question: “How can we give a truthful account of the imaginative, moral and calculative aspects of migratory experience?” (p. 112). Using individual experiences as a starting point, the existential approach to migration through dreams and imagination allows for an original generalisation that can be transposed to other contexts in the Middle East or elsewhere in the world.

Translator: Florian Bonnefoi
    • Appadurai Arjun (1996) Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
    • Schielke Samuli (2017) Ḥatā yantahī al-nafṭ: al-hiǧra wa al-āḥlām fī ḍawāḥī al-ḫalīǧ (trad. A. Kairy), Cairo, Al-Sefsafa.
    • OnlineSchielke Samuli (2015) Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence Before and After 2011, Bloomington, Indiana University Press.
Florian Bonnefoi
CNRS PhD candidate, University of Poitiers, Migrinter/CEDEJ
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 24/08/2023
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