Microbuses and mobile homemaking in exile: Sudanese visiting strategies in Cairo.

Author:Fabos, Anita


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. Publicly, Sudanese were "at home" in Cairo, while privately they lamented the poor manners of the Egyptians, so different from "back home." The official fiction that Sudanese were "at home" in Egypt had the all-too-real effect of voiding the possibility of the international community addressing their predicament by finding Sudanese resettlement possibilities in a new national home. The particular "constellation of home" (4) that emerged for Sudanese was a contested one, with Sudanese conceptions of domestic and territorial unfamiliarity loudly overruled by Egyptian insistence that "brothers" could never be "guests" in their own home.

The deterioration of the legal and political status of Sudanese living in Egypt during the 1990s contributed to longer-term uncertainty for those who sought safety and security in Cairo. Sudanese visiting practices helped to maintain networks of mutual support and identity for people living in increasingly protracted, precarious circumstances; furthermore, visiting constituted a mobile homemaking strategy that actively contributed to the negotiation of a complex ethnic identity in protracted exile. Ranging across space and connecting people through experiences and values of Sudanese "homeyness," visiting during these fraught years connected individuals and networks into constellations that recreated familiar patterns of homemaking but also encouraged new meanings granted to homeland and belonging. Woven through the more familiar relationship between "home" and "away" were the policy positions about urban refugees taken by the Egyptian government, UNHCR, International Organisation for Migration, and other humanitarian aid and resettlement agencies, which produced an additional dimension of "home."

The ethnographic inquiry from which this smaller study is drawn was conducted between 1994 to 1999 as part of my doctoral and post-doctoral research among Cairo's Arabic-speaking northern Sudanese-identified denizens. This period was momentous for government reprisals on Sudanese living in Egypt following the 1995 presidential assassination attempt, reputedly by Sudanese operatives, which in my view triggered a shift in Sudanese experiences of belonging. During that time, I spent time with dozens of Sudanese families and individuals in varied settings--private homes, offices, cultural events, educational institutions--and participated in numerous discussions with Sudanese, Egyptian, and other colleagues to explore the unique characteristics of Cairo as a site of sanctuary for political exiles from Sudan, and the role of the Egyptian state in offering legal refuge. Names and identifying details for all of my research participants have been changed for confidentiality and to reflect the real risks associated with living as a Sudanese forced migrant in Egypt. My positioning as a Euro-American, Arabic-speaking woman married to a Sudanese businessman undoubtedly shaped my community access and understanding. My own recollections of trips to visit Sudanese friends across Cairo--the visceral experience of sitting crammed in among fellow microbus passengers, feeling the runnels of sweat under my clothing, and tossing with the movement of the driver's multiple stops and starts--brought home the sheer physical discomfort involved in paying social calls. I propose that Sudanese exiles were willing to travel long distances to visit their fellow Sudanese as a strategy for coping with their protracted liminal circumstances of exile, and that this strategy constituted mobile homemaking and contributed to a particular ethnic identity.

Cairo as a Protracted Refugee Situation: Protracted Circumstances for Urban Forced Migrants

The use of the policy term protracted refugee situations (PRS) to describe long-term circumstances of displacement for people fleeing conflict first came into widespread use in the new millennium, although the UNHCR and other organizations had previously managed humanitarian caseloads resistant to "solutions" as early as the Second World War. The protracted existence of refugee camps where humanitarian assistance is available and residence is considered, at least theoretically, as "temporary" does not preclude occupants from leaving; indeed, a percentage of "immobilized" encamped refugees are always on the move seeking work, education, and marriage partners, or simply a way out; these movers are, additionally, a part of urbanization flows and processes that include nationals and border-crossers, both voluntary and coerced. Thus, urban areas in the global South are absorbing not only labour migrants from rural areas, but also internally displaced migrants, border-crossing refugees, and a host of others with variable legal statuses. (5)

There is growing recognition that people "out of place" living in urban areas experience many of the same conditions of "permanent temporariness" as do encamped refugees in protracted refugee situations. As the UNHCR points out, "Long-staying urban refugees are not typically included in an understanding of protracted refugee situations. Yet tens of thousands live clandestinely in urban areas, avoiding contact with the authorities and bereft of legal status." (6) These "urban forced migrants" are often ineligible for government services and, if "unregistered," are unable to access humanitarian relief, and from the perspective of regulation, remain largely an "invisible" population. (7) With few resources and tenuous legal status, these women and men--and their undocumented children--have few options for addressing their temporary circumstances. Furthermore, the pan-Arab discourse regarding forced migrants from neighbouring countries, which combines notions of Arab hospitality with Islamic concepts of sanctuary, has resulted in "guest" policies that produce ambiguous "permanent" temporary...

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