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A refuge without welcome

Many Iraqis fleeing war have found a temporary home in Egypt. But economic and cultural tensions breed hostility between 'Arab brothers.'

September 08, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — He lives in the rich quarter but shops in the poor, driving to the outskirts to buy vegetables and meat in the dirty, narrow alleys of a bazaar where flies and barefoot children race through scents of ginger and coriander.

Is this Mahmoud Mussa's fate? He doesn't know. All he's sure of is that he sold one of his homes in Iraq for $25,000; the money ran out and he sent his wife to Baghdad to sell the other one. That cash is disappearing, too, and now, after 14 months as a refugee in a Cairo suburb, Mussa has little left to sell or barter, and he's afraid he'll slip out of his affluent neighborhood and end up in a place with broken walls and tattered awnings.

He and his family escaped war, but sometimes there are worse things, like watching everything you worked for in one country being siphoned away in another.

He was a success in Iraq, a mechanical engineer with a couple of cars and a housekeeper. But now he's just a restless man with a temporary residency card looking to fill empty hours in a nation that in many ways is poorer than the one he left. And they're not so friendly now, the Egyptians. Walk through Mussa's suburb, known as 6th of October City, and you hear it: in bakeries, on street corners, in schoolyards, whispered euphemisms of patience turned sour.

"Our relations are worsening with the Egyptians. They fight you psychologically," Mussa said. "If you try to start a business, they all stand against you. They're poor and hungry people, and they saw us coming out of Iraq with cars and money and they were scared -- they feared we would compete with them."

Decades ago, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians migrated to Iraq to work as farmers, laborers and technicians; now the flow has switched and there's uneasiness over how to navigate the reversal of fortunes. Egyptians and Iraqis call each other Arab brothers, yet they are preoccupied with each other's idiosyncrasies, each hinting at a moral superiority that blames the other for un-devout lifestyles and lascivious souls.

"I can't figure out their religion," Moh Nuri Hamza, a Shiite Muslim refugee from southern Iraq, said of the Egyptians. "Their women wear head scarves, yet they wear tight, tight jeans below. I never let my sisters-in-law leave the house. I don't want them corrupted."

About 100,000 Iraqi refugees live in Egypt, many of them in October City, which sits beyond the Giza pyramids in air blanched with limestone dust and snapping flags advertising new desert subdivisions. The government of President Hosni Mubarak has reportedly limited the number of Iraqis his country would accept, and so Egypt, which has been generous in the past to those fleeing strife, is not contending with the humanitarian crises that have spread across Syria, which has 1.2 million Iraqi refugees, and Jordan, which has as many as 750,000.

But a strained undercurrent drifts through October City, from Mussa's bazaar to pastel apartment buildings trimmed with wooden shutters. It's not loud, it doesn't shake the air. It's bridled words spoken between clenched lips. The Iraqis have pushed up rents. The Iraqis have inflated the price of food.

Many say that only a few Egyptians have grown inhospitable, that Iraqis have been and are welcome here, but then someone like Mohamed Mokhtar, a shopkeeper, brushes aside his genial nature.

"If I were the person in charge," he said, "I would deport them back to Iraq."

Iraqis have their own hard opinions. Not far from Mokhtar's shop, past a boy peeling garlic and another tinkering with a motorcycle, Ahmad Badri said he was naive to the Egyptian skill in fleecing foreigners, even ones fleeing war, when he arrived from Baghdad 18 months ago and opened an Internet cafe.

"The landlord charged me rent of 600 Egyptian pounds [about $107] a month. I found out later it should have been 400," Badri said. "The next day the Egyptian shopkeepers around me came and said, 'Now you've raised the rent on all of us.' They criticized me in a friendly way at first, but today things are tense. It's starting to deteriorate and I'm starting to hate them all. They're first-class vampires.

"My 6-year-old daughter is talking like an Egyptian. I'm sending her to a special language school so she won't develop that annoying accent."

Badri is nearly out of money. He's seen many like him forced to return penniless to Iraq. They had arrived in October City with money and jewelry hidden, but over weeks and months they sold what was precious and found themselves balanced on a kind of descending scale, starting in high-end neighborhoods and gradually tumbling toward smaller rooms and rougher streets.

A thick-boned man with black stubble, whose meandering voice sought no hurry in the afternoon heat, Badri fell silent, pointing to the air as if bumping into an old friend. It was music from the Iraqi singer Hussam Rassam coming from a radio; it troubled Badri as much as it made him nostalgic.

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