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Egypt's Nile Delta: Fertile land, but not for jobs

Young men scatter from the area like seeds on the wind, taking what work they can get in neighboring countries, hoping to save enough, perhaps, for that apartment that would allow them to marry.

November 23, 2009|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan
  • A man tends to his herd near Deyast, in Egypt's Nile Delta. More than one-third of Deyast's young men have gone abroad for work.
A man tends to his herd near Deyast, in Egypt's Nile Delta. More than… (Asmaa Waguih / For The Times )

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya, and Deyast, Egypt — The rice has been harvested, the chaff burned. It's time for planting winter wheat, seed sunk deep into new furrow, as white birds with razor beaks land on fields to feast.

Ali Mohammed has endured another season without his son. It is the rhythm of the Nile Delta: Crops change, children are forced away. There are few jobs here and they don't pay much. Young men, like fathers and grandfathers before them, leave this fertile land.

Mohammed's son Ali took a 40-hour bus ride across the desert to paint buildings in Libya.

He shares a room on the outskirts of Tripoli with four other Egyptian workers -- five beds, with a table outside. The men talk and listen to a small radio. If they have jobs for the next day, they're happy; if not, morning comes too soon. How Ali is faring can best be gauged each month when his family visits the Western Union office to collect the money he has wired.

Ali, 30, supports his mother and Mohammed, a semi-retired farmer. He helped pay for his older sister's wedding. He is saving for his own. A village girl has agreed to marry him, and under the dowry agreement reached between the families, Ali must provide a furnished apartment in Deyast before the wedding in January. It is halfway finished. Raw wires coil from the ceiling and the walls are gritty with field dust.

"It's been tough over the last two months for him to find steady work, so he hasn't sent much money home," said Mohammed, who in the 1980s worked as a farmer in Saudi Arabia. "Most of what he earns goes into this wedding flat. I'd like my son to be home with me, but he can't."

Mohammed and other village men sat beneath a dangling light bulb in Ali's unpainted apartment. Women peeled potatoes outside. The fields were disappearing in the dusk and horse carts loaded high with hay rolled like tiny mountains along the canal. The green neon light of the mosque clicked on and the sky cleared bright to the gathering moon. Boys followed their mothers' voices home; water whooshed in sinks for washing.

"You have to go abroad to work to make decent money," said one man.

"No. You can make it here," said another.

"If someone wants a job, they have to pay off a councilman or member of parliament," said the first man. "It's corruption."

Mohammed sat and listened, straightening the brown scarf draped over his pale tunic. More than one-third of Deyast's men are gone, including his son, his tools and dirty clothes piled in a city far from the fields of his father.

Over the last decade, Ali repaired a bridge in Cairo and hired on as a farmhand in Jordan. He's been in Libya for three years. He works 12-hour days, but the jobs are not steady, and some months he sends only $160 home.

Libya has claimed more of him than he wanted to give; it leaves him sapped, and sometimes he'd like to run into the desert and scream.

"We're never guaranteed anything here. During the holy month of Ramadan I didn't work for 40 days," said Ali, a balding man whose fingers are cracked and nearly stuck together with paint and glue. "Libyans have changed toward Egyptian workers. They used to appreciate us more. Now many other foreigners are running big projects and that's changed how Egyptians are treated. . . . I wouldn't wish this same life for my brother."

He and his fellow Egyptians don't venture out at night. They're afraid of Libyan gangs that prowl migrant neighborhoods. They keep away from the police, too. To complain could get them arrested or deported. A friend has spent more than a year in jail since a Libyan grocer accused him of harassment. Life is not good, but it wasn't much better back in Deyast.

For generations, Egypt has been a country to leave. It has long been stingy with opportunity, and its people have become exports to countries in need of laborers. Five million Egyptians work as bricklayers, carpenters and in any other jobs they can find in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and, for those with professions, Europe and the United States.

About 40% of Egyptians live on $2 a day or less. If it weren't for the estimated $6 billion to $8 billion sent home every year by workers abroad, the nation would barely survive.

In the 1970s and '80s, the money Egyptians earned in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations built new neighborhoods in Cairo. The laborers worked in Israel, and in Iraq before the war. These days they disperse across the region on ferries and buses. Others pay smugglers and hop on ragged vessels that sail across the Mediterranean toward Europe. Many drown with borrowed money in their wallets.

Fatma Sayed sews and mends back in Deyast. Her abaya glows with copper beads; sequins shine on her hijab. Her husband, Khalil, works with Ali in Libya and hasn't been home in months. His son and daughter miss him, but after eight years of jobs abroad, he exists to them mostly through stories and pictures.

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