𝘐𝘴𝘵𝘩𝘮𝘶𝘴 (/ˈisməs/) is a project I’ve been working on that speaks to our moment as many are feeling suspended in time. Isthmus is a narrow piece of land surrounded by sea that connects two larger lands; in anatomy, it’s a narrow passage/organ/tissue that connects two larger parts in our bodies. It can be seen as a liminal space- 𝐚 𝐬𝐩𝐚𝐜𝐞 𝐛𝐞𝐭𝐰𝐞𝐞𝐧 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐰𝐚𝐬 𝐚𝐧𝐝 𝐰𝐡𝐚𝐭 𝐰𝐢𝐥𝐥 𝐛𝐞𝐜𝐨𝐦𝐞. In Islamic theology, Al-Barzak is the place/ stage of the soul’s life when it departs this earth and is waiting to reach its final destination, a life between two lives- isthmus.
My work on migration and movement is anchored in this fluidity. It attempts to move away from the sensationalized coverage we have all grown accustomed to by reflecting, particularly in these times, on the stories of people who went through borders in such bare ways, who looked power in the eye and found ways to puncture it, for all different reasons, for family, for love, for life.
I’ve been holding these stories close to my heart, hoping to honor them and realized in my paralyzing fear of not presenting them perfectly, I have not presented them at all. The first story I will share is from the week I stayed at my beloved friend’s house as we waited for her father, Waseem, to make it to Egypt via the Sudan smuggling route.
Waseem’s story captures the complex processes of departure, arrival, return, remigration and everything in between- the waiting, the hoping, the dreaming. In the nuances and the unpredictable emerges this state of in-betweenness: 𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘩𝘮𝘶𝘴.
As we all live lives that have been put, in some way or another, on hold, I wanted to reflect on the idea that for some people, these dramatic shifts have happened before and are institutionally cyclical; similar to how while many of us are safe at home, many people are forced to go outside as they are deemed essential (read: disposable), exposing yet again how these systems are not sustainable and are built on hierarchies delineating who is worthy of life and who isn’t-but as Darwish writes: “we have on this earth what makes life worth living”.
𝙏𝙝𝙪𝙧𝙨𝙙𝙖𝙮, 𝙉𝙤𝙫𝙚𝙢𝙗𝙚𝙧 𝟮
Waseem Al-Sheikh boards a plane in Vienna, Austria, beginning his trip. He arrives in Khartoum, Sudan that night.
The summer of 2013 saw significant regime change in Egypt and as a result, what had once been an open border for Syrians to come through was slammed shut- the steady stream of migrants came to a screeching halt as a new visa system was created. Hence many Syrians who had plans to come to Egypt but could not navigate the costs (read: bribes) at the airports began flying instead to Khartoum and crossing the border from the south of Egypt. These bribes are equivalent to 3000 USD while the Sudan route costs about 500 USD.
This movement is paralleled with what is happening on the ground in Syria. Waseem, coming from Europe to take the Sudan route can be considered an outlier in comparison to those who usually take the route. Lots of the people who embark on the journey are coming directly from Syria, as Sudan is one of the only countries with a visa-free policy for them. Many are traveling from areas emptied by Assad or from former ISIS-controlled areas.
The consequences of such movements, deemed illegal, have manifested themselves in the increased securitization of the borders, resulting in detention and oftentimes deportation of young and single males. However, not all migrants are subjected to the same risks, as various factors also impact the cross-border experience, with class, gender, and ethnicity emerging as some. The experience does not end at the border but is constantly assembled as bodies are in constant negotiation with bordering and category-making practices- i..e national || non-national, in || out, legal || illegal.
Sunday, November 5
Somewhere in Cairo
I arrived at the Al-Sheikh household later than I hoped- traffic and my usual procrastination habits were to blame. When I arrived, there was a hecticness in the air, as everyone in the family was preparing for Waseem’s arrival.
In the middle of the hustle and bustle, Haya, his wife, stopped to greet me, apologizing as she rattled on about the foods she wanted to prepare and the things she needed to buy. “He hasn’t had a proper meal in five years. Yes, he knows how to cook, but not like me.” I offered to help but she refused, leading me instead to the sofa in the living room where I was joined by the youngest daughter, Lamees.
We started by covering the mundane topics of small talk- weather, Cairo traffic, and Turkish shows before I asked her about her fiancée, Mohamed. I had attended Lamees’s engagement party two years before, my first encounter with the Al- Aymaan family, and my first event where the couple was Syrian & Egyptian. Mohamed traveled to the US soon after the party, in hopes to somehow secure a residency card and later be joined by Lamees. However, as he was soon to find out, it is near impossible to get a green card; but she was hopeful that he would be able to find a way to get one in the next year and a half.
Not having the heart to tell her that the time frame was actually at least double that amount, I turned my attention, instead, to the television, to Sadece Sen, a Turkish movie, where the protagonist was helping his lover cross the street in the pouring rain. Earlier in the movie, he had accidentally blinded her and had not yet told her he was the reason she could no longer see.
𝙈𝙤𝙣𝙙𝙖𝙮, 𝙉𝙤𝙫𝙚𝙢𝙗𝙚𝙧 𝟲
By now, the preparations have ended, and we were all sitting together having a late-night (at least to me, it was late) snack and some tea.
It was then that I could finally sit with Haya and the entire family, and she began recounting the events of the day for me. Waseem was in Port Sudan now, having landed at the Khartoum Airport a few days before. He told Haya that when he landed at the airport, the official asked him coyly, “when are you going to Egypt?” Pretending to not understand the question, Waseem, acting confused, insisted rather, that he plans on staying in Sudan. The official scoffed at Waseem, telling him, “you know, and I know that you are going to Egypt, no need to play this game”.
Waseem then simply asked, “what do you want me to say?, and was answered with a simple, “pay me as everyone else does”. He slowly slipped a 20-euro bill in the official’s hand before receiving the entry stamp.
Leaving the airport, he got into a car with a woman who gave him a Sudanese SIM card and drove him straight to the bus station. His delay at the airport meant he was running late and might miss the public bus that will take him to Port Sudan.
Monday, November 6
Waseem made the bus. The woman who picked him up called the bus driver and stalled him enough for Waseem to make the bus. Confused, I asked how it was possible for the driver to have that much power- to be able to stop a public bus from its usual route with just one phone call. Haya said, “oh that’s because metwasy a’aleh (he’s been advocated for)”.
“His friend in Austria helped him arrange all of this”. Confused, I asked for her to elaborate, saying that I had heard that the starting point for these trips usually starts in Syria. She explained that there is a tribe, the Abu Qima tribe, that is spread out across the Arabic-speaking region. Waseem’s friend, Luay, who is Syrian, is part of that tribe. He posted about Waseem’s predicament on a Facebook group created for the members of this tribe to connect, and through various conversations managed to organize the entire trip for Waseem. The Sudanese smuggler and later, the Egyptian smuggler, were all part of the Abu Qima Tribe; as well as Mohamed, the man who arranged to meet Waseem in Aswan to take him to Cairo. She smiled explaining this to me, a silent acknowledgment, perhaps, of the ways national borders attempt to delineate what is porous.
When he arrived at Port Sudan after an 8-hour bus ride, his passport was taken by the authorities at the station. To retrieve it, he needed to go to the security office. Once there, he was asked, again, by the officer when he was going to Egypt. At this point, seasoned by his first encounter with this question, he simply asked, “what do you want?”. To which the officer smiled, and pulled open a drawer filled with Syrian passports, and told him, “See, all these people didn’t pay, and now they have to wait until their passports return to Khartoum where they will have to retrieve it from there- the process takes weeks”. After 20 euros is slipped to the officer, Waseem gets his passport and goes to the hotel booked for him and waits for a call to let him know the next leg of his trip is about to start.
Monday, November 6
The family, who are nocturnal creatures by habit, wake up late as they had spent all night awake waiting for news from Waseem. I wake up early and spend the morning in the balcony overlooking the quiet street, absorbing the vast view from the family’s top floor apartment affords me. As the street murmurs awake below me, I’m struck, as I always am in this part of Cairo, at how the Syrian diaspora made it home and their own. A group of children leaving for school are rushing to their parent’s car while their older brother waves goodbye from the balcony- most likely on their way to the many Syrian “educational centers” in the city.
As the morning rush quiets down, I see Syrian mothers going for a walk down the street with the youngest of their children. I hear the army planes fly over me, as the children in the Egyptian public school nearby sing the national anthem. Glancing at the tree across from me, I see that I’m not the only listener, as the doorman’s daughter paused to listen to the anthem, leaning against the tree as I leaned against the balcony rail.
I spent the morning hoping to piece together how the journey will pan out given the stories I’ve heard, but instead focused more on the plants and playing a game with the cat, putting a treat in front of him before pulling it further away the second he reaches it, forcing him to readjust his path to reach the prize.
Monday, November 6
The family begins stirring, and as they wake up one by one, Haya receives a phone call from Waseem. He’s still in his hotel room in Port Sudan, where he’s been stationed now for a few days, waiting for the signal that will start the journey. He is restless and nervous, and his children take turns talking to him, reassuring him, and telling him of the activities planned for him when he arrives.
Lamees then leaves for Cairo University, where she is studying political science, and I stay at home with the other family members. We stare at the television silently as we wait for the day to unfold. A huffed scoff leaves Haya as we watch the coverage of the World Youth Forum held at Sharm El Shiekh, Egypt, where the theme, “we need to talk”will cover everything from sustainable development to the adverse impact of irregular migration on the region.
“Waseem applied fourteen times at the Egyptian embassy in Vienna for a visa to come see us- fourteen times,” she says to no one in particular.
Monday, November 6
Haya receives a phone call from her husband, the smuggler has called him and informed Waseem that he will leave that night and will arrive in Egypt the next day. A feeling of anticipation fills the air and the family begins to prepare for the journey ahead.
They seem calm, at least calmer than how I was feeling, and I asked how they could keep their nerves under wraps. Qamar, his oldest daughter and my good friend, responded by saying, “because we can’t control anything, so we leave it up to God”. She paused, before adding, “plus this isn’t the first time we are in this position”. Confused, I asked what she meant. “How do you think my dad got to Austria from Egypt in 2013? Smuggling across the Mediterranean, of course”. I don’t know how that didn’t cross my mind, but Qamar continues, saying how compared to the Mediterranean route, Sudan is much safer.
“This man is a veteran in traversing borders”, I thought to myself.
Monday, November 6th
Waseem calls Haya, telling her he has begun the trip. He says that there are 12 people stacked “like sardines” in the back of a pickup truck that is 1 meter by 1 meter. He’s sitting on the side, with his legs dangling because most of the people in the truck are women and children. All of them are Syrian. He’s been told the trip will take 18 hours, and he should arrive at Aswan the next day. He’s worried, but the sentiment is “soon, this will all be over.”
Tuesday November 7th
Everyone in the house is asleep but Haya and me. She is smoking, and I am sitting across from her, her worry rolling off her with every puff that leaves her mouth. In the darkness of the night and dim lights, and with her children all asleep, her confident façade drops.
She goes into detail about the Abu Qima tribe and finds their dedicated support to Waseem off-putting. She mentions howLuaytried to connect her daughter Qamar with an Egyptian Abu Qima family member, in hopes that she would marry him since he wanted a Syrian bride. While Qamar said she wasn’t interested, Waseem didn’t let the Abu Qima family know, telling them instead he’ll talk to her when he returns to Egypt. She then went on to say that they even offered him a restaurant in a rural city in the south of Egypt to manage, free of charge but he would have to run it on his own completely.
She’s extremely wary, saying, “People don’t give 9 unless 10 is guaranteed so I have no idea why they are doing all this”. She sighs then, saying “we’ll just have to see when he gets here”.
Tuesday November 7th
As of now, there is only radio silence, and any attempts to reach Waseem are futile. The only point of contact is Mohamed. He texts Haya and talks to Basel, her 17-year-old son, on the phone, reassuring both that all is well and that he is on the phone with the smugglers. But the radio silence starts to worry them, so in an attempt tofeel in control, they asked me to call and find out the exact train times from Aswan to Cairo- because when Waseem calls, the family wants to make sure they have all the information needed.
After doing the math, we estimate that he should arrive in time for the 6 pm train, but if he misses it then definitely the 8:15 train.
Still not satisfied, Haya asks Qamar to call an Egyptian lawyer, Yusuf, who alongside a Syrian lawyer, Sami, is known within the community to intervene for Syrians coming through Sudan. He reassures them confidently after Qamar tells him of her father’s case, saying even if they caught him, they would free him, all they need to do is prepare a passport picture and the family notebook to prove his family is in Egypt. So now we just wait.
Tuesday November 7th
I just returned from shopping for groceries- tonight, I am cooking Indian food for dinner to celebrate Waseem’s imminent arrival. As I put the groceries in the kitchen, Haya walks in to let me know that Waseem’s arrival has been pushed to 2 am, as the drivers take a break in the middle to switch shifts- the Sudanese smuggler hands the reigns over to the Egyptian smuggler.
While unpacking, Safaa, an Egyptian friend of Haya’s, marvels at the state of this trip, saying, “he had a five-hour layover on the way to Khartoum at Cairo airport after a short three-hour flight from Vienna, literally an hour away from you- but to come back to Cairo, he is taking a week”.
Borders are funny things, aren’t they?
Tuesday, November 7th
Qusay, a mutual friend, and I are taking apart the chandeliers and cleaning them, while the girls are preparing their parents room and rearranging theirs. As we clean, there is a worrying hush in the room, and Haya calls me into the kitchen to read messages Mohamed has sent her and asks that I speak with him, as she is too stressed to respond and doesn’t want her children to sense anything.
I asked him about the radio silence and the reason the trip is delayed. His response was “this is normal”. Oddly, he ended each response by singing the praises of Arab unity in general, and the Syrians in particular; it was a surreal conversation, with every response concluded with, “oh, protectors of Arab civilization”, “oh, carriers of nobility”. Besides the possibility of a car accident that he mentioned in passing, we did not retrieve any new or useful information from the conversation. Haya told me to not share what we heard to the kids, who were already on edge.
We surrender to the indefinite, hoping that time, as still as it seemed at that moment, will deliver our consolation.
Wednesday, November 8th
I sleep lightly, anticipating news at any moment. Qamar walks into the room we share, having not slept all night. She’s worried, her father isn’t picking up and the trip has yet to arrive in Aswan, at this point over ten hours late. She slides into the bed across from me, and stares at me silently, expectantly, searching for any sign of comfort or reassuring words, but all I can offer is a quick rote prayer and a resigned sigh, my stomach rolling itself into knots.
Wednesday, November 8th
Haya walks into the room to tell me and Qamar that Waseem has made it to Aswan and should be meeting Mohamed at the Aswan train station in 10 minutes. Waseem attempted to call Haya but there wasn’t any signal. She waits for a bit and tries again. That attempt works and she speaks with him briefly. He is aiming to take the 3 pm train to Cairo and, if all goes well and no officer stops him, he will be home by 5 am.
Wednesday, November 8th
We all wake up late, having had restless nights that lead to crashing all morning. Haya is already awake and already spoke to her husband. Mohamed met Waseem and took him to a house that belongs to an Abu Qima family member based in Aswan to rest and shower after the long trip as they wait for the train time to arrive. When asked what delayed his trip, Waseem described a horrific accident in the car in front of them, the authorities were chasing the truck until it flipped, killing everyone on board- he assumes about 12 Syrians, and the driver. I look through Facebook groups to find information on this accident, as sometimes people post about missing family members or authorities contact Syrian lawyers to post about it- but I find nothing.
Wednesday, November 8th
Fayez, Qamar, and I are walking around in Al-Hosarysquare, buying last minute things that the house needs as they prepare to welcome Waseem home. Fayez has been friends with the family and I for years. We discuss how weird it must feel, the changes they all went through in the past five years that their father missed out on, and Qamar worries of all the adjustments that will happen once the euphoria of the reunion settles.
Amid the hustle of the Amerkyaplaza that’s filled with Syrian cafes, restaurants, and office, we pause under the looming billboard hung by the largest Syrian restaurant in the middle of the street with a message thanking Egypt, for graciously hosting Syrians, emphasizing the shared brotherhood that exists between both people. The sign was placed after the 2013 events, when Syrians were labeled as disloyal and treated as the fifth column.
After buying corn on the cob and snacks for the night for everyone coming to celebrate, we head home.
Wednesday, November 8th
The air in the house is jubilant, as Waseem is well on his way to Cairo. Euphoric Iraqi music is wafting in the air, as we all are blowing balloons and decorating the house. A welcome home sign is created, with all of us signing our good wishes. Haya overlooks our preparations joyfully, and we all decide that we’ll stay up all night until Waseem arrives home*.
*reader, I passed out like five times.
Thursday, November 9th
Fayez, Basel, and Safaa’s husband leave to go meet Waseem at the train station. I take this opportunity to take a quick nap before they come.
Thursday, November 9th
Waseem arrives, and his daughters are waiting on the stairs, filming and laughing as his head begins to become visible as he makes his way upstairs. Haya is waiting inside, a nervous aura emitting from her. As he jogs the last stretch of steps and takes Lamees in his arms, a sense of calmness transpires.
Finally, he has arrived. In one piece and safe. Behind him, Mohamed, follows timidly, smiling and waiting to enter. We all settle around the table where an impressive breakfast has been prepared by Haya, every recipe prepared with the works.
Basel gleefully remarks that he’s grown taller than his father, so much so that Waseem was taken aback at the train station. The last time he saw his youngest son, Basel, he was a pre-pubescent teenager.
Mohamed introduces himself, saying he helped coordinate Waseem’s trip as a favor to Luay, the friend in Vienna whom Mohamed considers a relative. Haya does not trust Mohamed and makes it very clear that she is suspicious of him, so he attempts to explain himself: he did this to help Waseem because he doesn’t agree with keeping our “Syrian brothers” out of Egypt, as “all the Arabs are one nation, a nation that should be borderless”. He lives in Assyuitand is from there and took off from work to travel to Aswan to bring Waseem home. Haya is not convinced- “all this, you did for free?”, she asks. He swears yes.
The tension in the air is palatable, so someone turns to Waseem and asking him about his trip. “Difficult, very, very, difficult“, he answers.
Thursday, November 9th
He sits at the head of the table, but seems miles away, lost in thought; he draws a deep breath and begins to ramble his story quickly, as though speaking it that way releases it:
”We were all packed like sardines, no leg room for anything. I couldn’t get a good seat, because they were mostly women and children. My leg accidentally brushed against the woman next to me, and she rudely reprimanded me, and I asked her- where do you want me to place my legs in this tin can? I couldn’t even ask for more room, because, the priority, of course, is given to the women and children. I’m a man, I can handle it, but I felt bad for the kids. In the morning, the sun in the desert is brutal, it’s very, very hot. The drivers are going so fast, they break the speed meter, going over the maximum 220 km/hour; they must, if they go slower, the tires of the truck would dig into the desert, paralyzing us.
I held a little girl, from HalabI believe, tightly, so she wouldn’t fly off, her parents each holding a child each, and I was worried the entire time for her. We continued like this for a few hours, until we took a break in between. After that, we continued our journey, and somewhere in the mountains, we crossed a tree, signaling that we have arrived in Egypt. That was it- a tree.“
“We continued our trip until an accident happened in front of us that worried the driver who drove into the desert away from the scene and dropped us off with some water and disappeared for 8 hours. We were terrified, especially for the kids, as we were told to keep a lookout for black scorpions- every noise we heard became a black scorpion.”
Waseem continues, “At 10 pm, a driver arrived, and we forced him to stay with us until another one came to take us. We went back into the truck and began again. This time, the driver was Egyptian, he was much kinder than his counterpart, and drove slower- mostly because he did not want the authorities to notice since they were always close by. This part took so long, because every time we drove for a little bit, we had to maneuver and navigate around military patrols doing their rounds. But finally, we reached the outskirts of a town where they dropped us off.
At the train station, I called Mohamed to ask where he was since I couldn’t see anyone waiting for me, only to have him tell me it seemed that I was dropped off in Edfu, and that I needed to board a train to Aswan. As I’m waiting with the family that was with me on my trip, a police officer walks by and I drop to the child’s eye level, pretending to play with her while telling her to not make a sound. I’m sure he knew, we were very obvious- dusty, dirty, smelly from the journey. The train ride was short, and Mohamed met me and took me to his relative’s house. They were very nice people. I showered, ate and napped until the train to Cairo, and when I got on, I was worried we would be stopped, but Mohamed had arranged with his friends in the police force, so we were fine, thank god.”
Thursday, November 9th
After eating, Fayez and I got up to leave as the family protested, insisting we must stay. However, we didn’t want to encroach, because there were five years of catching up the family needed to do.
As I ride my Uber, attempting to not doze off, I think of the tree that separates the border, I don’t know why that image stuck with me – what does it mean when a border is defined by a tree that could easily have existed there for hundreds of years before it was given the role of “border marker”. A massive tree at the border means its roots spread out, reaching all sides, and yet to the tree, it simply exists.
Leaning my head on the car window as we drove over the Nile, I finally give in to my urge to sleep and surrender to my exhaustion.
6 months later :
Waseem sits waiting for news on his residency status. He is afraid to leave the house for too long and feels stuck. Given that he has the Austrian residency permit, he cannot apply through the normal channels of UNHCR as that would mean he loses his access to Europe, which would be detrimental to the family. He called several lawyers who gave him a range of prices that ranged from “too good to be true”, to “I cannot afford it, I should have flown in and paid the $3500 bribe instead”. All he needs is the triangle stamp that would render his entrance to Egypt legal, and give him the comfort to move around freely. He has been here for months and is contemplating returning to Sudan the same way he came.
Waseem has had enough; he has been waiting for months to get legalized in Egypt, but every attempt has turned out unfruitful. He is not one to sit at home and wait, not one to have his everyday mobility hindered by a fear of residency raids and being stopped to show his passport and status. The thought of going back on the journey to Sudan stressed him, and he is not looking forward to years of exile and loneliness again, so he decides that he will do what he can to stay- and so after a quick phone call, he sets his appointment.
On a Tuesday, he heads to his appointment and there, at the UNHCR office, he registers as a refugee in Egypt, and with that, he loses his Austrian residency, and is yet again, an asylum seeker with basic protection and very little hope for resettlement.
The circle never ends.
It took Waseem about 4 hours to reach Cairo from Austria. To return to Cairo, it took him a week.
SOMETIME BEFORE THE WAR (2011)
Waseem is preparing to go to work, he must always have his uniform pressed because his job requires it. He loves his job; it allows him to see things he’s never seen.
He sets out to work, and boards the plane, wondering if he will have time to explore the city the plane lands in before he would need to report for duty. As a flight attendant for Syrian Airlines, the world is his oyster, and he can see it from the plane window, where one sees not borders but life, crossing in, out and through each other.