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A refuge without welcome

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.

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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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“How did we lose our country?” Rassam sang. “Five people dead on every corner. The cop and the thief wear the same uniform.”

The Iraqis in October City have their own shops and bakeries, and an ice cream stand, Al Saquma, named after the one everybody went to in Baghdad. These are the tricks and rhythms learned: The hummus here is different; watch out for the scams; put your kids in private schools; and make sure you know your way to the Ministry of Investment, where for $500 you can apply to open a business, which gives you automatic yearlong residency. If you don’t open the business, go back next year and apply for a different one.

“There’s an ongoing inflation targeted against Iraqis,” said Nabeel Shawi, a poet and photographer who wears suspenders and big sunglasses. “When I arrived last year, a four-bedroom house rented for 1,200 Egyptian pounds [about $214] a month, but that same house today won’t go for less than 3,000 pounds [$535]. Education is also very expensive. My son’s college tuition is $2,000 a year, and it might go to $3,000. And all this while my money’s about to vanish. It’s the duty of the United Nations to care for us.”

Mahmoud Amer, an Egyptian grocer, is unsympathetic.

“As Arabs, we should stand by the Iraqis, but they have to respect the rules of our country,” he said. “When they open a business here and hire Egyptians, they mistreat them. They always perceive themselves as masters and perceive Egyptians as their servants. . . . Frankly speaking, I myself don’t like them.”

The fact that Fatima Garibawy punched her daughter’s Egyptian nanny suggests the feeling is mutual. Garibawy lives in downtown Cairo in a sixth-floor apartment overlooking a presidential palace. There are no pictures on her walls; her sparse furniture is borrowed. Her husband is dead. He was killed in Iraq, but she won’t talk about it; words have not been assigned to that memory.

She was a newspaper editor and active in Iraqi politics when she was chased from her country by threats and the images of slain friends. She arrived in Egypt with money and ideas. The first was to open a real estate business.

“It lasted a week and we closed it,” said Garibawy, her dark hair pulled back in a bandanna, her makeup doing its best against the city heat. “Egyptians claiming to be officials came asking for bribes. ‘Where is your license?’ That kind of thing. They interrogated us. But I never paid bribes. . . . My next plan was to open a gym, but I was conned out of 30,000 Egyptian pounds. I signed a fabricated contract and was given a bogus receipt. They said they’d have me thrown out of Egypt if I told anybody.”

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Her nanny orchestrated the ruse, she said. Garibawy said she had trusted the woman and her family for months, paying them well to watch her daughter when she visited Iraq last year on the hope that she could resume life in Baghdad. She even lived in the nanny’s home for a while, believing she had found a refuge in a city of strangers.

“When they stole that money from me I just lost my mind and punched her in the face,” Garibawy said. “I’m out of cash. I’m losing my identity. I hide my Iraqiness because if I speak with an accent the Egyptians will exploit me. I think to them Iraqis are the chicken who lays the golden egg.”

Maybe, she said, she will go back to Iraq, cross borders with her 18-month-old daughter, find a teaching job at a university. She looked up from a high-backed chair, an ornate, baroque thing that seemed out of place amid the bare walls. “You don’t know how many times a day I cry.”

There’s a bakery in October City that sells Iraqi bread, three to a pack. It’s run by a ninth-grader in a green head scarf and a 20-year-old man, whose bare legs are streaked with flour and whose forehead is matted with black hair and sweat.

They want to go back to Baghdad, but they can’t, so they’ve created this place, strung with colored lights, to remind them of things they don’t want to forget. It’s like that across October. The Iraqis here just call it that, October.

A few miles from the bakery, rust plumes the walls and garbage blows in the street. The scent of slaughtered sheep mixes with spices and blood. The bazaar on the corner seems as rickety as a village built with Popsicle sticks, but it bustles; the bargains in this poor quarter are best late in the day. Mahmoud Mussa shops with his family here to save money. His wife, Hanan, wears a black hijab and is discriminating about quality and price. Her lipstick is pink.

Mussa smiles. He has found a way to be jovial, this father of four forced to sell two houses, his money trickling away.

He has a mustache and broad shoulders; his eyes don’t wander, they lock. He is a Sunni Muslim. That used to be OK in Iraq, but now it’s not; now, he said, nothing in Iraq is OK, that’s why he’s got to find more money, to keep from slipping back.

His younger son, who is taller, and follows his father’s words as if each one had a price, is neatly dressed; he seems to have wandered into the bazaar by accident.

“We went to the French, Swiss and Spanish embassies to get help for our children, but we got no replies,” Mussa says. “We have to keep our children out of Iraq. We are Sunni. We are threatened if we go back. . . . The militias came to our house before we escaped and tried to kidnap my son.”

“If we run out of money, we’ll have to go back,” Hanan says. She and her husband have no connections here, no way to wheedle the system to make it work for a family of refugees. Without money all things are impossible.

The son listens, trying to make himself small amid stalls of vegetables and poor Egyptians.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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Noha El Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.


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