With the influx of internal migration being at sky-high rates, what's driving Cairene millennials to leave it all behind?
It's arguably quite a normal feeling to want to flee Cairo. The urge to leave one of the world's biggest and most stressful cities doesn't really inspire massive shock. But when some, typically Cairene millennials, make up their minds to ditch the city for a seemingly utopian life, a stone-throw away from the Sinai's Red Sea waters, this tends to inspire plenty of eye-rolling. After all, living in the capital of a highly-centralised country comes with endless perks; ones which have kept the influx of internal migration at sky-high rates for decades. Here, you can get a mostly mediocre education, get treated at a relatively good hospital, and eventually fulfill your fate of becoming an underpaid, overworked member of society. The Dream. But how does one conclude it's time to leave it all behind?
"People often leave Cairo following a traumatic event in their lives, but it's never a conscious decision," explains 31 year old photographer Amr. Four years ago, Amr broke off his engagement only one day before tying the knot, which ushered in the worst time of his life. A two-week break from the world is what he was seeking as he made his way to Ras Shitan, a beach camp on the shores of Nuweiba. Before he knew it, a year had gone by. "My time in Sinai made me realise how toxic and stressful Cairo really is. Our disconnect from nature is bound to leave us in the dire state we're in. From the moment you open your eyes until you crawl back under the sheets at night, you 're constantly dealing with stresses and hardships that we have grown accustomed to and view as just everyday life."
You see, after all I'm a city kid at heart, and being too relaxed for too long didn't sit well with me
As his second year on the isolated beach approached, depression slowly creeped its way back into his life. His total disconnect from city life presented a different set of horrors, and he felt as though he was almost forgotten by everyone he once knew."My first week back in Cairo was a mess, and I wanted nothing more than to go back, however my screwed-up finances back then made it near impossible," he recounted. "With time, I slowly began readjusting to how things are in Cairo; the stresses of work, life and simply paying your dues for wanting to make it in the world. You see, after all I'm a city kid at heart, and being too relaxed for too long didn't sit well with me. I still visit Sinai at least three or four times year, but I can no longer stay past a week."
The crippling anxiety Amr endured when he felt detached from the world is not shared by Adam, a 22 year old undergrad for whom Dahab is home. At 20, Adam's aunt opened up a shop in the small hippie town and he went to visit. Having been suffering with family issues on account of his choice of a university major, Adam was really feeling the pressure before taking off to Sinai. The short visit turned into a longer one, and he was initially just diving, relaxing and meeting people. Before long, Adam found he had no desire to leave. So he took matters into hand and started looking for a job."Work is stressful no matter where it is. The only difference is that, in Dahab, you have a different attitude when dealing with problems than in Cairo. You don't get this crushing anxiety when something goes wrong and life doesn't always feel like a cutthroat competition," explained Adam. "When worse comes to worst, you can just take a walk by the beach or spend a few hours in the mountains, and it'll make you feel more alive than you ever could in Cairo."
I never had to worry about how my hair looks or if I might be looked down upon because of how I dress. All this Cairo bullshit was just nonexistent
Adam worked as a waiter, tour guide, and a salesman at a local computer shop. In Dahab, he found that, unlike Cairo, opportunities for a bilingual young man as himself are numerous. He now holds a senior position in a popular Dahab hotel, but he doesn't intend to stay there forever. "Eventually, I want to save up enough money to launch my own project in Dahab; no one wants to work for others for good. But going back to Cairo is not an option for me. This is my home now."It was almost a decade ago when Zeyad, a 27 year old VFX designer, packed his life in a suitcase and hopped on a bus heading to Ras Shitan. Aged only 19 at the time, Zeyad had no life experiences, future goals, or even a college education. After witnessing his father's painful passing and his mom's departure to the US with her new husband, he found his life in Cairo to be purposeless - so off he went looking for a distraction. Zeyad's arrival to Ras Shitan came well before the area became a popular vacation spot for young Cairenes. A small community of volunteers, from different nationalities and races, were already residing in the area, attempting to build a self-sufficient, pseudo-hippie community, which is exactly what he was looking for. There, he taught Bedouin kids sciences and mathematics in exchange for a hut by the beach and a couple of daily meals. Most of all, his stay in Ras Shitan gave him a true taste of freedom.
I still enjoy the city life and reconnecting with friends and family, but I can't see my future elsewhere than Sinai
"In Cairo, you wake up to a work email that sends you rushing through inhumane traffic just so you can make it on time; it felt like a constant battle to stay afloat," said Zeyad. "It felt very different to open your front door to find sea and sun. I never had to worry about how my hair looks or if I might be looked down upon because of how I dress. All this Cairo bullshit was just nonexistent."
Three years later, broke and with no source of income, Zeyad decided to move back and find a job as a VFX designer. The hectic daily routine of working at a media production agency left him drained and hopeless. He continues to excel at his job and gives it his all, however he has only one goal in mind.
"My ultimate goal is to save up enough money to buy a piece of land in Sinai and permanently relocate there," he revealed. "I still enjoy the city life and reconnecting with friends and family, but I can't see my future elsewhere than Sinai."There's no doubt that Egyptian millennials are viewed as entitled, spoiled brats by older generations. But is leaving the city behind and simply 'quitting' life as they know it, escaping? Or is it merely a manifestation of growing up in a world where every movie, book, and pop song taught us that we could be whomever we feel like; that it doesn't matter what people think as long as we're happy? There is no right or wrong answer and the judgement will always lie in the eyes of the beholder.
Photos: Amr Medhat