These are developments of the last generation. In colonial times, Europe imported food from, and exported people to, North Africa; since the 1970s, the reverse has held. One reason is that the EU's export subsidies and import tariffs have damaged the regional agriculture, boosting urbanization and unemployment. Meanwhile, the population has exploded, one third of the total population now younger than 15. In Egypt the median age is 20 and up to every fourth male without a job.
On top of this are various other trends. Since the 80s, the rooftops of North Africa have been littered with satellite dishes reaping dreams of Europe from the skies. In Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt the tourist boom offers direct exposure to Western consumerism, transforming the social fabric and stretching traditional norms to the breaking point. Vacationing members of the diaspora relish in displaying whatever wealth they have amassed, which can be impressive by local standards. Yet the grass on the other side of the fence need not, upon closer inspection, be all that greener. Prejudice and social strictures ensure as much.
In what follows I will try to portray, if only in glimpses, a few of the people with Europe on their minds whom I have met on travels in the region. I apologize for the gender-skewed selection; one does not, as a male outsider, get in touch with lots of females in this part of the world. Most names have been changed for anonymity.
A soundtrack, for those so inclined: El Ghira ('The Jealous') by Khaled
. In this song the legendary Raï singer slams, in metaphorical idiom, his fellow Algerian expats who badmouth their homeland because they themselves could not prosper there. (96 kbps Windows Media Audio. 3,22 MB)
Morocco, July 1995
I find myself on Interrail with two friends, taking the ferry from Algeciras and proceeding down the coast by public transportation. In Asilah, a pictoresque whitewashed town southeast of Tangier, we make the acquaintance of a lively hassler and hashish dealer named Abdul. Not long ago he married Mette, a Danish tourist. Late one night he shows us the wedding photos: they depict an odd but happy couple, the vaguely coarse-looking bride being taller by a head.
Their Moroccan honeymoon was marred by robbers tossing their luggage out of the train window to accomplices on the ground. The daring Abdul jumped off in speed to reclaim it by force. He succeeded, but couldn't salvage his wife's enchantment with his homeland: "until then, she loved Morocco. Afterwards, she hated it." Safely back in Denmark, she gave birth to a daughter.
Abdul was supposed to come after. Recently, however, she has broken off contact, not returning his calls or letters for reasons unknown. Now he struggles to save up for the airfare. "My heart," he laments, "cries out to see my daughter."
On his request I help him pen a desperate love letter in Danish. The next day we try to call his family-in-law from a teleboutique. Though Abdul slots in dirhams in a steady flow, the line keeps going dead every fifth second; the sister-in-law, who answers, speaks little English. Talking to her I learn that Mette has moved; I get the sense that another man has entered the picture. Abdul is in tears, his hopes of seeing his daughter dwindling. I cannot but share his feeling of helplessness. In the shabby teleboutique, Scandinavia feels as remote as a receding galaxy.
We must regretfully decline to take along a package for his family to Europe. He does, after all, peddle drugs.
Morocco, January 1998
I am about to tour southern Morocco with three friends during Ramadan. On the bus from Agadir Airport to the town of Aït Ben Yahia we meet Halim, a talkative twentysomething eager to continue the conversation in a café. Not being in a hurry, we agree. Before long, we are joined by Bursuq, his pal, who could be seen approaching others on the airport bus, clearly in vain. We end up accepting a dinner invitation at Halim's.
He has only known us for hours when he vows to return the visit in our country; his parents, he says, have already agreed. No doubt these guys spend a great deal of time befriending tourists in hopes of being invited to somewhere, anywhere, in Europe. Whatever moves them, it is not destitution, for they are lower middle class and trained as electricians. More likely they are unemployed and have the means, such as satellite TV, to imagine Europe as a land of opportunity. Life is elsewhere.
After a not especially memorable night out, my friends and I sleep on the floor in the house of Halim's parents. The next day we continue on to Taroudant, where we rent a car to explore the country. On our way back two weeks later we give Halim and Bursuq a miss.
Egypt, November 2001
I have been backpacking in Upper Egypt in the wake of 9/11. Tourism has collapsed, leaving the cruise ships like stranded turtles along the banks of the Nile.
In the sprawling Red Sea resort of Hurghada I meet Toto, as he calls himself: a happy-go-lucky guy in his early twenties, working in a gift shop. Toto and his buddies make a sport of ripping off tourists (one claims to have 'sold' an island to a Japanese, who returned for another) and, if attractive, young and female, luring them to bed. The latter is almost too easy: frivolous sidewalk catcalls, they report, land one in five.
A fishing village in living memory, Hurghada is the kind of place nobody is from. On his part, Toto is from the beautiful Aswan in the south. Yet he doesn't like going home anymore. I gather that his family, while appreciating the money coming their way, recoil from his freewheling lifestyle. Lately he has had it: "I help my family no more," he defiantly declares. The story is familiar. Throughout the region the traditional authority of the father, based on being the provider or owning the land, is eroding - particularly among young sons who, working in tourism, rake in more than their dads.
His boss the shopowner is a more somber type, but according to Toto, "crazy in the head." Having smoked some weed with the man, I find myself offered "cocaine, heroin, LSD, anything you like." I politely decline. Ah, so that's how the capital for the souvenir business was raised.
The guys tend to find Egyptian females shallow and conventional: "One can't talk with them as with European girls," they complain. Both Toto and his boss have, of all things, Norwegian girlfriends; the boss plans to marry his, though I am not sure if she knows yet. He will be visiting Oslo shortly. I quietly hope he finds the climate too cold for his liking.
Tunisia, September 2005
Tozeur is an ancient oasis town near Algeria, transformed for the worse by tourism. Here I meet Mahmoud: a kind-eyed, slightly knock-kneed man around fifty, who runs a family-owned café and kiosk opposite my hotel. It is an unexpected pleasure to speak my mother's tongue instead of French spiffed up with Arabic; this is possible because he lived in my country for years.
He tells his story, beginning with his marriage to a compatriot of mine who bore him two daughters. Rising at 4 AM, he worked 14 hours a day at cleaning and other menial jobs to buy and equip a home. Unfortunately, his stay-at-home wife, who had never worked a single day in her life, couldn't be bothered to cook or even keep the apartment tidy. Worse, as Mahmoud one day discovered to his horror, she neglected to change their baby's napkins, resulting in vexing sores. When he respectfully demanded change, she mulled it over and took out separation.
Soon after, he came home from work to a deserted flat. An acquaintance at the sheriff's office broke the news: his wife had moved with the kids to a secret location in Northern Norway. Apparently her friends had persuaded her that Mahmoud might abduct them to Tunisia, something he vehemently denies having even considered. It took years of uphill legal battle for him to see his children again; when he finally won through, they barely knew him.
Striving to resurface financially, he worked flat out in a construction firm he founded with a friend and the latter's father. All day, every day, for months, he would paint and tile floors. It was a bolt from the blue when the father suddenly emptied the company coffers and fled to the Netherlands, where the trail disappeared. Then Mahmoud gave up, returning to Tunisia. He now lives for the day when his oldest, at eleven, will come to visit. In the meantime, he is extending the family house to be able to accomodate tourists.
After he closes the café, we sit and talk deep into the night outside his kiosk, enjoying hurried shots from my well-concealed bottle of scotch. Despite having known Norwegian society squarely from the bottom up, Mahmoud really misses its transparency, deploring the corruption permeating Tunisia from the presidency to the street cops. The issue cannot even be addressed in public, as freedom of speech is nil. The agents and informants of 'La Sûreté' are ubiquotous, he believes; our very conversation owes its safety to linguistic obscurity.
As I withdraw, Mahmoud remains manning his kiosk into the small hours. His work ethic is about the strongest I have seen anywhere, and certainly unique by local standards. Here, as in much of North Africa, the men sit around in cafés all day sipping mint tea and smoking shisha. Not, says Mahmoud, because there isn't work, but because it pays too poorly to be worth their while. The only attractive jobs are in the tourist industry.
On my way back to the coast I stop in Metlaoui, a dusty phosphate mining hub in the middle of nowhere. In the vast surrounding desert, bedouins dwell in tents and flocks of camels roam by the roadside.
I have an appointment in Metlaoui with three jovial twentysomethings - call them Hassan, Saïd, and Anwar - whom I met on the crowded local bus from Gafsa, where they study mechanics. After a tour of the town, we talk over dinner in an otherwise empty hotel restaurant (I foot the bill). At one point a busload of Germans thunder past into the dining hall. Anwar, after querying the word, exclaims a 'willkommen!,' but could scarcely have been more disregarded were he furniture.
The scrawny Saïd, who speaks no English but excellent French - he has a sister in Paris - is keen on body building, but the local food is sadly poor on protein. Can I send him some? The town, I learn, is heavily polluted, giving rise to illness. Anwar's big brother, who worked at the phosphat processing plant, just died from cancer. But complaining to the authorities, especially in public, is not an option for the citizens of Metlaoui.
Like Mahmoud, the guys could use some basic freedom of speech. For instance, they hold passionate views on the Israel/Palestine conflict, as encouraged by the state-controlled media, but discussing the matter with foreigners is forbidden. They do so anyhow. And since phosphate is used in the weapons industry, even sketching the history of their hometown is a no-no.
All three take a dismal view of the future in Tunisia, convinced that they face unemployment upon graduation, or at best, decades in a low-paying menial job before something opens up. Inquiring minds need to know every detail about economic life around my parts. They are pleased to learn that a dinar equals five kroner, thinking this implies a favorable exchange rate. Surely I can help with the visas? And can I spare a room?
The friendly, phlegmatic Hassan hopes to complete his studies in Europe and, because "Tunisian women are not the future," find a girlfriend there. With his handsome Mediterranean features, the latter should present no problem if the former can be arranged. For starters I give him twenty dinars to buy a pair of jeans and a shirt; those he is wearing are supposedly borrowed.
The guys have since called me often on my cell phone. But much as I hope their dream of happiness in Europe will come true, I fear it has all the substance of a distant mirage.