Expat Essentials

Sarah Nagaty on ‘falling through the cracks,’ Pt. 2: ‘I didn’t have to leave home, yet felt I had no choice’

The list of items in my baggage could go on and on

(Editor’s note: In Pt. 1 of “Falling through the cracks,” Sarah Nagaty explored the emotional and cultural baggage immigrants and expats share.)

Am I an expat? Am I an immigrant? Or have I just fallen between the cracks?

Years of cultivating resilience and strength have to be spent. And while this may be seen as “too much” of something (whatever that something is) in Europe, it is part of the baggage. 

‘Poor, oppressed Arab woman’

Now, let’s see how I can translate that to maintain the façade of European peacefulness?

How do I translate a set of dramatically different material conditions which shaped my trajectories in life without being this “poor you, oppressed Arab woman?”

And on that note, having met women from almost everywhere in the world, it became evident to me that Arab women are some of the strongest, most resilient women simply because they had to build their resistance skills since the age of 10.

Do I translate it as Sarah? Or as part of a group who sees “fighting back” in a totally different light which, by the way, we find perfectly alright. But again, I am not that cleaning lady who commutes four hours a day from a remote village in the Nile Delta valley to get paid the equivalent of 10 euros a day in someone’s house in the middle of Cairo.

Don’t I share more with my European PhD colleagues or with my martial arts mates than I do with those women? Maybe I am on the expat life baggage, and I am not aware of it? 

The list of items in my baggage could go on and on. I, for example, as well as a Palestinian friend of mine, have our lives defined by the necessity of applying for European Union citizenship (for safety and protection in our home countries) which sounds horrendous or opportunist or “poor you” by expat standards as they definitely make choices in life on different grounds.

However, this limitation would also sound like a luxurious problem compared to our friends who were never granted visas to travel outside their home countries or those who are arbitrarily spending their youths in Arab prisons.

Talk about falling between the cracks! 

Fitting in, yet not fully there

I dress nicely, I am pursuing a PhD in Humanities, and I speak English among other languages. I enjoy nice meals every now and again as well as listening to Schumann and some Reggaeton.  I am also dragging an odd-sized baggage which makes me realize that I am not “fully” there. I am not really part of “this”, I am just one lucky Egyptian woman.

This “this” could be the expat world, or the social surrounding I acquired in Europe because of the cultural capital I happened to possess, or the mere fact that I am doing a PhD in humanities in Europe because I received a full scholarship. On the other hand, growing up in Egypt, in a family struggling hard to remain middle-class (by Egyptian standards), which comes with a set of coping mechanisms and perspectives on life.

Like everyone, I have some traumas (whether intense or light) which are quite unusual in my European milieu but makes me privileged in downtown Alexandria (as it could have been worse for me like dozens of people I personally know). Those traumas shape life choices, leisure options, daily stress, my sense of humor and overall physical health. 

Bottomline, it shapes all the things which may look absurd outside their natural habitat, and which would distance someone from their new habitat. And there is only so much translation of this baggage the Arabic inside my head allows me to do. 

I did not have to leave home at all. I had a relatively well-paid job, a huge social network, a loving partner and family, great food, and the best friends anyone can dream of. Strangely enough, I also felt that I had no choice. It was a compulsory choice.

Am I an expat? Am I an immigrant? Or have I just fallen between the cracks?

About the author:

Sarah Nagaty is a PhD researcher of cultural studies in Lisbon. She’s lived in Portugal for three years.

As a student of cultural studies, Sarah is drawn to what connects people from different backgrounds to new cultures and places, how they relate to their new surroundings and what kinds of activities they could engage with in their new hometowns.

See all of Sarah’s Dispatches posts here.

See Dispatches’ Lisbon story archive here.

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