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‘Being Borrowed’: Exhibition Reflects on Years of Egyptian Migration to Gulf for Work

For many Egyptians who experienced working in the Gulf countries for long periods during the 1980s and ’90s, memory is confused between two worlds, their Egyptian home and their expatriate home. This experience is explored in an artistic framework in “Being Borrowed”, an exhibition hosted by the Contemporary Image Collective in Cairo in an interactive display organized by the “Anthropology in Arabic” initiative.

The exhibition, which opened on October 2 and continues until the end of the month, recalls the title of the famous film “Missing Person”, produced in 1984 by the late Egyptian director Muhammad Khan, which was inspired by the memories of generations associated with the atmosphere of migration between two worlds.

‘You Are Here Temporarily’

The exhibit seems far from the norm on either the topic or the visual display used by the participating artists. It creates a vision of the experience of migrating to work in the Gulf countries through personal belongings that carry memories of being abroad, such as handwritten letters, cassette tapes, photo albums and passports, all of which were used to communicate between people working abroad and their families in Egypt, years before modern means of communication emerged.

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“The exhibition is a collaborative project that creatively raises questions about the Egyptian migration to the Gulf experience, which is very underrepresented and understudied.”

Farah Halaba, founder of the “Anthropology in Arabic” initiative

The exhibition includes works by 15 artists who draw on their personal relationship with temporary migration to the Gulf, either through their own experience as children who accompanied their families there, or because they were influenced by the absence of a father working for a long time abroad.

Memory plays a big role in the artists’ works on the idea of “temporary life”. The design of the show helps to create that impression for the visitors too, with a sign that reads, “You are here temporarily.”

Luggage is one of the main items in the exhibition. In a project titled “A Carrier”, for example, the artist Aya Bandari uses an open travel bag to connote the migration experience. The bag is overflowing with fabrics imprinted with words that reflect her personal experience of traveling to the Gulf. Among these words: “travel,” “alienation,” “the Kaaba,” and “temporary.”

Underrepresented and Understudied

Farah Halaba, founder of the “Anthropology in Arabic” initiative, described the exhibition as “a collaborative project that creatively raises questions about the Egyptian migration to the Gulf experience, which is very underrepresented and understudied.”

In a statement to Al-Fanar Media, she said: “The project aims to provide an anthropological visual knowledge production on the experience of temporary migration.”

The exhibition grew out of a three-month workshop on the hopes and dreams of these temporary migrants from an anthropological and personal perspective. Participants interacted with many sources about the migration experience, including the writings of the Finnish researcher and sociologist Samuli Schielke about the dreams that motivated Egyptians to migrate to the Gulf for work, Halaba said.

The workshop participants first produced writings about how this temporary migration affected them and their memories. With the help of Farida Youssef, the exhibition’s artistic curator, their writings in turn evolved into the visual representations on view at the Contemporary Image Collective.

Hopes and dreams are the entry point through which the artists reflect on the concept of employment in the Gulf as temporary in nature, Halaba said. “We wanted the exhibition to be a temporal rather than a spatial experience. In our attempt to understand the temporal fabric of this migration, we discussed at length hopes, education, a culture of consumption and class mobility.”

In their research before preparing the exhibition, Halaba said, the participants watched dramas that dealt with Egyptian labor in the Gulf countries. They noticed that all of these dramatic models presented stereotyped views that typically linked the migration of a family member to the Gulf with family dysfunction, she said.

Different Ideas of ‘Home’

In a work titled “Deferred Homes”, the artist Lina el-Shamy reflects on the discrepancy between Egyptians’ homes in the Gulf and their homes back in Egypt. In the Gulf, their homes are more practical and “temporary” in character, stacked with cardboard boxes full of decorative items they hope to transport to their homes in Egypt when they return, even after unknown years.

Looking at these temporary homes and their furnishings, and comparing them to how their homes were furnished in Egypt, was a way to understand the dynamics of this temporary migration, Halaba said. She added: “It began with the question, ‘Where is the gilded salon in the Gulf?’”

“We did not intend the exhibition to address the nostalgic feelings of the spectator. Nostalgia is sometimes a narcotic, whereas we wanted to explore and critically question the immigration experience.”

Farida Youssef, curator of the exhibition

The gilded salon, filled with precious and over-decorated furniture, was the social facade of Egyptian homes in the late 20th century. It stands in contrast with the practical furniture in the homes of migrants in the Gulf. This contrast leads to a different understanding of the idea of ​​belonging to the home in the Gulf, as opposed to in the homeland, Halaba said.

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To increase the visual richness of the exhibition, the organisers called on people, via the Internet, to send pictures of their homes in the Gulf. The exhibition includes an archive of these photos with accompanying words from the participants and visitors, leaving their impressions about the years of expatriation.

Turning Words into Art

After the workshop’s writing phase ended and the participants’ thoughts about migration were documented, Youssef took on the task of developing these ideas for the artistic presentation stage.

In a statement to Fanar Media, she said her role as the exhibition’s artistic curator “was to take written ideas and help develop them for visual work. We were thinking with the participants about the spaces and processing the idea, so that each work could be seen independently, or could be connected to the works next to it, to create a visitor’s point of view closer to the journey.”

Youssef, who holds a master’s degree in art philosophy from University College London, said she aspired to build a different exhibition experience for every visitor, regardless of their identities, whether they had travelled to the Gulf, and whether they had previous experience with professional art shows or were viewing an interactive art show for the first time.

The organisers did not want it to turn into an exhibition about nostalgia as much as they wanted to raise questions and to reflect on ideas about temporary migration to the Gulf, through various artworks.

“We did not intend the exhibition to address the spectator’s feelings of nostalgia,” Youssef said. “Nostalgia is sometimes a narcotic, whereas we wanted to explore and critically question the immigration experience.”

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