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Schielke Samuli, Migrant Dreams. Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States

Marion Breteau
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Migrant Dreams. Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States, Schielke Samuli, American University of Cairo Press, 2020, 154 p.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Schielke, 2020, p. xiv.

1Migrant Dreams (2020) results from subsequent investigations on Egyptian male workers’ migrating to Qatar, by the very innovative angle of dreams and hope. Very short, the book is approximately 110 pages, divided into 15 chapters of not more than 10 pages each. This concise format is explained by the fact that it is the resumption of a previous book – hata yantahi al-nafṭ (“Until the End of Oil”) published in 2017, in which the author examines the political and economic dynamics of Egyptian migration to the Gulf from a rather Egyptian viewpoint. Migrant Dreams, in comparison to the previous publication, takes a different stance: instead of an umpteenth monograph on the Gulf monarchies, their social structure, and migration policies, Samuli Schielke offers a narrative that compiles more than ten years of follow-up – mainly in Egypt, a duration many fieldworkers certainly dream of seeing themselves accumulate. Indeed, the notion of dream that the book aims at discussing, parallels the ethnographer’s own experience in the first place, as S. Schielke notes from the beginning of the book concerning his idea of traveling in comparison to his interlocutors. The book’s objective is to capture “two productive tensions: the permanent condition of cyclical impermanence, with workers moving to and from the Gulf, and, second, the way migration opens up possibilities of social mobility while also creating its own pressures and conflicts”1. Noticeable from this extract, S. Schielke inscribes his reflection in the broad idea of “dream” by means of stylistic choices that orient his study at the crossroads of the field diary, anthropological reflections on globalization, and migration in the Gulf states.

  • 2 Schielke, 2020, p. xiv.

2The notion of dream and its relationship with migrancy are discussed in progressive layers of analysis, from the project of migrating to the desire to come back to Egypt. The preface introduces the Arabic word “ḥilm” (dream) to restitute the book’s argument, that is the importance of imagination and hope, but also how “real” life and its material constraints highly condition anyone’s dreams – which are not for free, as S. Schielke puts it2. The reflection is also set within the Arabic vocabulary on travel, exile, strangerhood, and migrancy to capture the specificities of these experiences that share a common feature of temporariness, or rather, the expectation of being temporary. The reader is then introduced to the story of his main informant Tawfiq, a well-educated man in his thirties, passionate about literature and deep conversations, who is compared to other migrants encountered to examine how they develop a strong sense of self-awareness of their experience.

  • 3 Ibid., p. 17.

3The book connects the notion of dream with the structuring of Qatar society, which is referred to as “hyperreal”, a form of living dream engendered by advanced modernity the migrants first perceive the Gulf states, and a state of living that rests on more than what actually exists. For Tawfiq, as well as the other migrants interviewed, this Gulfian lifestyle is rather lived by what the author understands as “hyporeality”, that is, living “a less-than-real life that provided less real income than they had imagined”3. This aspect is materialized by the low incomes Egyptian migrants earn, their long working hours, the precarious, collective dormitories they stay in, but also the expectations they build from a temporal perspective. By saving money, most migrants try to fulfill their dreams, which are future-oriented by definition – such as going back to Egypt to buy or build a house, get married and raise a family. However, when put all together, their incomes barely enable them to afford what is needed to survive in the present. These difficulties are then discussed in regard to the sense of solidarity migrants build together to live the present moment in more bearable conditions, hence developing communal understandings of their dreams.

4Dreaming is also about the migrants’ situation of waiting, which the author refers to as the idea of “nothingness” for those who do want to migrate but are not or cannot, and their relationship to money. Money is analyzed as the concrete form of the dream, a condition for its access and possibility to be accomplished, a non-permanent matter employed to achieve permanent ones. Money is needed, if not earned, to fulfill projects that aim to last, such as the founding step into manhood and a recognized social status in Egypt that is marriage. Although of opposite nature – one being imaginary, the other being material, money and dreams are related by a similar continuum not only by how they condition one another but also by their paradoxical nature: both are limitless, and both are framed by a social set of limits.

  • 4 Ibid., p. 83.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 87.

5The concrete aspects of the dream are framed by norms, moral and religious values on a larger scale, that of the Egyptian society. Indeed, migration made “Egypt economically and politically dependent on Gulf monarchies”4. It is regarded in the home country as a life aspiration that is nourished by representations associating the Gulf with a comfortable lifestyle, and by the development of mobility following Anwar al-Sadat’s abolishment of travel and currency restrictions in the 1970s. The author mentions how this particularity has impacted the Egyptian countryside’s economy, which highly relies on migrants’ earnings. However, not only has migration affected Egyptian economy, but also the very perception of the home country. These perceptions are highlighted by the significant number of middle-class Egyptians who have lived and/or have been raised in the Gulf. Migration has exposed them to a rather global perception of their culture and society, be it in terms of education, political views or lifestyle, while nourishing a perception of Egypt as their home country in-between intimacy and estrangement5.

  • 6 Ibid., p. 92.

6The national economic scale is then discussed through tensions in the perceptions of the Gulf states as materialistic and religious countries when addressed by the migrants. Their experiences can be informed by the economic and theological influence of Saudi Arabia in the rise of the Islamic revival in Egypt since the 1970. Egyptians’ religious practices have indeed experienced a substantial shift that is particularly evidenced by the resurgence of Egyptian Muslim brotherhood. This Islamic revival, when combined with economic liberalization, has had migration reconfigured by reinforcing a “patriarchal power whereby individual responsibility becomes more pronounced” while “calculative rationality becomes a more intuitive way to think about material and spiritual pursuits alike”6. A continuum is observed between the 2011 Egyptian Spring and migrants’ living conditions in the Gulf in regard to Islamic mysticism that grew up since then, in the sense that individuals, in both contexts, are in search of escape and/or acceptation of such critical situations. Although “beyond the visible world”, faith in that context participates in migrant dreams as it provides them with a sense of hope, comfort, and mental rest.

  • 7 Ibid., p. 106.
  • 8 Ibid.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 108.

7The last, conclusive chapters recall how understanding Egypt cannot go without addressing migration, which may be the case for many other countries in the world today. Comparing Finland, his country of origin, to Egypt, Schielke discusses similar patterns in the scope of migration on individuals, the states, and the world order: both have been sending migrants for a long time, which has impacted the restructuration of their economy, and more particularly the reconsideration of metropolitan centers and the countryside. In both cases, Schielke and his informant Tawfiq are confronted with a similar world “in which provincial locations no longer exist for themselves and instead exist in the shadow, or rather: the shine of metropolitan centers and the attraction they exert as places of opportunity”7. The space-time tension appears again since the more the world changes, “the more daunting and fantastic task is how to live a conservative life where one can trust that things and people remain in their anticipated places”8. Indeed, migration can be a lifetime aspiration and an economic endeavor. But when analyzed as part of the larger “social practice” of dreaming, one then must keep in mind the ubiquitous nature of imagination to better understand how it meets reality. Coming back to the semantic diversity of “dream” in the Arabic language and anthropological conceptualizations, Schielke recalls how it can be defined as the “desire to make something unreal real”9, that is, a bet on the future settled in a present that is subject to political and economic contingencies and transformations. In this regard, dreaming is a fundamental component of society, but also a requirement to see one’s projects take shape, even though they would never get concretized as expected.

8Although specialists in Gulf migration will find many echoes with their respective fields of research in the results presented, the book’s subtitle promises a reflection on “Egyptian workers in the Gulf states”. One would only regret that the Qatari context is only compared to reported discussions on experiences in other Gulf countries. On another note, the reader can only wonder what the Covid-19 pandemic that hit the world from 2020 to 2022 had induced to migrant life trajectories in the Gulf. The book, which was published in 2020, does not (or rather cannot) address this aspect. However, it is to be expected that such unrest makes the nothingness part of the dreams last, and is most likely to prolong feelings of frustration and fears of all kinds. Extended studies are much awaited to reflect on how a disease without borders in nationality-based state systems such as the Gulf countries, would reinforce one’s apprehension of migrancy, making dreams more probably urgent to be fulfilled when concerned by health issues and physical abilities. These migrants’ dreams, once all disillusionments evinced in environments now saturated with safety or health-related regulations, may certainly turn into nightmares.

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Schielke Samuli, Migrant Dreams. Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States, Cairo, American University of Cairo Press, 2020.

Schielke Samuli, hatta yantahi al-naft: al-hijra wa-l-ahlam fi dawahi al-Khalij [Until the End of Oil: Migration and Dreams in the Suburbs of the Gulf], translated by Amr Khairy, Cairo, al-Sefsafa, 2017.

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1 Schielke, 2020, p. xiv.

2 Schielke, 2020, p. xiv.

3 Ibid., p. 17.

4 Ibid., p. 83.

5 Ibid., p. 87.

6 Ibid., p. 92.

7 Ibid., p. 106.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid., p. 108.

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Marion Breteau, « Schielke Samuli, Migrant Dreams. Egyptian Workers in the Gulf States », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 16 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 02 octobre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Marion Breteau

American University of Kuwait, CEFREPA Kuwait, marionbreteau[at]

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