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Egyptian Men Seek Fortunes Abroad

July 17, 1999

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ They can be found on every street of every Egyptian city, village and hamlet _ young men dreaming of a new life in the prosperous West.

For Reda Abdel-Rahman, a 29-year-old mechanic, the dream is embodied in a postcard of a frolicsome California beach scene sent by his brother six years ago. The colors are faded, the edges frayed, but the dream it represents is still as sharp as the picture was the day he got it.

``I can almost smell the opportunity,″ Abdel-Rahman says. ``There’s more there, I know it. In America, there is hope.″

Much like that postcard, billboards for cellular phones and cars posted around Cairo promote the Western lifestyle. The billboards, hoisted above the streets out of reach of pedestrians, are an ironic metaphor for a life inaccessible to most of Egypt’s 62 million citizens.

Frustrated with the lack of good jobs despite ambitious economic reforms begun in 1991, young men are seeking routes to opportunities abroad.

Although some find the reality of life away from family and familiar values is far harsher than their idealized dreams, that doesn’t stop others from leaving to join the 2.2 million Egyptians the government estimates are living abroad.

Like Abdel-Rahman, many lack the money needed for marriage and, as such, are free of responsibilities. Young women in this conservative society have much less chance of traveling abroad.

It is barely 7 a.m. _ an hour before consular offices open _ but the line outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo is already 50 strong and growing. Abdel-Rahman’s palms are damp as he clutches a packet of documents testifying to his name and worth.

For Abdel-Rahman, the decision to emigrate was simple. His monthly salary after six years of fixing cars is 200 Egyptian pounds, or not quite $60.

He dropped out of school to go to work after completing his primary education because ``the family needed money _ cash _ which a university education couldn’t promise 10 years down the line.″

``At this rate, I’ll sooner have a pyramid built for me than save enough to buy an apartment and get married,″ he says. ``It’s hopeless. I have to leave.″

The hope is in the postcard his brother, Yasser, sent shortly after reaching California in July 1993.

``Of course, I miss the family. But I’m working, thank God, making good money. I finally feel that I will have an opportunity to succeed,″ wrote Yasser, who has been working as a gas station attendant in Los Angeles trying to save enough money to start his own business.

Kamal Hazem, too, is plotting a new course.

Over a buffet breakfast at a luxury hotel overlooking the Nile, Hazem, a graduate of Cairo University’s Faculty of Arts, unveils his one-point plan for success in America: ``I’m going to go on a tourist visa and disappear.″

Like many of the roughly half million young people who graduate from Egyptian universities every year, Hazem was unable to find work in his field, development, after leaving college in 1992. Instead, he was offered jobs as a salesman for a magazine, a waiter and a hotel receptionist. The salaries were all too low.

He finally took a job teaching English at a university. Then he added classes at another school, and then a job writing for a magazine _ bringing him a total monthly pay of $350, well above Egypt’s average of just over $90.

``I needed money. Now, I need a break. I can’t keep this up indefinitely,″ Hazem says.

``It’s not that I’m so enchanted by the West. I’m disenchanted with life in Egypt,″ he adds, looking out the window at a city in the hectic throes of a morning traffic jam. ``Here, you feel that you’re repressed socially, financially and emotionally; constantly denied fulfillment.″

In the street below, Samir Rizkallah reaches a fist through another car window and lets out a primal scream and a stream of obscenities at a driver who cut him off. ``Watch out, you donkey!″

Fourteen hours a day, Rizkallah guides his 1980 Peugeot taxi through a turbulent river of automobiles. Dented Fiats from the ’70s, held together by a prayer and a layer of dirt, jostle for space alongside Mercedes E-class sedans, which retail for upwards of $150,000 in Egypt.

After graduating with a degree in agricultural engineering 12 years ago, Rizkallah started driving a taxi. He thought it would be only temporary _ the government guarantees every Egyptian university graduate a civil service job, but waits can be long.

For Rizkallah, an opening in the Agriculture Ministry came four years after graduation. But the salary was less than the $170 he makes each month as a driver.

``Every day, I curse the drivers around me. Then, at night, when I get home, I curse myself,″ he says.

First chance he gets, Rizkallah is headed for New York to join his cousin Mamdouh.

``Even driving a cab there is better than this,″ he says, swerving and blasting the horn as a young man darts into the street. ``I wonder how hard it is to get a license there.″

Amr Karim isn’t interested in a license.

Karim is an unlicensed tour guide, or ``khartiya,″ and much more. Need some drugs, a woman, a friend? Amr’s your man.

What he needs is a wife, and he says Egyptian women need not apply.

Leaning against the wall of a travel office, Karim explains his game. He targets young, unattached foreign women and tries to befriend them in hopes a relationship will blossom and lead to marriage and, in turn, a permanent honeymoon abroad.

Rejection is the norm. But faced with few options and a desire to get away ``from a lousy life in Egypt,″ Karim is willing to endure the brushoffs.

Squinting into the afternoon sun, he spots a young brunette walking down the street.

``Excuse me! Excuse me!″ he says. ``Where are you from? Italy! I’ve always wanted to go to Italy!″

Walking away with the young woman, he’s beaming, all charm. But the woman breaks free and turns the corner. Fifteen minutes later, another potential ticket out of Egypt appears.

``Excuse me! Excuse me! Where are you from? Germany! I’ve always wanted to go to Germany.″

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