By Alveena Salim
The prospect of living in the UK is an unattainable dream for many; we are one of the world’s biggest economies, we have people around the world risking their lives to smuggle into our country, people conducting ‘sham marriages’ in order to get a red passport.
Some people will literally do anything in order to live in a place many think is a much more comfortable way of life – heck, even my dad thought that the roads would be paved out of gold when he first arrived in the UK!
This is ironic, because according to the European Quality of Life Index from uswitch.com, Britain is the worst place to live in Europe! The Office for National Statistics tells us that we have 200,000 British citizens a year leaving UK! In fact, 1.1 million highly skilled Britons – more than one in ten of the total – are now living overseas (1). Considering so many people are leaving every year, I guess the UK isn’t as fabulous as people make it out to be.
Why I left the UK
The weather, recession, painful commute to work and long working hours made me consider living abroad. I needed a break, so I decided to work and live in Egypt for a year. I was initially extremely apprehensive about living away from home. I wasn’t sure if I was making the right decision in leaving a country that has a system, where everything works, a country where people have rights. However, pushing any niggling doubts to the back of my mind, I made the decision last summer to move to Egypt. Fortunately, as a UK citizen with a British Education, I was given privileges that I would never have got in the UK. My flights, health insurance, visa was all paid for. As well as receiving a tax free salary, I received a very nice fully furnished two bedroom accommodation. I also received free transportation to and from the school I was working at! In the UK, my teacher’s salary doesn’t even cover the costs of basic necessities!
Life in Egypt
I settled in Egypt very quickly. I loved the warm weather, relaxed attitude towards work and life in general. I also loved being able to hear the call to prayer five times a day. I loved the communal feel I felt during Eid and Ramadan. I also blended in far better as a Hijabi and felt that people were very friendly and relaxed compared to the busy people that one encounters in London.
I quickly realised that Egypt has such diversity of culture and history surrounding you all the time with restaurants of every type and nationality, people of every kind. This is a thousand year old city that has seen everything. For the first few months I was a tourist; I visited the shrine of Imam Hussain (ra) in Cairo. I was blown away by the Citidel that was built by Salahudin Ayoubi. I was humbled when I went to see the Mountain (Jabal Musa) where God spoke directly to Hadrat Musa.
However, one thing I wasn’t prepared for is how I would be perceived by the ‘upper class’ Egyptians living in Egypt. Ironically, I encountered more racism here than I ever did in the UK. It didn’t take me long to realise that Egyptis heavily influenced by westernisation. It took a long time to convince parents in the school that I was working at that I was indeed British and held a UK qualification. Initially, I had kids taken out of my class and put in the classes of teachers who were more ‘British looking’ than I was – it didn’t matter that they weren’t qualified. I had an interesting conversation with an Egyptian parent who called me a ‘liar’ when I told her that I was indeed British. (Perhaps, wrapping the Union Jack around my head might have convinced her of my nationality?). It took a good few months for the parents of the children that I was teaching to be convinced that after paying an extortionate amount of money for a British Education, they were indeed getting a British teacher.
More Muslims, less Islam.
Before I came to Egypt, I believed that I’d become closer to my faith by living in an Islamic country. I thought that it would be easier to pray, fast and cover. However, the rich Egyptians are generally more likely to look down at those who strive to take their religion seriously, the upper class society are more likely to perceive the ‘hijaabi’ as uneducated and common. They are more likely to refuse employment to a guy who has a sunnah beard (my husband has been questioned in job interviews about his beard and stopped in airports – this never happened in the UK!). In Egypt ‘packaging’ is everything.
Ironically, I feel that I was a better Muslim in the UK. I struggle to cover here because the rich, upper class are less likely to cover and more likely to look down at those who do. In London, you will find many teacher, doctors, lawyers and accountants covering. This wasn’t so much the case here. Here, the rich, upper class are less likely to cover and more likely to look down at those who do. I initially loved the fact that, the working day during Ramadan is half day, however I also quickly learnt that, people here are more likely to over indulge in sleeping and eating (my boss told me that more road accidents and heart attacks take place during the month of Ramadan!). That’s why this year I didn’t feel the spiritual struggle that I was accustomed to in the UK. I also find that, being honest, modest and fair doesn’t give you any brownie points. One is more likely to be messed about if they don’t fight for their rights. You have to jump through a lot of red tape here just to sort out basic things.
Life in the UK vs Life abroad.
There are loads of things I love about living abroad and there are loads of things I dislike. I feel very strongly against the rich cutting corners and getting ahead in life simply because of their connections. I have a problem with the segregation of social classes here, which isn’t so apparent in the UK. The rich attend better schools and hospitals to the poorer folks. Our public education can still produce straight A student. However here, children who attend public schools get smacked for any disobedience and are unlikely to make decent grades, because teachers who teach in public schools are not qualified themselves. The rich can jump queues and get ahead just because of who they are (my colleague was offered a Maserati for ensuring that a certain student makes the grades, by any means possible).
Yeah the quality of life here is much better. Cheap halaal fast food – burger king and a McChicken helped me put on a couple of pounds, my friends have people who clean their house every week for a couple of pounds and the weather is always pleasant. Everything, including your laundry and ironing is collected and delivered to your door. It’s even part of the service to have your shopping dropped to your door. However, it’s very easy to become spoilt, lazy and arrogant when living in such a lifestyle.
The grass is always greener on the other side. But in my opinion, no city in the world is not without its problems. For example, here it may be easier for me to fast in Ramadan (working hours are half day). However, the hijab and beard is not totally accepted by the more affluent members of society. Money goes a long way in Cairo, however, the general healthcare and education system is unfair and very poor.
I don’t believe that it is easier to raise children in an Islamic county. Children being raised in an Islamic country also encounter religious struggles; however they may be different in nature. For e.g it is very easy to avoid alcohol inCairobecause it is not as readily acceptable. However,Cairois more relaxed about free mixing and influenced by westernization (and bollywood!) so there are more opportunities for premarital relationships to take place.
What have I learnt?
I have definitely gained so much here. I have enjoyed living in a country that is more safe and relaxed than my own. I have no problems travelling in the underground at any hour as I am very unlikely to encounter a drunken group of yobs on a Friday night. I feel safe enough to go for a walk after 10pm by myself, asCairohas the lowest crime rates in the world.
I have grown as a person, changed my view of the world and Muslims in general. I have interacted with new and interesting people and more importantly, I have learned more about myself as a person. However, I don’t believe that one needs to leave theUKin order to strengthen or save their Iman (faith). Plus, one is more likely to appreciate and strengthen ones Iman through the spiritual struggles that are often encountered in non Muslim countries.
Whilst there are more opportunities to further ones knowledge in Islam (my husband is now fluent in classical Arabic). I believe that opportunities are also present in the UK providing that one is dedicated and sincere in his pursuit of knowledge.
I honestly don’t know where I would prefer to live indefinitely. We’re coming towards the end of our year in Egypt and we still haven’t decided if we should stay in Cairo, move to Oman or Jeddah or return home to the UK! But one thing I do know is, Iman (belief) lives in the heart, you take it wherever you go.