Man between worlds

photo: View of Cairo / SAVANNAH TRIFIRO

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MAGDY MOHAMED SITS ALONE IN HIS RESTAURANT at a table for four. The lighting is dim, aside from brightly colored flashes coming from a television nearby playing Middle Eastern pop music videos and a game of Solitaire enlarged on Mohamed’s computer screen. Piles of paperwork scatter the table. Clad in a gray button-up shirt and blue jeans, he hunches his tall burly frame over the small table in solitude.

A WALL DIVIDES MAGDY from the rest of the restaurant, El Egipcio, located on Calle Trajano, 49 en Seville, Spain where customers are eating and chatting. Servers dressed in black walk back and forth between the tables and the kitchen, which is separated from the dining area by a countertop that opens as they pass.

The restaurant offers a wide array of Middle Eastern food, its standing menu by the storefront boasts their selection of kebab pizzas, hummus, and falafel.

MAGDY MOHAMED, WHO WAS BORN IN EGYPT, doesn’t often talk to the customers. He has lived in Spain for the past three and a half years, but does not speak Spanish—at least “not enough,” he admits. He speaks in Arabic to the staff, composed of one Syrian and four Moroccans, who then address the customers in Spanish. Only when the servers come across English-speaking customers, does Mohamed emerge from his nook and hurry over to their table. He smiles warmly and asks them how they like the food. His quiet friendliness is radiant and affecting.

“CONSIDER THIS YOUR RESTAURANT NOW, not mine,” he tells me when I called to meet with him. “Come whenever,” he says. “I’m always here.” Mohamed comes into the restaurant at 3 p.m. and stays until close at 2 a.m. At the restaurant he has his staff, his friends, and his customers. At home, he is alone. The rest of Mohamed’s family, aside from one cousin, lives in Cairo.

MOHAMED SPENT THE FIRST TWENTY-NINE YEARS of his life in Cairo, where he worked for his family business in metals. One of their products, an ornate metallic hookah, a Middle Eastern smoking waterpipe, sits in the corner of Mohamed’s restaurant. The business exports internationally, which allowed Mohamed to continue to work for them and pursue the American dream. He was not married at the time, but he left behind his mother, father, sister, and five brothers who wished him good luck.

“OF COURSE THEY WERE…NOT MAD, but they were going to feel like they lost someone,” he remembers. MOHAMED PROMISED HIS MOTHER he would come back after one year. He kept his promise and returned to Cairo for a two-month vacation, then went back to New Jersey, where he lived and worked for the next 23 years.

MOHAMED STILL REFERS TO THE UNITED STATES as his second home, but eventually he grew tired of the stressful lifestyle. “I became an old man. The money’s better there, in the United States, but life is better here,” says the now 56-year old Mohamed.

THE SEVILLE RESTAURANT was owned by his cousin while Mohamed was working in the United States, and it sold the family business’ hookahs as well as serving food. Mohamed often stopped at the restaurant in between visits from Egypt to the United States to see how it was doing. “I found that we had some problems between him and the other two partners in the restaurant.

So I came in between, I solved the problem, I take over. That was three and a half years ago,” he explains. He taught his cooks a few Egyptian dishes that they added to their repertoire of Syrian and Moroccan foods. “So that’s how I came here, and I’m doing okay. Not bad, not great. I enjoy life here more than America.”

ALTHOUGH IT IS AN ENJOYABLE LIFE IN SEVILLE, it is also a lonely one. Mohamed lives alone. His wife and three daughters, ages 11, 16, and 18, remain in Cairo. Mohamed calls his family every day and visits them about every two and a half months. Every summer they all go to the United States for vacation. “To live by yourself is very lonely,” he says. “But, in French, c’est la vie.” That’s life.

MANY EGYPTIANS who were previously resolute in remaining in their country have chosen to emigrate. Mohamed’s family has chosen to stay there. “I don’t think anybody, even if they live in America, or Australia, or Japan is happy with life. Nobody is happy with life. You always look for a dream.” he says.

MOHAMED’S OLDEST DAUGHTER is studying business administration at the International University in Cairo. He has high hopes for her and his other two daughters. He laughs about how his youngest is about to hit her teenage years, and what

a headache that is for a father. His smile fades as he adds, “These days with what’s going on in Egypt, you have to have like sixteen eyes to look after your kids. It’s unsafe now.”


Egypt erupted in protest. Mohamed was in the United States at the time, but returned to Cairo to be with his family.

MOHAMED KNEW IT WAS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME before revolt broke out. “The poor people were getting poorer and poorer every day. We had a middle class before. It disappeared. I could see some people didn’t have enough to eat or enough to do, so I

could see it coming… but the people in Mubarak’s regime were blind enough not to see that.”

“THE REVOLUTION came with all the good things and bad things in the Egyptian people. We stick together through all the problems we faced there, but at the same time, a lot of bad things came out,” he recalls. Mohomaed fiercely believes that religion and government should remain separate. “Religion is something fixed,” he says. “Islam is innocent.”

MOHAMED SAW NO DIFFERENCE in the reign of Morsi from the reign of Mubarak. Mohamed explains that Morsi came to power, and immediately tried to impart drastic change. “We had been through the old regime for sixty years, and it was very deep in the society. [Morsi] was trying to exchange the old regime with his regime, not taking the people into consideration.”

ON THE CURRENT MILITARY-BACKED INTERIM GOVERNMENT, Mohamed says, “We trust our military very much.” Without it, he says, there would be civil war All of Egypt is divided. 30 percent is on the Muslim Brotherhood side; 70 percent is on the other side.”

WHILE IT IS DIFFICULT TO SEE A RESOLUTION in the near future for Egypt, Mohamed hopes for the best. He says of the Egypt, “They are a very friendly people. You can trust them very much. And they deserve better.”

MOHAMED HAS DREAMS as well for America, his second home. He dreams for America “to recover, to know what fair is.”

“FOR MYSELF?” he asks. “I think I did my part. For my kids, my dream for them is to be safe. I don’t think anyone knows what safe is. You don’t have this safe feeling anymore as before. Before in America, the people didn’t lock the door. Now everybody locks the door.”

“WHAT’S THE OPPOSITE OF OPTIMISTIC?” he wonders aloud as his English briefly fails him. And while Mohamed is pessimistic, he is not uneasy. “I have hope for the future for myself, but I don’t have hope for the future for the whole world. But I’m a Muslim. Before I go to sleep I say, ‘O.K. God, I did my best, forgive me if I did wrong. And I sleep. I always trust in God. What will happen will happen. I’m not worried.”