Samuli Schielke – Age and Generation

The Search for a Normal Life

Dozent Dr. Samuli Schielke

At the heart of this project is a central paradox of the age of globalisation: the possibility of a stable, normal life at home relies on destabilising processes of growth, expansion, and mobility.

Rural-urban and international migrations in and from the Global South are often socially conservative projects: strivings to actualize conventional ways and ideas of a good life. They are grounded in the imagination and practice of what in Arabic is widely referred to as ‘a normal life’ (hayah 'adiya), ‘a life worthy of humans’ (hayat bani adamin), or ‘stability’ (istiqrar). Generational continuity and reproduction are central to such dreams of a normal life.

This project follows trajectories of men from a rural region in northern Egypt that will become uninhabitable by the end of the 21st century due to climate change. The research accompanies them along a trans-local migratory network stretching to Egyptian cities, western Europe, and Arab Gulf states where they work to build the means of a normal, settled adulthood at home. Becoming an adult man in Egypt is a path of largely pre-determined steps such as financial independence, housing, marriage, offspring, and their education. This is the prime nexus of social reproduction, and at the same time also the context where generational shifts and transformations are likely to occur.

The first phase of the project, which is funded by Fritz Thyssen Foundation from 2020 to 2022, took as its starting point migrants’ efforts to build houses in their regions of origin. These houses unite strivings for moral and material comfort, upward social mobility, and rootedness in local communities. And yet the builders of these houses often only live in them during vacations. They dwell and raise their children in cities that gradually may become their homes as well. In the process, their dream of a good, normal life at home appears to be unsettled by the virtue of its own success.

Fieldwork for the project has so far taken place in Egypt, Italy and Dubai, and has been overshadowed by restrictive policies against informal construction in Egypt, and the Covid-19 pandemic. Initial findings locate house-building in a wider complex of patriarchal care, such as cash to provide daily needs and children’s education, or phone calls and gifts to maintain emotional and moral connectedness; they also call for closer attention to ways of dwelling abroad (such as shared accommodations and partitions) that are defined as opposite of home; Last but not least, the initial findings of the project draw attention to the co-constitutive relationship of dwelling abroad and building at home, whereby different norms and ways of life are located at different ends of a migration axis, and the contradictions of growth and mobility as means of stability are concealed or naturalised rather than solved.


  • Photo 1: The dream of stability. Ajman, 2021.
  • Photo 2: Departure of a migrant couple for the UAE, with half-built houses mirrored in the minibus window. Northern Nile Delta region, Egypt, 2014.
  • Photo 3: Men gather in a migrant accommodation to watch a football match with Egypt playing. Dubai, 2022.
  • Photo 4: Texting home. Dubai, 2022.

Publications

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