Ali Maher: "In Chicago there was all this cold and snow. I started asking people, 'Where is there sun?'"
'Not everyone who comes to this country comes for economic reasons. Money. I hate money. I don't even like to talk about money. I don't think Americans understand that. There are many things more important than money, like being able to open your mouth and express a political opinion you might have. I'm not talking about being a political activist or even joining a political party. I'm talking about being able to open your mouth and express a political opinion without looking over your shoulder, without having to worry. Something that simple is worth more than money."
Ali Maher is a slim 39-year-old man with bright dark eyes. He gestures a lot when he speaks. It's a kind of Middle Eastern sign language that illustrates points, emphasizes statements. He has been in the United States only five years, but his American accent is almost perfect, except for when he rolls his r's, which happens when he gets excited.
"I've always been very independent minded, and I've always had a bad temper when I saw injustice -- social injustice, political injustice. I hate bullies. Here in America when I read about gang members and how they bully people, that makes me very angry. And I hate it when the government uses its power to intimidate people. So this way of thinking doesn't make your life easy in Egypt. The government is very authoritarian. It's not a democracy. And if you stand up and complain, to question things, the government will find some way to get back at you.
"From the time I was a young boy I knew I wanted to come to America. You can blame it on the 'cultural invasion of the United States,' which is something other countries always complain about. To me, the cultural invasion was wonderful. It first started with cowboys. You know, John Wayne. And you got an idea from these movies of a certain kind of freedom, and you couldn't forget it. Then, as I got older, there was the music. Elvis Presley. I listened to Elvis Presley in Egypt, in Cairo. And that music, too -- I know it sounds funny to talk about Elvis Presley this way -- gave me an idea of a certain kind of freedom. It's being able to express yourself, however you want. So, growing up, I had this idea of American freedom in my mind. It always stayed there. I wanted to have it.
"So, I finished my studies and went to college and got my degree in business. In my family I am the only son. I have five sisters. In Middle Eastern culture you have things that are expected of you; there are rules for your life. After I finished my studies I went to work for my father, as everyone expected me to do. He owns a small hotel. It's not a five-star hotel for foreign tourists. It's a hotel for Egyptians. For five years I worked for my dad. We had many arguments, political arguments. He'd always say, 'Don't say those things. You can't say those things.' He's very conservative and would never think of criticizing the government. This is very frustrating for a young person because you look around at your society, at your government, and you see so many things that are wrong, and how can you hope of ever changing anything if you can't even talk about the problems? So that was going to be my life. I was going to have to keep quiet. Work at my father's hotel. When my father died, I would have to become my father. I would take over his business and take care of my mother and my five sisters. That was going to be my life. No choices. The dream of going to America always danced in front of me.
"I knew I had to leave. I had a friend at that time who had some influence there in Cairo, and he got me a visa to Sweden. Sweden was the best I could do. But I thought, Well, Sweden is a little closer to America than Egypt. So I went. I ended up in Lilue, a small town in northern Sweden. I worked at a pizza shop owned by an Iranian. I was making pizza in northern Sweden. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe how cold it was. In the wintertime there was only three hours of sunlight. The sun came up at around eleven and by two it was gone. And the Swedish people, too, were cold. Very polite. Very helpful. But emotionally cold. And I guess that when they are racists they are very polite racists. Silent racists. You know, they are blonde. Not just blonde, but very blonde. And when you're dark like me, and you walk around a Swedish town, you feel out of place. It's not like America where there are people from everywhere, people of different colors. There in Sweden, I felt like a little dark speck on a field of white, white snow.
"I had an Egyptian friend in Sweden whose brother lived in Chicago, and he said if you can go to Chicago, you can stay with my brother. I got a visa to America and went to Chicago. It was wonderful finally to be in America, but again in Chicago there was all this cold and snow. I started asking people, 'Where is there sun? Where should I go?' They said I should go to California. I remembered I had a friend in high school who went to America in 1979. I started calling around. Calling Egypt to get his phone number. I found him. He was in San Diego, and he owned a liquor store. That's the way it works with immigrants, you see. You have friends. Your friends have friends or relatives. You call. You make connections. I came to San Diego and I started to work. I worked at gas stations. For two years that's all I did. Jumping from gas station to gas station. Working. Always working.
"After a while I got a job working as a cashier at a shoe store in Clairemont, which was a better job. But I started thinking, How am I going to better myself if I'm working all the time like this? I need to study. I need a more flexible schedule. So, you know, you're an immigrant and you meet other immigrants; you make friends. I knew these Somalis who drove taxis, and they said I should try it. They said if you work hard, you can make good money. You make your own schedule. You can go to school. For three months, I've been driving a cab. I live with a friend in a very, very small house in Lemon Grove. I pay $300 a month, sometimes more with utilities. But it's very small. I need to find a good apartment. It's hard. It's difficult. The rents in San Diego are so high and they keep going up. I don't know what I'm going to do. Some friends say things are cheaper in Texas.
"My parents think I'm gone with the wind, part of the lost generation. When I get depressed, I call them. They tell me I can come back whenever I want. I can work for my father. I'm the only member of my entire family to leave Egypt. They don't understand. I don't think Egypt will ever change. We say, 'You can guard a thousand sheep with just one dog.' It's not difficult for an entire government to control a nation.
"So, now I have this freedom that I dreamed about, and I have to decide what to do with it. Everybody has this dream to improve his life. When you finally get the chance, you have all these questions you never had before. I'm free. I can do what I want. But do I have the potential to do what I want? Sometimes I feel like I'm in this crowd, but I don't know how to get out of this crowd. I'm free. I'm lost."