> Departure: Gezira State, Sudan
> Arrival: Aswan, Egypt
> Distance: 990km
Egypt is a place of transit for many young Sudanese on their way to Libya or other countries in the Gulf,” says Hassan Hamdan, the oldest vendor in the so-called Sudanese Street in Aswan. “But some lose their way in Egypt and stay until the end of their lives.”
Hamdan is among those who lost their way. He arrived in Aswan from Sudan’s Gezira region some 30 years ago, en route to one of the Gulf nations. Back then, in the mid-80s, Egypt’s economy was as robust as those in the Gulf region thanks to an economic boom in the commerce and tourism sectors. Many Sudanese merchants established themselves in Aswan, particularly in Hamimi Al-Jebelawi Street, which was nicknamed the Sudanese Street.
We worked hard selling watches, sunglasses, shoes, and Sudanese agricultural products and we made big profits. The free trade agreement between Egypt and Sudan allowed us to enter Egypt on our personal ID documents without requiring a visa,” he says.
Hamdan is one of an estimated five or six thousand Sudanese living in Aswan. Most newcomers sell Sudanese products, perfumes, or household supplies. Others work as mechanics, metalworkers, or carpenters. They have their own consulate to deal with issues like travelling via the High Dam docks or the Qastal-Ashket border crossing, saving them having to make the costly journey to Cairo.
But the numbers of Sudanese in Aswan have risen and fallen in tandem with the fortunes of the city. Hamdan describes how the community shrank following the Gulf War in the 1990s: “Then things began to change for the worse: Young Egyptians began returning from the Gulf in large numbers to join the long lines of unemployed. Tourism to Aswan dropped in the tense security situation.”
Around this time Egyptian-Sudanese relations also soured after accusations that some Sudanese had been involved in an assassination attempt on former President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa. Restrictions on Sudanese tightened and newcomers required visas rather than just ID documents. Only long-term Sudanese residents of Aswan, such as Hamdan, were exempt from the new laws.
Hamdan married an Egyptian woman in 1988, typical of many Sudanese merchants whose inter-cultural relationships reflected parallels in customs and traditions between the two Nilotic nations. The children of Sudanese nationals living in Egypt were treated as Egyptian citizens, particularly when it came to access to education and healthcare. Those with Egyptian mothers could also obtain Egyptian citizenship.
Hamdan predicts that the numbers of Sudanese immigrants will continue to rise because of the recently-opened Qastal-Ashket road linking Egypt and Sudan. The road eases a journey that once involved a twenty-hour ferry crossing of Lake Nasser.
With ferries leaving once a week, Sudanese typically had to wait in hotels for their boat to leave, exhausting their financial resources. The new road, on the other hand, is open 24 hours a day and journeys between Wadi Halfa and Aswan take only six hours.
Hamdan has mixed emotions about his thirty years in Aswan, saying that if he had his time again, he would “take advantage of every opportunity. I wasted opportunities, so deep down I feel my time in Aswan has been a failure”, he surmised. “If I was to go back in time I’d do the same again. I’d still leave my birthplace in Sudan and come to Egypt.”