Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 12 July 2020

In coronavirus limbo: hopes of return from Dubai resident's very long visit home

When he visited for a holiday on March 2, Ali Ibrahim never anticipated he would still be at his parent's house more than two months later

Ali Ibrahim was buzzing with excitement when he flew back to his native Egypt from Dubai on March 2 for his first home leave since he moved to the United Arab Emirates three years ago.

The date of his return flight to Dubai was March 29, but he is still waiting to leave, stranded by the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down commercial air travel and triggered a raft of closures in both Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Mr Ibrahim, a 30-year-old business graduate who works for a Dubai-based online car dealership, is staying with his parents in the family home in Cairo. He says he is struggling to stay busy with a nighttime curfew in place since March and the indefinite closure of places he had dreamt of visiting with childhood friends or with his parents during his well-deserved vacation. Cafes, restaurants, cinemas, theatres, gyms, sports clubs and beaches are all closed due to the pandemic.

His frustration was compounded by fits of anxiety over the possibility that he could lose his job and the good life he left behind in glitzy Dubai if air travel does not resume soon.

It's a bad time to be in Cairo given the limitations dictated by the coronavirus outbreak.

Or maybe it was a bad time to be anywhere with the deadly pandemic stalking the human race virtually everywhere across the globe.

"I am kind of fortunate in some ways to escape the period of a complete lockdown in Dubai," Mr Ibrahim said. Between April 4 and April 24, residents of Dubai had to apply for an electronic permit to leave the house and even though the system has been removed restrictions on movement still apply.

"It would have been tough for me in Dubai. At least here, I am getting to spend a lot of time with my parents and family after being away for three years. I also get to see all my old friends. But there's very little to do. I had planned to take my parents to the beach for a few days and have fun trips with my friends, but I ended up just killing time."

The coronavirus outbreak spread in Egypt shortly after Mr Ibrahim's arrival on March 2, with Cairo and its twin city of Giza taking the lion's share of the 18,000-plus infections registered to date, according to official figures.

Coronavirus around the Middle East

Ominously, the number of daily infections has been steadily rising, with new record highs registered on six consecutive days ending Friday, suggesting that the pandemic has yet to peak in Egypt and that the worst was yet to come. This, in turn, means that Mr Ibrahim could be stuck in Cairo for a while yet, compounding his fears about losing his job.

Already, Mr Ibrahim's salary was reduced by 20 per cent in April and 60 per cent in May, a hit he was happy to endure to keep his job. "It's a small sacrifice to make if it means that when I eventually return my job will still be there," he explained, citing the little business the car dealership has done since the outbreak of the coronavirus in the UAE.

Mr Ibrahim has had his car dealership job for 18 months. It was the third job he has held since moving to Dubai and it's one that he desperately wants to hold on to.

"I am anxious to return at the earliest opportunity," he said. "I went online and filled up a government form for expatriates with valid UAE residences who wish to return only to find out at the end that I needed to have an airline ticket with a specific date for my form to be successfully submitted.

"But EgyptAir does not even have a date for the resumption of flights. I am closely watching the situation."

Still, Mr Ibrahim, the youngest of three siblings, is not the only one in Egypt whose life has been upended by the pandemic and its life-changing knock-on effects. And although the limbo he's caught in pales in comparison to those who have fallen victim to Covid-19, it has been compounded by his circumstance.

His longer-than-expected sojourn in today's Cairo has been nothing like he had expected three years after he left the massive city for the UAE in January 2017. He wanted to savour again that carefree lifestyle of a 20-something single man while on home leave, but the pandemic made sure he's denied the experience.

Mosques, for example, have been indefinitely closed since March, preventing Muslims like Mr Ibrahim the chance to practice the traditional rituals that define life during the month of Ramadan, a time when many seek to come closer to God through prayer and compassion for the less fortunate.

"Ramadan this time round is nothing like how I remember it to be," he lamented. "Regardless of the curfew, there is just nothing open and nowhere to go. Beside PlayStation, we kill time loitering on side streets way from the eyes of the police during curfew or cruising in a car off the main roads and bridges where the police are deployed."

Even the sunrise prayer that celebrates Eid Al Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan and which began on Sunday, was not held in mosques this time round, with the faithful advised by the country's top theologian to hold the prayer at home with their families.

"A few times, I got together with my friends to secretly perform the Taraweeh prayers," Mr Ibrahim said, referring to the late-night prayers during Ramadan that's among the key rituals of the holy month.

"I wanted to continue doing it to please God, but I could not keep it up for more than four, maybe five nights. I got lazy."

Updated: May 27, 2020 07:34 AM

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