When Your Work Abroad Dreams Don't Go to Plan

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Why I've returned home ahead of schedule.

A couple of months ago, I announced my return to Egypt to restart my life there and follow my passion—belly dancing—after what had been, in all honesty, a difficult year. I’d spent most 2022 in the UK, recovering in hospital from endometriosis surgery and assault.

I flew to Egypt on 17th January. I flew back to the UK on 17th March. What happened?

Well, to start with, I originally moved to Egypt in September 2019. That’s nearly four years ago. I’ve massively grown and changed as a person in that time.

I’m not the only thing that’s changed. Over the last few years, the entire world has gone through seismic shifts. The UK has a housing and employment crisis. Wages have not matched inflation for years. But in Egypt, some of these changes have been devastating. The Egyptian pound has gone through a devastating devaluation due to the government borrowing loans from the IMF to fund the constant building across Egypt. The cost of food is rising exponentially. People are dying because they cannot afford to eat.

I don’t care what influencers say: It’s a terrible time to change careers or start a business. And if it isn’t, you’re incredibly privileged.

When I arrived back in Egypt in January, I had a new, fairly compensated, online teaching job, and I really enjoyed it. I’ve always loved working with students and I got to work from home. However, due to online teachers being recruited and “managed” through external agencies, I was told I could not work remotely outside of the UK. I was dismissed and without a job in the space of hours. But, no one told me. I was CC’d into an email from the agency to management and from this I learnt of my dismissal. (A similar, well-publicized case happened last year, and after much pressure and protest from the phenomenal TEFL union, the teacher in question won. The exploitation in the TEFL industry runs deep and has prompted me to become much more involved in the union now I’m back in the UK.)

But at the time, I saw the dismissal as an opportunity to follow my passion. When I was a teenager, I used to draw and paint belly dancers. In the days of dial-up Internet, I spent hours on the website Shira, a goldmine of belly dance content, begging my parents for five more minutes. I ended up in Egypt almost by accident, but from arrival, my dance teachers told me to work as a dancer. It became my absolute mission to prove to myself I that I could do it.

So, I did.

I found managers and I started working. I worked for a month. I danced with a live band, who I got on well with and who also really believed in me as a dancer. They enjoyed teaching me. The audience were fun, I received flowers and had groups return night after night because of me. It was surprising and a bit overwhelming. I was exhausted but knew this was the first stage of changing career. Dancing night after night required me to build stamina and it had all happened a few months earlier than I anticipated.

What people don’t like to talk about—particularly in a social media-dominated world—is that dreams can turn into nightmares.

But what people don’t like to talk about—particularly in a social media-dominated world, where we constantly want to show our success—is that dreams can turn into nightmares.

And even when they don’t, the conditions under which you are expected to work may be financially unsustainable or even unsafe.

The belly dance world is criminally unsafe. And it’s the women who get blamed.

I don’t want to say much about what happened. Maybe I’ll be back again in a few months or a few years and approach it with a different strategy. But sometimes, you have to know the difference between working hard to progress and when it’s better to walk away.

I’ve also always been a big believer in following your heart. We have one life, and I strongly believe that the people who achieve their goals are the ones who keep going, change the plan and don’t give up.

But sometimes, it isn’t worth it. The belly dance world is complex, especially in a period of post-colonial reckoning. I could write a book on the various issues surrounding race, money, theft, sexual exploitation, harassment and assault, lack of contracts, competition, undermining behaviour, and the underlying belief that somehow the Western world has made belly dancing better. In my opinion, by applying Western dance approaches, it loses its soul.

On the most basic level, you now pay to be a belly dancer in Cairo. If you work at the very top, you can earn thousands, but at the bottom, you can barely cover the cost of the transport and food. I’ve had to accept that I couldn’t pay my bills. But I’m aware that being able to walk away is also a privilege.

Economic uncertainty always leads to exploitation. And that’s what I’m over. Exploitation. TEFL is exploitative. The belly dance industry is exploitative. I want to channel my anger into changing at least a small part of the systems that bind us.

My friend said to me: Lucy you will be back. You love it too much.

Who knows? Maybe I need a few months or a few years before I go back, maybe it’ll be my yearly holiday, maybe it’s the end of a chapter.

I find myself craving boredom. When I got off the plane, I saw the grey M25 and felt joy.

If there is one lesson I was supposed to learn in Egypt, it is letting go. Accept the change. Embrace the redirection. Close the chapter. If you have a dream, follow it, but remember to let it evolve. If you don’t have a dream, good for you. Embrace the opportunities that arise and let life flow. But more importantly, remember you are part of a wider world and whilst there are many things you can control, economic crisis is not one of them

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Lucy Bailey

Lucy is a British travel writer, artist and teacher who’s lived and worked in Spain, Italy, Ukraine and Sierra Leone. She’s currently living in Cairo, Egypt where she combines her love of travelling with learning colloquial Arabic and belly dancing. She’s written a play about her travels, "How to Run Away," which was awarded the New Wave theatre writing grant and will be performed at the Bloomsbury Festival, London in 2023. Follow her on Instagram @lucy_bellydance.

Website: www.thebellydancingbackpacker.co.uk

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