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To look at the footage on mainstream TV, you probably would think that all of Egypt's

population is fair complexion Arabs but not so reports from LIVINGIN BLACK... CHECK

OUT THIS STORY AND THE COMMENTS FROM OUR SISTER NETWORK MEMBERS.

 

 

Egypt's Race Problem

For too many Egyptians, sub-Saharan Africa is a stereotypical exotic land of thick jungles and masses of poor, starving and black-skinned savages.

by Sunni M. Khaled

 

Because of my looks, my religion and my name, I have frequently been mistaken for Arab during my travels throughout the Middle East. It has been a mentally liberating sensation -- to leave the racial politics of the United States (in reality, this is simply the process of exchanging the ethnic politics of one land for those of another) and not to be regarded as simply a nondescript "black."

Over the years, I have, at various times, been mistaken for many different nationalities. But when I am in the Middle East, strangers most often mistake me for Egyptian. Of course, many African Americans look like Egyptians, right across the color spectrum. I would often scan a crowded street in Cairo and pick out the faces of Egyptians whose visages reminded me of family or friends.

Almost every time I arrived at the Cairo airport, the immigration official would examine my passport closely. Inevitably, the official would ask me a series of questions.

The official would immediately become suspicious. After all, to his eyes, I looked like an ordinary Egyptian. Finally, another immigration official would show up, repeating the same series of questions. I'd have to repeat my answers a third or fourth time before still more disbelieving immigration officials.

As a last resort, I'd often put my hands up in a boxer's stance and start jumping around, throwing punches in the air. Then I'd turn to them and say, "I'm like Muhammad Ali-Clay." That would always bring smiles.

"Oh, you're a boxer! Do you know Muhammad Ali-Clay?"

 

"No, I'm like Muhammad Ali-Clay," I would say. "I'm an African-American Muslim."

Quickly, those quizzical looks would be replaced with smiles and handshakes. As they stamped my passport, the officials would tell me, "Welcome home."

But other blacks, whether American or not, have fared much worse than I did; they are never mistaken for Arabs.

Slender, beautiful, blue-black-skinned Southern Sudanese women, who walk around Cairo with their thick, kinky hair woven distinctively in intricate braids, are routinely the targets of verbal public abuse. Carloads of Arab men drive by, hanging out of windows, shouting catcalls, or making loud demands for sexual favors.

Over the years, Egypt has had a particularly difficult time coming to grips with its African identity. Many Egyptians do not consider themselves Africans. Some take offense even to being identified with Africa at all. When speaking to Egyptians who have traveled to countries below the Sahara, nearly all of them speak of going to Africa, or going down to Africa, as if Egypt were separate from the rest of the continent.

More than a few Egyptian women, for example, told me that they disliked the dark-skinned former President Anwar Sadat, ridiculed for years as "Nasser's black poodle." Sadat, whose mother was Sudanese, they insisted, "did not look Egyptian enough."

For too many Egyptians, sub-Saharan Africa is a stereotypical exotic land of thick jungles and masses of poor, starving and black-skinned savages. Ironically, a little more than a generation ago, Cairo was the nerve center for the continent's liberation movement. Today the state-controlled media devote scant attention to the affairs of the continent below the Sahara. Even the occasional visit by a head of state from sub-Saharan Africa is greeted with smiles by snickering Egyptian government officials, especially when African visitors choose to wear their national dress.

This was not always the case. In 1966, following the coup in Ghana, Egypt's first president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, sent for the Egyptian wife and half-Egyptian children of Ghana's deposed leader, Kwame Nkrumah. Nasser died suddenly in 1970, and much has changed since then.

Sub-Saharan Africans, who have fled as refugees to Egypt from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are routinely targeted for periodic security roundups in Cairo. In December 2005, Egyptian riot police brutally attacked a camp of Sudanese refugees in Cairo who were protesting their treatment. In front of TV cameras, at least 28 and as many as 100 refugees were killed, and hundreds of others were injured, arrested, imprisoned or deported. There was little public protest.

My wife, Zeinab, a Kenyan Somali, endured a series of racial indignities during our time in Egypt. She would shop Road Nine, the trendy commercial drag in Maadi that caters mostly to foreigners and wealthy Egyptians. More than once, she would be standing in line at the checkout counter, when an older, fair-skinned Egyptian woman would arrogantly walk from the rear of the line and place her packages on the conveyor belt in front of Zeinab, as if my wife didn't exist. Indignantly, Zeinab would glare at the woman and dump her packages at the back of the line -- or even go so far as to grab the woman by the collar to make her point.

Whenever my wife would come to the airport to pick me up, she'd often have to fend off several Arab men, who assumed that, as a black woman, she was somehow immediately "available" to their desires, whether she was married or not.

One afternoon, as we ate lunch at our favorite restaurant in Cairo's sprawling Khan el-Khalili market, we noticed two scowling Egyptian women staring at us from across the room. I left Zeinab to go to the restroom. As I returned to our table, one of the women who had been glaring at us earlier, an older Egyptian woman, accosted me.

"Don't you know better?" she asked in Arabic. "How dare you bring a woman like that into a place like this?"

"No, I'm like Muhammad Ali-Clay," I would say. "I'm an African-American Muslim."

Quickly, those quizzical looks would be replaced with smiles and handshakes. As they stamped my passport, the officials would tell me, "Welcome home."

But other blacks, whether American or not, have fared much worse than I did; they are never mistaken for Arabs.

Slender, beautiful, blue-black-skinned Southern Sudanese women, who walk around Cairo with their thick, kinky hair woven distinctively in intricate braids, are routinely the targets of verbal public abuse. Carloads of Arab men drive by, hanging out of windows, shouting catcalls, or making loud demands for sexual favors.

Over the years, Egypt has had a particularly difficult time coming to grips with its African identity. Many Egyptians do not consider themselves Africans. Some take offense even to being identified with Africa at all. When speaking to Egyptians who have traveled to countries below the Sahara, nearly all of them speak of going to Africa, or going down to Africa, as if Egypt were separate from the rest of the continent.

More than a few Egyptian women, for example, told me that they disliked the dark-skinned former President Anwar Sadat, ridiculed for years as "Nasser's black poodle." Sadat, whose mother was Sudanese, they insisted, "did not look Egyptian enough."

For too many Egyptians, sub-Saharan Africa is a stereotypical exotic land of thick jungles and masses of poor, starving and black-skinned savages. Ironically, a little more than a generation ago, Cairo was the nerve center for the continent's liberation movement. Today the state-controlled media devote scant attention to the affairs of the continent below the Sahara. Even the occasional visit by a head of state from sub-Saharan Africa is greeted with smiles by snickering Egyptian government officials, especially when African visitors choose to wear their national dress.

This was not always the case. In 1966, following the coup in Ghana, Egypt's first president, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, sent for the Egyptian wife and half-Egyptian children of Ghana's deposed leader, Kwame Nkrumah. Nasser died suddenly in 1970, and much has changed since then.

Sub-Saharan Africans, who have fled as refugees to Egypt from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, are routinely targeted for periodic security roundups in Cairo. In December 2005, Egyptian riot police brutally attacked a camp of Sudanese refugees in Cairo who were protesting their treatment. In front of TV cameras, at least 28 and as many as 100 refugees were killed, and hundreds of others were injured, arrested, imprisoned or deported. There was little public protest.

My wife, Zeinab, a Kenyan Somali, endured a series of racial indignities during our time in Egypt. She would shop Road Nine, the trendy commercial drag in Maadi that caters mostly to foreigners and wealthy Egyptians. More than once, she would be standing in line at the checkout counter, when an older, fair-skinned Egyptian woman would arrogantly walk from the rear of the line and place her packages on the conveyor belt in front of Zeinab, as if my wife didn't exist. Indignantly, Zeinab would glare at the woman and dump her packages at the back of the line -- or even go so far as to grab the woman by the collar to make her point.

Whenever my wife would come to the airport to pick me up, she'd often have to fend off several Arab men, who assumed that, as a black woman, she was somehow immediately "available" to their desires, whether she was married or not.

One afternoon, as we ate lunch at our favorite restaurant in Cairo's sprawling Khan el-Khalili market, we noticed two scowling Egyptian women staring at us from across the room. I left Zeinab to go to the restroom. As I returned to our table, one of the women who had been glaring at us earlier, an older Egyptian woman, accosted me.

"Don't you know better?" she asked in Arabic. "How dare you bring a woman like that into a place like this?"

 

 

 

As far as this woman was concerned, Zeinab, dressed casually in slacks, her hair in braids, was obviously a "Sudanese prostitute," and I was taken to be her Arab "john." Certainly, in her eyes, no respectable Egyptian man would ever cavort publicly with a black woman.

"Excuse me, ma'am," I replied politely in Arabic, "you've made a mistake. That woman is my wife."

My protests were futile. The woman kept tugging indelicately on my sleeve, castigating me for my  "scandalous" public behavior.

Before I left Cairo, I met a group of sub-Saharan African students enrolled at the prestigious al-Azhar University. They told me about the racial harassment they were subjected to on a daily basis on the streets of Cairo by Egyptian Arabs.

"I learned something much different from what I believed," said Bala, a native of northern Nigeria and a graduate student at the American University in Cairo, who lived in Egypt for six years. "I thought [the Arabs] were our brothers in Islam, but they don't bother about that when you're black. ... They pretend that you are a brother in Islam, but this is different from what they hold in their hearts and in their minds."

He told me that for many Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, the spiritual solidarity with Egyptian Muslims was misplaced. "I was coming out of masjid [mosque] in a place called Dar-el-Malik," Bala said. "So we used to say 'Salaam' to one another when we came out of salat [prayer]. There was one child, called Mohamed, and we were used to shaking hands with him. And one day, I came out to shake his hand and he refused. He told me his father told him never to shake hands with a Sudani -- that is black. So he is telling me his father told him he cannot say, 'Salaam,' to any [Africans]."

Through Bala, I met other African students, including some who were studying at al-Azhar University, with the hope of returning to their native lands as imams and religious scholars. Some of the students told me that they experienced racism within al-Azhar to such an extent that they eventually renounced their vows as Muslims.

Some Egyptians, they told me, called Africans hounga (a nonsense word) or asked, "What time is it?" This was apparently done so that the sub-Saharan Africans would look down and be reminded of their dark-skinned wrists, where their watches might be. The jokesters would immediately laugh, but the Africans wouldn't catch on to the joke until much later.

"Egyptians ask you if you live in trees," Bala said. "Or, 'Why are you black?' 'Is your country hot?' So, this is how we know that there is something called racism here. We are Muslims, not because of the Arabs, but Muslims despite what the Arabs have done to us. Even my worst enemy, I would not ask him to come to Egypt for studies, let alone my son."

As Egypt moves forward in a post-Mubarak era, it will have to look at healing many of the wounds that have been opened and have festered over the years. This includes mending ties among Egyptians across religious lines, between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority, as well as across racial fault lines, with more acceptance of the non-Arab Nubian minority and the significant number of African refugees living and working in Egypt. How these minorities are treated in the future may speak volumes about how far Egyptians have come, or have to go, in treating one another.

 

Sunni M. Khalid is the managing news editor at WYPR-FM and has reported extensively throughout Africa and the Middle East. He reported from Cairo for three years

Replies to This Discussion

Asante sana for this report and sharing your and your wife's personal experiences. In my travels and discourse with sub-Saharan Africans in Zambia and South Africa, especially intellectuals they often referred to North Africans soley as Arabs and not African at all. Two things (I think) contribute North and South xenophobia, racial (European) mixing in the North and the treatment you describe above.

I have concluded that in our naive Pan African construct as African Americans that we assumed ALL Africans would believe and think as we do. Unfortunately ethinic and national 'differences' are more the norm in Africa than is Pan Africanism.

I have concluded that in our naive Pan African construct as African Americans that we assumed ALL Africans would believe and think as we do. Unfortunately ethinic and national 'differences' are more the norm in Africa than is Pan Africanism.

Very true, because ppl on the ground in Africa typically do not start out defining themselves as Africans.  They start out defining themselves by their ethnic group, and/or language group, country nationality and/or religion. To be seen simply as an African is on the bottom of the list in terms of them defining themselves.  This naivete from our AA point of view is because we don't have those language barriers or differences and we don't have a national identity beyond america.  And in this day and age, AA is the most popular term for us to define ourselves, even if most of us don't even identify w/ being African.  We are really screwed up mentally through the european slave trade that unfortunately continues.

I smile (sometimes) and say that in my twenties WE adopted ALL of Africa because we did not know from where and what group/village/town our ancestors came from. That's why "Roots" was so popular because Alex Haley 'found' his home people.

The last paragraph in this essay is something I see a lot from Black people and it is frustrating.  The negroe, hat-in-hand, begging to get into his masters house. After all this "brother" has experienced in his travels, he's talking about healing across racial lines. Integration. Still wanting to be a part of something that has historically hated and mistreated you and your people.  The land belongs to the Nubians rightfully.  I see this in Black people across the board. This need to forgive the people who have done us wrong.  Europeans have been slapping Africans around for 500 plus years and Arabs have been knocking down Africans for over 1000 years. How many times do you have to get your assed whooped to realize that the people doing the kicking aren't your brothers.  But we hold on to petty beefs with each other forever.

 

We just don't hate our enemies enough and until we do, we will continue to lose.

BlackDimension... Well said.  Ashe

Asante Sena. Nothing new under the sun.

Ashe... I agree, the hatred we should have for them is not so.  In fact you go to Africa, the ppl love the white folks there.  I mean, its different, but at the same time its not, because you also see the Arabs there, and many of them treat the Africans terribly on their own soil.  I think there is an ingrained fear because economically we feel powerless w/o them.  If we hate them, then we can't make dealsl with them that are necessary for funding, tourism, business etc.  This is where I see many AAs leave the door wide open when we do have capital here, but its other ppl that go in Africa and become the 'masters' the Chinese are now those ppl.  They set up business there and keep it moving very quietly, its an interesting fix we are in, but we must clean out every corner to assess our position to move forward against our enemies.

Agreed! One observation I have made in my travels and stays in Africa, the people who go there with money, invest in a business and LIVE there have more impact on the ppl than 'investors' who go away.

My wife and I are often told 'you come, you return and you live with us.' This opens doors. Living WITH people makes a difference.

Sister Adjua, thanks for adding even more light on this most important subject.

 

It’s interesting that a significant portion of the tourist dollars that Diasporic Africans spend in Africa not only goes to sub-Saharan African countries but also to modern Arab-colonized Egypt where many of our people visit seeking to embrace our most ancient past;

 

…though money talks loudly in most cases, but seemingly, not always in Egypt.  Whites and Arabs will kindly take our money and still disrespect us walking out the door.

 

I remember when President Obama went to Egypt as one of his first trips to that part of the world, Obama along with the rest of the media deemed this as a visit to the Middle East, not Africa. As oppose to his visit to Ghana, which was amazingly promoted as his first trip to Africa as president to the US.  Even with Obama having a Kenyan father, he still fed into the same revisionist and racist interpretation of the African land mass that has persisted for centuries. 

 

The reinforcing of this revisionist racist thinking that the Arab Egyptian population finds so comforting and convenient is why, along with the scholarly-deniability of Zahi Hawass - Egypt's Minister of Antiquities, the world will never accept Ancient Egypt (Kemet) as being a truly African cultural state.

 

In light of what Sister Adjua said:

…Arabs there, and many of them treat the Africans terribly on their own soil.  I think there is an ingrained fear because economically we feel powerless w/o them.  If we hate them, then we can't make dealsl with them that are necessary for funding, tourism, business etc.  This is where I see many AAs leave the door wide open when we do have capital here…”

 

The first part of this statement sounds like what’s already going on in most Black communities…anyway, I do believe investments and closer working relationship with continental Africans, both in the continent and here in the states will have a powerful effect on Africa’s economy, but this relationship has to develop both ways, and rarely have I heard successful Black businesses having a working relationship with or being approached by chambers of commerce of African countries here in the US…it needs to be realized that both have a lot to gain from an open dialogue.  I believe both parties have a lot of misgivings about each other that need to be worked out, for it’s merely not a one-sided dilemma or ignorance.

 

 Ase

And this is why I have absolutely no interest in going to Egypt. 

 

Too many non-Black “people of color” have no love for African people.  Check how Ghanaians are treated in Libya.  Gandhi, while he was in South Africa, thought [Black] South Africans were subhuman and many Indians feel the same about Black people. There are many more examples.  We ought to dump the idea of “people of color” uniting against a common enemy.

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