Saturday, 3 January 2009

Counter-arguments against the existence of widespread racism in Egypt

-- Part 3 of my response to Mona El-Tahawy's Arab World's Racism post. See my Are you racist? earlier post.

Mona El-Tahawy says that Racism is the Arab world's dirty secret. On her side, stand pronouncements by newspaper editor Abdel-Bari Atwan who, on Obama's election, said Obama would be referred to as an 'abd' [slave] in some parts of the Arab world. Indeed, the witness accounts of people who commented on Mona's blog post indicate that, in Egypt for example, southern or Darfurian Sudanese people (pure Black Africans) are seen as inferior outsiders.

There are counter-arguments against the existence of widespread racism. The late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s mother was Sudanese (daughter, herself, of a man from Central African Republic). Sadat was quite dark. I have never heard anyone say "how can that dark man rule Egypt!" Indeed, many people revere Sadat as a great Egyptian nationalist.

Many Egyptians are dark, "black" by European standards. The Nuba region - which has been Egyptian territory for millenia - is populated by quite dark people. Nubians who have migrated to northern parts of Egypt have married other Egyptians with ease. Perhaps there might be early questions when a Nubian proposes to (say) a Cairo family as to the merits of giving their daughter to a man who comes from a social group that is widely perceived as poor and without advantages. But have a look around Egypt and you will see tens of thousands of families who took that leap of faith.

If we're going to be sticklers on prejudice, why should we not discuss the strong bias against the "fellaheen" (peasant farmers) amongst middle-class Egyptians. Why, some fellaheen women are blonde, blue-eyed but would never stand a chance against a middle-class, educated, dark Cairene. "Marry your daughter to a crocodile but not to a fallah." How's that for bias?

Mona brings up Egyptian bias against Darfurian Sudanese (causing deaths at the makeshift refugee camp, which Egypt's notoriously aggressive authorities gave ample warning to before they stormed). The BBC news article that reported on the story commented that the Sudanese refugees should not have expected hospitality in a country with 30% unemployment (if not more).

And how about Sudanese-Sudanese bias? Surely the Darfur conflict would not have come about had there not been intra-Sudanese issues! Mona mentions the shooting of Darfurians at the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Recent events show that Egyptian border police has instructions to shoot at any unauthorised movements - at Palestinians even, not just Darfurians.

My personal experience shows that there is _some_ casual disregard for non-Egyptians who are perceived to belong to the less powerful of the world: Black Africans, Indians, and indeed other Arabs. Egyptians _may_ differentiate between themselves and others in an unpleasant manner. The discrimination is not only a black/white thing; you find Palestinians, Saudis, etc, also being discriminated against. Whereas many Egyptians will treat “white” people favourably, they do not hesitate to distinguish between “them” and “us”.

I was once walking down the road with my ex-fiance (who was white) in Cairo, and two girls of about 10 started bad-mouthing my companion (in Arabic). They were saying things like: “Yeah so what, you have blue eyes”, or “What, are you too good to cover up?”, etc. Essentially pointing out differences in a negative way. Does this mean Egyptians are racists? Does this mean Egyptians dislike white people? I think it reflects those kids' mothers' fear of the allure of white women to their men.

But there is something very important here: Egyptians do not treat each other well. They are constantly judging and discriminating against each other. The way you dress, the way you talk, what you drive, who you know, … these are all direct factors in how easily you live your life in Egypt.

My sister (who wears higab) was once standing in line at a nice bakery in Medinet Nasr, only to notice that an un-higabed Egyptian woman looking rather elegant got preferential treatment by the attendants. What annoyed my sister was the attendants did not even respond to her queries. They served the supposedly-elegant woman, got her out of the way, and then served “the rest of them”.

Many Egyptians are passed over, ignored, etc, on a daily basis. If you’re wearing a 3emma (the traditional hat of fellaheen) in Cairo, some people will automatically assume you unimportant. If you’re a se3eedi (traditional southerner), some people will tease and harass you mercilessly. (I once saw a se3eedi worker get into a fight with Cairene workers who were making fun of him - their boss quickly stopped the nonsense.)

Now, let’s flip it another way. I grew up in Nigeria. Was this Egyptian kid picked on, bullied, smelt, pinched, envied, looked down on, etc? Oh, yes sir! As a kid, I was routinely given lectures about “Black Power”. I was picked on and shoved around regularly. Derogatory comments on my skin colour were made all the time.

It is really important to confront the “bad side” of this human nature of ours: make sure it is clarified as wrong and immoral. But WHY do Egyptians not respect each other, why do they deal with each other as if some are “welad naas” and some are “welad kalb”? This - to me - is the root of the problem. If we can get Egyptians to respect each other and treat each other equally, discrimination against foreigners would fall by the wayside.


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5 comments:

Burak said...

It's a sad fact that racism and discrimination are everywhere and take so many forms. I was recently talking to an English guy from Liverpool, though I couldn't quite make out his accent and so I asked if he was from Manchester. I was quite surprised at how offended he was and he explained to me the rivalry between the two cities.

Is it in human nature to discriminate against people in some way or another such that it will always be with us? I'm sure if a stranger knocked on my door in need of assistance I would trust some people and offer them help whilst I would be suspicious of others and turn them away, all based on a superficial assessment.

Twirling, turning life chunks. said...

Burak, thanks for your comment.

"Superficial assessment" - indeed.

Frenchie said...

your entire post resonated as an apologist argument for Egyptian racism. you could've tackled head on how racism against black people is a daily accurate in Cairo instead of brushing it off by pointing out how Egyptians treat each other. I suppose this complacency is why Egypt has made no strides is addressing its racism issues
http://blackincairo.blogspot.com

Ahmed said...

Hi Frenchie,

Thank you for a lovely comment. I enjoyed reading through your recent blog posts.

Egyptians do not - in general - treat each other with enough respect and dignity. As testament I put forward _your own_ descriptions of crossing roads in Cairo (and it is worse when you're driving, because many people are very selfish).

I don't for a minute say we should ignore race matters. I also do not want to ignore poverty, education, authoritarianism, selfishness, openness ... the issues that affect lives and that need to be dealt with and reformed pronto.

ngblogger said...

Ahmed,
You are in complete denial. According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Black African immigrants to Egypt often face physical violence and verbal abuse at the hands of the general public and law enforcement officials. refugee from Sudan are especially targeted, with racial slurs like "oonga boonga" and "samara" (meaning "black") constituting the most typical insults. The EIPR attributes the violence and abuse to both a lack of government efforts at disseminating information, raising awareness and dispelling myths with regard to the economic contributions made by the newcomers, and stereotyping on the part of the Egyptian media.[19] Black women are also targets of sexual harassment.
Also you need to do more research not only was Sadat criticized for not looking "Arab" enough by Egyptians, even though he didn't even claim his Black roots, he was called "Nasser's poodle". Also when the movie "Sadat" was released in the US it received public outrage from Egyptians because Louis Gosset Jr.(an African-American) was cast as Sadat.
"we will never be liberated until we liberate ourselves from the racist views we have for other races..."Kamel Riahi, Arab author