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.

Getty Images
Getty Images

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.

“Is this your name, Sunni Khalid?”


“Are you Egyptian?”


“Is your father Egyptian?”


“Is your mother Egyptian?”


“Where were you born?”


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?”