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.
"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?"