The harsh sun was setting on the city of Aswan, an ancient trading hub in southern Egypt last week, but the city’s bazaar along the Nile still bustled with life. My wife and I strolled past old Nubian men sipping mint tea in brightly painted cafés. European tourists haggled over prices for straw baskets and rare spices. A breeze off the Nile River carried along the signature scents of Aswan: sweet hibiscus flowers, cardamom-laced coffee and fruity tobacco.
A voice called out just as I was marveling at all these sights and sounds of modern-day Nubia.
“American or British?” asked a portly street vendor with a bushy beard and a dark prayer mark on his forehead.
“American,” I replied.
“Obama!” the man shrieked with delight. “Obama good!”
We chatted for a few minutes in his broken English and my broken Arabic. One thing didn’t need translation: This devout Muslim living at the troubled crossroads of Africa and the Middle East was proud of the United States’ 44th president, Barack Obama, and he shared in the milestone victory from thousands of miles away. My wife and I bid the man goodbye and chatted about the incident as we walked through the market. Then came another shout. And another, and another. Wherever I set foot during our four-day tour of Aswan, I was received as Obama’s stand-in, the recipient of all the good wishes and prayers sent from one of the oldest black populations in the world to a black leader who will preside over the most powerful nation in the world.
“Obama!” a street vendor called to me urgently, as if the 44th U.S. president himself were walking the dusty streets of Aswan. That opened the floodgates:
“You are Nubian!”
“Obama good, America good!”
The most jarring shout was that last one. As a professional basketball player whose overseas career has been rooted in the Middle East, I didn’t need any opinion poll to tell me that millions of Muslims were furious with the United States for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unbalanced foreign policy and the propping up of the region’s unpopular and mostly unelected rulers. My Syrian, Turkish, Emirati and Egyptian teammates always told me they had no beef with American people, but that they hated the U.S. government for what they called American “arrogance and aggression.” Could one man with roots from a few stops down the Nile really change a deep-seated mistrust of the United States that has festered here for decades?
The answer is: I don’t know. But I can tell you that many in the Islamic world, especially Aswan’s Nubians whose ancestors once ruled magnificent empires and lived under the dynastic rule of the Egyptian (Kemetic) blood kin, are willing to give Obama a chance. And with a history of Nubian kings such as Piankhi, Taharqa and Shabaka, the Nubians recognize a promising leader when they see one.
My travels have shown me that a kinship unites the oppressed peoples of the world, which is why Obama’s triumph is so richly celebrated in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. On several continents, I’ve witnessed how widely admired black Americans are for their creativity and resilience in the face of some of the most inhumane attacks in history. Many taxi drivers in Cairo have Che Guevara and Malcolm X stickers in their cabs, and they babble on about Obama every time they find out I’m American. A Syrian friend whose favorite rapper is The Game told me he has newfound confidence that Obama will “do the right thing” in the Middle East after years of disappointment from former presidents. My Turkish teammates sent me text messages of “congratulations!” on Election Night and added that they hoped Obama could resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
On the last day of our vacation in southern Egypt, my wife and I visited the Nubian History Museum, an award-winning institute packed with artifacts from prehistoric Nubians all the way to the devastation of their villages during the construction of the famous dams at Aswan in the 1960s. Modern Aswan rests atop the remains of the ancient kingdom of Nubia. Nubia, located in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, is believed to have been the genesis of African culture and has basked in its 7,000 years of rich history and unmatched accomplishments. From 17,000 B.C. all the way to the present, Nubia has witnessed the evolution of man’s intelligence, constant warring with the Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs, to the suppression of their culture, language and history.
Obama’s win won’t resurrect the buried history of Nubian royalty in Egypt any more than it will erase, in one fell swoop, the legacy of four centuries of African enslavement in the United States. The new president, however, has restored the audacity of hope in millions of people who take pride in the color of Obama’s skin as well as the content of his character.
“Obama will be good,” promised a silver-haired Nubian driver who looked so much like my late grandfather that my eyes grew wet.
“Obama understands,” the elderly driver continued. “He is African.”
Marvin Black is a professional basketball player who has played for teams in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. He is currently based in Cairo, Egypt. .