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?"
"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.