A black Egyptian director and activist is refused service in a pharmacy and Egyptians protest but Mubarak-era myths of a “innocent” society and false ideas about Africa still keep people from really interrogating racism even in revolutionary Egypt.
The other week went by like any other in Egypt when a girl was refused service in a store and was insulted by employees because of the color of her skin.
A pharmacist passed her by in line when it was her turn to buy medicine, stared straight in her face as he probably did many others with faces too dark before her, and without fear of losing his humanity or his job he said “I don’t take anything from people who are not white.” With that he instructed another employee to take the money from her black hands that were apparently not good enough for him to touch.
The difference this time though is that this girl was Nada Zatouna, a well-known Egyptian political activist and filmmaker in Cairo who is also Nubian and who is also a revolutionary and this, this small fact would upset the natural order of things in Cairo.
“I swear on my mother’s head aafashaaax them!!!” cried Nada on Facebook publicly about Seif Pharmacies, the famous chain of pharmacies that refused her. Arabic-learners, I’ll link you to my favorite Egyptian dictionary website to help you translate this not so polite Arabic gem.
But this was not the time to be decent or polite, it was time to fight. Nada with the support of her friends took to Facebook determined to instigate, incite, and interrupt the minds of the Egyptian public. Her online testimony circulated and in only a matter of hours after publishing it garnered over 400 shares and now stands at over 2,000. (Read the translation of the testimony here)
Nada’s testimony spread and quickly struck fear and shock into the minds of Egyptian social networkers. What was most scary about what happened to Nada was the fact that it sounded so much like those horrible stories we heard coming out of the Jim Crow U.S. or apartheid-era South Africa, it’s certainly not something that could come out of Egypt, Om ad-Dunia?!
Newspaper op-eds and Facebook comments about Nada’s experience all acted like this has never happened before. The incident was strange. Came out of nowhere. No historical precedent. An innocent society! An innocent people! How is this happening in Egypt? A moral breakdown of an innocent society!
“This is the first time this has happened in Egypt!” one comment says in Arabic.
“Is what you’re saying real?!” another one said in response to Nada on her wall.
“We’ve never had this in Egypt before! How could this happen?! Wallahi this is a new problem,” another comment in an online discussion says.
Even the Facebook protest page created in support of Nada bought into this narrative of never-before-seen -super-duper-new problem of racism!
“All of our lives we have never known anything about “black” or “white” and then comes someone who discriminates!” the Facebook page laments.
Then when the weeping and the gnashing of teeth subsided a bit, then came some voices of clarity, sanity and honesty, ones whom I genuinely appreciate and I have translated for you below:
Tamer Mowafy was one of the first to take down the pretentiousness in the reactions of some commentators and directly criticize the sentence claiming Egyptians were innocent of any knowledge of racism on the Facebook protest page for Nada.
“I strongly object to the first sentence [on the Facebook protest page]. If all our lives we didn’t have a thing called “black” or “white,” did the phenomenon of discrimination and unkindness towards blacks crash on us suddenly from the sky? The problem with these people is that they practice racism and sectarianism as if it is something so unusual so much so they don’t even think twice about it and all the time they imagine the people here are beautiful and don’t have any these bad things.”
Amira Aly also questions the underlying assumptions of the Facebook protest page that Egyptians just never “knew” how to racially discriminate:
“With all due respect for the words written above. It is not right to say that Egyptians are not racist!! Egyptians are unfortunately racist to the core and I am for one am happy that we have finally risen up and stopped sleeping!”
As for the Facebook reactions that wanted to cast this as one bad apple or a “strange” or “unusual” incident Loda Kabo and Leil Zahra Mortada have much to tell us.
“We are a people that practiced racism and discrimination in all of its forms… the discrimination of thought, class discrimination, social discrimination and discrimination against women… but demonstrations alone are not working we must fight racism in new ways …. The problem is not in an individual. It is in 80 million people who practice discrimination and racism in all its forms. The problem is a problem of a sick mentality.“
“We must know that Nada is an activist and a revolutionary (and a great person) and many among her friends are activists and revolutionaries. All of them know to move and make an uproar against racism, but let us also think about how many people don’t have the strength and support she does. This is because society attacks them in every moment and every day, they don’t have that what we have in communications and means. This movement is not for Nada, this is for many more people, it’s for us, all of us. Discrimination and racism doesn’t have a limit. Today [we take on the discrimination] of skin, tomorrow gender, and after that religion….etc. etc.”
These voices and their wisdom are encouraging but unfortunately Nada’s experience and the reactions to it reveal to us how out of touch with reality so many people are in Egypt concerning issues of race and color discrimination and they show us just how mired many people are in false Mubarak-era memories of “peace” and “tranquility” and “stability” between all groups.
One such example is this op-ed by a Mr. Hussien Ahmed which strangely tried to link Nada’s experience and the supposed “new phenomenon” of racism to the revolution. He suggested that in “post-revolution” Egypt there is a breakdown of morals and that “we have not seen this before.” The word “before” here means “under Mubarak” everyone, it means the last thirty years … This is code for more of the same myth that revolutionaries in this country hear all the time of the supposed “stability” and “peace” and all other sorts of great things that existed before the revolution. Mubarak era memories… a7a.
These Mubarak era memories asked the public to view relations between groups in Egypt with rose tinted glasses where just about everything and everyone was perfect under the previous regimes. These memories were of course selective … because we forgot that it was an Egyptian songwriter who wrote into Lebanese pop singer Haifa Webhe’s song the refrain referring to a “Nubian monkey” toy and we forgot how the racist taunting of Nubian Egyptian football player like Shikabela was so bad it almost drove him to quit. And we forgot the racist Egyptian memes that pop up in our feeds or the culture of acceptable racism in printed Egyptian Arabic newspapers for decades. And we forgot the way darker skinned Nubians, refugees and migrants from other African countries are treated on daily basis, and we forgot more sinister episodes like the Mustafa Mahmoud square massacre or just how trigger-happy Egyptian guards are at the Israeli border.
These Mubarak era memories tell us to cancel out certain things so we wouldn’t be able to remember it if we tried. But all that forgetting doesn’t mean that racism wasn’t there “before.” So no Mr. Ahmed, the revolution hasn’t broken down morals it has opened up eyes. It has done exactly what a revolution is supposed to do.
I speak harshly today, not just for my own sake as what Nada endures is something I suffer from personally but because it is something many of my diverse friends in this country, the people I deeply care about, the people I have come to admire and respect, people I consider like sisters and brothers also suffer from, people who are very very dear to me and no amount telling me “it doesn’t happen” from a society that insists claiming ignorance will make me be silent. It’s insulting.
The Nubian citizens martyred, imprisoned, injured and that fought for and continue to fight for this country and their homeland deserve for us to examine more the history of Egypt’s relations with Nubia and the Nubian people. Many of the South Sudanese, the Darfuri and Somali refugees that after enduring much hardships in their own countries still helped to secure neighborhoods during the 18 day uprising with their Egyptian neighbors in the neighborhood watch committees deserve more as well… all these groups deserve more than to have their discrimination to just be forgotten as that “strange incident!”
Many Egyptians have false ideas about Africa and this affects the way they treat and view blacks. (See: Three Myths Egyptians have about themselves and Africa). They often reject the idea that they are on the African continent, that blacks are “normal” citizens, or that racism really exists in Egypt. If Egyptians want to fight racism they must not only be against it verbally but go to the root of their misconceptions and false ideas and cut them out once and for all.
A Nubian Renaissance: Celebration and Resistance
It’s not even uncommon to even meet Nubians or other blacks in Egypt who accept one or all of the above false ideas. It’s not even rare to see them insist on pushing problems of color and culture discrimination under the rug or to see blacks advocate silence because the “best” road to advancement and survival is to act like nothing is happening… Or maybe as blacks we think it’s happening to the other ones of us, the darker ones, the female ones, the foreign ones, the poorer ones, the segments of our population that our least powerful, maybe if we think of it like this it makes it easier to discard racism to the back of our minds.
Nubian writer and model Fatima Ali couldn’t be more resistant to this way of thinking.
I ran into her the other day on the metro. I was eager to finally sit down and talk with the girl who had inspired me to start taking my translation of Arabic seriously.
But I would not be able to utter a single word to her on our ten metro-stop ride together because she was too busy defending herself. While we ride she hears people laugh at and taunt her, chide her for responding to her harassers, mock her for speaking Arabic correctly and one man even gets up off his seat and threatens to beat her if she doesn’t stop “talking back”. But not even for one minute does she not stand her ground, not even for one minute does she let any of this intimidate her.
As we near our stop and prepare to get off two other black women approach us and empathetically tell us “We go through this every day but you must ignore them and you must stay silent and not talk back.”
“Not talk back?” Fatima says in surprise, “I’m not going to stop expressing myself. Ever.”
And express herself she does… Fatima started her own blog called The Diaries of a Black Girlchronicling her experiences of ethnic and sexual harassment in Egypt and has garnered a following. But she isn’t alone many other Nubian bloggers are writing, tweeting and challenging the dominant premises that say racism doesn’t exist or ideas that deride Africa. Blogger Arkamani regularly writes about the many misconceptions Egyptians have about Africa and black people. Another Nubian blogger Ahmed Ragab writes about the intersection of Africa, resistance movements, and revolutionand encourages all Egyptians to see themselves and their struggle for justice in a larger and interconnected context.
What is so interesting about all this is that only twenty years ago Egyptian newspapers ran outrageously racist articles trying to convince the public that even festivals celebrating Nubian culture or identity were “Nigger and Jewish” plots to separate Egypt’s territorial and cultural integrity. But things are changing, one year after the revolution the “First Nubian African Egyptian Festival”was organized in Cairo where Egyptians of all backgrounds reveled in Nubian songs, dance, and art. Nubian women wore red, white, and black hijabs and dresses, beaming with Egyptian, African, and Nubian pride all in the same breath.
This generation whether they know it or not are breaking down rigid social binaries that say you cannot be African, Egyptian, and/or Arab at the same time. They are attacking social norms that look down upon identifying with Africa, as an African, or being darker-skinned. They are rejecting customs that say their Arab heritage or culture should relegate their Nubian heritage to the bottom.
Prominent Nubian activist and feminist with Nazra Center for Feminist Studies, Fatma Emam regularly blogs about the intersection of identities and experiences. She refuses to have any one of them sidelined.
“I’m not ‘related’ to Africa” Fatma states defiantly on her personal blog Brownie “I am African!”
These are bold words in a world where Africa is still universally regarded with a negative connotation but stronger words yet in Egypt a place where many still cannot accept the idea that they might be living on the African continent.
One Saydelia down but Thousands More to Go
The real fight for justice for Nada does not lie in just one “saydelia” (pharmacy in Arabic) or protesting outside one store. Racism in Egypt is not just one man and it did not just fall from the sky. Real attacks against racism calls for a change in our paradigm, it calls for change in how Egyptians view Africa and their own image. This is the only way for justice and liberation for all.
Nada Zatouna’s experience should be a wakeup call for everyone who cares about human rights and justice in Egypt. Her experience is not an isolated one and is in fact a shadow of something that spans the whole entire Arab world as blacks in many places from Lebanon to Iraq face racism and discrimination and are increasingly organizing themselves to fight it.
Walking on the streets and being called every name in the book many of them derived from insults toward Nubians, there is no doubt in my mind that my own fate as a black American here is tied with the Nubians… and in this same way Nubians too should watch carefully how black refugees and migrants are treated in Egypt. Nada’s experience in particular shows them that their own fates are intimately connected with their brethren from other African nations.
Nubia Angel writes:
“The pharmacist’s justification is that he thought she was a Sudanese refugee as if this excuses him. This is the worst of excuses, even if she was a Sudanese refugee, is the Sudanese refugee not a human that can order medicine without him saying to her we don’t sell to blacks!?! He will marry her for refusing her for her color!?!”
Egypt like many societies in the Middle East and Africa is an oppressed society, but oppression doesn’t preclude innocence. Oppression doesn’t mean that society is good, shiny, and beautiful. And pointing out existing racism doesn’t threaten Egypt, celebrating diversity of identities and cultures will not tear Egypt apart. Affirming the fact that Egypt is in Africa isn’t going to turn the world upside down.
Nada’s resistance to racism shows us that Egyptians are doing more than just unraveling traditions of discrimination they are actually challenging the way we think. The revolution has opened eyes here, and we are seeing that the people who will no longer adapt to poverty will also no longer tolerate sectarianism, the people who will no longer conform to gender oppression will also no longer assimilate racism into their lives…
I write this harshly but with an intense love as well. An intense love for Egypt, Nubia on both sides of the colonially drawn border and Africa as a whole kulluha.
We need a restructuring of our world and to do that it means we have to challenge our beliefs about the world. And only when we challenge our own ideas and societies can we even begin to imagine a better world, a world where racism and discrimination does not define people’s lives, a world where my friends and I do not have to walk down the street and be insulted for existing or being black in the wrong pharmacy at the wrong time.