Egypt Without The Romance

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Some even threw rocks at me, tugged at my hair in crowded markets, and screamed “samara�—the U.S. equivalent of “nigger.� On several occasions, I felt like the star attraction in a modern-day freak show, contending with stares of indignation, contempt and scorn. But I wasn’t the only visible Black person who felt the wrath of age-old prejudice. Sudanese refugees and other “sub-Saharan� Africans traveling to Egypt complain of the worst kind of racism. So too do Black people coming to Egypt from all over the world… Egypt nowadays has become a breeding ground for some of the most heinous acts of violence against people of “sub-Saharan� African descent.

Egypt is teetering on the edge of its own duality as a powerhouse in the Middle East as well as grasping at straws to fortify itself as a legitimate African country. I wanted to scrutinize its position in the new world order, and figure out what that meant.

To the average Egyptian, I was an aberration of the first degree and represented the “other� in all realms of social construction. I didn’t pray to Allah, nor did I subscribe to any organized dogmas in a country that is reverently charged, yet appears to be seething with religious discord. I wasn’t North African, and therefore reminded Egyptians of their “sub-Saharan� brethren some would rather erase in favor of claiming Arab and European lineage.

I had dreadlocks, but I was not a Rastafarian. I talked to everyone congenially from doormen to presidents of universities though Egypt is rigidly stratified along class lines, with the gap between rich and poor widening. I was a Liberian sporting an American accent. And to top it all off, I was loud, opinionated, cheeky, and just plain contrary to the structural violence I encountered daily.

I was a walking, breathing contradiction, and most Egyptians didn’t know what to make of me. So some of them pointed and snickered. Some even threw rocks at me, tugged at my hair in crowded markets, and screamed “samara�—the U.S. equivalent of “nigger.�

On several occasions, I felt like the star attraction in a modern-day freak show, contending with stares of indignation, contempt and scorn. But I wasn’t the only visible Black person who felt the wrath of age-old prejudice. Sudanese refugees and other “sub-Saharan� Africans traveling to Egypt complain of the worst kind of racism. So too do Black people coming to Egypt from all over the world. Despite having taken its place as a land of resplendent history and mythic wisdom, Egypt nowadays has become a breeding ground for some of the most heinous acts of violence against people of “sub-Saharan� African descent. The truth of the matter is, most Egyptians don’t think of themselves as African. They’re products of centuries of foreign invasion—from the Greeks to the Turks and Arabs to the British and French. No wonder I felt schizophrenic there. Years upon years of imperialist rule would make me question my true identity as well, I discovered.

I journeyed to Egypt every bit the bright eyed and bushy-tailed, fresh-out-of-college, daredevil optimist. I was intrigued by the country’s turbulent contemporary politics and enamored with its history and lore. Little did I know that I was embarking on a hybrid breed of Mediterranean-African-Arab chunky chowder different from the familiar contours of Africa “south of the Sahara� that I had grown accustomed to, having lived in Liberia as a child. I was thrown a curveball right out of the cosmos when I landed in the “land of the pharaohs� as an intern.

Cairo and its 16 million inhabitants initially bombarded my senses with pollution, unpaved and gutted sidewalks, congestion, shrieking car horns, men screaming obscenities in Arabic, litter, traffic, incessant racial slurs hurled at me from every direction, monotonous and ubiquitous calls to prayer, rampant poverty, and the stench of sweaty bodies and pink animal carcasses hanging from storefront windows.

I figured that trekking to Egypt would be an adventurous jaunt to that part of the world. It turned out to be a demystifying reality check about a region, Middle East/North Africa, that I found fascinating yet so utterly complex, especially with the geopolitics of oil, Palestinian-Israeli fisticuffs over Gaza, the occupation of Iraq, the volatile nature of Syria-Lebanon, the possible invasion of Iran on the horizon, Libya’s “opening up� to the U.S., and Sudan’s attempt to hide the massacres in Darfur. The sights, sounds, and smells emanating from Cairo made it this Mecca of life experiences all collapsed into one gargantuan metropolis that titillated my senses. For what it’s worth, I experienced the good, the bad, and the nightmarish.

If I hadn’t encountered the hospitality of some congenial Egyptians who welcomed me with open arms into their homes and hearts, I would have left the country after an entire year with a sour taste in my mouth. I only hope that more and more people of color in the U.S. and elsewhere travel to Egypt and experience the same jarring reality check I did.

Robtel Neajai Pailey is the assistant editor for The Washington Informer and can be reached at rpailey@washingtoninformer.com Reprinted with permission from The Washington Informer.

Speaking Truth To Empower.� To contact The Black Star News write editor@blackstarnews.com or call (212) 481-7745. Subscribe to this newspaper and advertise to build power.

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