October 22, 2019

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  • Racism in Egypt

    File image of a Sudanese refugee arrested following a violent crackdown on a Cairo sit-in against the UNHCR in 2005.


    On the fateful Saturday of Mubarak’s verdict, I spent a tortured morning at the Mugamma then went to meet a friend for an Arabic lesson at Cilantro on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Normally, we would sit in Borsa cafe, but the heat and the stress of the day dictated the sanctity of air conditioning and a mango granita.

    When he came in, one of the waiters started shouting at him, afraid that he was going to harass me. My friend spoke calmly, told him that this kind of behaviour towards customers is unacceptable and inappropriate. The man was incredibly embarrassed and other staff members gathered. The waiter lied to explain himself out of the mess. Clearly he was embarrassed because I was offended, not because he offended somebody else.

    My friend is Sudanese, and this wasn’t a one-off.

    In the chilly expanses of CityStars this past weekend, stores inexplicably accused my friend of stealing merchandise and of not having enough money to afford being in the store to begin with. When the store clerk of a large chain forgot to remove a security tag on a purchase, alarms rang as we exited. Some bystanders began shouting, “The zingy is stealing something!” (Some would say that zingy is a loose translation for the ‘n’ word in Arabic; others would say that the race discourse in Egypt gives the word a less harsh meaning.)

    Nobody ever talks about racism in Egypt. In terms of the pecking order of demands since the Jan. 25 uprising, it seems like racism is at the bottom of the pile, if anyone even sees it in the pile to begin with. Most Egyptians don’t think there’s any problem at all. Blackness is certainly present. Refugees and migrants come to Egypt from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, to say nothing of the Nubians, marginalized and pretty well swallowed whole by Lake Nasser and the High Dam. Former president Anwar Sadat himself was criticized for being too dark, Nasser’s “black poodle.”

    Even Egypt’s antiquities cannot be white enough, apparently. When the Tutankhamun exhibition travelled to Philadelphia, a bust of the young pharaoh sparked a number of protests claiming that the curators had made him white. Egyptology kingpin Zahi Hawass came out in defence of the statue: “Don’t worry, ya gamaa’a,” says he, “Tutankhamun wasn’t black … Egyptians aren’t Arab or African.”

    This is a commonly held perception. If you talk about Africans in Egypt (keeping in mind that most Egyptians would not consider Egypt as African), the average Egyptian will tell you about Sudan. “We used to be one hand [united]!” they would say. As usual, this “one hand” business is just a metonym for colonialism, hinting jovially at a shared imperial past with England and Egypt and Sudan. In that order, top to bottom, power percolating downwards. This kind of paternalistic commentary reflects nothing of the lived experience of visible black communities in Egypt, where discrimination varies between the odd comments on the street (Galaxy bar, zingy, the full gamut of vulgarities and smut) to the more systemic forms of discrimination, like what happened on Saturday: being discouraged from entering certain kinds of stores, clubs, restaurants.

    Egypt is a hub for refugees and asylum seekers fleeing from Iraq, Libya and the Horn of Africa. It is a receiving country and a transit country — a place where refugees come to seek formal refugee status from the UNHCR to receive financial assistance, counselling and protection here in Cairo, or to attempt resettlement in Canada, the US, Australia or occasionally Finland. Of the thousands of applicants coming through the doors of the UNHCR every year, approximately 30 percent achieve the recognition that they need to immigrate. For the rest, there is Cairo.

    The Sudanese population in this city and Alexandria alone is estimated at being between hundreds of thousands to four million. There are no clear estimates. Many of this constituency is made up of Southern Sudanese, some of whom repatriated after the independence of South Sudan last year. However, the continuing conflicts between the North, South and Darfur region indicate the likelihood of an increase, rather than a decrease of displaced peoples reaching Egypt’s borders in the coming period.

    Although Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees, and its 1967 Protocol, as well as the 1969 Organization of African Unity convention, the UNHCR’s Egypt site page says that Egypt “has yet to develop domestic asylum procedures and institutions.” Not only has the Egyptian government failed procedurally, certain conditions bar this population from services imperative to human well-being: the ability to work, to access national health facilities, to attend government schools and receive subsidized housing. All prohibited.

    Many Sudanese immigrants also came after the signing of the 1978 Wadi El Nil Treaty, giving Sudanese the right to live in Egypt without residence visas. The treaty was abrogated after Mubarak was nearly shot dead by Sudanese Islamists in Addis Ababa. Further amendments to the status of movement between Sudan and Egypt — like the 2004 Four Freedoms Agreement — are yet to be ratified. As a result, the Sudanese and refugee community are in a precarious position, buffeted by the political unrest, instability and a serious recession, all compounding already high unemployment rates, poverty and racial discrimination.

    Most of the jobs available for Africans in Cairo are in the service industry, catering to Egyptians. A noticeably Sudanese, uniformed workforce waits on the upper-crust clientele at one prominent club in Garden City. Throughout the wealthiest suburbs of Cairo, families employ Africans as maids and caretakers to raise their children and pour their whiskeys (not necessarily in that order).

    Is it a mark of status to buy a piece of darkest Africa, or charming to invoke notions of a colonial past? Does having a black servant suggest luxury, wealth and class? Or ownership? What it reveals is just another example of a human rights discourse that has been perilously neglected within a city that is ethnically diverse — unmistakeably — and requires a much more nuanced and empathetic discussion about prejudice and discrimination facing the communities that reside in Egypt, all of them, Egyptian or not.

    Marie-Jeanne Berger is a Cairo-based commentator and journalist.

    8 Responses to “Racism in Egypt”
    1. Hindawy says:

      Hold on a tick I sincerely hope you are not French because in that case I’ll summon Raymond Dominic and a million others

    2. Hindawy says:

      Apparently fuming got me into some grammatical mistakes sorry about that

    3. Hindawy says:

      Marie-Jeanne I’m sorry but this is utter nonsense I can get you a million foreign success stories whether black or not at a top management level and you can go to Vodafone or PwC for examples
      2- I have Sudanese & other friends from Kenya, Eritrea etc… and guess what they get me outf trouble because all foreigners & tourists have to do in case of facing any possible harassment is threaten to call the embassy and the police because in that case the Egyptian is sent to the “Security of the State” where he’ll get harassed if not rapped during interrogation and a Security file will be made from him that can prevent him from leaving Egypt.
      3- Honestly who have you been dealing with? apparently the foot of the lower-level of society represents ignorance and can be found everywhere
      4- Regarding some of the comments on how Egyptians are always trying to be someone’s boss well guess what at the foot of society all over the world that is what happens from the US UK everywhere
      5- I won’t start with the Dr. Zahy Hawas issue because that is laughable and disgraceful but guess what was 1 of the issues discussed during the early days of the revolution or at least 1 of my own which is getting revenge for my what happened to my friend & the other Sudanese brothers in 2005 from our corrupt police force & government so use ur head before blaming us for what the ousted government did.
      6- Sudanese learn for free unlike we do and they get their VISA when they reach the airport unlike us but to be frank and abso-bloody-lutely honest I’m honoured to have them here and you have my e-mail if any of ur friends needs any help any given day.
      7- Last word of advice for any foreigner or tourist living in Egypt if anything goes wrong threaten to call the embassy & do call the police.

      • man says:

        you do not need to be so defensive, these things happen in many countries. but at the same time, you need to be able to read something, think about it, and then analyze it and see if these things could have happened in egypt. you were not there when these incidents happened. it does not mean these did not happen. so if you say these things dont happen in egypt, you are calling the author a liar. and the author has no reason to have gone to print with lies ( remember, all journalists dont publish rubbish, like the newspapers do in egypt without checking sources, and then never correct or retract it). so you cannot just say these things dont happen in egypt because you say so. unfortunately, it does happen, and i have personally seen these discrimination happen too in egypt. it may or may not be very bad, based on whose perspective you are asking, or which country you are comparing with. if you really are serious, why dont you go speak to a few young sudanese people who live in maadi area, and travel by metro and microbus, and work as maids. leave your social structure, and speak to people in lower classes. foot of lower level is also part of your society and you cant disown it, remember you stand on your foot, not on your head.

    4. Ahmed Salama says:

      I agree with Omar… I refer to it as The Curse of the Pharao… give an Egyptian half an ounce of authority and he will abuse it be in control. Its like it’s hardwired into our genes somehow. As for racism, ever present… I remember walking around with my American girlfriend in Zamalek of all places and people shouting Shai be Laban! Tea with milk – Ahmed

    5. You don’t mention the use of arms to clear the Moustafa Mahmoud park camp in Muhandessin in December 2005 during which more than a score of Sudanese refugees were killed. The problem with harassment is bad enough but it has on occasion also turned into violence.

    6. Omar Mahmoud says:

      It seems to me that in Egypt, everyone likes to seem or perceoved to be the boss of someone else. People in Egypt seem hungry to show others that they have some sort of influence of others and this leads to horrible displays of racism and discrimination. When you let someone in ahead of you in the road, the recepient thinks that you have done this because he is of a higher level then you and doesn’t bother to acknowledge or thank the gesture that was simply an act of kindness.

      We need to change this attitude and get rid of this un-neccessary snobbery if we are to move forward and create a decent society

      • Anita Amina Jackson says:

        I agree with you 100%. I am Afo-American who had my DNA done and discovered I am 56% East African form. Halon group that springs from Nubia thus explaining my being asked in USA was I Egyptiian. On my first visit granted a yearly visa because they told me no matter where I was born I was from upper Egypt. Beside the fact that the burned wood and hand represented in ancient monuments meant ‘land of the blacks’ and that the name of this great land was changed by the Arabs during conquest of the 6th century,from Kemet to Egypt, it’s no wonder this error in the minds of ( white/lighter skin) Euro centric people prevail. In all fairness however the racism which prevails in Egypt does not have the same undertone has the deep seeded undertone of hate in the West. Once here you walk amoungst various shades of folks who have definatly mixed and enjoy life together. You are right in stating we need to move forward along with educating ourselves of the true history of Egypt and not let others claiming authority to tell us who and what the Egyptian people are or where they spring from. I say this because I also found out I am 36% Northern European, the rest Asian, but no one ever tagged me by just looking at my skin! So go figure….on your own!

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