Sunday, June 19, 2011

An African in Egypt

Photo Credit. Historical photo of a Nubian. 
Egyptians range in skin color from the palest European to the darkest African, and every shade in between.

A bad thing happened on Friday. My Sudanese nanny, Suzy, was the victim of a pretty serious racist incident. Suzy is south Sudanese, of the Dinka people. She was on the bus to Rehab to come to work on Friday morning. It being Egypt, only one side of the bus had curtains. The older Egyptian lady in the seat in front of her told her to give her the whole curtain. Suzy said no, she would prefer to share the curtain.

The older Egyptian lady told her that she did not need the curtain "because she was black." Suzy asked her why she was being so rude. The lady replied "F#$^ your black mother. You Sudanese have no right to be in Egypt. I can make your day blacker than your face."

Suzy had the self restraint to just ask her why she was being so outrageous. The lady responded by hitting her in the face. Suzy, to her credit, did not hit back. Only one person on the bus came to her defense. A man behind her offered her his curtain. The rest did nothing.

Then, after suffering these ridiculous indignities, Suzy was detained by the Rehab security guards, who demanded to see her passport. She did not have it on her, so they held her for 45 minutes. She came to my house, apologizing for being late. I heard her story and was furious. I packed all the kids and her into a taxi. I went to the security location at the bus stop in Rehab.

As a woman of color, an African-American woman, a woman of African descent, I have been in Suzy's position many times. I have been called n*&%(%& and mulatto. I have had fist fights many times. Some times I won, and sometimes I lost, but I always fought back. 

As I have mentioned, Egypt is very very hierarchical. I am not. I do not like hierarchy, and it makes me feel sick to benefit from it. But, this particular time, it came in handy. I wore my American University in Cairo ID. I asked Suzy, and my fabulous Egyptian taxi driver (who only speaks Arabic) to translate for me.

I said. "I am a professor at American University in Cairo. This is my employee. She has been mistreated. An Egyptian lady hit her in the face, but you detained my employee, not the aggressor. That is racist, and I will not put up with it. President Sadat's mother was Sudanese. There is no reason to treat the Sudanese badly. They are our neighbors, and our brothers and our sisters."

The guards replied that they knew I was a professor. They also pointed to their skin, and said how could they discriminate, they are dark too. I said, "That is fine, and perhaps it is not your fault. But my employee was called racist names, and she was treated badly because she is Sudanese. You did not help her. Instead, you gave her a hard time. I never want to have a problem like this again, and if I have one, I am pressing charges against everyone involved." The security guards were duly chastened. Suzy told me that they did not ask her or her sister for their IDs in the following days. If only I could ensure that she and her sister would not face discrimination in Egypt again.


  1. It pains me, as it always has, to hear of the mistreatment of the Sudanese in Egypt. And like you have pointed out, it's the hierarchial/racist attitudes so entrenched in Egytian society that leads to such abominable behavior.

    I blogged about it, only to have fellow Egyptians tell me that I "exaggerate". I was trying to raise awareness, to stop this self-loathing and "Kahwaga complex." But at some point, I realised that the society is beyond redemption when it comes to that.

    Sad conclusion, and very depressing. But at least it gave me some sort of 'closure.' That does not mean that we should stop fighting the injustice-- we should just no keep our hopes up :-S

  2. Fifty or sixty years ago, the US seemed to be beyond redemption on the issue of race relations, but, in my lifetime, race relations have improved dramatically. That's not at all to say that race relations are as good as they were in Dr. Martin Luther King's dream, but still, things are better here. There really is hope for Egypt, too. It'll take time, education, and a government that makes race relations a priority.

  3. I am very sorry to hear about this story, and I believe that some people in Egypt cannot understand the meaning of revolution or the meaning of freedom. Maybe the bad economical situation which Egypt is facing or the unemployment made this. But most of Egyptian are kind and they never accept this behavior

  4. Hi Fem, thanks so much for your comment. I think that with education, as Henry Farkas said, we can make progress on the issue of race in Egypt. Mohammed, I am glad to hear that you think most Egyptians do not agree with this behavior, we need to educate each other about it. Thanks for writing, WMB

  5. Unfortunately, I believe that the main hurdle to racial tolerance is the Egyptian's unwillingness to recognize that there is anything wrong with their behavior/belief system.

    The manifestations of racism down here are not as "serious" as in the US fifty or Sixty years ago.. They are mainly just derisive remarks and subliminal discrimination.

    You ask any Egyptian and they tell you that the problem simply does not exist. Americans on the other hand were overtly racist, some even not ashamed of their discrimination against and hatred for the darker races.

    You can not fix a problem you do not recognize. I think that is why socially conscious bloggers and other media activists should offer more exposure for the cause.

  6. And Thank you Warigia for sharing your insights. I love your blog posts, always pertinent and perceptive.

  7. The sad thing to me is that the original Egyptians were just as black as that Sudanese woman in the picture. The Arabs, Greeks, and a host of other non-black peoples came in and conquered Egypt, mated with the women and the off-spring are those that they show on television and those who dominate Egypt and Northern Africa today. If people only knew their history and who and where they came from, racism would not exist. Racism is ignorance. We are all human and just flesh. We are so fragile and disposable and if we could only realize this, in my opinion, the world would be a much better place. No one race is better than the other. Is the albino tiger greater than the colored tiger? I mean are we really that differnt? We hurt, get hungry, love, get angry, need water, food, shelter, company, all in the same breath. It's just sickening!

  8. Thank you for your kind words Amina.

  9. I am very shocked with what the Egyptian lady did. Doesn’t she remember that in Egypt, her country, there is Nubia in which our people have the same color? Doesn’t she remember that the color of her skin is not of her manufacture or by her choice?

  10. Basma, you are so right, it is really sad. Nubia is a beautiful place. Actually, AUC has a cool project on Nubia going on right now.

    1. ooh really?!!! wow.. it's is my first time to know that. It'll be wonderful if we got the chance to visit the place.

  11. What if she was married of a Sudanese and she gave birth to a black child? Will she kill him? Will she accept the discrimination between him and his peers? This lady has forgotten that we are all members of one family, Earth.

  12. Dear Basma, well, Nubia is just there near Aswan. I visited a Nubian village on the Nile, it was lovely, and the architecture was beautiful.