Is Racial Prejudice
on the Rise in Egypt?

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A Question of Colour:
Is Racial Prejudice on the Rise in Egypt, or
are Egyptians Merely Obsessed with Skin Colour?
by
Gamal Nkrumah

It is not an entirely curious fact that most Egyptians seem fixated on blue-eyed blondes. For one thing, the country is peopled essentially by dark-skinned, dark-haired people, and familiarity does breed contempt. Blue-eyed blondes are an exotic rarity. Mind you, an ever increasing number of well-heeled Egyptian women are desperately resorting to skin-lightening creams, light coloured-tinted contact lenses and hair bleaching dyes in an often farcical attempt to attain the golden-locked look.

Admittedly, all this is part of a global trend. Yellow-thatched Japanese youngsters are a common sight in Tokyo nowadays. Mercifully, the phenomenon hasn't quite caught on in Cairo, yet.

The whitening of Egypt has become a lucrative industry. Television commercials bombard viewers with a baffling array of skin-lightening creams and hair-straightening contraptions, creams and shampoos to effect the "white" look.

"Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it's the only one you have," noted French philosopher Emile Chartier. Perhaps, he didn't have the single-minded struggle to be "white" in mind. To pass as white has become, for some, their veritable raison d'jtre.

The Egyptians see themselves as essentially sumr, or "dark". However, for all intents and purposes this is a most confusing and contentious term. If an individual is described as asmar, the masculine, or samra, the feminine, they could range in colour from the southern Sudanese ebony or indigo black, a west African chocolate or mahogany black, the various copper and honey-toned Ethiopian and Somali types, to the olive or off-white dark-haired Mediterranean or Middle Eastern-looking type.

Samara, or "Darkie", traditionally a term of endearment, has today taken on pejorative connotations in contemporary Egypt. The ugly forces of "shadism" are also at work in the country. Shadism, as a social and politico-economic occurrence was, and perhaps still is, pervasive in the Caribbean and among African Americans. Lighter-skinned blacks, who presumably had a greater infusion of white blood have been considered socially superior to darker, full-blooded blacks.

Suspected of actually being the slave-masters' progeny, they have been encouraged to assume overseer roles over the unadulterated blacks. In due course, they were accorded special social status, assumed political leadership and monopolised what economic opportunities presented themselves to the black elites. Those who have "good hair", meaning straighter and less kinky hair were also favoured.

In Egypt, no such historical tradition existed. But the perverted logic of shadism is sadly very much at work. Darker is uncouth, unpolished, crude and common.
Lighter is, accordingly, more desirable, preferred, simply superior, and to ignore this is to ignore one of the salient features of contemporary Egypt.

At some theoretical level it is understandable that black conjures up images of the ugly, pathetic and wretched in the Egyptian psyche. Egypt has become progressively whiter over the millennia. Even so, songs praising dark-skinned or black beauty ranging from the now classic "Asmar ya asmarani" [Dark one, oh dark one] sung by a coterie of now long-departed superstars including Faiza Ahmed and Abdel-Halim Hafez to the more contemporary "Habibi laun al-chocolata", [My love is the colour of chocolate], by Nubian singer Mohamed Mounir. This genre has always been a characteristic feature of Egyptian lyrical folklore.

Songs such as "Asmar malek rouhi" [The dark one owns my soul], and "Alu al-samar ahla walla al-bayad ahla" [They asked whether darkness was more comely than whiteness], another popular song by Soad Mohamed, clearly indicate a collective acknowledgment of the attractiveness of darkness among Egyptians. Indeed, darkness is generally perceived to confer upon the individual the peculiarly Egyptian concept of damm khafif loosely translated as "charming" or "humorous".

This is attested to by the popularity of references to darkness in the context of love and romance in the popular Egyptian song.

"Asmar, asmar tayeb malu, walla samaru sirr gamalu"
[So what if he is dark, that is the secret of his beauty], Mohamed Qandil's "Gamil wa asmar" [Beautiful and Dark], predated the "Black is Beautiful" slogan of the 1970s civil rights movement in the United States.

Racism as an institutionalised political and economic phenomenon never existed in Egypt.

There are many Nubian and Sudanese singers based in Cairo, the cultural capital of the Arab world, but their music is a different genre altogether. A few, such as Jawaher, a popular Sudanese singer, manage to penetrate the Egyptian pop-song market with smash hits such as "Ana bahebb al-asmarani" [I love the dark one]. Yet another is "Gani al-asmar gani" [The dark one came to me] a hit song sang by Etab, a Saudi singer who is herself black.

Nevertheless, it has to be mentioned that even in the realm of the popular song where traditionally references to whiteness or lightness of skin are minimal, there are a few exceptions. "Al-oyoun al-khodr saharouni" [Her green eyes bewitched me], by Muharram Fouad is one such exception.

Sadly, this fondness of darkness in popular songs is not reflected on the street. "I've never been called a nigger to my face more times in my life," Steffan, an African American studying in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Some Egyptian youth may listen to a lot of rap music and may not know how offensive the word is.

But some of the young adults I've heard it from, I hold accountable. They understand how offensive the word is," he said. "It's telling that discussion of race is so minimal that people could get away with using ignorance as an excuse for using the word nigger," he added.

When black Africans are asked whether they felt they were subject to racial prejudice while in Egypt, most queried had terrible stories of personal experiences to tell. African Americans, on the whole, were less emphatic. Some said that they did not suffer from any form of racial discrimination when in Egypt.

"Lighter-skinned Egyptians have treated me just fine. Speaking for myself, I have not experienced racism from Egyptians," said a friend from Oakland, California. "When I am in Egypt, it is as a visitor.

Most Egyptians instinctively know that I am African American, but there are some who think I am Egyptian or Nubian. But, whatever they think I am, I believe they think I am rich," she explained. "So whether I am in Cairo, Luxor or Aswan, Egyptians are always kind and polite to me. In fact, a lot of them want to talk to me. The Nubians, of course, always call me their Nubian 'sistah'."

The fact that shopkeepers, hoteliers and the public at large tend to equate Americans (be they black or white) with dollars and relative wealth might account for the impression that African Americans are less likely to face racial prejudice than sub-Saharan Africans in Egypt and are more likely to be accorded a warmer reception. "One other thing, I am always treated nicely by staff whether I am in a five-star hotel or a no-star hotel," my Californian friend said.

Africans from countries south of the Sahara, including the southern Sudanese and not excepting the large African diplomatic community in Cairo, have more troubling tales to tell.

However, racial prejudice is not exclusively directed at those from sub-Saharan Africa. Upper class Egyptians, often fairer than their poorer compatriots, invariably look down on lower class Egyptians who tend to be darker in complexion. There is a subtle correlation between lower income and darker complexion. The Egyptian upper classes and elites tend to be noticeably lighter in complexion than their poorer and working class compatriots. "They labour in the sun," is sometimes the cynical explanation.

But, a more accurate explanation would be that Egypt has for thousands of years been ruled by foreign, and lighter-skinned, invaders -- Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, the French and British. A large section of the pre-revolutionary Egyptian elite could trace their ancestry to Balkan, Caucasian and Turkish roots.

Moreover, Napoleon Bonaparte's French expedition was notorious for sowing its seeds in places like the Delta city of Mansoura whose women are reputedly "exceptionally beautiful"; in Egyptian common parlance that means fair-skinned, with light-coloured eyes and hair.

Not only are the poorer classes darker in complexion, but they tend to display more "African" cultural traits. Much of the music they enjoy has rhythmic beats that are reminiscent of those of the music of Africa south of the Sahara, with an emphasis on drums and percussion. The elite tend to favour classical Western-influenced music or Middle Eastern (Turkish and Persian) musical strains dominated by stringed instruments. While the poorer and working classes are more likely to dance spontaneously and with abandon in public, the elites tend to be more restrained. Much clapping and ululation accompanies street parties in low income areas, the elites, in sharp contrast, shun these "baladi" literally "country" traits, suggestive of the African.

"The foremost issue is the darkness of your skin and your manner of dress. The darker your skin and the more ethnic, or African, your style of dress, the more stares and harassment you will receive," explained Thomas Ford, an African American resident in Cairo.

"As a Black man, an African American, I have been fortunate enough not to have experienced anything first hand. I have been welcomed with open arms."

Again, like many of his compatriots, he sees a qualitative difference between racism in Egypt and racism in his native US. "I will say that, in general, racism in Egypt is much less of an issue than in other parts of the world. But anyone who denies its existence is fooling himself." Ford spoke of a "subtle level of racism" that is "hard to define". Racism in Egypt, he said, was more prevalent among the educated and socioeconomic and political elites than among the poor and working classes. "In some ways it is almost non-existent compared to what I have experienced in the US, but at the same time there are some pervasive issues in Egypt involving race."

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