Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author based in Cairo and New York. She is author of “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.”
I joke that one of the rare times Egyptians identify as African is when the national soccer squad is playing in the African Cup of Nations — and preferably winning it.
As an Egyptian, I was glad to see the film “Black Panther” embrace my country with its inclusion of the Ancient Egyptian goddess Bast as the deity of Wakandans. But considering the anti-black racism against the Nubian indigenous community and visitors in my country, I knew Egypt would not return the love.
Audiences in Egypt might enjoy the film’s fight scenes. But Egypt’s deep-seated anti-black racism will likely mean that such a long-overdue celebration of Africa — a film that has already crossed the $1 billion mark worldwide — will be lost on Egyptians.
Egyptians say “I’m going to Africa” when they visit other countries on the continent, as if Egypt were floating in a bubble of its own. How with such a disavowal of all things African can they appreciate the celebration of all things African that powers through “Black Panther”?
An Egyptian friend, Ramy Wahed, who saw “Black Panther” in a theater in Cairo told me he overheard a man on the way out complain at the lack of white (read “beautiful”) actresses in the film.
“Egyptians are very racist,” Wahed told me. “I’ve seen it against Sudanese and Nubian friends and against darker-skinned friends who’ve been treated terribly. I’ve seen some people refuse to shake hands with them as if they have leprosy or an infectious disease or something. It really pisses me off.”
Racism is fatal in Egypt. In December 2005, Egyptian riot police killed at least 23 unarmed Sudanese refugees, including small children, who had occupied a public park in front of a United Nations office for three months.
Last year, prominent Nubian activist Gamal Sorour died in detention. Sorour was among 25 Nubians arrested for staging a peaceful protest “demanding the return of Nubians to their ancestral lands, from which they were evicted in the 1960s to make way for the lake behind the High Dam on the Nile,” as the Associated Press reported.
In pop culture and movies, black Egyptians and Sudanese are portrayed as “housekeepers and doormen,” which “has created a stereotype of black Africans as subservient,” Amir Beshay, an Egyptian now living in New York City, said. “The stereotype of African Americans comes from American movies, so the depiction of Eric Killmonger is pretty close to the stereotype Egyptians have of African Americans, as violent and thuggish.”
Another dangerous reminder of anti-black racism in Egypt today is how it affects the daily lives of the most vulnerable — refugees.“I have worked with refugees in Egypt from Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, as well as Syria and Iraq, and it indicated to me that all migrants may experience xenophobia in Egypt, but that black Africans additionally face racism, colorism and classism from locals, which serves as an obstacle when trying to access justice, obtain jobs, find accommodation and just live everyday life,” Dalia Malek, an Egyptian American who has a PhD in human rights and forced migration, told me.
Anti-black racism is not just an Egyptian problem. It exists in many parts of the Arab world. The trade that sent enslaved Africans east of the continent has yet to have a similar reckoning — incomplete as it is — as that which headed west of Africa. The word “abeed” (slave) is casually a used to refer to people who are black in the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula.
But as an Egyptian, I hold my country of birth to a higher standard — and my shame is that much sharper — because we are right there on the map as part of Africa. So many black people I meet — especially in the United States — talk of visiting the “motherland” when I tell them I’m Egyptian. I hear that black fraternities and sororities often refer to Ancient Egypt in their symbolism, as part of the pride black Americans often experience in what they consider a shared African heritage.
I want to tell them of a Sierra Leonean man who was in Cairo to study at al-Azhar University who told me of being spat at in Cairo streets. Or of the teenage South Sudanese girl taunted by an Egyptian woman on the metro who tried to grab her nose and mouth until I intervened. None of our fellow passengers said a word. I apologized to the girl for what she had experienced. “That happens every day,” she told me. Or the black American friend who told me of the disdain with which Egyptian police had treated him, assuming he was Nigerian, until he produced his American passport, and the disdain quickly became disguised with chumminess and Eddie Murphy jokes.
Much like “Black Panther” challenges us to imagine alternative futures, the 2011 uprising demanded we imagine a better future for Egypt. The fight against racism must be seen as a revolutionary one. One of the pillars of racism has been the centralized — and chauvinist — definition of “Egyptian,” which for decades was determined by Cairo-based military rulers. Egyptians are more diverse and complex than that.
Since the revolution, activists from Egypt’s Nubian community have rightfully demanded rights to their ancestral lands and a recognition of their cultural heritage. But it is not the responsibility of the victims of Egypt’s racism to end that racism. Wakanda might not exist, but every revolution aims to create a place that has yet to exist. Egypt has much to learn from it if it wants to create a nation of “dignity” and “social justice” as our revolution demanded.