Please don't suggest that racism in the US is just as bad. It's not. You have no right to say that unless you've lived in an Arab country and speak fluent Arabic. Yes, the US has racism. But I can't remember the last time I heard someone say the "n" word in the US publicly or privately. Except of course certain black rap artists, and popular TV chef Paula Deen, who admitted to using the word in the past. I have, however, lost track of the amount of times I've heard that word in Egypt. I've lost track of how many times I've heard one of my favorite "truisms"-- the one about Jews being the sons of pigs and monkeys-- a truism that predates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by the way. Hmm, let's see... what other fine racist (and sexist sand homophobic) speech have I been subjected to? Oh yeah. White men, i.e. American and European men aren't "real" men because they don't completely control their women, for the most part. And because they're not prone to crazy outbursts of irrational jealousy. Black women have more "desires" than white women. White women are easy whores.
(By the way, can we reintroduce actual tar and feathering as a form of punishment? Please? That would make for some great theater.)
Compare this to the Middle East, where it's totally acceptable for presidential hopeful Mohamed Morsi to publicly talk about the songs of pigs and monkeys (and to compare Egypt's problems to a scene from Planet of the Apes!). Where it's completely kosher to invite celebrities to participate in a reality show, and then falsely tell them that the producer and broadcaster are Jewish in the hopes of filming their (sometimes violent) reactions. Where there won't be much public outrage if you slaughter people who pertain to a different sect of your religion, or even worse, who practice another religion. :O
Am I coming down hard on this region? Yes. Forgive me. I'm exposed to hate speech on a daily basis and am sick of it. There's no excuse for that shit in this day and age. I'm just glad I came to this part of the world already inoculated against the diseases of racism, sexism, and homophobia. Otherwise I'd wind up like Jarrar.
I'm sure a lot of what I'm saying is new to many of my readers-- unless you're a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs. Either way, I'd like to direct your attention to a well-written article by Egyptian feminist Mona Eltahawy entitled "The Arab World's Dirty Secret: Racism." She opens her piece with an anecdote about the racist treatment of a Sudanese woman on the Cairo metro. Eltahawa explains: "We are a racist people in Egypt and we are in deep denial about it." She goes on to say: " The racism I saw on the Cairo Metro has an echo in the Arab world at large where the suffering in Darfur goes ignored for two main reasons – firstly because its victims are black people and we don’t care about those with dark skins and secondly because those who are creating the misery in Darfur are not Americans or Israelis and we only pay attention when America and Israel are behaving badly." (emphasis added)
Eltahaway continues: "My argument on the Cairo Metro was a also a reminder of our double standards. We love to cry “Islamophobia” when we talk about the way Muslim minorities are treated in the West and yet we never stop to consider how we treat minorities and the most vulnerable among us."
Now that I got that out of the way, has anyone noticed that I'm white? (Actually I'm translucent, but the closest in meaning to that on the census is "white." :P) I'm pointing this out because it's one of the factors for my success as a dancer in Cairo, and is thus further evidence of the racism endemic in this society. Yep. Contrary to what Miss Jarrar would have you believe, my whiteness is an asset here in the land of Egypt, ironically enough. Egyptian women love my white but-tocks. So do the men. :) How do I know this? Because Egyptians have said it to my face. Over. and. over. again.
I also learned to accept that Egypt has issues. Major issues. Racism is one of them. It's cousin, self-hatred, is another. It's no secret that most Egyptians are in denial of their African roots, despite Egypt being on the African continent, and despite many of them having African features. While they can't exactly claim that they're white, they also avoid thinking of themselves as Africans. Related to this are their feelings of inferiority. For all of their public displays of xenophobia, Egypt has an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the white world, east and west. Egyptians believe that everything created by white people (with the exception of secularism of course), is superior to their Egyptian or Asian or African equivalents. White technology is better. White clothes are better. White people are better-- better work ethic, more honest, more intelligent, more ethical, more beautiful. I'm not making this up or expressing my own opinions. Egyptians really do say this stuff to me.
This could all be post-colonial trauma. Indeed, many explain Egyptians' self-hatred by suggesting that they inherited and internalized the racism of their colonizers. Or, it could just be that everyone wants to be what they're not. The way I covet dark skin and curly hair. Or it could be that racism, hate, and exploitation are common to all societies. It's most likely all of the above.
Whatever the reasons, racism and self-hatred are widespread in Egypt. You can see it in the entertainment industry, in which lighter-skinned Egyptian and foreign dancers, singers, and actors are idolized. You can see it at weddings, in which brides make themselves white for the night by applying foundation five shades lighter than their skin tone. You can see this in the pharmacies and beauty supply stores, which sell whitening creams. (Can you imagine?) And even in the Reda Troupe. I'll never forget the first time I observed a Reda rehearsal five years ago. I noticed that in the group dance routines, most of the taller dancers were in the front row, while most of the shorter ones were in the back. It's supposed to be the opposite, so that everyone is seen. When I asked why that was, I was told that they put the darker-skinned dancers in the back row because they don't "look as nice." As you can imagine, I wasn't prepared for that answer, and didn't exactly know how to respond.
And get this. I've even heard parents say that their kids aren't beautiful because they turned out too dark. I mean, come on now. Everyone thinks their kids are beautiful. What kind of people would say their children are too dark? Or too light? Or too fat, or too this or that?
I don't know what else to say about racism in Egypt other than it's currently a widespread problem with no real solution in sight. Personally, I do my part in educating people whenever I can. Like when people use the "n" in front of me. I explain to them why this term is wrong and offensive and why it should be discontinued. I try to get them to empathize with suffering that black people have been enduring on account of their color. I drive it home even further by inconveniently reminding them that there are plenty of people who use the "n" word to refer to Arabs-- only they put the word "sand" in front of it. That usually gets them to think twice about using racist language.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's much more that can be done. God knows I've tried. Like the time I sent an Asian dancer to replace me on the boat one night. I don't even want to share the comments I had to hear when I went to work the next day, all because the dancer was Asian! Or the time I brought some of my black dance friends to an Egyptian venue in the States and asked the owner to let them perform on the weekends.
It's disappointing and totally unfair. Not to mention completely ridiculous in an African country in which the overwhelming majority of people are dark brown! I just hope that more Egyptians start recognizing the racism in their country and work to abolish it. And I hope that hurtful and dangerous stereotypes are combated through a revolutionized education system that emphasizes equality, tolerance, and respect. And on that note, I can't wait until it warms up so I can go sun-bathing and work on my tan! :D