We took a truck to the absolute end of the village of West Aswan after leaving the house at around dusk. Our task would be to return to the house by foot, only after knocking tirelessly on the doors of the neighbors and friends of the groom’s family, inviting them to attend the approaching wedding day.

Last May, a friend asked me to photograph his nephew’s wedding while documenting Nubian wedding traditions in West Aswan. So on this night, I went with the groom’s sister and her friends to dozens of homes to remind the village of the wedding date and ensure that an ample number of guests would make their appearance.


Waiting outside a house of a friend of the groom.

As we passed through the high and colourful arched entrances that characterise traditional Nubian architecture and into the wide open courtyards furnished with smooth sand, we quickly greeted, talked, and laughed with each family encouraging them to come. We then would exit through the backdoor, entering directly into another neighbor’s house only to repeat this swift and cyclical greeting process again.

This is because in West Aswan, an entrance for one house often is an exit of another. This is due to the unique design of many traditional Nubian homes, which reflects the communal nature of the village, though visitors and newcomers can easily feel as if they are in a labyrinth.

But we are not the first to make the trek around the village or go through these household mazes. The bride had preceded us weeks earlier, as here it is custom for the bride and the groom to personally invite the guests weeks before the wedding.

“The groom usually takes his car and goes with his friends around the village to invite the people,” says Karima Seyam a specialist in Nubian traditions who lives in Cairo. She explains that in the past people may have even taken small presents and perfumes to the invitees’ houses to help persuade as many as possible to attend.

Though traditionally Nubian weddings may last well over a week, now the most significant celebrations happen primarily on two days: the Henna day and the Wedding day. “Every Nubian village has their own tradition. One village may have three nights another one has two nights,” says Fatma Serag, whose family comes from Alalaki, Aswan. “But in the past the wedding festival could take up to seven days.”

Serag explains that many of these changes are most likely be attributed to the fact that the groom’s or the bride’s family does not earn enough money for a seven day festival as before, affecting both the length of the  wedding celebration and the amount of gifts exchanged.  This reflects the wider situation in Aswan, which like many places outside of Egypt’s capital, faces economic marginalization and underdevelopment and is doubly burdened by the deteriorating economic state of the country.

Despite this, however, the wedding celebration remains an important aspect of life and culture that many people are invested in continuing.

The Dukhan


A girl exhibits her henna design

Before the official Henna day the groom’s sisters and friends go to a henna designer to paint their hands. We spend over eight hours crammed in a small room, watching the strokes of henna stream out the tube and admiring the artist as she draws intricate designs on our hands and feet. After drying, the henna is washed off and we place our hands and feet over a hole in the corner of a dark and smoky room the women call the “dukhan”. The “dukhan,” which in Arabic literally means “to smoke,” is a smoking fire that has been set in a hole in the ground. It is used in both Nubia and parts of Sudan to aromatize the body and to blacken the henna stain on the skin. Seyam emphasises that it is rituals like this that highlight the importance of henna and the Henna day in Nubian weddings.

Henna day

The next day, the celebration begins early and I am whisked away to several locations as the festivity spreads from house to house. Male friends and relatives of the bride and groom go to the bride’s house first and begin to play the tabla and sing. Similarly, female relatives and friends sing and dance at the groom’s. The processions finally culminate by joining at the groom’s house where a meeting of rhythm and joy proceeds as the groom enters with his friends.


Dancing at the groom’s house

“Arees bastabu ya wa hed!” a symphony of voices sing to him with a perfect combination of cadence and verve.

Serag laughs as I ask her what these words, which combine Arabic and Nubian, mean. She explains it is a traditional greeting used by all Nubians, regardless of tribe or language, to express joy. “We say this when the groom enters the party. It is song to begin the festival,” she says.

With the night comes food brought out on platters by men in long white galabeyas. Henna day almost always ends with dancing and this wedding is no different.  A local wedding DJ and musical troupe are hired to provide music for the children’s dance outside the groom’s front yard. Later, a cow is killed and prepared for tomorrow’s feast.

The Wedding Day

Despite the previous night’s dancing, the morning of the wedding starts extremely early. It’s well before sunrise and half the courtyard is already transformed into a makeshift kitchen while last night’s slaughter is being cooked. Today, preparing the food is a joint task. Men cook the meat and are filling the pastries while women cut the vegetables and prepare the platters. The younger ones take it upon themselves to do the arduous chore of entertaining the rest with music, drums, and naughty jokes.


Colourful streamers, sticks, and flags are common feature of Nubian weddings

As darkness approaches, the families separate and head to the hairdresser’s to perfect their transformations. The groom’s sister and friends adorn themselves in dresses, gleaming and shimmering as they powder themselves. While the groom and his friends are surely prepping themselves elsewhere by other means. After stopping at the portrait studio for a quick photo session with the bride and groom, and a minor dance party in the street in between, we return to the village where the guests have already been fed and the eight-hour concert is just beginning.

While most other weddings are ending their concerts at midnight, for Nubian weddings in Aswan midnight is exactly when the wedding really begins. Although women and men often dance in separate spaces, with the men in front closer to the stage, it’s not uncommon to see female and male relatives dance together. Everyone participates, the young, the old, men and women. No one here seems to know how to tire. The dancing lasts till 8 am in the morning, well after the sun has already risen.

As the numbers dwindle, the music finally ends. Breakfast is tea with milk served with biscuits for those who could stay awake enough to eat; many others lie passed out at their neighbor’s or their relative’s house.

During my time here everyone insisted that keeping traditions and preserving culture and language is important. As members of one of the oldest civilizations in Africa and the Nile Valley, Nubians take pride in their heritage. Here, there is a vitality, an endurance, that has sustained the people of Nubia for a very long time, allowing them to recreate the moments and traditions of the past while simultaneously reinventing them anew for the future.

Originally published on Daily News Egypt website.

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Terrorists at a sit-in

In 2011, the BBC reported that 864 people died during the initial 18-day uprising in Egypt. Yesterday, reports came in that 525 Egyptians died in little over 24 hours after the Egyptian army and security forces made moves to wipe out the Rabaa al Adaweya sit-ins held by Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

That’s well over half the numbers in 2011. And still the official number of 525 could increase if the reports that the 200 bodies that lay in El-Iman mosque in Cairo are really unaccounted for are true. This means almost as many people died in the last two days in Egypt then in all the 18 days of the 2011 Egyptian uprising.

Someone contest me. This is a death count of nightmare proportions.

As the Ministry of Interior can only give us the number of 43 security officers killed,  this makes us uneasily wonder who the rest of the corpses might be…

I want us to think about this long and hard as this moment of violence continues. I want us to think about these numbers, in this moment while we, “the world,” still remember Egypt. This moment where the Western media still devotes 10-minute analyses to the “situation” and U.S. spokespersons still express a “deep concern” for the Egyptian people and  “deeper concerns” for “our strategic interests” in the region. I want us to think about it in this moment before the Egypt becomes just another blood splat on the map like Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

And the charred remains of what used to be human beings are saying things to us too.

credit: mosaaberising

credit: mosaaberising

The exceedingly high numbers of bodies tell us that there was something untrue in the Ministry of Interior’s announcements that they gave warnings and exit routes for citizens, citizens who have no interest in burning their own tents and camps or themselves. Something is awry.

Till this day we still hear “But they were blocking traffic and disturbing daily life.” People are still repeating the line “they were a nuisance and there were signs of torture in the camps!” Exclaiming how evil it was that Pro-Morsi supporters brought their children and families to these “terrorist” sit-ins. This article by Abdallah Schleifer implies the non-peacefulness of the Pro-Morsi protesters is because they “want” to die when they, like so many protesters before them, picked up rocks and made barricades to repel the army and security forces. These people make these claims when they know full well each and every one of these accusations could be made against anti-Mubarak, anti-SCAF, or the anti-Morsi protesters throughout the past two years and none of these occurrences made their grievances or their right to protest any less worthy.

But I’m not here to talk about the Muslim Brotherhood’s innocence.

Because their innocence or guilt, their truth or their hypocrisy are irrelevant to the murders now taking place. I declare that neither the innocent or guilty deserve to have their precious daughters and sons shot to death. I declare the guilty have rights too.

credit: mosaaberising

credit: mosaaberising

Because their leaders are guilty for many things over the past year and their general stupidity is well documented debates ensue about whether we should “sympathize” with Brotherhood or not. But what I’m wondering is if we can separate MB leaders from their supporters and their family members and if we can call for protection for and have empathy with them, as the army and security personnel obviously can’t.

Our failure to distinguish the MB leaders from the supporters and our replication of Egyptian media’s horrendous campaign to vilify those who are now called “terrorists” by the army and were once called “thugs” by the SCAF and the Mubarak regime is unconscionable. Our inability to muster empathy for the “non-innocent” as they are slaughtered, no matter how many of them die, is increasingly eroding our own claims to human rights.

And I bite my tongue in anger when I hear the United States and army/police-supporters mention the burnings of police stations and churches in the same breath fueling the perception that Egypt’s Copts are synonymous with state security and a military apparatus that has for years neglected to protect minorities and even encouraged religious sectarianism when it benefited them, that is when they weren’t committing torture and brutalizing the majority of Egypt’s disenfranchised population.

In a majority Muslim country it’s hard to understand how a discourse of Islamophobic “war on terror” could replicate itself but with the country falling into the textbook definition of fascism following the elative protests around Al-Sisi’s “mandate” to fight terrorism it becomes more understandable why it was appropriated:  to the scorch the earth from underneath the feet of the Rabaa sit-in protesters.

Last spring, I was taken in by Islamists in an Upper Egypt village and having little very money with me, I saw a very poor Islamist family take my foreign self in warmly, feed me, house me, and treat me like a sister. Of course, I could not agree with them ideologically on all things (most anything) but memories of their kindness and humaneness will not be wiped away because someone tells me they are terrorists.

credit: mosaaberising

credit: mosaaberising

Now more than ever it is important to stand with all the people under siege in Egypt, whoever they may be. This means our solidarity with our fellow human beings will be in constant flux. It’s not about their “innocence.” It’s about justice and if they are treated justly. And whether it is the families and or supporters of the Brotherhood or Christians in Upper Egypt or in the Sinai, or the anti-Morsi protesters of Ithadeyia,  all state and sectarian violence should be condemned, physically disrupted, and stifled.

As churches become ashes and mosques become morgues, it is apparent the horror of what unfolded on Wednesday will not be fully understood until the statistics of the dead cease to be just numbers but become our brothers and sisters, and those deemed “thugs” and “terrorists” cease to become labels we paste on people we can’t understand but become our neighbors once more.

There is a grand fear in Egypt that if either side recognizes “the other” and their pain then the pain and rights of “our side” will somehow be infringed upon. Yet, to affirm the humanity of those who do not affirm ours is one of the greatest victories any revolution can hope to achieve.

Anything less is grave capitulation to a playbook a fascist military-police state where people of all backgrounds, when their time comes, can easily become nothing more than a pile of bleeding numbers.

Photo credits:

When silence equals complacency with the fate of those whose voices have been stilled by violent conflict, music can become an act of agitation that reminds us to not forget the victims of war.

In the dusty buildings of Downtown, Cairo one such protest has been made. Classic electric guitar riffs mixed with strong but light, soulful vocals help bring the plight of Syrian refugees back to the forefront of the world’s consciousness. The project is the result of a collaboration of local and international musicians and producers.

Combining the hard rock sounds of Syrian guitarist Mohamed Tayara and the delicate vocals of Rosina Al-Shaater, an English singer, Earthling Media produced its first music video titled Exodus: The Syrian Refugee Crisis, last week on YouTube and online social networks.

The musical power of this duo amplifies the images of displaced Syrians, especially children, whose faces compel the listener to view the crisis not just in terms of ever-growing statistics but as a real experience faced by millions of human beings across the world.

According to Tayara, who came to Egypt almost a year ago, the main purpose of the video is to bring attention to the refugee crisis.

“I think it’s important to raise awareness about the situation that’s happening in Syria. I mean 10,000 refugees each day crossing the borders, now the numbers are about a million who had to flee. So, it was something we wanted to participate in. It was also something that people would enjoy listening to so if we put this message inside [the music video] it might reach more people than writing would,” he said.


The music video promotes the aid group Action Aid UK’s Syria Crisis Appeal and invites viewers to donate contributions for refugees who often, according to Action Aid’s website, escape the violence and arrive at camps with next to nothing.

Bassem Nabham, a Syrian producer at Earthling Media Egypt who came to Egypt six months ago, also worked on the video. He emphasised that though this music video is just a small start, displaced Syrian musicians and artists across the world have been involved in many projects highlighting the refugee crisis and the war in their country.

Doing so is not without risk though: “Since the start of the revolution most of us were controlled by fear and we couldn’t do much to contribute because of fear of anything that might happen in Syria,” Nabham said. He said for many Syrians living abroad activism is difficult because they want to be on the side of “the people”, but in a conflict so complex and divided between the government and the various revolutionary factions, all of whom have been accused of committing war crimes, it is hard to know what that side is.

“We could not contribute to anything we didn’t believe in a 100% so we didn’t do anything. When it came to humanitarian stuff and our people’s misery we felt that we can do something, especially after [the statistics] became worse,” Nabham said.

Rather than make overt political statements that could be used or misconstrued for the advantage of one faction, the team decided to create a video in support of the refugees as a whole, by highlighting their suffering and stressing the need to change it.

This resonates with El- Shaater whose addition to the project came later but was just as essential. She feels the music should be approached as something that touches the listener. “The idea was to see it as an art form, not something that is academically correct. It is the expression of the actual emotion in the voice,” she said.

Anyone who watches the video cannot help but be struck by the feelings behind the chords; they ring strong and loud, and insist the voices of the displaced should be heard and the existence of refugees remembered.

Originally published at Daily News Egypt.

related and unrelated links:

Syria crisis worst since Rwanda


Although the origins or May Day are found in the United States May 1st remains the official holiday of “Loyalty Day” and “Law Day”

While millions of people across the world marched, chanted, and protested for better working conditions yesterday on May 1st President Obama asked American citizens to raise American flags of loyalty to the U.S. government.

Curiously May 1st  which is known around the world as May Day or International Workers Day is still known officially in the United States as “Loyalty Day” and “Law Day.”

Little remembered by the public but nevertheless a ritual observed by every American president since the 1950s Red Scare when Congress made it official, it shows the American government’s resiliency to hold itself against worker movements.


May Day 2013 in Chicago: Not the type of flags Obama was talking about Chicago!

It’s ironic that May 1st is the official Workers Day from regions as diverse as Latin America, Europe and Asia when the origins of this of day are in fact American.

The date commemorates the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago where workers leading a peaceful strike for an eight hour work day, something we all now see as standard, were murdered by police forces in violent clashes. The events of this day revived the struggle for workers’ rights.

Originally dubbed as “Americanization” Day in the 1920s by the Veterans of Foreign Wars during the first Red Scare to counter Communist, Socialist, and Anarchist commemorations of the events, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared it Law Day in 1958 and Loyalty Day in 1959 when apparently a holiday heralding the Law wasn’t enough.

Americanization, Loyalty and Law were all seen as good key words to portray labor movements as contrasting with patriotism and we still see today in America the legacy of such a discourse if one talks about labor rights too ardently.

Advocating for just wages, humane working conditions and the elimination of wealth and resource inequality is still viewed in the mainstream as conflicting with loyalty to America and her laws.

Today our government and it’s figurehead Obama continues to try to convince us that “Americanness” is opposite to workers demanding rights, that is why we despite our diverse histories and legacies of struggle are simply meant to be loyal to the state and law alone and in official engagements no word is spoken of the poor or the working class or their struggle which these sanctioned celebrations of “loyalty” and “law” are meant to cover up.

But in a world where the inequality gap grows larger by the day more of us are finding our pride in our un-loyalty to a system that supports such stark inequity…

In a world where a hegemon continues to dominant economically, culturally, and politically our pride is not in our “Americanness” but our solidarity and identification with the Other.

As “un-loyal un-americans” we know our identities and allegiances are not to flags, political borders, corporations, or to the governments that protect them, but to living, breathing people in our communities and across the world and their right to live more than lives that just scrape by an existence.

related and unrelated links:

Obama’s Liberal Spin on “Loyalty Day”

Noam Chomsky talks about “Law Day” as an attack on workers movements

More Young People are Identifying with Socialism and against Capitalism

Egypt’s Africa Problem: A Logical Fallacy

When considering what happened to Nubian filmmaker and activist Nada Zatouna it’s important to point out that many people in Egypt retain false ideas about Africa.

In Egypt there is an elephant in the room and that elephant is Africa. Egypt has an Africa problem and that is not new. There exist many misconceptions of Africa among people here. There are three false premises dealing with Africa in particular that many Egyptians believe and which make life more difficult for all blacks in Egypt.

Though many may not verbally admit it, their actions and statements reveal just how pervasive these false premises are in the collective unconscious of a society that silently breeds discriminatory men in pharmacies…

The Three False Premises


For many in Egypt this Fox News internet meme of Egypt in Iraq might as well as be true.

1.) Egypt is not in Africa Its quite usual to hear Egyptians of all classes and educational backgrounds to laugh and talk about Africa as if they were not on the continent.  When blacks walk the streets here they shout “Afreeqee”  or “African” at us as if it is a bad word, along with a whole host of names you cannot shout back of course because those who say these things do not realize what continent they are on. This statement is geographically incorrect, culturally incorrect, and just flat out all over wrong and foolish but most Egyptians go about their lives like it’s true.

2.) There are no Black people in Egypt  – This statement is never said aloud here but it is embedded in hearts. Everyone knows what an “Aswani” is, but that doesn’t stop some Egyptians from mocking my Nubian friends on why they speak Arabic so well, it doesn’t stop them from assuming that all blacks in this country are foreigners or refugees as in the case of Nada Zatouna.

3.) There is no racism – Egyptians who have watched racial insults thrown my way while we walk the streets together will say this statement proudly minutes later… This is actually a very common belief here and found among all classes and groups who only imagine racism to be something of those Americans, Germans, or Israelis. Others who advocate this idea are staunch nationalists who wish to shield Egypt and Arabs from criticism especially from foreigners or from fellow citizens who they deem are being “divisive” by bringing the issue up.

Not one of these statements is true, not one of them. But you can always find at least one person in the room who will believe at least one of them if not all three even if they do not openly state it.

The Bifurcation of a Continent and of a People

Mervat Hatem an Egyptian feminist and political scientist at Howard University, one of the United States’ oldest historically black universities, explains in her paper the division of Africa into two regions ignores the ways cultures and peoples have historically blended, interacted and shared traditions among each other.

Hatem says this artificially created division is recent but still influences the way many perceive Africa, from the ordinary citizen to the academic. These “imaginative geographies” she tells us were promoted by the West in their drive to pursue political interests but also to reinforce Africa’s subordinate status as “the other.”

In Egypt, many have internalized these colonial era “imaginary divisions.” They “otherize” Africa and Africans by saying they are not really on the continent. They cannot think outside colonially drawn and enforced borders and geographies.

To be one and of the continent yet refuse it at the same time, to rebuke the people you believe are more “native” is as much a colonialist mentality as it is a colonialized one… and unfortunately it’s not just one pharmacist on Asr Al-Aini Street who thinks like this.


* White Westerners love premise number two in particular – A white expat friend once laughed when another black expat argued that blackness was relevant in revolutionary Egypt. But since of course there no “black” people here she just found that nonsense hilarious! This type of thinking by Westerners also leads to weird things like this for Nubians settling abroad.

* Mervat Hatem’s “Why and How Should Middle East and African Studies Be Connected?International Journal of Middle East Studies / Volume 41 / Issue 02 / May 2009, pp 189-19

More Strange and Marvelous posts in this Domain:

Nada Zatouna’s Testimony on Racism in Seif Pharmacies : An English Translation

The Strange Case of the Racist Egyptian Pharmacist that came out of Nowhere!

related and unrelated links:

The Huffington Posts best of “Where in the world is Egypt” maps. Any and everywhere but Africa!


Nada Zatouna

A black Egyptian director and activist is refused service in a pharmacy and Egyptians protest but Mubarak-era myths of a “innocent” society and false ideas about Africa still keep people from really interrogating racism even in revolutionary Egypt.


The other week went by like any other in Egypt when a girl was refused service in a store and was insulted by employees because of the color of her skin.

A pharmacist passed her by in line when it was her turn to buy medicine, stared straight in her face as he probably did many others with faces too dark before her, and without fear of losing his humanity or his job he said “I don’t take anything from people who are not white.” With that he instructed another employee to take the money from her black hands that were apparently not good enough for him to touch.

The difference this time though is that this girl was Nada Zatouna, a well-known Egyptian political activist and filmmaker in Cairo who is also Nubian and who is also a revolutionary and this, this small fact would upset the natural order of things in Cairo.

“I swear on my mother’s head aafashaaax them!!!” cried Nada on Facebook publicly about Seif Pharmacies, the famous chain of pharmacies that refused her. Arabic-learners, I’ll link you to my favorite Egyptian dictionary website to help you translate this not so polite Arabic gem.


Nada Zatouna and supporters protest racism. You picked the wrong ‘Samara’ to mess with…fool!

But this was not the time to be decent or polite, it was time to fight. Nada with the support of her friends took to Facebook determined to instigate, incite, and interrupt the minds of the Egyptian public. Her online testimony circulated and in only a matter of hours after publishing it garnered over 400 shares and now stands at over 2,000. (Read the translation of the testimony here)

Nada’s testimony spread and quickly struck fear and shock into the minds of Egyptian social networkers. What was most scary about what happened to Nada was the fact that it sounded so much like those horrible stories we heard coming out of the Jim Crow U.S. or apartheid-era South Africa, it’s certainly not something that could come out of Egypt, Om ad-Dunia?!

Newspaper op-eds and Facebook comments about Nada’s experience all acted like this has never happened before. The incident was strange. Came out of nowhere. No historical precedent. An innocent society! An innocent people! How is this happening in Egypt? A moral breakdown of an innocent society!

“This is the first time this has happened in Egypt!”  one comment says in Arabic.

“Is what you’re saying real?!” another one said in response to Nada on her wall.

“We’ve never had this in Egypt before! How could this happen?! Wallahi this is a new problem,”  another comment in an online discussion says.

Even the Facebook protest page created in support of Nada bought into this narrative of never-before-seen -super-duper-new problem of racism!

“All of our lives we have never known anything about “black” or “white” and then comes someone who discriminates!” the Facebook page laments.

Then when the weeping and the gnashing of teeth subsided a bit, then came some voices of clarity, sanity and honesty, ones whom I genuinely appreciate and I have translated for you below:

Tamer Mowafy was one of the first to take down the pretentiousness in the reactions of some commentators and directly criticize the sentence claiming Egyptians were innocent of any knowledge of racism on the Facebook protest page for Nada.

tamer mowafy comment

“I strongly object to the first sentence [on the Facebook protest page]. If all our lives we didn’t have a thing called “black” or “white,” did the phenomenon of discrimination and unkindness towards blacks crash on us suddenly from the sky? The problem with these people is that they practice racism and sectarianism as if it is something so unusual so much so they don’t even think twice about it and all the time they imagine the people here are beautiful and don’t have any these bad things.”

Amira Aly also questions the underlying assumptions of the Facebook protest page that Egyptians just never “knew” how to racially discriminate:

amira aly comment

“With all due respect for the words written above. It is not right to say that Egyptians are not racist!! Egyptians are unfortunately racist to the core and I am for one am happy that we have finally risen up and stopped sleeping!”

As for the Facebook reactions that wanted to cast this as one bad apple or a “strange” or “unusual” incident Loda Kabo and Leil Zahra Mortada have much to tell us.

loda kabo comment

“We are a people that practiced racism and discrimination in all of its forms… the discrimination of thought, class discrimination, social discrimination and discrimination against women…  but demonstrations alone are not working we must fight racism in new ways …. The problem is not in an individual. It is in 80 million people who practice discrimination and racism in all its forms. The problem is a problem of a sick mentality.

leil zahra

“We must know that Nada is an activist and a revolutionary (and a great person) and many among her friends are activists and revolutionaries. All of them know to move and make an uproar against racism, but let us also think about how many people don’t have the strength and support she does. This is because society attacks them in every moment and every day, they don’t have that what we have in communications and means. This movement is not for Nada, this is for many more people, it’s for us, all of us. Discrimination and racism doesn’t have a limit. Today [we take on the discrimination] of skin, tomorrow gender, and after that religion….etc. etc.

These voices and their wisdom are encouraging but unfortunately Nada’s experience and the reactions to it reveal to us how out of touch with reality so many people are in Egypt concerning issues of race and color discrimination and they show us just how mired many people are in false Mubarak-era memories of “peace” and “tranquility” and “stability” between all groups.

One such example is this op-ed by a Mr. Hussien Ahmed which strangely tried to link Nada’s experience and the supposed “new phenomenon” of racism to the revolution. He suggested that in “post-revolution” Egypt there is a breakdown of morals and that “we have not seen this before.” The word “before” here means “under Mubarak” everyone, it means the last thirty years … This is code for more of the same myth that revolutionaries in this country hear all the time of the supposed “stability” and “peace” and all other sorts of great things that existed before the revolution. Mubarak era memories… a7a.

These Mubarak era memories asked the public to view relations between groups in Egypt with rose tinted glasses where just about everything and everyone was perfect under the previous regimes. These memories were of course selective … because we forgot that it was an Egyptian songwriter who wrote into Lebanese pop singer Haifa Webhe’s song the refrain referring to a “Nubian monkey”  toy and we forgot how the racist taunting of Nubian Egyptian football player like Shikabela was so bad it almost drove him to quit. And we forgot the racist Egyptian memes that pop up in our feeds or the culture of acceptable racism in printed Egyptian Arabic newspapers for decades. And we forgot the way darker skinned Nubians, refugees and migrants from other African countries are treated on daily basis, and we forgot more sinister episodes like the Mustafa Mahmoud square massacre or just how trigger-happy Egyptian guards are at the Israeli border.


No amount of talking about how much you love Mohamed Mounir or the fact that you have a dark skinned cousin is going to solve this problem.

These Mubarak era memories tell us to cancel out certain things so we wouldn’t be able to remember it if we tried. But all that forgetting doesn’t mean that racism wasn’t there “before.” So no Mr. Ahmed, the revolution hasn’t broken down morals  it has opened up eyes. It has done exactly what a revolution is supposed to do.

I speak harshly today, not just for my own sake as what Nada endures is something I suffer from personally but because it is something many of my diverse friends in this country, the people I deeply care about, the people I have come to admire and respect, people I consider like sisters and brothers also suffer from, people who are very very dear to me and no amount telling me “it doesn’t happen” from a society that insists claiming ignorance will make me be silent. It’s insulting.

The Nubian citizens martyred, imprisoned, injured and that fought for and continue to fight for this country and their homeland deserve for us to examine more the history of Egypt’s relations with Nubia and the Nubian people. Many of the South Sudanese, the Darfuri and Somali refugees that after enduring much hardships in their own countries still helped to secure neighborhoods during the 18 day uprising with their Egyptian neighbors in the neighborhood watch committees deserve more as well… all these groups deserve more than to have their discrimination to just be forgotten as that “strange incident!”

Many Egyptians have false ideas about Africa and this affects the way they treat and view blacks. (See: Three Myths Egyptians have about themselves and Africa). They often reject the idea that they are on the African continent, that blacks are “normal” citizens, or that racism really exists in Egypt. If Egyptians want to fight racism they must not only be against it verbally but go to the root of their misconceptions and false ideas and cut them out once and for all.

A Nubian Renaissance: Celebration and Resistance

It’s not even uncommon to even meet Nubians or other blacks in Egypt who accept one or all of the above false ideas. It’s not even rare to see them insist on pushing problems of color and culture discrimination under the rug or to see blacks advocate silence because the “best” road to advancement and survival is to act like nothing is happening… Or maybe as blacks we think it’s happening to the other ones of us, the darker ones, the female ones, the foreign ones, the poorer ones, the segments of our population that our least powerful, maybe if we think of it like this it makes it easier to discard racism to the back of our minds.

Nubian writer and model Fatima Ali couldn’t be more resistant to this way of thinking.


Fatima Ali, Nubian writer and model. She literally schooled everyone on that metro and then just walked out like a boss…

I ran into her the other day on the metro. I was eager to finally sit down and talk with the girl who had inspired me to start taking my translation of Arabic seriously.

But I would not be able to utter a single word to her on our ten metro-stop ride together because she was too busy defending herself. While we ride she hears people laugh at and taunt her, chide her for responding to her harassers, mock her for speaking Arabic correctly and one man even gets up off his seat and threatens to beat her if she doesn’t stop “talking back”. But not even for one minute does she not stand her ground, not even for one minute does she let any of this intimidate her.

As we near our stop and prepare to get off two other black women approach us and empathetically tell us “We go through this every day but you must ignore them and you must stay silent and not talk back.”

“Not talk back?” Fatima says in surprise, “I’m not going to stop expressing myself. Ever.”

And express herself she does… Fatima started her own blog called The Diaries of a Black Girl chronicling her experiences of ethnic and sexual harassment in Egypt and has garnered a following. But she isn’t alone many other Nubian bloggers are writing, tweeting and challenging the dominant premises that say racism doesn’t exist or ideas that deride Africa. Blogger Arkamani regularly writes about the many misconceptions Egyptians have about Africa and black people. Another Nubian blogger Ahmed Ragab writes about the intersection of Africa, resistance movements, and revolution and encourages all Egyptians to see themselves and their struggle for justice in a larger and interconnected context.

The Black Kingdom Plot

Sudanese Nubians in the U.S. gave this to me. Quite possibly the most racist publication on blacks in Egypt ever. It warns that Nubian festivals will lead to a “black kingdom” and are American and Jewish plots to destroy Egypt.

What is so interesting about all this is that only twenty years ago Egyptian newspapers ran outrageously racist articles trying to convince the public that even festivals celebrating Nubian culture or identity were “Nigger and Jewish” plots to separate Egypt’s territorial and cultural integrity. But things are changing, one year after the revolution the “First Nubian African Egyptian Festival” was organized in Cairo where Egyptians of all backgrounds reveled in Nubian songs, dance, and art. Nubian women wore red, white, and black hijabs and dresses, beaming with Egyptian, African, and Nubian pride all in the same breath.

This generation whether they know it or not are breaking down rigid social binaries that say you cannot be African, Egyptian, and/or Arab at the same time. They are attacking social norms that look down upon identifying with Africa, as an African, or being darker-skinned. They are rejecting customs that say their Arab heritage or culture should relegate their Nubian heritage to the bottom.

Prominent Nubian activist and feminist with Nazra Center for Feminist Studies, Fatma Emam regularly blogs about the intersection of identities and experiences. She refuses to have any one of them sidelined.

“I’m not ‘related’ to Africa” Fatma states defiantly on her personal blog Brownie “I am African!”

These are bold words in a world where Africa is still universally regarded with a negative connotation but stronger words yet in Egypt a place where many still cannot accept the idea that they might be living on the African continent.

One Saydelia down but Thousands More to Go

The real fight for justice for Nada does not lie in just one “saydelia”  (pharmacy in Arabic) or protesting outside one store. Racism in Egypt is not just one man and it did not just fall from the sky. Real attacks against racism calls for a change in our paradigm, it calls for change in how Egyptians view Africa and their own image. This is the only way for justice and liberation for all.

Nada Zatouna’s experience should be a wakeup call for everyone who cares about human rights and justice in Egypt. Her experience is not an isolated one and is in fact a shadow of something that spans the whole entire Arab world as blacks in many places from Lebanon to Iraq face racism and discrimination and are increasingly organizing themselves to fight it.

Walking on the streets and being called every name in the book many of them derived from insults toward Nubians, there is no doubt in my mind that my own fate as a black American here is tied with the Nubians… and in this same way Nubians too should watch carefully how black refugees and migrants are treated in Egypt. Nada’s experience in particular shows them that their own fates are intimately connected with their brethren from other African nations.

nubian queen

Nubia Angel writes:

“The pharmacist’s justification is that he thought she was a Sudanese refugee as if this excuses him. This is the worst of excuses, even if she was a Sudanese refugee, is the Sudanese refugee not a human that can order medicine without him saying to her we don’t sell to blacks!?! He will marry her for refusing her for her color!?!”

Egypt like many societies in the Middle East and Africa is an oppressed society, but oppression doesn’t preclude innocence. Oppression doesn’t mean that society is good, shiny, and beautiful. And pointing out existing racism doesn’t threaten Egypt, celebrating diversity of identities and cultures will not tear Egypt apart. Affirming the fact that Egypt is in Africa isn’t going to turn the world upside down.

nubians girls dancing

I secretly snapped a photo of Nubian girls dancing to Shaabi music in wedding in downtown Cairo as their mothers try to hide from the camera. They are really too cute. I really must steal one of them one day. Whahaha.

Nada’s resistance to racism shows us that Egyptians are doing more than just unraveling traditions of discrimination they are actually challenging the way we think. The revolution has opened eyes here, and we are seeing that the people who will no longer adapt to poverty will also no longer tolerate sectarianism, the people who will no longer conform to gender oppression will also no longer assimilate racism into their lives…

I write this harshly but with an intense love as well. An intense love for Egypt, Nubia on both sides of the colonially drawn border and Africa as a whole kulluha.

We need a restructuring of our world and to do that it means we have to challenge our beliefs about the world. And only when we challenge our own ideas and societies can we even begin to imagine a better world, a world where racism and discrimination does not define people’s lives, a world where my friends and I do not have to walk down the street and be insulted for existing or being black in the wrong pharmacy at the wrong time.


More Strange and Marvelous posts in this Domain:

Three False Myths Egyptians have about Africa and themselves


related and unrelated links:

The Huffington Posts best of “Where in the world is Egypt” maps. Any and everywhere but Africa!

Nada Zatouna Speaks on Words of Women from the Egyptian Revolution (English translation)

Fatma Emam’s Diary of a Black Girl (Arabic)

Ahmed Awadalla’s The Diverse Scope of Refugees

Mohamed Wardi Sings (Beware listen once you will be compelled to listen again and again)

Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Nasser are chilling

Nubiaat Tumblr

فشّخ – now that I know this word I will never stop using it!


This is my translation of Nada Zatouna’s Testimony that was making the rounds on Facebook last week.

Nada Zatouna is a Nubian Egyptian filmmaker and activist. In this testimony she writes about her experience with racism on Asr al-Aini Street’s Seif Pharmacy after a doctor refused to take money from her because she is black.

صيدليات سيف عنصرية!!!
Seif Pharmacies are racist!
اقروا شهادة صديقتي ندي وافضحوهم!
Read my friend’s testimony and condemn them!

“صيدلية سيف فرع القصر العيني
حوالي الساعة 2:30 ظ
Seif Pharmacy the Asr Al Aini Branch

كنت في الصيدلية . كنت بشتري أدوية.. انتظرت أمام الكاشير لمدة حوالي 10 دقائق.. حضرت فتاة، فالطبيب تعداني وحصل منها على النقود. مديت إيدي بالفلوس وقلت له: اتفضل.. الطبيب خاطب الكاشير: خد منها، عشان أنا مابخدش غير من البيض بس..

I was in the pharmacy. I was buying medicine. I waited in front of the cashier for about 10 minutes. Then another cutstomer came and the pharmacy’s doctor passed me and took the money from the other girl. I held out my hand with the money to the doctor and said to him “please take it.” The doctor turned and addressed the cashier “you take it from her because I will not take anything except from whites.”

رديت عليه: نعم؟!!!
I responded to him: “Excuse me!?!”

رد عليا: أيوة، أنا قلت كده!
He responded right back to me: “Yes, I just said that”

رديت: يعني إيه ده؟
I responded: “And what does that mean?”

قال لي: هو إيه اللي يعني إيه! أنا كده، ما بخدش إلا من البيض بس.
He said to me: “It means, I mean what I mean! This is how I am, I don’t take anything except from white people!”

رديت: إنت مش محترم!
“I told him: You are not respectable!”

اتعصب وقال لي: لولا إنك بنت كنت عرفتك مقامك
Intolerant and fanatically he said to me: “If you were not a girl I would teach your place!!”

رديت: أنا بقى عايزة أعرف مقامي! دورت وشي وطلبت مقابلة المدير.
I responded: Then I want to know my place! I looked him in the face and ordered a meeting with the manager.

الناس اللي في الصيدلية أخدوه جوا وأنا طلبت أشوف المدير تاني. خرج وقال لي: أنا بقى ابن المدير وهعرّفِك مقامك وعلى فكرة إسمي الدكتور محمد خالد وساكن في السيدة زينب! وإذا كان عاجبك!

By then the people in the pharamarcy took him inside and I demanded to see the manager again. But he came back out and said to me: “I am the son of the manager and I will show you your place!! And by the way, if it would l like to know, my name is Doctor Mohamed Khalid and I live in Sayida Zeinab!”

رديت: طب أنا رايحة القسم حالا أعمل لك محضر. واحد من الشغالين في الصيدلية أخدني برا الصيدلية وقال لي هاتي نمرتك وأنا هوصلها للإدارة. اديته النمرة.
I responded: Ok I am going to the station immediately and I will put a record on you. One of the workers in the pharmacy took me outside and said to me: “Give me your number and I will give it to the administration.” So I gave him my number.

بعدها بربع ساعة تقريبا اتصلت بيا النمرة دي 01067309353 وكلمتني واحدة، حتى ما عرفتش نفسها. بتقول لي: إحنا أخدنا إجراءات وخصمنا له يومين، زميلي كلمها وقال لها إننا هنعمل محضر في القسم.
After about nearly 15 minutes this number (01067309353)called me. she said to me: “We took the appropriate procedures and we took two days from his salary, my friend called her and said to her that we will do a report at the police station.”

بعدها بعشر دقائق اتصلت بيا النمرة دي 01008534706 وكلمني واحد اسمه صلاح، بيقول لي إنهم خصموا للراجل يومين وإن أنا عندي حق والموضوع مش محتاج محضر.
Then after 10 minutes this number (01008534706) called me and someone named Salah told me that they took two days from the man’s salary and that I’m right so there is no need to report the incident.

بعدها بتلت ساعة اتصلت بيا نمرة تالتة 01222444373 واديت زميلي يرد .. بيسألو لو أنا من جمعية كاريتاس!!! وبعدين ابتدوا يسألو زميلي لو مصدق الكلام اللي أنا قلته أصلا!! وقال له ما يقلش كلام هو مش قده! ”
After about 20 minutes, this number (01222444373) called me and I gave it to my friend who responded, they were asking him if I was with the refugee advocacy group Caritas!! And then they started asking my friend if he really believed what I said was true to begin with! He told my friend not to trust my words if he wasn’t sure they were true!

ندى دلوقتي في القسم فعلا بتعمل محضر.
Nada is now in the police station and is doing a report on the pharmacy.



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