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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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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

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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.

Notes:

* 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!

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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More Strange and Marvelous posts in this Domain:

Three False Myths Egyptians have about Africa and themselves

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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!

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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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Apparently in Arabic this is translated as “bint al-madnaka”

Femen embodies a hybid feminism, that combines Islamophobic and racist stereotypes that the Americans and Europeans have for centuries used to justify occupations and the otherizing of Arabs and Muslims and people of color all over the world.

When I was in tenth grade the Iraq war had just started. I didn’t know who the Iraqis were. I didn’t know where in the hell Afghanistan was or if that really was even a place that existed. But I did know there were towelheads in those places. By “those places” I mean an area much larger than just Iraq and Afghanistan that is in fact a collection of places and regions that was colloquially known as “over there.” “Over there” was populated by a large demographic of Arabs and Muslims and of course, Towelheads.

Now what exactly compelled my AP European history teacher to inform us in the middle of a lesson that the people we were fighting were “a bunch of towelheads” I don’t remember. But I recall quite well though the pleased smiles on my white classmates’ faces at the discovery of a new word of discrimination that was sanctioned by our class authority and seemingly society itself. I remember how excited they were to use it openly and without fear of reprimand. They left the classroom in laughter and glee. More importantly this magical word gave them the power to remove themselves from a conflict brewing in a far off land and we all found ourselves a little less concerned about what was happening over there in towelhead land.

Fast forward eight years later, then comes this lovely picture.  I admit, I had to do a double take to fathom what the hell it was I was looking at. Here is a picture of women topless with a paper beard scribbled black with a sharpie, to complement this of course, she scribbles a sharpie unibrow on forehead too, and as she bends in some sort of awkward attempt to mimic what I assume is a praying position, there sits perfectly on her head a towel. A more complete caricature of a moozlum I could not imagine.

But this picture is not the antics of some backwater racist highschool kids having some after school fun. This is from a group that calls themselves feminists. On fourth of this month Femen, a European feminist group based in Ukraine, held its “Topless Jihadi Day” ostensibly in support of Amina Tyler, a Tunisian activist who posted online pictures of herself topless and is now receiving death threats by political and religious figures in her country because of this act of defiance.

For those of us who haven’t been exposed to white supremacy, aren’t in close proximity to this phenomenon, benefit from it, or simply don’t care to read history, it is seducing to see the photo above as an act of resistance. One may even think that the above picture is one of a woman exposing herself to tell the world about a poor Tunisian girl’s plight. But all that she is really exposing is her racism. What is really being stripped naked and bare for us to see is ethnic arrogance. And this picture above all of Femen’s publicity photo shoots, confirms what more and more of us are coming to suspect: that Femen has more in common with white ethnic costume frat parties than it does with protest or solidarity with Middle Eastern women.

More people are coming to realize that Femen is just another manifestation of a broader growing trend of European anti-religious secularist nationalism which justifies racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and most egregiously war in the name of human rights, feminism, and modern development.

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Good God! He has a towel on his head! That can only mean one thing! He hates all women, the civilized world, and is the cousin of Osama bin Laden!

It’s no coincidence that the woman in the above picture chooses the towel to crown her costume of the evil Muslim man she so detests. The entire costume itself is a homage to the same racial epithet that I heard thrown around by my teacher and classmates.  The people “over there,” the “towelheads,” did not deserve an ethnicity, an identity, a humanity, thus making it far easier for us to accept the bombings and occupations our governments would soon to carry out.

It’s also no coincidence that so many of the comments bundled in support of Femen you will find across the internet are from commentators who laud Femen for “standing up” against the Muslim scourge on Europe all while  urging for immigrants to leave. The group’s activism and message are resonating with these sentiments for a reason.

This is because the message of this picture and many of Femen’s other acts tell a story they like. This picture wants the viewer to equate those who wear a long beard, those who wear head scarves or “towels” on their heads, and those who even do the simple act of Muslim prayer to those same men who persecute Amina in Tunisia. Hell this picture even implies having a uni-brow might be sufficient enough to suspect you are in league with Islamist extremists…

Meanwhile with this brilliant logic at our disposal that “towelheads” and “beards” and “uni-brows” are synonymous with being anti-women/anti-civilization, “the towelheads” and their affiliates in the West continue to be targeted. Take for instance the random murder of a Hindu man by an American woman last year who said to the police she pushed him in front of a moving train because she “hates Hindus and Muslims.” Or take the Sikh Temple massacre that took place in Wisconsin last August when a former U.S. marine opened fire indiscriminately on a group of “towelheaded” worshippers. Or take a look at the increasing membership and sympathy towards far right anti-immigrant political parties in Europe.

But it’s not just the lone crazies I’m talking about. I’m talking about entire government military policies designed on this logic, the American government’s drone policy is case and point. Mirroring the same flawed reasoning that guides Femen and other Islamophobic/racist groups that synonymize long beards and headwraps with anti-women Islamism, the U.S. government’s bombing policy implies that merely being related, living in the same region, coming from the same community, or even walking by at the same time they kill a “terrorist” makes you synonymous with a terrorist. The Obama administration’s policy that any male of military age in a strike area is equivalent to a “combatant” and therefore a legitimate target essentially codifies into American policy this abhorrent rationality that you are “guilty by association.”

To make it more understandable how crappy this form of pseudo protest and logic is, how would we react if a group of white women were to do the “chinky eyes”  hand gesture, dawn some over-sexualized kimonos and sit in Buddha style positions to show “solidarity” with exploited Asian sex worker women? How would we feel about white women painting themselves in black face and using overt stereotypes of black men while burning crosses outside black churches to show their “concern” for battered black American women? (Femen burned a Salafi flag, which contains the Islamic Shahada, a creed important to all Muslims, outside a mosque in France)

It’s absurd in all these cases but with the pervasiveness of anti-Muslim/ Arab/ Mid- Eastern sentiments makes it hard for those of us of any ideology, left or right, to pick it out.

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Miley Cyrus and friends do the “chinky eyes” to show solidarity with oppressed Asian females! Take that you awkward Asian in the middle! Stop oppressing your females!

And still many conversations about Femen that have been raised by liberals and leftists mainly revolve around the politics of nudity as a tactic, conversations that while relevant have more often than not obscured the way Femen uses blatant Islamophobia and racism as a “tactic” as well. Something that is historically not uncommon to some major white feminists when they are trying to get their way.

I try my best not to say the “r-word” a lot to white people because I know how scary it is for them. Not because I don’t believe that there are not plenty of times where I should be using it… but I am aware of how fearful many people are to be thought of as Nazis, Skinheads, or KKK members to even briefly take seriously the criticisms from Arab, Asian, Hispanic, Black and Indigenous women.

But in the case of this dreadful photo above I must call it what it is.

Femen must be condemned because this photo is not about Tunisian women. It’s not about Arab women. It’s not about Muslim women. It’s not about third world women or women of color. It’s not about solidarity. It’s not even about Amina Tyler… it’s about soothing the conscious of an increasingly xenophobic and nationalist West that would rather see it’s discrimination against and desire to occupy peoples of other countries as a campaign of human rights then for what it really is.

If it were about Tunisian women, Arab women, Muslim women or solidarity with the plights of women in color in general, these women in Europe would not have the gall to think that using the racist tropes that helped to justify war and the dehumanization of these women and their communities was a good idea.

Femen must be condemned because racism isn’t feminism. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But the fact that it’s constructed that way for many white feminists is the reason so many of us girls of color have such trouble accepting it as a legitimate form of refusal to patriarchy and why so many of us remain fearful to challenge patriarchy in our communities so as not to be confused with the bigoted ways of some feminists…

Femen must be condemned because the world must know there is no bravery in bigotry nor is there courage in demonization and there certainly isn’t solidarity in tuning out the voices of the masses. Though they would surely try to sell themselves as being daring or pushing the boundaries like many post-racial hipsters of the day, there is not a damn thing bold or daring about relying on and promoting racial/orientalist stereotypes that Europeans have used for centuries. In fact it’s perfectly normal and status quo.

Reactionary Criticism versus a New Way Forward

It must be pointed out that women from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who simply criticize white women crusaders without looking deeper into our own faults prevent the development of grassroots feminist solidarity movements.

In a globalized world where the West dominates in literature,  in our media and thus our imaginations it is hard not to imitate it, and likewise it’s hard not to crown them the originators of ways of protest and resistance that in fact has long been used by us and are shared heritage of the world.

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Women around the world have used nudity in protests. What makes Femen unique is not their use of nudity but their use of nudity and racist Islamophobia.

And when we leave the defensive posturing behind we’ll discover that we need to acknowledge that there are many pressures on women from within that tell us not to speak, stifling indigenous feminist movements. There is a strand among us that refuse to speak of sexism, racism, homophobia, or cultural imperialism with scrutiny in an internal context or to really interrogate our communities as is needed. This leads many women and other minorities who suffer from these injustices in our countries and societies to feel alienated.

Amina’s act of is a brave feat in her context. Her body is hers and she has declared it. But unlike Femen, those women and men who are interested in true solidarity with Tunisian women must go beyond Amina and her body.

Groups like Femen largely ask us to identify with one sort of “acceptable Arab woman” the one who unveils, the one who uncovers. But the histories of Arab and Muslim women show us that both unveiling and veiling were used as forms of resistance to patriarchy whether it was on the domestic front or of the imperial variety and such narrow ideas that one or the other constitutes liberation won’t fit into the different realities these women experience.

We do need a movement, a women’s movement of solidarity. But this should be a movement that looks less towards Europe and more toward the continents on which we actually live (North Africa I’m talking to you). It should be a movement that respects and takes the insights from women who practice religion as much as it does those who have no religion at all. It should be a movement that is colored in the deepest shades of black, brown and beige and not just white.  Our movements should consciously look South and East for inspiration and not just North and West. Our movements should as fluidly embrace and represent the non-English speaking women or those whose first language isn’t just a European language as it does those of us who are English speakers. It should be a movement that sees the poor women as the vanguard.

We need to be more creative than to give the West a reflection of themselves when we fight.

If we cannot do this, if we do not go further there will be no movements. There will only continue to be more unveilings like the one in the photo, an unveiling of ignorance, of naked racism, of raw Islamphobia and the stubborn defiance of the women who wear all this but claim not to see any of it.

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  • The title of this article is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s infamous poem “The White Man’s Burden” which was both a clarion call for all of Europe to colonize, occupy, and enslave other people and their lands as it was a really really badly written poem.

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  • Writing this article i think it’s important people know that i am neither muslim nor arab but I’m a black christian girl in Cairo! Just how black am i exactly? Click here.

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  •  Other Strange and Marvelous posts in this Domain:

Translating Fatima Ali: Diary of A Black Girl in Cairo

The Backwardness of the Literate: Tales of Classism and Egypt’s Upper Class

If they say chivalry is not dead then I hope I am the one to murder it.

Something happened this January and as usual I put this incident, as I do many others, in the closet of my mind. I have returned to unpack it today.

In January concerned Egyptian citizens and their supporters formed anti-sexual harassment groups IMG_5089 (640x427)and bravely went out during the two year anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising to put into action their belief that men and women should both attempt to make a reality their conviction that the iconic and symbolic Tahrir Square should be a public place of protest for all people, especially women who have been disproportionately targeted for public sexual violence.

More than just monitoring protests for sexual violence these groups created information and awareness campaigns to engage the community and encourage people to participate and volunteer.

This is why we were all so interested in your volunteer experiences with the group. I remember my companion and I listened intently as you said you did this for your country, as you told us about the training sessions and protests you attended.

Many men found it difficult to reach out to women in the Square. They often found it difficult to approach women under attack. They claimed we couldn’t discriminate between the assaulters and the rescuers, a confusion which further frustrated attempts to help women.

And perhaps it was this frustration that led you to say in between your allusions to nationalism and conviction to a lofty goal this exquisite line…

“But you gotta understand, some of those girls are just so dumb! You tell them and tell them but they just won’t listen… you know I just want to be like I hope you get raped! Just so you see! You know what I’ll probably join in!”

The delivery and the subsequent hearty laugh implied it was a joke… but a good friend once told me true wit relies on playing with premises that speak the truth.  On what premises does your wit lie?

I suppose you believe that because you put yourself in physical danger, a very knightly act, you have earned the right to speak about raping Egyptian women.

Yet here comes the problem, chivalry does not make for solidarity, nor does charity or sympathy bring about social equality or economic justice. In fact they are not just opposites, the former two actually work to impede solidarity and justice. They require people who are more concerned about joining the ranks of knighthood and sainthood than with dismantling social and economic systems of oppression.

And for this I don’t lament chivalry’s death, I plan for it.

Chivalry should die because it fails us. All of us. Because with it we still have not gotten to the point where we view rape as torture, rape is still punishment. We have yet to develop the consciousness that rape in of itself is unacceptable.  Chivalry should die because we still assume there are good women (those who listen to us)  and can always somehow escape rape and bad “dumb” women (those who don’t listen) that are deserving of rape and it’s justified. Chivalry fails us because it doesn’t allow us to come to terms that sexism and other forms of group oppression like racism or homophobia are not just violent actions that we do but represent a state of mind that supports or creates the means of causing physical and economic harm to one or more specific groups.

So yes, I see that you put your body at risk and you placed yourself in great physical uncertainty and I operantsehacommend this. But are you also willing to do venture into another place of insecurity, that place in the mind where doubts grow? Could you reach inside the depths of yourself and allow what needs to be attacked to be attacked? Could you attack it yourself? If we cannot do this, we find that we have not really left our comfort zone at all…

And this is what we want. We don’t want you to just protect us or defend us, we want you to attack! Attack the premises, attack the assumptions, attack the ideas in yourself and in other men (and women) that even slightly suggest human suffering is justified. We need people who care for our dignity in every street corner and in every situation. Our comrades are not just those who try to be “the hero” and physically protect us in the Square but are those who struggle to change the mentalities of their brethren and themselves before these warped views on women lead them to physically attack us in the first place. Any other solidarity is a farce.

Many men found it difficult to reach out to women in the Square. They often found it difficult to approach women under attack. They claimed we couldn’t discriminate between the assaulters and the rescuers, and this was frustrating for you, I know… but until you realize the sound of your own laugh is a lot like the laughs we heard from those men who cornered us in Tahrir, don’t be surprised if we look up from the crowd and in the midst of a sea of hands, false grins, and prying fingers, we can’t distinguish the sound of your voice as that of a friend or of a foe.

Notes:

  • 3la fikra, I wanted to extend this to all progressive sexists, this is not at all based on his “Egyptianness” and certainly not based on any level of economic hardship, as this i-got-a-villa-in-Maadi douchebag may have been Egyptian-born but he was certainly American-bred…
  • Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment is a great idea! The criticism is not one of organization or method but rather the tendency of profiteering off the image of volunteering done by some people… much like simple charity doesn’t strike economic injustice or having black friends (or even being black) shield you from racism… joining this organization doesn’t save you from being a sexist turd.

Related and Similar Posts:

Translating Fatima Ali: Diary of A Black Girl in Cairo

Sexual Violence in Egypt: Can Men Protect Us?

For those of you not familiar with the Black Panther Party they were responsible for popularizing the slogan “all power to the people” and creating armed African-American police-watch squads to monitor police brutality throughout the Oakland area. Huey P. Newton along with Bobby Seale were its founding members and the group was active until it dwindled out in the early 1980s.

Now one early October morning in 1967 there arrived Newton, bloodied and bullet ridden, to Kaiser hospital in North Oakland. A white cop was injured and another lay dead in the scene that he had left behind him. The media and police department had coaxed many to believe that just another ghetto-dweller had shot an upstanding enforcer of the laws. This was the main injustice, nothing more should be questioned.

This of course is an easy sell because it’s a simple narrative: another criminal had crawled out from his ghetto to arrogantly flaunt the laws of a just and moral society. The ghetto itself and its dark inhabitants’ existence needn’t be questioned but assumed as normal, simply because, in fact, it is very normal to have ghettoes and many dark people in them in America.

This belief is comfortable one. It doesn’t require too much context, history, or reflection. It doesn’t require us to challenge authority moreover it doesn’t challenge us to question the places and positions that we stand in today or let alone ask how we have come to stand where we stand or acquire what we’ve acquired…

In the letter below, Dr. Aguilar eloquently presents her disgust and rejection of most of white society’s faith and contentment in the law enforcement’s inhumane dealings with blacks, a letter that is lamentably very relevant today.

Written in the midst of a time when black men, women, and children were sprayed, beaten, and mauled on a mass  scale on open streets by both “citizens” and state law enforcers, this letter serves as a good reminder to those suffering that although many people in society may look down upon your or your people’s suffering and sit back content, there will always be those, little in number as they may be, who will not accept the official narrative and will not accept silence, and just when it seems like all others are willing to pass over the concrete realities of your inequality, it is these rare people who will refuse, it is these rare people who will see you as a human.

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I can remember nothing in my medical training which suggested that, in the care of an acute abdominal injury, severe pain and hemorrhage are best treated by manacling the patient to the examining table in such a way that the back is arched and the belly tensed. Yet this is precisely the picture of current emergency-room procedure which appeared on the front page of a local newspaper last weekend. Looming large in the foreground of the same picture, so large as to suggest a caricature, was a police officer. Could it have been he who distracted the doctor in charge of the case to position the patient in this curious way?

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Huey P. Newton in critical condition at the hospital, a police officer stands over him.

Unusual as it was, this picture probably did not disrupt very much the pleasant weekend enjoyed by my neighbors nor disturb more than momentarily the consciences of my medical colleagues. To me, upon whose mind’s eye it is permanently engraved, this photograph is a portentous document of modern history: it represents an end and a beginning. Further, for me, there has been enough of listening, of reading, of pondering. The time has now come to speak, to act, to fight back.

I have read essays written by the patient, Huey P. Newton; I have heard him patiently and painstakingly articulating his ideas and his hopes to a parade of questioners: hour after hour he continues to address the convinced and the unconvinced alike without malice. I have listened to him paraphrasing the concepts set forth in Dr. Fanon’s books in a dozen brilliantly succinct sentences. I have listened to him and marveled that a young man of twenty-five years can interpret in such scholarly fashion the historic, socioeconomic, and political implications of the trend of modern society, while I, on the other hand, after forty-five years – seventeen of them spent in study at college and in postdoctoral education – discover I learned little of human value and must begin again.

The beginning again for me dates from the last time I saw the patient, several weeks ago, in a discussion with a group of people, many of whom came by, listened awhile, and left. One such young man called later in the evening to say that he was in jail. He had been detained by the police for what they suspected might be a minor infraction of the Motor Vehicle Code, mistakenly, as it turned out, for they quickly determined that no law had been broken. Not content, the police undertook lengthy investigation which ultimately revealed that the young man had not satisfactorily replied to a charge of driving with an invalid license one year ago. For this reason he was now jailed with bail set at $550. It took three hours to fill out the requisition form, pay the requisite fees, and see the requisite people in order to extricate this Black boy from his cell.

Two days later I was driving with a friend on the highway when she was apprehended because of four concurrent infractions of the Motor Vehicle Code, including driving without a valid permit for the trailer we were pulling. Nothing happened in spite of the fact that we were detained momentarily some miles farther on for still another infraction – this time a moving violation we still arrived home in time for dinner, two white ladies in their comfortable white neighborhood. My friend told me later her total bail for all of this lawlessness came to $15!  So please do not waste my time, my white brothers and sisters, in telling me that justice is dispensed equally under the law to all Americans. I will not believe you.

I apologize, Mr. Newton, for any aggravation of suffering inflicted upon you during the course of treatment of your injuries. I apologize for the subhuman conditions and horrors of the ghetto in which an immoral political and social system…. Makes it inevitable that men like you are gunned down in the streets of your own town.

Mary Jane Aguilar, M.D.

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