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“Illiteracy is a hot topic in Egypt but the time has come for another conversation, the backwardness of the literate, those international school and university administrators who are always just one slip of the tongue away from advocating the genocide or the expulsion of people who just happen to be among society’s most marginalized and oppressed.”

There is a lot of talk about illiteracy in Egypt and in the Third World in general. Illiteracy is blamed for a whole host of problems in Egypt, from why “ordinary” Egyptians can’t really participate in electoral politics to why conservatism and close-mindedness seem to be on the rise. (I’m sure you heard it before Egyptians or [insert name of any developing country here] are just not ready for democracy). Illiteracy is primarily associated with Egypt’s poor who make up the majority of its population. Conversations on the “backwardness” of any particular country tend to point a finger at its poor and illiterate… but of late I’m seeing a need for another conversation… indeed one that ought to come sooner than it has and it should be the “backwardness” of the literate.

I’m talking about the high literate, those international school and university administrators who are always just one slip of the tongue away from advocating the genocide or the expulsion of people who just happen to be among society’s most marginalized and oppressed.

I’m talking about the literate ones in posh international schools, where I met one leading administrator who basically advocated for “euthanasia” on a mass scale for Egypt’s sick and poor.

“I mean, yes, during Ramadan and Christmas we should give them some charity,” she said dryly. “But the truth is there is just too many sick and poor people here and we can’t take care of them… I don’t think we should help them and they should just be left to die… and truthfully I think this is the way it should be…”

“Yes, who needs them! They don’t do us any good anyway,” another one chirped in cheerfully but somewhat nervously.

I’m talking about people who say these things while smiling and shrugging.

Sample File -- blockquotes-1Those who characterize Egyptian poor in this manner are, to be frank, calling for another dictatorship. They imply a brutal hand is needed to control, to intervene, and to subdue.”

And this incident makes me revisit another.

For a while I found myself regularly going to the house of one of the deans of Cairo University. He was also one of the Egyptian government’s advisers for their food and sanitation department and often went as a representative for them to U.N conferences. Once a week he and his wife would sit with me to improve their English.

After being handed a lavish dessert from one of their at-home servants, our discussion gravitated to the state of Egypt’s economy.  “إقطاعية” said his wife enthusiastically. “How do I translate this for her? What we want is إقطاعية.”

“Ok,” I replied encouragingly “why don’t you try to explain what that means to mean in English.”

“Well…” said his wife smiling “it’s when you have a king, one person at the top, and all the poor people work for him and he owns all the land and the poor people just work on it…everyone knew his place.”

“Wait a second, you mean feudalism?” I said, mouth agape.

“Yes! Feudalism! This was the best economy for Egypt. Everyone knew their place!”

Another time I went, the Dean told me he knew the exact cause of traffic in Egypt. Of course it was those “street people.” He even was kind enough to draw me a map. “You see here, my dear, are where the civilized people live. This is us right here, civilized part, like here in Dokki, but you have these other parts surrounding, these are the areas with the savages, the uncivilized areas I mean. The government needs to remove them, they are all illegal. They are always causing trouble and crime.”

Many of the other times I went, they spent their time lamenting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood while simultaneously chuckling at their dumb servants who voted for candidate Morsy and who they thought was going to “give them money!”

The business of razing down the houses of the have-nots, exploiting their labor, and violently policing them usually comes with a set of vocabulary and terms that make the job a lot easier. One needn’t look very far to see how easily words like “savages” and “uncivilized” accompany the destruction of homes of others and the degrading of their humanity. For Egypt’s literate elite this is no different.

And this isn’t the first time I’ve heard some members of the middle and upper classes openly advocate for the removal or the cleansing of the Egyptian poor. Sometimes I would hope that my dark face would prevent people or at least have them question themselves before divulging to me their fantasies of getting rid of the oppressed and marginalized of their societies… but alas I hear all the same…

Driving me home in her SUV to drop me off at my apartment in Sayeda Zeinab as she made her way on to Maadi, my German-Egyptian colleague and veteran ESL educator explained to me why so many Egyptians were really just “thugs” to her… “These people,” she started “are just not like us. They are not civilized.” I questioned her more about it. You’re Egyptian too I reminded her. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just because I was raised over there but this is just how I feel I can’t help it. Germans have order! They know the way things should be done. Egyptians don’t! You look at these people on the streets and you don’t see anything but thugs! Look at them!!”

Yes this is the backwardness of the literate.

A backwardness which promotes a vision of hierarchy, class, and Eurocentrism at the expense of any other view that can imagine that the economically marginalized in this country can too live lives of dignity if they weren’t robbed of opportunities. They have a “backward” view of the poor in this country as anything but seething masses of unruly subhuman thugs…

But ta3ban, these are what we can call the class of “Fulool”, they are the “remnants” of a time and a regime where autocracy was preferred so all this shouldn’t be at all unexpected.

The unfortunate thing is that it’s not just the expected literate, the fulool, who believe in the demarcation of the “civilized” and “uncivilized.”

Because it’s not uncommon to hear such things even from those Egyptian and foreign literate who call themselves liberal or revolutionary or socialist or leftist. Catch one off-guard in an informal conversation and you’ll see what I mean. The open disdain and contempt for anyone who doesn’t fit within their model of an “open-minded” or “modern” person (i.e. the “close-minded” and “traditional/religious” and poor) are treated as inept and unthinking pawns of a major power or the government if not demonized completely as “uneducated fools”.

Or take when they quote their favorite European or Western philosopher or ideologue, without even ever thinking to question the shades of orientalist and classist Eurocentric thought that is often present in the various philosophies, this situation occurs regularly.

What we see here is that despite our differing ideologies we all have the same degraded starting point… that says the masses of oppressed and poor illiterate in the “developing world” are the main problem all the while our eyes look away from the literate governing class…

But the cause for alarm here should not be the discovery itself that the literate in this country retain “backwards” notions about class and hierarchy but that it is these “backward” literate who will and are teaching the next generation of Egyptians.

It is with these administrators and educators that we are entrusting with the minds of Egypt’s youth… who despite however well-intentioned and earnest they are, are determined to preserve a paradigm of hierarchy that was passed down from colonialism and monarchy and sharpened under successive years of repression and dictatorship…

One searing example of this that will never quite leave my mind was a discussion I had with a class of fifth graders on what it meant to be “respectful.”

Now, my fifth grade class is extremely bright. They conquer readings that could easily be given to classes two years ahead of them and they speak two languages phenomenally better than most students their age in the United States could ever dream of. I actually have a lot of admiration for them.

Yet, during this particular day, being the hardass teacher I am to this class, I refused to give them a recess until they stopped screaming, hitting, and pulling each other as they usually do and stop treating each other and me with disrespect.

Instead, in a half-hearted Paulo Friero–esque way I urged us to sit down and discuss our dilemma. What I heard next lead me into a translation quandary that propelled me into a discussion of family and class that I’d never imagine I’d have with ten and eleven year-olds.

Here is the thing, generally contemporary English speakers use the word “respectful” to indicate whether someone is treating others with respect, treating others the way you want to be treated, the whole golden rule routine. But when I told them they weren’t being respectful to one another they took this in an entirely different direction.

Staring at me in disbelief they say:  “Teacher, are you calling us ‘mish mahtrum’?”

I paused not knowing quite what to respond.

Egyptian street children who are not "respectable"

Egyptian street children who are not “respectable”

Now the word ‘mahtrum’ in Arabic could be argued to mean “respectful” but it also carries many other connotations that the word “respectful” (in the context that I was using) doesn’t mean.

So I asked them define it themselves. I asked some of my brightest and talented students what they thought “respectful” meant and what “mish mahtrum” meant in Arabic they stated to me point blank: “In Arabic, Ms., ‘mish mahtrum’ means a street kid. It means people who don’t have two parents. The dirty people living in the streets. ”

Looking back, I think these words made my heart fall. But one shouldn’t be surprised we are all products of our surroundings…

So in this context “mish mahtrum” is closer to the English translation “not respectable” dealing more with the concept of “respectability” or the dominant society’s views of who is and isn’t worthy of respect and acceptance…

In this case, once again the poor, the “street people” are branded the only possible ones who can be “disrespectful” or “unrespectable.” My class was incredulous when I called their actions “disrespectful” because this was not a word to be attributed to people like them who lived in houses and were clean.


Teaching in an international school was certainly one of the most curious experiences – I found it was the little things that I encountered that showed the values and certainly the atmosphere which influenced my students… indeed, from the crazed almost orgasmic happiness exuded by any of the teachers or administrators when they acquired a new possession from some European country to the strange but the “it’s-not-racist-or-anything” policy which dissuades the hijabi teachers from showing their faces in the garden when the parents come by. (Because you know if we had hijabi teachers we wouldn’t be an international school duh!) Or else to the unusual weight that a Western passport carries in hiring decisions despite qualifications, to the yearbook that just happens to have the lightest of children’s faces plastered on the cover to represent this very brown skinned school…

On my side of the aisle, I am aware that when teaching, especially the English language, I am also teaching a set of political and social mores, transferring the prejudices, stereotypes and racism that come embedded in the language and bound with its history and doing my best to subvert them every now and then.

So for me these views of the Egyptian poor by Egyptian and foreign middle and upper classes are so disturbing not only because they are offensive, but also because I know they are implicitly (and explicitly) calling for something… Those who characterize Egyptian poor in this manner are, to be frank, calling for another dictatorship. They imply a brutal hand is needed to control, to intervene, and to subdue and they reject any vision that does not include the intellectual and rhetorical debasement of “ordinary” Egyptians.

I know some people will raise an eyebrow at me… don’t you think the honor-killing, the female genital mutilation, and the rampant sexual abuse, which are all facts of life in Egypt, are horrid enough that we can call “these people” thugs, savages, uncivilized etc…?

But the truth is words like these choke our imaginations. They limit our ability to relate to the most disenfranchised and oppressed in our communities and help blind us to the suffering of others. They placate and soothe our suspicions of economic injustice, suspicions that should very well not be placated, suspicions that should not be soothed.

Working here and in education for almost a year, I find it strange that it’s I who is doing a lot of the learning. It’s easy to say that it is the illiterate, with their sticks and their dirty clothes, who are the major causes of Egypt’s problems. It’s easy to say that the problem in Egypt is ignorance and that if we just “educate” people these issues will be resolved.  But the fact remains that ignorance and dissonance are also spread with literacy and high income rates not just poverty… and a lot of the problems that Egypt has lie with the educated and literate among us.

* Note: “Backwardness – Is itself a really discriminatory term. Of course I use it here in jest and to redefine it. But the general history of this word shows it tends to be attributed to countries and peoples that are not “Western” or are primarily the former colonies of Europe. Its use implies that while all Western countries are symbols of modernity or “forward” all non-western cultures and peoples are not… For example, Germany during the 1930s was still considered an “advanced” country at the time because of the military and technology it possessed. It generally wasn’t considered “backward” despite the fact that they it was in the process of systematically killing millions of people.

We can even use more contemporary examples where say a country like the United States that is famous for dropping bombs and drones on innocent civilians including children and imprisoning a mass amount of its population, is still considered “advanced” and would hardly ever find the adjective “backward” in a sentence with itself. However, Egypt, or say any other country on the continent of Africa, would be much more likely to receive the label “backward” because a percentage of the population continues to cut the genitals of women… The unequal distribution of the term should raise suspicions.

Picture source:


Every now and then I meet curious people who come up to me and ask… How does it feel to be black in Egypt? More interesting than my answer to the question, however, were their own ideas surrounding it.

 The speculations and suppositions range from overdramatic exaggerations of abuse, to happy feel-good pat-you-on-your-back flat-out denials of the existence of racism and its impact, to a suave and an educated watering down of existing racism from both Egyptians and white expats alike.

So when I ran across Fatima Ali’s piece a couple weeks ago I was happy to translate it.

Though it’s essential that this narrative be given to the Egyptian Arabic audience it was addressed to first (which is why I leave it in Arabic too), her situation is much larger than Egypt as girls painted darker shades everywhere from Brazil to Holland to the United States can relate to the hyper-sexualization, the denial of legitimately belonging to our faiths, and the constant ridicule we receive for having the audacity to walk into a room and be black at the same time.

So such a story should be added to the canon of the writings of the women of the African diaspora who can not only relate to this story but carry this story and stories like this with them every day wherever they go. Hers is one of the many voices which could easily go untranslated and often do here in Egypt…

* Note: I am by no means a professional translator, my Arabic is quite average, and the writer speaks in Egyptian slang quite liberally so until a real Arabic-speaker becomes so angered with this translation and he or she slams their mouse down and furiously edits this, you will have to settle for this unique creation of mine.

That said, I invite all suggestions, corrections, and contestations!*

يوميات بنت سمرا ( 2 )..بما أن: بنت حلوة وسودا ومش محجبة!!.. إذن: كده التحرش حلال

The Diary of a Black Girl (2) A girl is pretty and black and not veiled!!
License for Acceptable Harrassment


Fatima Ali

ناس كتير قوي اتكلمت فى موضوع التحرش بالبنات فى الشارع.. أنا بقى جاية أحكيلكم عن اللفظى والجنسي، وزود عليهم كمان التحرش ” العرقي ” اللي بتعرض له فى الشارع المصري الجميل..

A lot of people have talked about the harassment problem girls face on the street… Today, I am going to tell you all about the verbal and the sexual harassment and also add to this the “ethnic” harassment that also appears on the beautiful Egyptian street.

يعني إيه مثلا أكون ماشية فى الشارع و مجموعة شباب يشتموني بمجموعة قازورات منتقاة من الألفاظ القبيحة.. لكن اللى خلانى اتنح وسط كل السخافات دي، لما كلب فيهم قال:” يلا يا تريزة يا مسيحية يا بنت الم****ة”.. مش عارفة هو قرر إزاى إنى ” تريزه”هل مثلا عشان أنا سودا فيبقى أنا مسيحية.. ولا علشان مش محجبة؟.. طيب فرضا إن أنا مسيحية.. ليه بقى اتشتم .. يعني لو واحدة مسيحية شكلها ” عادي ” و لابسة صليب كبير كانوا هايشتموها كل شوية في الشارع ؟!..الحقيقة إنه ما كانش هايحصل، وحتى لو بيحصل بيبقى مرة ف الشهر مثلا مش كل يوم..

What I mean, for example, is I am walking on the street and a group of guys insult me with the worst choice of obscenities possible and while I’m walking in the middle of all this stupidity, one dog from the group says to me “Come on Mother Theresa! You Christian! You daughter of a “f**ker!”

First, I don’t know how he decided that I am a “Mother Theresa.” Could it be, for example, because I am black so it must be that I am Christian?  Or is it because I am not veiled? Ok , let’s presume I am a Christian… Still why would he insult me? I mean if I was a Christian girl with a “normal” appearance and wearing a big cross would they still insult her on every little street corner? The truth is that it doesn’t happen to Christian girls all the time and even if it were to happen it would be one time in the month not every day.

يعني إيه برضو أكون في الشارع _و دي بقى بسمعها أكتر ما بسمع إسمي فى اليوم الواحد_ الاقي حد يقول وأنا ماشية ”السود دول بيكونوا جامدين قوي ع السرير وسخنين ما تيجي !!” .. الغريب إنهم بيكونوا واثقين بنسبة كبيرة إني ممكن فعلا أروح معاهم لأني ياعيني محتاجة ده جدا، لأني ” سخنة ” طول الوقت وهو كده بيخدمني بمجهوده.. يا عين أمه.. ده غير أصلا إنه متصور أن كل السوداوات عاهرات طبعا من غير كلام..

What I’m trying to tell you all, is that in just one day when I am on the street I hear these kind of insults more than I hear my own name. Once, I found someone saying as I was walking “Those blacks they are very good in bed and very hot.  Here one comes!”

The strange thing about all this is that when they see me, they are very confident to a large degree that maybe I really will go with them because I really need this because I am “hot for it” all the time and of course he would just be doing a favor for me… This goes without saying that he pictures that all black girls are naturally prostitutes…

سيبك من ده كله.. طب عمرك شفت بنت في الشارع الناس بتشد شعرها عشان يضحكوا عليها خلق ربنا.. ده برضو بيحصلي طول الوقت، إن كان ف الشارع أو في المترو أو أى احتكاك بيني وبين قطيع منطلق يرعى سخافة..لأن المفروض إن السود دول ما عندهمش شعر.. يبقى أنا أكيد لابسة باروكة.. طب هو عايز يتأكد والموضوع شغله يعمل إيه؟؟ أو تعمل إيه؟؟ طبعا يقوم شادد هو الباروكة، ولما هو يشد الباروكة و تقع ينبسط هو أو هي، و يبسط خلق ربنا اللي محتاجة تتبسط معاه، لما الباروكة تقع

But it’s not just this…. Have you ever seen a girl in the street and people are pulling her hair and laughing at her, this girl, who is our God’s creation… This also happens to me all the time, indeed it happens in the street or in the metro or any place that I find myself between a pack of idiots.

This is because it must be that these blacks don’t have hair so of course I am wearing a wig and the matter is after all their business. They want to be sure of this so what do they do?  Naturally, they must take it upon themselves to pull the wig! And when they pull the wig and it falls they enjoy it! And simply the black girl, our God’s creation, is left with no other choice but to enjoy it with them when the wig falls….

ساعات بقى أكون ماشية في الشارع مع حد من اصدقائي اللي شكلهم “عادي” ومش ملفت، و تسمع الناس بتقول بصوت عالي “وإنتوا اتلميتوا على بعض فين؟!”.. كأني من كوكب المريخ، و صديقتي من كوكب الزهرة و المواصلات مقطوعة بين الكوكبين.. ياجدعان ده أنا مرة كنت ماشية في الشارع أنا وخطيبي اللي هو برضو شكله ” عادي “، لقينا واحد بيوقنا و قال لخطيبي ” يا شيخ حرام حرام عليك.. ده أنت أبيض و هي سودا؟!”.. وماتسألنيش يعني إيه!..

Another time, I was walking in the street with one of my friends that look “normal” and not at all eye-catching or conspicuous-looking and she hears people say in a loud voice “How did you all even become friends?! ” as if I was from Mars and my friend from Venus and transportation between the two planets is prohibited.

Still another time, I was walking on the street with my fiancé who is also “normal- looking” and we found someone hollering at us. “Hey sheikh!” he said to my fiancé “This is great shame for you! It’s forbidden! You are white and she is black!?” And don’t even begin to ask me what that means!

طب جربت تبقى واقف ف المترو و الناس كلها بتتكلم عنك بصوت عالي؟.. اللي يقول يا عم السود دول ريحتهم بتكون وحشة قوي مش عارف بيعملوا إيه في نفسهم عشان تكون ريحتهم كده.. اللى أعرفه إن الناس بتعمل حاجات عشان تبقى ريحتهم حلوة، مش يعملوها عشان تبقى ريحتهم وحشة.. و اللي يقول يا عم السود كلهم مسيحين.. أي والله كلهم.. واللي يقولك سودا قوي ؟!!.. و إذ فجأتن يجيلك تليفون و تتكلم ” عادي ” زي ما البشر بتتكلم، و تلاقي الناس كلها اتخرست فجأة.. و مش طالعلهم حس، لأنهم طبعا كانوا متخيلين إني من بلاد الهنولولو و مش بتكلم عربي “عادي” يعني زيهم..

Have you tried standing in the metro before and all the people are talking about you loudly? One says “Hey man these blacks their smell is always very bad and I don’t know what they are doing to themselves for them to smell like that… I know that the people do things to improve their smell, but they don’t do things to make themselves smell bad…” Another one says “Hey man all blacks are Christians… I swear all of them!” Another one says to you “You are very black!” Then… suddenly the telephone rings, speaking “normal” and like a human, I speak.  I find that everybody is suddenly silent and not one of them continues to talk because, of course, they all imagined that I am from the country of Honolulu and I don’t speak “normal” Arabic like them…

هاقولكم الخاتومة بقى.. أنا مرة كنت راكبة المترو و قاعدة جنب الشباك.. اذ أفوجأ بتفة عظيمة نازلة على قورتي من ناحية اليمين فوق حواجبي.. هل ممكن أي مواطن ” عادي ” يتعرض للموقف ده من لا شئ؟.. يا سيدي صلي ع النبي كده ف سرك .. و لما تشوف حد إسود_ أو أحمر حتى_بيحصل له أي حاجة من دي.. ابقى اتفرج زي عادتك و إفتكرني.

I’ll end all this with the time that I was once riding the metro and sitting next to the window and a huge spit fell on my right side of my forehead above my eyebrows… Really, ask yourselves, is it possible for any “normal” citizen to find themselves in this situation from nothing? Everyone, pray to the Prophet quietly when you see a black or dark person when any of these things happen to him then watch your own behavior and remember me.

*Ali describes herself as a Nubian from Sudan and an Egyptian-Sudanese. Her original blog can be found here.