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.


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.


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?


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.

There is a strange feeling that accompanies this song, a feeling that should linger especially longer with those listeners who call themselves Americans or Europeans.

Not a feeling of guilt, but a strange feeling… that strange feeling you get when you discover that that ugly portrait you painted is actually a self-portrait… that strange feeling you get when you learn that that disgusting image you wanted to avert your eyes from was actually your reflection…

“The Bold Marauder” is the creation of American folk singer-songwriter Richard Farina, he and his wifetumblr_lt6j11DyXw1qg03pro1_500 Mimi Farina (sister of the legendary Joan Baez) were among some of the most talented but under-acknowledged musicians of the 1960s folk revival movement.

Now the song the “The Bold Marauder” is generally said to be about the Crusades, the period of time when Catholic European nations banded together to overtake lands in the predominantly Muslim Levant….but in the context of the Vietnam War the song demands a closer examination.

As Americans we are generally encouraged to forget that there is still an ongoing American/NATO military occupation of Afghanistan that’s not too different in nature from the occupational tactics used by the Americans during the Vietnam War, nor is the mentality behind it too different from the Europeans during the Crusades. We’ve been taught that our soldiers are noble and the only real references to the war are generally limited to “supporting our troops” and marveling at the savagery of our “enemies” while turning our heads gracefully away from the violence committed in the name of our freedom…  We’ve been conditioned to accept this violence we create and spread so well that not even the slightest feeling can emerge. And everything is normal.

That’s why Farina’s words here are magic, restoring to us a vision we long pretended was impossible for us to possess, he gives us back the power to view ourselves as we are in the eyes of “the others,” in the eyes of the occupied.

I first listened to this song in high school, I could not place why I was both attracted to it and it repulsed by it… interestingly enough as a young black teenager my frame of reference was limited but I still understood it. For me the song recalled nothing about the Crusades or even the beginning wars in Iraq or Afghanistan and everything about the other hooded crusaders draped as white destroyers in the prairies and fields of the Americans south…  I could understand it then in my own context as I’m sure many others can in theirs.

Songs in praise of murder like “the Bold Marauder” act as stronger expressions of protest to war than the usual “peace” chants that we are accustomed to. Songs in praise of murder condemn us to see ourselves as we really are and propel us into the most beautiful crisis of consciousness leaving us no choice but to accept our positions as murderers… or to change.

And Farina’s brilliant song echoes the words of another great American writer, Mark Twain, and his anti-war piece “The War Prayer” reminding us that although Americans and our government have long pursued imperial endeavors there remains among us a few voices that are unafraid to sing the songs of War as they really should be sung.

Below is the video and the lyrics:

Well it’s Hi, Ho, Hey…
I am a bold marauder.
And it’s i, Ho, Hey…
I am a white destroyer.

For I will show you silver and gold
and I will bring you treasure.
I will wave a widowing Flag and
I will be your lover.

And I will show you grotto and cave
and sacrificial alter.
And I will show you blood on the stone.
And I will be your mentor.
And night will be our Darlin’
And Fear will be our name.

And it’s i, Ho, Hey…
I am a bold maruder.
And it’s i, Ho, Hey…
I am a white destroyer.

For I will lead you out by the hand
and lead you to the Hunter.
And I will show you thunder and steel
and I will be your teacher.

And we will dress in helmet and sword
and dip our tongues in slaughter.
And we will sing the Warrior’s Song
and lift the praise of murder.
And Christ will be our Darlin’
and Fear will be our name.

And it’s i, Ho, Hey…
I am a bold maruder.
And it’s i, Ho, Hey…
I am a white destroyer.

For I will sour the winds on high
and I will soil the rivers.
And I will burn the grain in the fields
and I will be your mother.
And we will go to ravage and kill
and we show go to plunder.
And I will take a Fury to wife
and I will be your father.
And death will be our Darlin’
and Fear will be our name.

More -> Reno Nevada


Elaine Brown, first female head of the Black Panther Party

Elaine Brown is loved and hated. (I say this to explain the angry comments about how she destroyed the Black Panther Party you will inevitably see on her videos). She was a once rank-and-file member of the party that quickly rose the ranks to become its first female Chair after Huey P. Newton fled to Cuba. Admired in this sense as a model for revolutionary women with powerful positions she also made many contributions to the party in terms of leadership and challenging sexism.

However, it’s her background story that just demands that her life be made into an action-packed thriller espionage movie… Brown got her start in radical politics after meeting her Jay Richard Kennedy, a white music manager of many well-known black musicians. Brown describes Kennedy as her lover and inspiration. But the man who affected this Black Panther’s life so greatly was also in fact a FBI informant on the civil rights movement! Kennedy was submitting numerous reports to the FBI at a time when the FBI was practicing illegal and covert attacks against American, especially Black American civil rights activists. Kennedy sent memos to the FBI stating that the civil rights movement had become infected with “international communism,” he warned them about how Negros were aligning themselves against the war in Vietnam and U.S. foreign policy, and he encouraged the removal of “dangerous Negro” leaders like Martin Luther King Jr.

Regardless of her the questions surrounding her love affair with Kennedy, Brown remains one of the most interesting and dynamic characters of the Black Panther Party.

But what is little known about this extraordinary woman is that she started out her career as a singer. She created the Panther’s anthem and wrote and sang numerous other songs for them. These songs encapsulate a people’s desperation and resistance to years of oppression. Her songs were a defiant retort at American society and fit perfectly with the Black Panthers call to armed self-defense and direct action. The song below, “The End of Silence” is poignant piano-led piece filled with the anger, the pain, and the pride of any people who faces oppression, death, and humiliation. The message of course is a simple but strong one: fight back.

More -> The Black Panther Anthem:

“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: