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We are black on the outside but white on the inside

September 10, 2009

I cringed when I heard this. And i fell into a flurry of words… asking the two Sudanese women and my Egyptian roommate why would you ever say that. I had heard something to that effect before in french, while the speaker grinned widely, honestly thinking they had said something positive, concillitory. This idea that whiteness is good, pure, clean goes deep.

Its a part of a whole series of what Derrida and Robert Young call ‘white mythologies,’ those metanarratives that situate western Europe as the greatest manifestation of humanity.  Abrahamic religion, reason, Enlightenment, and Science itself are party to these mythologies. But the biggest culprit of all has been History (notice the big H). And the biggest thing in question for the Historical project was determining  who were the Ancient Egyptians, what race where they. Significant Egyptology was dedicated to proving there whiteness. Because of the entire white MythSystem depended on blacks, Africans not “contributing” anything to civilization, to History as Hegel would say.

At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it—that is in its northern part—belong to the Asiatic or European World. Carthage displayed there an important transitionary phase of civilization; but, as a Phoenician colony, it belongs to Asia. Egypt will be considered in reference to the passage of the human mind from its Eastern to its Western phase, but it does not belong to the African Spirit. What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History. G.W.F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Jibree. New York: Dover, 1956, p.99

These white mythologies are embedded in our languages, specifically our western languages. It is why I wanted to study Wolof and even Arabic and why I have an nterest in many other languages. But appearently, white mythology even riddles the language of the prophet.

“Have you ever looked up black in the dictionary?

(start it at about minute 8:00)

He taught you black was a curse, and you believed him.

This is central to understanding where the Middle East meets Africa.


on the fallacy of titles

September 8, 2009

A big underlying part pf this whole investigation can be found at this old tidbit that Chantal mused about on her blog a long time ago. She quotes Wikipedia in critique of using the term Sub-saharan Africa as if it is inherently detached from world history, essentially.

“Critique of the Term”
Some object to the usage of the term and see it is as misleading and a racist colonial way of viewing Africa. [2][3][4][5] Academic and cultural writer Owen ‘Alik Shahadah states “…This barrier of sand hence confined Africans to the bottom of this make-believe location, which exists neither linguistically, ethnically, politically or physically…Somalia and Djibouti are part of the same political Islamic alignment just like many so-called Arab countries.” (See Arab League). Others such as P. Godfrey Okoth, Department of History University of California, states that European travelers and geographers created the concept of “two Africas,” sets up the removal of African contribution to world civilization.[5][2]

in africa there’s much dispute over who exactly is an arab and who’s just a nigger.  it’s behind news headlines from mauritania to the sudan.  it’s here.  it’s the struggle over who gets to call themselves human, and who just doesn’t.  drawing lines, literally, in the sand.

I can’t wait to get into these titles

Black like me

September 7, 2009

“I am so happy,” Shando said after opening the door to his apartment. With slight astounishment he made the observation: “You are black, like me.”

Shando didn’t look like most Egyptians that I had seen to that point. Slim braids slipped down from under a baseball cap. His skin beamed a pale russet.

He hadn’t expected a person of color to respond when he asked his American Fulbright friend to put out an ad in the western expat community. It’s not that he preferred white people; that’s just the only type of Americans that he had encountered.

In fact, Shando feels a deep love and enjoys a a great pride for the black people of the world. It is surprising to hear this from one of the most “Arab” of countries, particularly when black people from Somalia to Sudan to Mauratania call themselves Arab and not black.

The complex nature of race in Egypt becomes quickly apparent if you look on the comment section of one of Shando’s music video. (Oh yeah, my roommate is and Egyptian pop singer.)

Even though he is singing an Egyptian dialect of Arabic, or Ameeyaa,  some viewers can’t believe he is Egyptian. The comment “oh my days hes singing about egyptian girls… “MASRAWY”, and hes not even egyptian, just proves how fit our girls are…” just proves how exclusively some Egyptians see their own society. Another person approved of the music but couldn’t situate him in his country. “Good song from somlian singer SHANDOO but he live in egypt.”

However, the wikipedia-styled verification system of of the internet came to the rescue. “He’s not somlian he egyption from aswan do u thing all egypion they r light skin many balck the are there,” one commentator said. Another netizen sagely adds that “arabic have all types of skin: black, tanned and white so it’s not because he’s black that he’s not arabic . Moreover in Egypt many people are like that.”

The elephant in the room as the African-American basketball player I met last week said, is the Arab invasion. Cairo is an Islamic city that was founded away from the historic centers. Marvin pointed out that if you go one hour outside of Cairo, the complexion darkens significantly. Nubia, in the south, or Upper Egypt, is the land of Aswan and Luxor  and for many, the heart of Egypt’s antiquity.

Nevertheless, the consensus about this all might have been communicated best  by saying “Sounds pretty good really funny seeing a black guy singing in arabic though.”


August 30, 2009
The Sahara was always this barren. But even so, its continital swath of land that seems to deny exsistance has never been a barrier, but as a bridge.

The Sahara wasn't always this barren. But even so, its continental swath of land that seems to deny existence has never been a barrier, but a bridge, bringing the Middle Eastern and African worlds together and not wdging them apart.

My expressed interest in coming to Egypt is in understanding the relationship between Africa and the Middle East. If there is one thing that years of historical investigations and first hand experience in Africa had made clear to me, it was the fact that, traditionally and contemporaliy, the two where linked. This is why I study Arabic.

Arabic has always been with me. It is in my middle name. It is the language of my father’s old religion. It is an avenue where I can drive my interests in history and explore my love of language.

My father had converted to Islam before my birth because he thought it the proper religion for people of African descent. Although he had abandoned organized religion by the time I was born, he maintained some cultural elements of the religion. As a child, my father would greet me in Arabic and would expect the appropriate response. “A salaam alaikum,” “Wa laikum ma salaam.”

Where my father looked to the sky, to religion for truth, I eventually looked backward, in history. From my vantage point, I saw the old world and the stories of Middle Eastern and African empires that were seldom told. I preferred the stories by Scheherazade more than I did those by Chaucer. I wanted to hear more about Sundiata than I did Charlemagne.

I have taken a particular interest in the historic role of Arabic in Africa. I wrote two papers that explored the academic tradition of West African Islamic scholars in the Mali and Songhai empires. Most primary source documents were translated from Arabic text, which caused me to wonder what I was missing in translation.

Furthermore, my travels have put me in constant contact with the Arabic language. In Paris, I lived in an immigrant neighborhood comprised mostly of North and West Africans just outside of the city. I heard just as much Arabic as I did French. Finally, reporting in Senegal on the Summit of the Organization of Islamic Countries revealed to me the diplomatic and economic importance of the Arabic language.

Learning Arabic is simply the next logical progression for me.

I am particularly interested in the relationship between Africa and the Middle East. I think that western audiences often find it difficult to envision what that relationship looks like or are even aware that it exists. However, as Ali Mazrui contends in ‘The Africans: A Triple Heritage,’ Africa is as influenced by the Arab world as it is by its European colonizers. Also, having been to North Africa and Sub-Saharan countries, I can say with confidence that one cannot understand Africa or the Middle East without the other and one cannot understand the world without both.

My travels afforded me the opportunity to witness how the social and economic dynamics of North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa work at the varying levels of interpersonal, institutional, and international interaction.  As a result, I have developed an interest in Arabic because I realize that a firm grounding in Arabic will enable me to comprehend how these dynamics interrelate and inform opinion and policy in that region of the world.

at home in the first world

August 21, 2009

The only way to describe Cairo for the newly initiated is the word overwhelming. It’s not just the sheer mass of people who’s unofficial number fluctuates between 17 and 20 million that leaves you paralyzed, but its also the diversity of its people that over-stimulate all of your senses of perception.

People of all shades and persuasions teem through the city like an invaded ant colony fighting to defend their queen and rebuild their domain. Likewise, Egyptians are constantly rebuilding a deteriorating infrastructure that quite literally crumbles from their very hyperactivity. Chantal, my writer friend who lived in Morocco, described the city well as one of those mega metropolises of the developing world, a supercity of ambition ad squalor. Like a Mumbai, a Lagos, a Beijing.

It is a supercity of what I will now call the Other world, that place of Others built on forced alterity, filled with people who live a different reality, but who work and live among different Others for their mutual livelihood.

I eagerly anticipated going to a part of the world where I would be a part of the majority, someplace where I could blend in. I subconsciously wanted to lose my identity of difference to gain an identity of similarity.

But in my first week in what might be considered the capital of the Other world, I have discovered that I don’t blend in because I look like I am North African or Arab. Rather, I blend in because to be North African means to be just about anything. This phenomenon defies racialization and western race-based categorization.

Pale-faced men with red highlights who are probably descendents of that Mamluk army share the streets with dark ancestors of the kings from Aswan and more contemporaneously Sudanese men blacker than the Nile’s richest soil share that classic tongue of the medieval intelligentsia.

This, the cradle of civilization, has been inhabited and ruled by “native” Egyptians, Nubians, Libyans, the Hyksos, Assyrians, Persisians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Maghrebians, Albanian, the French, the British and the Turks. On its soil has run the blood of almost all humakind. Who could dare claim it for any one race? It belongs to the greater human legacy.

So with my skin and hair that express a complex history and at times a problematic pedigree, I would like to think I have a special appreciation for this original site of globalization where Homo Sapiens first stepped off the African continent to populate the the rest of the world and where an immortal knowledge began.

After all, this is the real first world.


August 17, 2009

The first adventure was just leaving the airport. No worries though. I haven’t stated with a bang only to leave with a putter. After all, getting a bottle of water in downtown Cairo proved to be an even bigger adventure. I’m sure things will evolve in an increasingly complex fashion. 

Ali Mostafa, the nubian driver, met me before I went to customs. He, being one of the darker people in the intake room, assured me with a welcoming smile. He quickly guided me through with the certainty one has to have outside the western world.

Pay for entry visa. Check. Breeze through diplomatic passport line. check. Get baggage. check. Customs. Check. Dodge through the crafty cab drivers at the airport. not even an after thought. 

The air outside was oppressive. the word smog took on another meaning for me tonight: that which smothers. It was physically different and mentally difficult for me to breath. I felt the coarser matter get trapped in my nose hairs and i sensed with great angst the finer particulates land on the sensitive alveoli of my lungs. Maybe living in Cairo is like smoking a pack a day.

Sometimes when I go to special places, I ask my self, “how many years of my life expectancy am I bargaining off for this experience?” Oh well, i’m unfortunately quite the spendthrift. 

 They ain’t never lied. Great…I already have a sore throat, I thought…I’m going to be sick. For a while. 

Traffic. They told me about that too. and my first ride in Egypt in a sleek black Skoda proved to witness to the phenomomn. 

The driving. I don’t know why the city of Cairo bothers with painting lanes. By looking at the driving, no one pays attention to it. The municipalty could save millions of Eyptian  Pounds probably. 

I’m now sitting in the lounge of a decades old bar in a building that has seen the glory days of being a royal residence to snazzy hotel for westerners to now a sleepy abode with rooms that balance gleamer of former glory with the grime of today’s sooty reality.