How many Egyptians are in this picture? Answers on a postcard
Here I go on about being half- Egyptian yet again.
The Supreme Military Council continued its experiments in Egyptian identity this week with a law that bans me from being involved in the establishment of an Egyptian political party or holding any position within one.
I happen to have been born to an Egyptian mother and British father. If their nationalities were swapped you wouldn’t be reading this and I might be busy peddling bullshit on satellite TV. But alas fate wanted otherwise and I have been saddled with this version of Egyptian citizenship, a car with no engine.
Luckily I don’t have any political aspirations. I do however resent belonging to a manufactured underclass, a status I thought I had cast off in 2005 when after a tortuous year of Egyptian bureaucracy I exercised my rights under the amended nationality law and got my filthy half breed hands on an Egyptian passport with my name (misspelt but never mind) on it.
Prior to 2004 Egyptian women could not pass on Egyptian nationality to their children. They had to marry an Egyptian man and have him do it. Egyptian men married to foreign women meanwhile have always been able to confer the nationality on their progeny, no questions asked (as far as I know).
There is no legitimate reason for limiting the extent of an Egyptian citizen’s rights on the basis of parentage but a brief survey of popular attitudes towards Egyptian identity may cast light on where this legislation has its roots.
In my experience when I meet a citizen of the Arab Republic of Egypt I am put through a sort of “triage” identity test.
I do not conform to the popular conception of what an Egyptian should look like. Yes, yes I know, Egyptians come in many colours and the country’s history of occupation by all and sundry means that that there isn’t a single Egyptian “look”.
The spectrum may be vast, but it generally doesn’t extend to people who look white European (me) or black African, both of whom in my experience are automatically treated as outsiders unless and until they prove their Egyptian credentials.
Another complicating factor is that the idea of a standard Egyptian appearance isn’t restricted to genetics, either, as was revealed during the revolution, when one of my male “fully” Egyptian friends was challenged by members of the public because his hair was “too” long and one Egyptian female friend with very short hair accosted.
Attitudes towards the physical appearance of halfies are thus dictated by an oppressive homogeneity about what an Egyptian citizen is, and looks like.
An Egyptian who doesn’t look Egyptian but speaks colloquial Egyptian Arabic fluently will generally be let off the hook at this point. If however like me you understand Arabic but speak it semi-brokenly with an accent you’re back to square one and will be told in no uncertain terms that “your tongue is heavy” or more bluntly “your Arabic is crap” and the onus of proving Egyptianness begins all over again.
Interestingly, bilingual card carrying fully 100% Egyptians also have similar difficulties. There exists a generation of Egyptian children educated in the Gulf and in international schools in Egypt who naturally and sometimes unconsciously drift between Arabic and English. Some of them speak (and very often write) better English than Arabic because of their education. Friends who fit this description say that they too have encountered a sort of masked scepticism about their identity.
Access to top-flight Egyptian language schools is restricted to the elite, from whose ranks many of the Mubarak regime were drawn. The associations explain a thinly veiled resentment against perceived members of this clique who abused political power to amass fortunes they did little to conceal.
3. An outright interrogation about nationality
I always describe myself as Egyptian-British, or alternatively the product of an Egyptian mother and British father, and the conversation usually goes thusly:
CLOTH-EARED INTERLOCUTEUR: Enty masreyya? [Are you Egyptian?]
ME: Masreyya-Englezeyya [Egyptian-English]
CLOTH-EARED INTERLOCUTEUR: Aih? / Gaza2ereyya? [What?/Algerian?]
ME: Masreyya-englezeyya ya3ni waldety masreyya we aboya englezy [Egyptian-English, my mum is Egyptian and my dad English]
CLOTH-EARED INTERLOCUTER: Englezeyya. Ahlan we sahlan / welcome [English. Welcome]
ME: sotto voce: For fuck’s sake
CLOTH-EARED INTERLOCUTEUR: Sakna fe masr? [Do you live in Egypt?]
Egyptian names very often indicate their bearer’s religion and there exists a narrower range of familiar names compared with countries with a recent history of immigration (with an allowance made for the more unusual Coptic Christian names, occasionally unfamiliar to some Egyptians Muslims). Names in Egypt are three or four part and consist of a first name followed by a father’s name, grandfather’s name and family name.
Except mine. When I was getting my nationality for some reason they put my middle name as my father’s name. I’m happy with that because my name is not Sarah Richard Carr.
If by some unlikely miracle I happen to have passed the three preceding tests proceedings will come to a halt when I tell them that my name is Sarah (passes no problem) Marea (could be Christian) Carr (interloper).
At best I will be accused of being a car rental firm, as often happens on the phone. At worst I will be told that “no Muslim can be called Sarah Marea Carr” by a spy hunter holding my ID card in one hand while brandishing a large stick in the other at a popular defence committee.
How often I have seen the cogs turning in police officers’ brains as they look at the front of my ID card, which bears my name, and then turn it over in order to ascertain my religion, which makes them even more flummoxed. The name does not fit the schema.
Having already placed me somewhere in Western Europe on the basis of my appearance (a conclusion then confirmed by my name) their attempts to tidily box me away are then scuppered by this piece of state bureaucracy in their hands telling them that I am officially one of them even though my father is not.
My battle is thus on two fronts against conceptions of who can parent an Egyptian citizen and about what exactly constitutes an Egyptian citizen.
Society has yet to catch up with the nationality law, which upholds the jus sanguinis rule equally for men and women. The default setting for halfies born to Egyptian women seems to be that s/he is Foreign Until Proven Otherwise because of the triage test described above. We fail the name test. More often than not we also fail the appearance test if the father is white – patriarchy exists even before birth and paternal genes seem often to dominate their maternal counterparts. And on top of this is a belief that Egyptian women can’t create Egyptian babies without the input of a fellow citizen.
What makes this slightly sinister is that a minority in Egyptian society seems to regard relationships between Egyptian women and foreigners (by which here I mean non-Arabs) as morally dubious. The thinking seems to be: “he is a white European/American and is not a Muslim/he has no religion. They therefore met while she was lap dancing and got married in the church of Shahira in a pagan ceremony”.
This prejudice was particularly useful when state media wished to discredit Mohamed ElBaradei shortly after he began making a nuisance of himself politically. Luckily for them, his daughter is married to a British man. Over a year after he (sort of) returned to Egypt he was still having to explain publicly that his daughter is not an infidel.
(But then the media everywhere loves demonising strangers as was evident when Princess Di got it on with Dodi el-Fayed).
And the point is these attitudes occasionally translate into behaviour that is exclusionary and makes its target feel like outsiders, even if the intention is well meant. I remember when I was outside Maspero on the day Mubarak stepped down feeling a presence behind me. I turned around and he was gone, but my friend Om Nakad told me that a man had been photographing my hair. Not my general person, not the lovely female friends with me, a close-up of my lustrous (dyed, ratty) blonde hair.
Later on that evening while walking down Qasr El-Eini Street I saw a bunch of what were very obviously tourists spectating. A woman pulled a camera out of her bag and said to her companion, “estana 3owza atsawwar ma3 el aganeb” [wait I want to take a picture with the foreigners] like she was at the zoo. It was a bit like this nonsense (although the kid is charming I have to admit).
On a different day in Tahrir Square on one of the Fridays when people still congregated there I was accosted by a gentleman welcoming me to Egypt exuberantly in English in front of a line of large posters proclaiming that Egypt is safe for tourists.
I attempted to explain who I am, and then attempted to convey to him that when foreigners get “welcome” thrown at them every 10 metres while walking Egyptian streets it tends to have the effect of reminding tourists that they are strangers in a strange land, in addition to being fucking annoying and slightly dodgy when you are a lone female and the person doing the welcoming is inevitably a male under 40. He absolutely couldn’t see it, insisting that Egyptians “are friendly people” and that “foreigners like it”.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I hate generalisations about the Arab world, particularly when emitted by Pulitzer winning moustachioed morons, so I emphasise that NOT EVERY SINGLE EGYPTIAN thinks like this. My own experience, and that of my friends, and my reading of the media does show however that there exists an unfamiliarity with non-Egyptians, and with non-Egyptian culture amongst some. If you don’t believe me ask an African refugee in Egypt.
Egyptian modern history accounts in part for this unfamiliarity. The story goes that when Nasser and the free officers said hello, foreigners went bye-bye and Egypt’s cosmopolitanism (by which I mean foreigners and the Egyptian elite living it up while the majority of Egyptians were 2nd class citizens in their own countries) died. But I question how much familiarity there was, how much mixing, and genuine friendship, existed between non-Egyptian residents of Egypt and say the Egyptian working class and rural farmers. If anyone knows, tell me.
In any case the numbers of foreigners reduced dramatically and they were to some extent demonised, as one expects after hundreds of years of occupation and exploitation. Arabist puts it much more eloquently here.
I can’t help but make the comparison with the UK, particularly during the revolution when I heard gems such as “we don’t want you [non-Egyptians] in our country” and “go back to your country”. Yesterday during a march I got “why are you here?” and “Get out the way, foreigner” by a Hardees delivery prick on a moped.
The Hardees comment was throwaway and laddish, but I grew up in a culture where singling someone out (even more so when they are a British citizen) on the basis of their origins or colour and making remarks that make them feel ostracised is unacceptable. Every time someone refers to a non-Egyptian as “the foreigner” I cringe.
Prejudice is rife in the UK, as the English Defence League demonstrates, but outright racism is (mostly) a taboo (although some parts of the media have yet to realise this). 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants have fought long and hard to establish their right to be accepted as British by white nationals. The battle is ongoing (particularly for British Muslims), but at least society has moved on slightly from the Rising Damp days.
It’s difficult to complain about exclusionary attitudes as a foreigner without sounding like an arsehole because of the history. This isn’t Britain where waves of immigrants from former colonies arrived in the motherland and experienced the worst kinds of racism and discrimination.
The situation in Egypt is the inverse, and a (usually) privileged “1st world” person whining about the natives’ behaviour will more often than not sound petulant and obnoxious, as is demonstrated by the Cairo Scholars mailing list. I am acutely aware of this and am not giving myself the licence to freely criticise Egyptian society just because I have the nationality. I’m writing this because this is a country I love. And I sincerely hope that thus far I haven’t sounded like an arsehole.
The ambivalence of Egyptian society towards outsiders was acutely demonstrated during the revolution. When I say outsiders, I don’t just mean non-Egyptians. I collected frightening testimonies of mob attacks against Egyptians perceived as being different and somehow not Egyptian enough.
The timing of this mass xenophobia coincided closely with the state media campaign against foreigners accused of fomenting unrest in Tahrir and elsewhere, and there is evidence to indicate that the attacks that occurred around the Square were not spontaneous. But further afield attacks were carried out with zealous enthusiasm by individuals who seemed genuinely to believe that the country was under attack from a plague of spies.
I experienced what felt like real contempt during this time. The worst thing is that every time I produced my ID card and stuttered out “I am Egyptian” I started to believe that I actually was an imposter. The fact that for three years I have faced similar (but less hysterical) responses while out reporting helped me deal with these situations but the constant threat of violence always left me in need of a drink.
Everything was topsy-turvy during the revolution and people exulted in power in the absence of a police force. These were exceptional circumstances. But this isn’t a reason to dismiss these incidents. I was shocked by the attitude of some activist friends who played down their significance. One person I spoke to, an Egyptian who was accused of being a foreigner/spy/whatever and made to leave a group of striking workers she was talking to asked me how I was going to use the testimonies I was gathering, saying that she preferred not to relate her experience unless it was presented in the context of a media-driven campaign of xenophobia.
Attacks on minorities jar with the popular narrative of the revolution, with the image of Tahrir being a utopia of tolerance and harmony. Tahrir was a dream, but protestors brought the Us vs. Them dichotomy with them into the square. Even revolutionaries can be arseholes. I’m thinking here of the protestors who found the time as rocks fell on our heads on February 2nd to tell me to stop taking photographs because they had decided I’m a foreigner.
The way a society treats its minorities really does indicate how healthy, and at ease with itself, it is; a society that treats its own citizens as outsiders is by definition scared of itself.
I hope that Egypt will one day complete its revolution by reducing poverty and closing income gaps, upholding the rights of its religious minorities, instituting an educational system that produces iconoclasts and thinkers. Maybe then society will be less insular, and suspicious, and stratified, and angry, and the definition of the Egyptian citizen will somehow be enlarged because with confidence will come the generosity born of trust.
Or maybe conceptions of identity will change as more of the children born to one, or two Egyptian parents abroad return to Egypt and force acceptance of their differences through their mere physical presence.
But there is something that can be done in the short-term, and that is for the government to stop passing bullshit discriminatory legislation that reinforces prejudice.
On Wednesday the army announced amendments to the political parties law. The amendments did not include removal of the clause in the law that states that anyone wishing to hold a post in a political party or be one of its founders must have an Egyptian father.
On Thursday the army presented its long-awaited Constitutional Declaration, a sort of collection of constitutional principles it has cobbled together until a committee appointed by parliament draws up a new constitution. Article 7 of this Declaration states that “all citizens are equal under the law and have equal rights and duties”.
Article 26 of the same document states that I can never be President of the Republic, even if I renounced my British nationality because I must have “two Egyptian parents”. Also, people married to non-Egyptians are not allowed to be president (note that, inconsistently, it doesn’t state the spouse can’t be a dual national. Which means that the First Lady* could theoretically be a naturalised Egyptian and exercise her evil khawaga voodoo on the president).
The prohibition on single nationality Egyptians with a foreign parent being president is of course perfectly logical, because as Mohamed Hosny Mubarak demonstrated only a proper Egyptian can really love el watan and run it competently. An Egyptian with a foreign parent would allow corruption and torture to spread and pursue policies that result in class divisions widening and the numbers of poor increasing and put Israel’s foreign policy needs before Egypt’s own and stay for 30 years.
I would like to bring a case challenging the prohibition on citizens born to Egyptian mothers taking part an active part in political parties, and invite any other halfies born to Egyptian mothers interested to add their crazy confusing names to mine.
In the meantime I appeal to you, dear Egyptian full breed readers of this blog to be a little bit more forgiving towards your halfie brothers and sisters, (particularly the Egyptian mother foreign father combo) and help spread the following message.
I don’t speak Arabic fluently. I can’t write a paragraph of formal Arabic. I didn’t grow up in Egypt and thus can’t laugh at your reference to a 1980s Channel 1 kids programme. I don’t have a solid grounding in any religion and thus the religious cultural references that litter casual conversation go over my head. I can’t list Amr Diab’s entire back catalogue. I don’t look like you.
I do though feel attached to Egypt as much as you, even if this attachment is expressed in unorthodox ways. Egyptian cultural identity is strong enough to withstand a few of its citizens bowling around not being able to identify famous 1980s Egyptian actresses and mispronouncing letters, so if people could refrain from going on about us ruining the fabric of society that would be marvelous**.
If the Tahrir sit-in proved anything it demonstrated that when it comes to the crunch differences don’t matter, social diversity is good and we all hate Mubarak. كلنا ايد واحدة يا حبايب
Don’t blame us for Suzanne Mubarak and I leave you with the grand wizard of the angry oppressed minority, Toyama Koichi.
*I am aware that in theory the president could be a woman and thus we might have a First Gentleman. But as Arabist says: http://twitter.com/#!/arabist/status/54138610500382720
** Oh and another request. When you go on about the British occupation of Egypt if you could resist the urge to make a reference to my grandfather and then expect me to laugh I would be grateful. The joke went stale in approximately 1987.