My trip to Egypt in 2009 was eye-opening on many levels, but the thing that caught me the most off guard was moving from thinking about Egypt as African to Egypt as the Middle East.
So, as an African American, the thought of coming to Egypt not only excited me for obvious reasons (the land of the Pharaohs, the Pyramids, the Holy Family) but also got me thinking about the connection that I had ethnically to this great history. I have travelled to Africa two other times (Kenya and Ethiopia) and the warm welcome and sense of home I experienced were overwhelming. Upon arriving here, however, I have been introduced to this very complex culture of Egypt that, among other things, does not consider itself to be African. Yes, you read that correctly…Egyptians do not consider themselves to be African.
I don’t know if indignation would be your reaction to this stance (it was mine) but everywhere we have gone and all of the lectures we have heard have never mentioned the continent of Africa in relation to identity, geography, politics or ethnicity. In fact, we hear over and over again that Egyptians are Arab and Egypt is in the Middle East. These two statements are realities that have been explained to me but I still had trouble accepting it. You see, as an African American who has black skin, Egypt and its rich history connected me to a greatness that was stripped with the horrors of slavery and segregation in the United States. Egypt represented what MY culture could do, could be, could have. Egypt represented the God given gifts of God’s creation. The stripping away of humanity and the struggle for equality (in my mind) was overshadowed by what was and what could be again. By not claiming an African identity, Egypt became a quagmire – a complex, confusing, undefinable country that, at the end of the day, doesn’t want to be associated with being “black.”
Now one might say that this is a western orientation, to throw race in the mix. But for me, it comes back to race. As a leading political science lecturer explained to us last night, Egypt is one of 22 (+3) Arab nations. All of these countries (with the exception of 2, Somalia and Sudan–and this I can’t figure out) are comprised of people who are not black. To further my conspiracy theory, I have not only read, but been told, that Egyptians do not like black people. We met a manager of a rug store who was from Upper Egypt (which is southern Egypt) who was black who said he would not have had the job he holds now ten years ago because of the color of his skin. This comment, along with conversations I have had with both native Egyptians and current missionaries enlightened me about the issues of race that are still very much alive in this region.
However, another reality has to be thrown into the mix. Today at lunch, Dr. Grafton mentioned that you would not lump a Syrian and a Korean person together, ethnically or geographically. As Americans, we know that both coutries are located on the continent of Asia. This example, just raised today, has begun to shift my thinking about how Egpytians view themselves. As an American and as a black woman, I want Egypt to be a part of the whole continent of Africa in a way that makes sense to me and helps me more fully connect to a lost history and identity. This is not Egypt’s fault. It has been my own education and socialization. As I take all of this into account, the I can begin to see that northern Egypt Africa (Egypt, Morrocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Libya and Tunisia) are not the Africa I learned about or the Africa I will find my identity in. Much like Syria and Korea, the countries of northern Africa are located on the same continent as the countries of sub-Saharan Africa but they are vastly different lands with a different understanding of their cultural identity. This is not a bad thing, I’ve decided, but it does push me in my own reasoning and gives me a different lens at which to look at the world.
The final thing I have to offer tonight is that, in the midst of not claiming an “African” identity, the issue of identity is very complex and confusing for most Egyptians. Are they truly Arab? Are they Egpytian or Middle Eastern? What implications do these titles have for a country that is Christian and Muslim (though largely Muslim)? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I must admit that I have had a fascinating time thus far being introduced to a land that produced ancient wonders of this world, key leaders in the Christian faith, serves as the intellectual basin of Islam and continues to endure in its struggle to regain an identity that they can call their own.