Posts Tagged ‘racism’

According to Tammam, I look Turkish.

Well, that’s what we’re telling the police, anyway.

I’m a Turk whose family lives in the Kafr Susa district of Damascus, here in Egypt studying Arabic and teaching English. At least, that’s what Tammam came up with when we visited the castle of Qait Bey yesterday.

Why Turkish, Tammam?

“Because that explains your funny accent, and then no one will ask questions.”

When you go to any “touristic monuments” in Egypt, there’s a sign for the prices, usually above the ticket window. It looks innocent enough.

In English it says something like:
Adults: LE 50
Students: LE 25

On the opposite side, written in Arabic, is presumably the translation. At least, that’s what people who don’t read Arabic end up thinking. In reality, it says this:

Egyptians and Arab Nationals: LE 2
Egyptian and Arab Students:    LE 1

The numbers are written in the Eastern-Arabic numerical system, thus rendering the deception hidden to the eye of the foreigner with no knowledge of Arabic.

Interestingly, if there is no sign, you get asked where you’re from for the same reason.

I’ve told  a number of Egyptians that I think this is pretty racist; I’ve gotten into some pretty heated arguments over the cost of a ticket with vendors.

The response is one usually of entitlement: either foreigners should pay more (we have more money, I suppose), or that the Egyptian government has “paid” for Egyptians to see their own monuments. I honestly don’t understand that one: that the government “subsidizes” the cost of entrance fees to national monuments for Egyptian citizens? Also: what about the whole “Arab national” thing?

If we put a sign in front of the Statue of Liberty or the Lincoln Memorial saying, “Native-born Americans $1; Naturalized Citizens $2; Resident Aliens $5; Foreign Tourists $10,” there would be an absolute outcry. Nobody would go. It’s absolutely, totally, one-hundred percent ridiculous.

And thank you, very much, I don’t get paid in dollars, so I’m pretty much at your income level, dude.

I was telling this to Ahmed and Oliver the other day in Younani, and they were telling me that out in Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada (resort towns) the opposite is often true. You can see signs that read “Welcome Foreigners!” in English, but “Egyptian Entrance Fee LE 20” in Arabic


The press puts forward a lot of effort into projecting the image of Egypt as being a welcoming place for foreigners. My theory is a little different. Never once have I felt unwelcome, but as a resident khawaga, I have never felt entirely part of the country itself. As a foreigner, you are treated as a guest in the fullest meaning of the word — everywhere. No matter where you go. No matter how long you’ve lived here. You’re the foreigner, and oh? You speak Arabic? How nice! When are you leaving? When are you going back? It is nearly impossible to pay for dinner when you go out with Egyptian friends (which, I confess, is kind of nice, but annoying in a way that really gets to my pride). I almost feel like it’s a bit of a condescension; they won’t let you in on the secret: there is a different way of acting, and different price, and a different place for you because you are not, in fact, Egyptian.

In such moments, I am grateful for Americana. Anyone who is anyone who wants to be an American can become an American. And no one can debate that with him. He/She doesn’t have to be X religion or eat X or even live in X — it’s almost as if he/she just has o agree that you can just as easily build your identity as you can claim it.

Maybe freedom of identity is the greatest freedom of all. The freedom to be adopt a town, to live wherever, to travel and let your life story be different from the background you grew up in. I get shocked looks from some of my students sometimes when I tell them that I went through a roller coaster of religious development — from idea to philosophy to religion to idea, and so on. The Quest as a narrative seems almost entirely different here; instead, its the idea of acceptance, dealing with one’s Fate — a submission which sometimes to me seems far too much like the resignation I’ve tried to avoid in my own life.

These are my observations: a person here is defined by where they are from, what religion they practice, their job. Yet all these things are determined by the chaotic arrangement of one’s birth: if you are born poor, you can’t work yourself up into the university system because you can’t afford tutors; you can’t get a good job because you don’t have a wasta (middleman-intercessor); even your religion is dictated for you because the community and your family will not tolerate the change and your freedom to do so. You will be born poor, remain the religion you are born, do a job very close to your father’s, and bear children into the space you will vacate. If you are born into a better standing, you use the resources that are available to you in that standing, but nothing can push you up. You can only go down. And this, ladies and gentleman, is qadarak: your fate. Accept it as the will of God, and do what you can with it.

A number of chapters in the books we use at the Center talk about travel and a (somewhat flawed) idea of the gap year. Kids running off to college to maybe succeed, maybe fail out, maybe learn how to live quasi-independently. The vast majority of students are baffled. It seems like such a waste of money to them; and if not, like an incredibly dangerous situation (if you look at if from a religious perspective, college was indeed a veritable cauldron of sin to sing around your ears). But it imprints the value of independence and (ideally) self-reliance. You must not be a burden to anyone else.

It’s not entirely the opposite in Egyptian society, but I think it’s a little more focused on the idea of interdependence. Everyone has their noses in everyone’s business, and no one has to be entirely independent — in fact, it’s nearly impossible. Nearly every Egyptian shab I know makes only about LE 500/month at the most, and at that salary, no one can afford to live alone, except in the most dire of hovels on the outskirts of Kubri Namoos. You have to live with your family, and forget the idea of moving away to go to college. Almost no one can do that. The cost of living alone is insane. Even the quest of one’s life is posed as one which combats solitude: marriage itself is an institution that is opposed to celibacy. Most (Muslim) Egyptians are absolutely shocked when I tell them that at one point I wanted to be a Catholic priest; “Didn’t you want to marry?” is always the reply. There is a hadith about “Marriage being half one’s religion,” that is oft-quoted. It doesn’t surprise me, then, to expect that the society values interdependence over solitude.

As a consequence, though, I think that the result is one of exclusion of outsiders, hence the upped entrance fee outside national monuments. Naturally, you are not of us, so you should pay more. Not to any xenophobic extent, but one in which lifelong membership is something you are born into and leave by dying. Neighborhoods are tight, churches and mosque communities tighter; families almost impenetrable, except by marriage. You can’t earn admission except by becoming a part of the family. Adoption here is illegal, and the way that Muslim conversion to Christianity was described to me by Fr. Andrea almost sounded more like it was regarded as a kind of adultery more than it was a betrayal of personal belief. Americans come from a country in which adoption, revision, self-invention are part of the territory. Here, I would almost call them foreign novelties. Americans change their religious beliefs, their political beliefs, their personal beliefs almost routinely sometimes. Here, they are a product of who you are. Change your religious beliefs in your own personal quest, you are betraying the community. You have committed adultery and must be purged from the community.

It is interesting, however, to note that foreigners do not apply to this category. No one would dream of trying to convert my Coptic students to Islam (this is too personal an issue); I, however, am a prime target. Perhaps they haven’t thought that that, too, would be a betrayal of my own community?

Even if you lived here for years on years on years, people you met in the street would still treat you like the next foreigner tourist here on holiday, clicking pictures of the Pyramids away for Shutterfly. You can never, ever, ever be Egyptian — or even Egyptianized. In some ways, I’m glad.

But the next time someone asks, I’m a Turco-Syrian. I’m from the Kafr Susa district of Damascus, here in Egypt to study Arabic and teach English. At least, that’s what Tammam and I are telling the tourist police these days.

Because I sure as hell ain’t payin’ no LE 50 to get into anywhere.


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Recently in the Times– how a distinct lack of pigs is destroying Egypt’s sanitation:

“Belatedly, Egypt Spots Flaws in Wiping out Pigs”

To give you a little background, some time ago, Norman sent this video to me on one of Cairo’s more shocking quarters. The focus of the video sensationalizes the poor treatment of Copts– which represent an oppressed minority in an increasingly conservative country. In fact, many Copts have perceived the recent mass-slaughter of khanazeer as a blow to Coptic communities: an interesting suggestion, considering that most Copts I’ve met detest pork just as much as most Muslims.

On the zabaleen (literally, the Garbage People), courtesy of an unnamed British exposé:

Zabaleen Part 1

Zabaleen Part 2

Zabaleen Part 3

Photo by Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times

Photo by Shawn Baldwin for the New York Times

I’m not quite certain where I stand on the matter. On one hand, I can’t make an great claims for the status of the Copts in Egypt– or the treatment of Christians at large, for that matter. My own personal experience with the Copts has been a disapproving one; they’ve struck me as insular and defensive– almost racist in their suspicion and distrust of their Muslim counterparts. Yet, conversely, I’ve met others– like Emad– whose best friends are Muslims.

Allow me to share one such experience with you. I’ve bought my groceries from Mahmoud on the corner for some time now: he is a Muslim– along with all the other Bashas that sit there nightly. Some time two years ago, I began also buying what Mahmoud didn’t have at one of the shops down the street, whose owner was a Copt. After noticing this, Hany (the owner) began to bother me about buying all my groceries from him– because “he was a Christian.” His point was that Muslims were just using me for my money, and that they really hated Christians– all Christians, not just the Orthodox. I’ve had a number of experiences like this, where Copts use it’s-because-I’m-Christian as the cause of all their troubles.

This may very well be true for all I know. But the problems of most Copts as I’ve encountered them are pretty much the same as everyone else: saving money and getting married. When you have something to blame, it might be easier to get more embittered by it. The result is a rather insular community that is not very welcoming to outsiders; at one point I was called a heretic by a Coptic monk at Abu Mina.

For the zabaleen, I’m uncertain. Doubtless, their plight is the result of widespread ignorance– either regarding the swine flu or Christianity. The trouble is determining which is the prevailing factor.

And sadly, it might be both.

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