I was reading an old post of mine which I had marked as private, but upon further inspection/reflection don’t mind if people read.
In that entry I was trying to hash out my feelings on the racism or perceived racism I had encountered while dealing with Arabs. At the end of the day, only God knows what it really at work in the minds of individuals. In Egypt it has not come up so much, but I think it has made me think about certain things more in relation to race and identity.
As we got into a boat on the way back from the Philae temple, one of my Egyptian friends told me about a conversation between two men as I walked by. I didn’t hear it, because I wasn’t really paying attention, blocking out/tuning out people is a necessary skill when living abroad, and it’s priceless when you go to touristy areas as you will hear all kinds of crazy things. At any rate, one man said to another “هي سمارة بس والله هي جميلة قوي” (she’s black/dark skinned but I swear to God she is beautiful ). Now, this is not the first time I’ve heard that phrase in the Arab world so I just smirked and changed the subject.
This is actually some people’s idea of a complement and so, I have been trying, especially during this trip to keep that in mind.
The men at Philae got me thinking about a young boy that I met at another temple. He was one of those swarms of street sellers that prowl on tourists selling cheap trinkets and such. But unlike many that we came across through the course of the trip he wasn’t abrasive. He did have the habit of calling me ya Samara (hey dark skinned girl) again, I understand that in Egypt it عادي (normal) to call someone that and there are no racist undertones with the use of the word. However, like the term Negrita in Spanish it can get annoying. On that particular day I had had just about enough of that (for some reason the sellers in the south always had to make some sort of comment about my skin color, it was a ploy to catch my attention and get me to buy their wares I know, but you can hear “My cousin!” “Same color” “Rasta” but so much before you just want to walk around with some anonymity).
At any rate, a bit annoyed at Mohammed I said to him لو أنا سمارة انت أي؟ (If I’m darkskinned girl what are you?) hoping that he would think about it for a bit and I don’t know, apologize… or something. Instead, he just said أنا محمد (I’m Mohammed!)
Of course I, and those around me could not help but laugh. It seemed like everything had gone over his head. Mohammed later explained that he preferred to call me Samara he wanted to دلعني (give me a nickname—- it’s a sign of closeness/intimacy the same way it is in English).
I think about that now more and more. Of course not everyone’s intentions are like Mohammed’s. But there are certainly lots of people who mean no harm by calling out to people using adjectives based on skin color. It’s just something that is not acceptable in the US (at least everywhere I have been and lived in there).
This distinction is also what makes it hard for other people, particularly Arabs that I have interacted with, to understand some blatant acts of racism when they happen. Case in point, I recently took an OPI exam (more on that later) and I was trying to explain to the tester that I received racially based street harassment. Her initial reaction was to tell me that I was wrong and that everyone gets harassed/cat calls. Of course that made me mad (not a good thing to do during an OPI mind you) and I sort of retorted (angrily and at her) that there is big difference between cat-calls and racist epithets. When someone calls you an عبدة (slave) or some other epithet reserved for black people they are not being cute or coquettish. She then quietly acquiesced.
At the end of the day though, I am no longer apprehensive about racism in the Arab world. It is what it is. There is certainly give and take involved. It’s not always easy to pin-point and I am getting too old and too sure of myself to care.