Friday, February 19, 2010

Being Black in Cairo


As a kid growing up in Miami, on May 18th every year, most of the Haitian students and myself would bring our Haitian flag to school and get decked out in our fanciest Haitian flag-inspired outfits.  Each year this ritual took place, part celebration, part confrontation. The Haitian students would come to school ready to celebrate our diversity and rich history on our Flag Day and the African-Americans (sometimes with the help of the Jamaicans) would line up to fight us. Anyone not from South Florida will wonder about the reasoning behind this ritual (to this day, I still don't know why). Some will even wonder if I'm exaggerating (I wish!). This couldn't possibly happen every year, could it?! Unfortunately, this ethnic clash became such a routine part of our interaction with African-Americans that it shaped our view of each other. On May 17th, we were all friends. Then on May 18th, the halls would split down ethnic lines with national flags waving high like flags carried into battle. And then, like a Native American war dance, we'd clash violently, poetically.

In ethnically diverse cities and enclaves in the US, versions of this story are repeated over and over again. Nigerian kids tell horror stories of being called "African booty scratcher". Bahamians still recall being teased relentlessly about their accents. Ethiopians cringe at memories of being chased after school. The things I've heard about Haitians on the playground as a child now make the Pat Robertson's and Paul Shirley's of the world seem like lame opening acts! These interaction permanently served to do several things:
1. They enabled stereotypes of the "other"-that-looks-like-you to develop and perpetuate.
2. They prevented the members of the black diaspora from ever fully integrate within African American culture. We continue(d) to think of ourselves as a people separate from the culture, history, and grievances experienced by our African-American counterparts.
3. As minorities, we learned to define ourselves based on our differences, even to the detriment of presenting a united front on the common issues we face.

Now as an adult, I started this blog after realizing that no sources truly chronicle the experience of being black in a foreign country, not even Egypt! Most travel sites, blogs, and books are written from the comfortable perspective of white men, ambivalent to most racial/ethnic tension that may be noteworthy. After traveling extensively, I realized the need to share some information that I wish I knew before going abroad. For example, none of the sites are going to tell you that Russian gangs roam Moscow for darker people to harm, even stabbing an African-American study abroad student. Or that Spanish sports fans throw banana's at African soccer players...I sort of consider things like this need to know information!

I chose the word "black" for the blog because I felt it would be the most inclusive for the diverse members of African nations, the African diaspora, and the indigenous Nubian/black population living in Egypt. Even though an American passport may allot you better treatment than a Congolese passport, for example, we all share common experiences. After picking the title for the blog, I wanted to let my experience shape the content and from the very moment I arrived, I believe it has. My first day in Egypt, I sat down to have lunch and one by one, all the other black students sat down around me. Surprised, I  decided to just listen in as people introduced themselves. It started off in the usual way, "Hi, I'm so and so. I'm (insert ethnicity here)." I waited for the inevitable; the slow, deliberate gravitation towards the person from your own country or region that happens in the States- African Americans here, Caribbean massive there, African nations over there- but it never took place.

The night we went to the Swiss Club, the same ritual took place. "Hi, I'm Haitian" "I'm Eritrean" "I'm Somalian"..."I'm Sudanese". Again, I waited for it but, no one moved to talk to the person from their own country or reject someone else. Instead, everyone chatted and had a good time. At one point, the Eritrean man wanted to know about Eritreans in the US. I told him that DC had a large Eritrean and Ethiopian population but my interaction with them had been limited. They usually kept to their own community. After being in Egypt for 8 years, he looked genuinely shocked and hurt by this news. He asked me why this was and, avoiding a complex response, I simply said I didn't know.

All things considered, being black in Cairo, faced with the pressures and prejudices of society, has forced us to view the other black person as integral to our own success and assimilation. The experience of being black abroad, in any country, is different from being black in the US or being white-Aglo abroad. Abroad, those historically divided cling to each other for any semblance of home.You learn to see the world and yourself through very different eyes. Sometimes, all it takes is the Black Nod, and you know you're good.

When I think back to those days of grade school, I laugh at the truths we did not know and regret all the opportunities we lost to learn about each other. I wonder how far we could have gotten if we'd learned to celebrate our diversity as well as taking pride in our shared history and struggles.


Matt said...

I don't know how welcome my comments on this post may be. I found your insights really interesting France. Interesting in that, obviously, a perspective that is very different from my own. I mean, growing up in rural Michigan and then in the "big city" of Iowa there was no diversity at my schools. If someone had said they were Haitian or from Trinidad or from Ghana that would have had little to no difference on my perception growing up. It is interesting that most white people just see all of the diaspora as black/African American etc and react to all groups as if they were one, that the different groups don't recognize their common obstacles and work together more to overcome them. To me, it would seem obvious that there was enough holding all the different groups back that they didn't need to add "fighting amongst each other" to the list. Then again, I guess facing so much pressure from the established power could make people fall back on their closest identity groups and then those institutionalized problems start that you mentioned in your post.

Like I said, this is obviously something beyond my realm of experience. But I really appreciate your insights France.

Frenchie said...

Matt, you are free to comment on my blackest posts anytime:)

Speaking on just the Haitian experience alone, from what I've been told, in the 1980's when significant amounts of Haitian and other black immigrants started arriving in Mia and NYC, the conflicts were worse and more frequent. When I was growing up, we always knew to be ready on certain days for a fight or to get jumped. I remember that one school in Broward County got so bad that the Haitian parent's removed all their children. Now, in my sister's generation, harassment is limited to just verbal comments and skirmishes here and there. I know that doesn't sound like progress but taking into account the Irish immigrant experience, for example, it seems like almost a right of passage that the dominant group will initially reject you. We had to earn the respect that we have amongst other black people. Being black alone didn't make us worthy.

Consequently, it is initially difficult for people who were sworn enemies and constantly pitted against each other for the same jobs, social programs, schools, etc to view the other person as an integral partner in their sucess. Many have realized that this is detrimental to our progress but others have not.

Concept said...

I think the idea to create a blog like this is a great idea France. Like we mentioned sometime last week, I still can't come up with the perfect reasoning behind the events and incidents that would take place around Haitian flag day. I do agree with your remark about us focusing more on our differences than our past struggles but I also think our peers didn't know any better at the time. We were limited in our resources. I didn't truly begin to know about my past and culture until some point in college. I came across a group of friends that enlightened me on a lot. The books we read, the documents we saw, the discussions we had in our classrooms during those days were all void of information that could have allowed us to realize more than we knew at that time...

Ma Bedie said...

I love the way you write. I stumbled upon your blog completely accidentally while searching for something not quite related... I'm a Cameroonian who has spent most of her life in the US and UK. When you brought up the fact that there aren't many sources that inform black people of the racial climate in other countries, I have to agree with you, but I also want to point out that firstly, the American conception of race and ethnicity seems to be rather different from the rest of the world, also, it seems that only Americans are not aware of the racial climate in countries outside of America. The prejudiced attitude of North Africans is common knowledge to most people of Sub-Saharan decent... even Nubians, Tuaregs, Fulani and Wodaabe exhibit some aversion to sub-Saharan Africans like Bantu and Tikari. It is interesting when African-Americans come in contact with the reality of ethnocentrism on the continent, especially in Egypt, which many Africans of diaspora reference as the cradle of Black African civilisation. I want to thank you for starting this blog during your time there because you have provided first hand information that may not be readily available online and hopefully encouraging others to bring their stories forward as well.

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