Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I'll Cut Him!


The men in my neighborhood have adjusted to seeing me around by now. At this point, they harass me usually as an afterthought instead of with the newfound enthusiasm they had the first few weeks I moved here. The store owners and employees can barely contain their amusement as my Arabic vocabulary expands and I practice on them. The ones who speak some English take any opportunity to throw in an English word or phrase in our conversations.

Today was what I've come to accept as a regular day. The technician (I use the term loosely) working on the elevator in our apartment building keeps knocking out the internet somehow. Finally, I go downstairs to ask him to fix it, not realizing until I was well into the conversation that I only know the Arabic word for employee and elevator but not "knocked out my wireless internet access". sigh...Needless to say, he completely took the conversation over while I struggled to keep up. Somehow, he went from the discussing the elevator with me to every Egyptians favorite question: "Where you from?" I've realized a long time ago that no one can ever quite figure out what my ethnicity or nationality is. Sometimes people try to guess but for the most part, they just bluntly demand to know. Depending on how I feel and how quickly I want the conversation to end, I'll either tell them I'm Haitian or American. 

After exhausting my painfully short vocabulary of technical terms, I was hoping to keep this conversation short and sweet so I told him I was American. He stared at me quizzically for a moment, "But you're black." Sigh, oh here we go again. I nod. He looked at me a little closer this time, " Well, you are black... with a little yellow." (I don't know if the "yellow" was a reference to my complexion or to the slanted shape of my eyes but I decided to leave it at that). He decides to follow it up with an ever inviting, "you want to take a ride on my elevator."  I'll pass.

Later on, I go to Mobinil to get credit on my cell phone. As I cross the street into the store, 2 guys follow behind me yelling, "Samara, samara!" sigh. I walk into the store and the male employees give me a friendly nod since I've been frequenting the same store from the first week I arrived in Egypt. The guys like to practice their English with me as they reload my cell phone with credits and I practice my Arabic with them. Today, after complimenting me by telling me my Arabic was getting better each time I came in the store, one guy asked me if I played for the WNBA. 

Me (taking this as a sign that its time to unbraid my hair!): No!! 
Employee 2: haha! She does not play any sports!
Employee 1: Are you from America?
Me: Yes. Do you guys have black Americans playing basketball in Egypt?
Employee 1: Yes!! In the Zamalek club. His name is_____. He's the best! Our team is the best
Employee 2: How do you like Egypt?
Me (fresh from being harrased in the street): 'Shweya Shweya'. Sometimes its good sometimes its not so good
Employee 1: Why not so good?
Me: Ugh, Egyptian men! They always bother me in the street
Employee 2 (chuckles): Yes. One time, I saw you walking and I saw many men follow you and say things to you
Employee 1: ...But this doesn't happen ALL the time!?
Me: Yes it does, almost all the time. It even happened before I walked in here . Some guys followed me yelling "samara"!
Employee 2 (now completely unable to control his laughter): "Samara" doesn't mean bad thing. It's not like... Negro. They just want to be your friend
Me: Well, I don't like it at all. It's not nice
Employee 2: We have Nubians here in Egypt. We call our Nubian friends Samara. It's not a bad thing! One of Egypt's best football players. His name is _____ Samara
Me (looking at him incredulously): Is he black?
Employee 2: Yes, of course!
Me: In the U.S., you can't say such a thing. That's like me following you and yelling, " Hey Arab!"
(After thinking about this for a moment, they are both laughing)
Employee 1: If someone object[ifiies] you again in the street. You just let me know! I'll cut him!!
(He runs his finger along his throat to demonstrate. Now, we are doubled over laughing)


Concept said...

LOL!!! This was a funny post!

VegasSeven said...

A few things that helped me back in the day in similar circumstances:

1) Have a fake story about yourself you tell people that elicits the least amount of questions.
2) Sometimes act like you don't speak the local language and you are a tourist. They are more accustomed to tourists and will probably bother you less.
3) Have fun sometimes: Make-up a different story about yourself. Yes, you do play in the WNBA. (But be careful yes there is a certain point where you cross the line of being an ugly ex-pat)
4) Nothing wrong with hanging-out in the true ex-pat community when you need a break.
5) Taking a walk in the evenings can be enjoyable because no one will recognize you.

Frenchie said...

thanks for the advice :)

Jean said...


I am Egyptian and I would like to clear the misunderstanding of why they call you "Samara". This is not a bad word, it's no more than a friendly way to talk to black people. You may know that there are a lot of Egyptian black people from Upper Egypt and we all love them and treat them very well.

I can say that there was more discrimination upon color in America until soon. I have studied American literature and I have a black American friend.

I can also tell that black people have here the same salaries like everyone, go to all universities like everyone, have all the rights like the others like everyone. While the black people had less rights in America for ages.

thank u

Jean said...

I forgot to tell you that we had a black president in Egypt "President Sadat" much before America. Which refers to how much we respect the black people. Please, don't value anything in Egypt according to individual incidents. But, I agree with you that the Egyptians declined from being civilized Pharaohs to letting themselves be in the group of "arabs" who are originally uncivilized. I hope that the egyptians will reject that soon and return back to be egyptians, real egyptians (like their original ancestors).

Frenchie said...

Jean, while you may see nothing wrong with the term, myself and other black people find it highly offensive. It is not necessary to constantly reference my skin color or yell it out in the middle of the street. I dont need a reminder that I'm black. Samara is as derogatory as the term "Ay-rab" (a word Americans often use for Middle Eastern looking- people and Middle Eastern owned convenience stores).

I find it hard to believe that you could speak of the treatment of black people in Egypt and black Egyptians favorably when 1)the Sudanese refugees here have NO rights at all 2)The Sudanese and anyone who's mistaken for Sudanese is automatically shot and killed on the border 3) The Nubians are continuously treated like second class citizens and pushed off their historic homelands. While there may be no racism codified in Egpytian laws, there definitely is unspoken and (co)overt racism in daily life which ensures that black Egyptians can never take full advantage of the opportunities supposedly available to all. This disparity is made painfully obvious because you live in AFRICA and in a nation with a large black population yet you only have ONE black friend in your social circles! Having lived in the US, Europe, and Asia, I would say that this is some of the worst racism I've ever encountered because it is routinely denied. At least the US acknowledges it has a race issue and makes attempts to deal with it

Shrilaraune said...

I hope I'm able to make "friends" that I can talk like this with. My Arabic isn't nearly good enough to have this conversation but I hope I get there before I leave!

joeystinyworld said...

Thank you so much for this. I am currently in this situation- I am balck and in Cairo, and it the most disturning experience ever. Sexual harrasment and name calling have to be the worst things ever. I really do NOT think that samara is used in a "loving" manner as Jean, above suggests. We all know that Folks here do not even consider themselves as Africans let alone love thier own "African people" Totally distasteful! Thanks though for the light hearted humor you put into it, I have learned alot. Thanks!!!

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