Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Color Complex in Cairo

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We have a few guests staying with us this week, one being an Arab girl. Late one night, we- my white American roommate, my Somalian roommate, and I- got in a conversation about boys with her. Typical late night girl talk. When asked about our preferences in men, we all listed an unreasonable, maybe even delusional, list of characteristics. When it was our guest's turn, she thought for a moment and said, "Olive skin"...


The conversation moved on as conversations do but I was struck by the weighted nuances of her very first qualification. In Egypt, and much of the post-colonial world, lighter skin is perceived as a favorable trait signifying everything from education level to social class. Navigating the streets of Cairo, flipping through Egyptian televisions channels or magazines, and talking to Egyptians makes it painfully obvious that the colour-complex is alive and well here. Skin bleaching creams are stocked on the shelfs at every grocery store or pharmacy like beacons of hope. Images of lightened actresses with horrendous  bleach blonde hair and coloured-contacts grin back from the pages of magazines and billboards. Those who are not pale enough to fit such a narrow and foreign image of beauty are automatically lightened in photographs and images. I didn't even realize that former Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat was black/Nubian until a Sudanese friend vehemently pointed it out to me! After doing a little research, I finally found an undoctored picture of him in the library where his dark brown skin shown radiantly, untempered by technology. 

In my Egyptian Arabic class last semester, the instructor insisted on teaching us the words for light (white), dark (black), blonde, etc in order to describe people. Black people, can you imagine having a black teacher teach a multicultural class of foreigners the words to describe the complexion of various black people: red-bone, high-yella, etc?!  I was quite exasperated by this because, when asked pointedly about the Egyptian's preference for light-skin by a smug blonde, the instructor insisted that no such preference existed. However, both myself and the blonde fired off examples from our interactions with Egyptians that refuted her claim, albeit from opposite perspectives. The otherwise unexceptional blond was regularly pursued by Egyptian men because of her pale features, blue eyes, and natural blond hair. She found herself subjected to everything from unprovoked marriage proposals to unrestrained sexual harassment. The Egyptian men were fascinated and obsessed with her physical manifestations of a Euro-centric standard of beauty that their own women could only achieve through strategic breeding and a careful alignment of recessive genes. On the other hand, the same men who were willing to lap up her bath water, yell samara at me regularly in the Cairo streets. The word is at times sung to draw attention to me as a black woman or hurled viciously at me to deride me as a "darkie". (I have yet to be called abd, slave, a slur reserved for the darkest of Africans but God help the person who ever does call me that) Regardless of the context, I've come to resent the word and those who use it as much as the blond did the ones who invaded her personal space simply because she was ash-ar (blond). 

I've found this to be an interesting opportunity to observe how the effects of colonialism continue to manifest itself in people of colour. I've seen Egyptian men ignore drop-dead gorgeous black women or Arab women of a darker complexions to pursue a quaint white woman that wouldn't merit a second glance in the U.S. I shake my head in amusement as Egyptian girls risk being disowned by their fathers just to parade the latest blond hair, blue-eyed (and non-Muslim) foreign exchange student on their arm at AUC. I've watched as family members linger disapprovingly over the face of a darker skinned child and move on to lavish praises on his/her lighter siblings. The darker child was born after midnight dooming them to dark skin, they'll claim. When speaking to Egyptian colleagues about their background, they proudly note a supposed European or Caucasian ancestor to explain their cherished fair complexion but will neglect to mention the obvious African ancestor that gave them their curly hair, wide hips, broad nose, and often times, caffe con leche to caramel-brown complexion. The ancestor that brought them these traits remains locked away in the folds of history as if his descendants were light-skinned mulattoes trying to pass in the U.S. circa 1920. 

I'm content and comfortable with the fact that my African sun-kissed complexion excludes me from being any more than an observer and, at times, a scapegoat for the colour complex here. Admittedly when Egyptian men try to explain to me (or, more likely, offer themselves solace) as to  why they noticed that I happen to be attractive and black, two phrases always escape their mouths: "You look like an Egyptian" or  "You're not really black because..." Meant to be compliments, they only invoke in me a mocking sneer* or a disapproving sigh as I quickly bring the conversation to a close.I have no desire to seek acceptance amongst those who base their image of beauty on people that reject them.  I refuse to succumb to colonized minds and will continue to wear this color black until they make something darker. Quite frankly, the black community has enough of it's own issues without me burdening myself with the unnecessary/uninvited ignorance of others...


Update:





I want to make it clear that this is not solely an Egyptian issue, but one that affects people of color worldwide. By raising awareness of the colour complex, I hope we can begin an honest discourse that leads to us loving ourselves and or own innate beauty without comparing it to others.




*ugh, I know I shouldn't sneer b/c it can lead to wrinkles (and wrinkles are not sexy) but the nerve!

19 comments:

hollygolitely said...

Society tries to make it seem like its a curse to be....dare i say it....BLACK!

Farah Fanciful said...

Wow. That was so eloquently put. Unfortunately, such is life for black people. Please continue to enlighten the world, even if only a small portion, on foreign affairs and travels.

Anonymous said...

When I visited Egypt, I seen beautiful black egyptians. I notice this somalian man staring at me. He was fineeeeee. I wanted to holla at him but I didn't. My friend brother (Egyptian)told me that his brother wife was my complexion (I'm black) and she looked white to me. I was shocked. Then I found out she was using lightening creme.

Frenchie said...

The more I travel, the more I appreciate the strength, masculinity, and beauty of black men! Unfortunately, it is very hard for some of the African refugees here. At times, my only solace is that I have an American passport and I can leave and travel freely as soon as the constant racism, crowds, and corruption in Cairo becomes too much. for many refugees here, they do not have the freedom of mobility to escape b/c they don't have proper documents. Thus, I've noticed that some of the African woman succumb to bleaching cream in order to conform to an impossible standard of beauty. Of course, this is no excuse for bleaching and some may still lighten their skin even w/o societal pressures but it always saddens me to see it...

Anonymous said...

well put. As for the bleaching to fit into the society or avoid being called black, the refugees mainly Sudanese as i have noted are destroying their complexion using beauty as a reason with disastrous effects of course. ESCAPISM BIG TIME.

Balanced Melting Pot said...

Oh, wow! It's too bad that they still carry this burden. Somehow, people in Caracas have moved passed it. I was telling a friend of mine who had horrible racial experiences in Buenos Aires that I have not once felt or heard anything that showed negativity towards darker skin. On the contrary, my kids are superstars wherever they go. People are always saying how beautiful their skin is, etc. While it sometimes makes me feel a bit patronized, I'm VERY happy that they are made to feel special.

suhaibwebb said...

Salams,

I'm a friend of Pascal Robert. I've lived here for 7 years with my wife and kids; I studied at al-Azhar and work for the Egyptian Religious Department. A few weeks ago I saw a truck advertising B-White cream and I stopped, almost fainted, looked for an SNL crew and realized that there are a number of very serious issues plaguing the Muslim/Arab world. If you need a good home cooked meal or any help. Please don't hesitate to contact me. I'm on twitter and just started following you.

Suhaib

Maryam said...

Amazing post and beautifully written.

I studied in Cairo last year and noticed the same thing! Ridiculous! As a Muslim, what burns is the fact that the example of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was that of looking only at the character and actions of the individual- that Bilal, the one who was previously a slave, and African as well, became the first caller to the prayer, and that's such an important position. There are so many examples...

And in the Quran:
'O people! We created you from one man and one woman and made you branches and tribes that you may recognize one another. Undoubtedly, the most respected among you in the sight of Allah is he who is more pious, verily, Allah is knowing, Aware.'

As in, don't judge someone based on their appearance! We were created differently to know one another and what should be the criteria is what's inside.

So when I see individuals who live in a majority Muslim country and they perpetuate these types of thoughts..I mean, one can blame a million factors for this type of mentality, but at the end of the day: people needa use their minds and WAKE UP!!!

Thank you for being real about your experiences. Please keep it up! I think voices like yours should be broadcasted to help bring a slow but consistent change of a problematic mentality ingrained through the decades.

Frenchie said...

@Suhaib,
Wa'allieku assallam. I appreciate you and Pascal for sending you my way! I'd love to take you up on that offer

@Maryam This is not solely a Muslim or Arab issue. Sadly, the color complex manifests itself in all post-colonial cultures in some form or the other- Africans, Hispanics, Asians, etc. I'm happy to hear that people like you and Suhaib recognize that it's an issue in Cairo and the greater Middle East. The first step is recognition of the issue, then we have to figure out what we can do about it...

Novinha said...

I met a French researcher on the leave 3 years ago. He was working on the migration flows in Africa and more specifically toward Egypt. He confirmed how difficult it was for Africans to live in Egypt. There is many students studying to al-azhar or other universities. He told me that some of them were deeply depressed.
I agree on the fact that they are some very pretty dark women in Egypt but they still prefer the blonde ones. Look at the 70's or 80's movies. I have very often seen unattractive women (in fact totally ugly with the make up) in the first role. Blonde ones...

@Maryam, I wanted to give Bilal as a name for my son. Because I like Bilal's story, he is very important to me and because it was easy to pronounce everywhere. But I have been explained that people could make fun of my son.
Do you know any Bilal in Egypt? I know nobody with this name whereas it is quite popular among muslim communities in The States and in Europe.

Matt said...

So I was thinking as I was reading this entry how a lot of the same "color complex" issues that you mentioned are prominent throughout the world. Everywhere in Latin America I have been from the Caribbean to the southern cone all put whiteness at a premium (in venezuela I had some of the most beautiful women I had ever seen come up to me on the street and ask to have sex with me so they could have a white baby), in China ... well I don't need to elaborate there and then even in Africa I would walk around and I got advances from women or mothers offering their daughters so their families would have "white" children. I was just thinking about how much of an up hill battle people of our mindset are facing since these racial views are so prominent throughout the world. But then again, there really isn't any other option but to keep trying to correct what is obviously a flawed view.

Frenchie said...

Matt, growing up in multicultural Miami and having my first study abroad experiences in Europe somewhat shielded me from the color complex a lot. I never felt as if men found me attractive DESPITE being black but that being black-and foreign, multilingual- was a part of what made me so attractive. Often times when meeting French an d Italian men, I felt exotisized, they'd obsess on the color of my skin and insist on touching it (eck!). I think this flip side of the color complex is just as dangerous, I often feel like the HotnTot Venus in Europe.

On the flip side of that, my Dominican relatives insisted on marrying light and pretendibg to be white lol. Black could never be beautiful in their eyes, eventhough most of them were black or have obvious black ancestry. when I traveled to Korea, the extent Korean women went through to look "Western" and stay light was astounding. They all began to look the same to me because so many woman had the tell-tale signs of cosmetic surgery- wide, falsely lidded eyes, straight noses, etc. The extend that people go through to covet an ideal of beauty that is not their own is disturbing. It's time we love ourselves as is and reject Western standards of beauty that have been imposed on us.

Anonymous said...

The color complex is rampant, but there is also the flip side - more and more people around the world thinking that "Black" is cool - particularly Black Americans. In the countries and cultures that you have mentioned - growing numbers of people - the youth and the masses in particular have a definite fascination with (if not fetish) with Blacks.
I have personally experienced this in China, Japan, Phillipines, Venezuela, DR, and Sweden. Males were anxious to make my acquaintance to talk about America/politics and the women were extremely interested in "getting to know me better".
Of course my experience with the upper class types and aspirational classes of these places was were the colorism reared its head the most - especially in Latin America - of course the elites there pride themselves on their "whiteness".
I suspect your problems in Egypt stem from its Arab cultural overlay - Arab culture is distinctly anti black and African - and this has been so for centuries - the Egyptians have adopted this posture.
-Finally, the reality is the people always want to be associated with "winners". - As far as the 3rd world is concerned - their colonial masters and European imperialist are the winners and better. The instinct to "Whiten up" - is almost natural then - an inclination to want to be on the winning team. As the holders of success and achievement become more diverse, so will this desire to lighten decrease.

Anonymous said...

Dear Frenchie,

I really enjoyed reading your observation of Cairo's color complex. This problem may have risen out of Arab Egypt's inability to recognize certain historical truths. First of all, they seem to be continuing the awful legacy of a white supremist mindset which they inherited from some of the European colonizers and scientists. The Arabs of modern Egypt also find it to be quite convenient to incorrectly teach their children that they are direct decendants of the Ancient Egyptians. I believe that this is done in order to secure tourist money and claim a history that will be taught to children long after humans have colonized Mars, Venus and other out reaches in space. Since ancient Egypt was a mixed race civilization that had a Black African legacy, the Arabs in modern Egypt will need a lot of white paint to extract Black Africa from that human experience along the Nile. Lastly, please keep writing you are quite analytical!
Det,MI

FEM4Ever said...

Frenchie,

I hear ya girl! I came across your blog and I am very glad some people share my interest in this 'colour complex' thing, as you have eloquently expressed it.
I discusses it in my post here http://cairolifereviews.blogspot.com/2010/04/racism-and-prejudice-in-egypt.html

Mouktar said...

LoL/=( I have never heard something so funny and sad at the same time.

"stocked on the shelfs at every grocery store or pharmacy like beacons of hope"

Anonymous said...

Tragic. You'll find this in other North African and Middle Eastern countries.
Ive heard some extremely nationalistic Lebanese who claim decsent from the Phoenicians decide they are of European-Nordic stock as if European equals being better. People have been left with complexes about themselves as a result of slavery and colonialism.
Without denying the blatant racism in Egyptian society, isnt the subject of who is indignous and who is not another topic altogether and furthemore arent the people of Egypt allowed to choose their own identities. From what I gather, Arab just refers to people who either live in the Arabian Penisular and/or who speak the language. It is not a race of people. Im no dna or history expert but I was under the impression that during the Islamic Conquests the aim was to spread the new religion (by the sword). People who resisted were killed but those who submitted were converted. So, modern Egyptians might speak the language and practise the religion, some may even view themselves as Arab but they are still descendants of the ancients and they often still refer to themselves as being Egyptian. Their history does not start and end with that of the Islamic Conquests.

Anonymous said...

I am from southern Africa. I've never been to Egypt (yet) but have come accross Egptians in my part of the world. I first became aware of Egyptian racism against blacks from these Egyptian visitors. They themselves didnt recognise their racism, they simply acted as if it was normal to visit a black country and treat the inhabitants as if they were sub-human; or normal to make derogatory remarks about black skin.
I had always wanted to visit Egypt to see the Pyramids; however, my encounter with Egyptians-abroad left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Your blog simply confirms that such attitudes aren't confined to the ignorant few. Many thanks for that...

Kenyan said...

I'm from Kenya and I visited Ethiopia a while back. While I was there the maid who worked at the house we stayed in touched my hair and made an ugly expression on her face. She then touched an Indian friend's hair and proclaimed by her face how beautiful it was. I didn't know how to react. But I realized that there's an ingrained idea even in some African countries like Ethiopia and Somalia to think themselves as being better than other darker skinned Africans. But in my mind, I pity the poor maid, she was cleaning my clothes but thought she was better than me. It's not such a bad position to be in. As long as Africans can stop being the basket case of the world and scale the economic ladder the racists can continue in their racism.

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