CAIRO: “In the past, I fought each day in the streets, now I gave up,” Nelly told Daily News Egypt.
Nelly is a 25-year-old girl from Cameroon who has lived in Cairo for more than 10 years.
“Samara,” or “Fresh from the oven,” are some of the comments she is subjected on an almost daily basis. Other harsher comments stemming from the cliché of a black woman selling her body are also directed her way.
“There is an unwritten rule in the black community: Never fall ill. In hospitals, you will be the last one getting a treatment – except if you have the money to pay an international hospital,” she continued.
But racist behavior also appears on a less aggressive, more subtle way. Nelly recounted: “Sometimes, in cafés or restaurants, people especially do not address me, but [will address] the Egyptian or foreigner I am with. They do not feel at ease.”
Joseph, a Sudanese in his 30s, told Daily News Egypt: “I have never been [harassed] physically in Egypt; but what makes my life here so hard, is the condescending look that that Egyptians constantly throw on you, as well as the comments you get to hear everyday. You are regarded as different just because of the color of your skin – and you don’t feel welcome at all.”
While racism seems to be a social issue in Egypt, Maysa Ayoub from the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies program at the American University in Cairo told Daily News Egypt that there are hardly any studies conducted on the issue.
“I only know that racist behavior is a problem, because the people with whom I work complain about it,” she said.
Moreover, the absence of an Egyptian NGO working on racism adds to the problem, which continues to be ignored.
“I am not aware of any organization in Egypt that works on racial discrimination,” Soha Abdelaty, deputy director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Daily News Egypt.
Nabil Abdel Fattah, researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, nevertheless sees some development. “I think people are beginning to see this problem. It will become an academic issue,” he told Daily News Egypt.
The little academic interest towards racism matches the fact that racism remains an unacknowledged fact in Egypt. “There is no conscience in society about racist behavior,” Nelly said.
Ahmed, an Egyptian friend of Nelly, denied the existence of the phenomenon altogether. “I’ve never seen any racist behavior towards black people. It’s not a problem in Egypt.”
Racism works in both directions; even though being white may have a positive connotation, skin color remains a tool of classification. “They [Egyptians] have an inferiority complex towards white and assimilate us with impurity, dirt and sin,” Nelly said.
Abdel Fattah insists that it is a universal problem, limited to the lower classes.
“It is not a majority attitude,” he explained, “not in France, not in Germany, not in Egypt. It is a lower class attitude. Some of the socially marginalized people have racist attitudes vis-à-vis foreigners because of the problems related to work, health or security. So they take the skin color as a target. I think it is a traditional, but not a serious, issue in Egyptian daily life.”
Countering this often used argument, Nelly however disagrees. “Racism is not an issue related to social classes; it is a phenomenon present in the whole society. In the lower classes, racism is pure ignorance, in the upper classes, it is even worse, because it is chosen.”
However, she recounted, “There is always somebody who helps me … It’s a question of humanity.”
In Egypt, black people are often classified as Sudanese refugees for whom Cairo is an important transit station in their resettlement process towards western countries. But as only a very small number of applications are successful, Cairo becomes a new residence for a majority of them.
“Some of these negative reactions towards our Sudanese friends reflect the Egyptian crisis – the competition between Egyptians and our friends of Sudan and Africa in daily life lead to increased tensions and violence. It is the attempt to find a psychological balance vis-à-vis the other,” Abdel Fattah said.
“They think we take away their jobs and get financial support that should be given to them,” Joseph said, “that’s where the hate comes from.”
Nelly confirms this stigmatization of the Sudanese in Cairo. “Usually, blacks greet each other on the streets. There is some kind of solidarity. But even inside the black community, everybody wants to dissociate themselves from being Sudanese.”
Joseph, who’s been living in Cairo for two years, says that Cairo will never be his home.
“I hope that my resettlement application will get me out of here soon.” Joseph concluded.
Nelly echoed his sentiments; “Egypt is not a country where I see myself living in the future.”
Even though she recognizes that the harassment is “less frequent than in the past,” she is not very optimistic about the future. “The rule is racism, the exception is open-mindedness. They still need 100 years to change.”