Egyptian law student Hoda Salem shares this short memoir, written during a workshop run by the Egyptian feminist collective Ikhtiyar:
By Hoda Salem
Translated from Arabic by Rahma Bavelaar
Someone stopped me while I was walking down a street in downtown Cairo and asked me for a pen. I was about to take my backpack off my shoulder when it occurred to me that my laptop was inside. Fearing the man might grab it and run, I said I didn’t have a pen. I was about to continue on my way when he stopped me again and asked, “Are you Egyptian?” His question caught my interest because the pile of papers in his hands suggested his request had not just been an excuse to ask about my nationality.
- What do you mean?
- Nothing, really. Just asking. Don’t worry, I won’t kidnap you.
- I still don’t understand the question. Do you always go around asking people where they’re from?
- It’s because I own a cleaning company. I mean, are you from Sudan or Chad or…If you’re Egyptian nevermind.
I stood frozen to the spot for a moment, blood boiling in my veins. I had to resist the urge to say: “The jacket I’m wearing is worth more than a cleaning lady could afford, you son of a bitch.” But instead I continued on my way. He called after me: “Miss, just a second miss, I was only asking.”
His words offended me deeply, but I was unsure why. Was my anger provoked because of his erroneous estimation of my social class or because he assumed I must be of a lowly status because of my skin color? I contemplated my reflection in the shop windows all the way home, trying to figure out what had made him think that I was a domestic worker. I felt anxious and could not stop questioning myself: “How do people see me?” I remembered my mother’s warnings to never wear bright colors, because “Not all colors are appropriate for us, Hoda” and “Only refugees wear these colors.”
Although we never discussed it directly, it was clear that anything that might draw attention to me was strictly forbidden, whether bright colors or dreadlocks. What mattered was that I made myself as invisible as possible to avoid trouble. My heart raced as I glanced at my fuchsia jacket in the shop window. I felt menaced, because during those few minutes of conversation I had been treated, for the first time in my life, with complete and naked disregard for my social class – my most important privilege in Cairo.
My middle-class background (significantly above average compared to most Egyptians), my private school education, and my employment in foreign companies have provided me with advantages that make it easier to cope with the racism directed against people with my skin color.
I have received special treatment in restaurants countless times because owners thought I might be African-American or Afro-European. The same happens when I enter a police station in my interactions with the officers. This privilege is lost the moment I decide to walk down the street wearing either simple or unconventional clothing, or when I take a walk in a neighborhood with a high number of Southern Sudanese residents or other African refugees, or when I stand in a dark corner with a male friend late at night. In all of these cases, I am treated in one of two ways: as a prostitute or as a domestic worker. In either case, I’ll receive humiliating and racist comments. This experience, outside of being mistaken for a domestic, different from my previous ones in that it was the first time the “class card” didn’t work. I reproached myself for it all day. I had learned that, under most circumstances, a few words of English with good pronunciation while standing in that dark corner would quickly remove me from the category of prostitute or domestic worker, even if the ID I pulled out confirmed my Egyptianness. Whoever was addressing me would suddenly choose to treat me with respect. For a black woman, my class privilege endowed me with no uncertain power.
For a long time, I had been planning to do research among female students from South Sudan on my university campus, about their experiences with oppression. I remembered how many times I had intended to go there to talk to them and establish a research connection. Each time, my fear that other students would not be able to tell us apart held me back, until I dropped the project altogether. I’d had just such an experience during my first year at university when I plaited my hair into “rasta” braids. One day in the staircase, a student pulled my braids so hard I nearly fell. By means of a practical experiment, she had wanted to prove to her colleagues that I was not wearing extensions and that my braids were “real.” As soon as I started yelling at her – “How dare you touch me? Who do you think you are?”- her friends’ attitudes changed completely. They apologized profusely for mistaking me for “one of the Southerners.” They asked me about my nationality “because you speak Egyptian Arabic really well.”
When several men offered me money in exchange for sex while I was on my way home on that same day, I remembered the first time someone had assumed I was a prostitute, when I was ten years old. At that age, my parents had not yet started their policy of making me invisible. I was wearing red and waiting for my friend in the street when someone offered me a sum I do not recall to get into his car. I did not understand at the time why someone would offer me money to merely drive me home. It only dawned on me that I was being violated when I moved away, and he started taking pictures of me with his phone. Every time I wanted to speak to or mix with the Southern Sudanese girls on campus, this experience came back to me. This and a thousand other incidents.
I learned to dress in a way that revealed my social class at university by avoiding the bright colors worn by Southern girls, and by wearing pricier items than the Egyptian girls from less privileged backgrounds. Some people assumed that my fluent Egyptian Arabic (the only language I speak) and my passport (evidence I had been Egyptian from birth) must have eased my integration with the other students on campus. The truth was that I failed to integrate either with the Southern or with the Egyptian girls. The two groups are separate in both the lecture theatre and around campus. They never come together. On campus, spontaneous racial segregation prevails and is echoed in interactions with administrators and teaching staff. Mixing with the Southern girls would cost me social privileges that I can no longer do without. To the Egyptian students, I am an alien. The campus represents my complete estrangement from society as a black Egyptian woman.
I am neither Nubian nor Sudanese. I am an Egyptian, whose Sudanese roots can be traced to my great-grandfather. Between me and the other students, most of whom come from far less privileged social backgrounds, stands a barrier I may not want to break. This extends to my dealings with the university administration. On my first day on campus, I made sure to bring along my relatively fair-skinned mother and my diploma from a private school in Nasr City to ensure a reception far superior to that extended to the Southern girls who arrived with me. Even after four years of study, I still, to avoid any mix-ups, present administrators in my department with the ID that establishes my Egyptianness before making requests. I learned that my social distinction, especially on campus, promoted me from the category of refugee – whose braids may be pulled for a laugh – to that of the private-school girl who can help explain the English material and translate the French sentences that come up in the professor’s lectures.
- “So Hoda, even though you’re dark, you aren’t really Sudanese. You’re 100% Egyptian. You have no idea what kesra and weika You have no clue how to wrap a toob. You don’t know a thing about Sudanese culture.”
These words were spoken by one of my Sudanese acquaintances when I argued with him that no country has a single homogenous culture, invoking my own experience as an Egyptian of Sudanese extraction as evidence. I don’t belong to either of the two cultures, but I know what weika and kesra are and I know how to wrap a toob!
This, too, felt like an insult, despite the fact that I have never identified as either Sudanese or Egyptian. My response to questions about my nationality has always been, “Egyptian of Sudanese origin.” I thought my inclusion of Sudan as part of my identity answered the key question on the minds of all those who ask about my nationality: “How come you’re black but so fluent in Egyptian Arabic?” Yet I hardly speak Sudanese Arabic and have trouble understanding my maternal uncle, who speaks only in that tongue. Maybe I felt angry and offended because this was another one of many ways in which I have been robbed of the right to know myself. Or maybe I felt upset because it confronted me with the fact that I am deprived of the luxury of self-knowledge. My color identifies me. My dialect and the way I express myself identify me. My knowledge of English identifies me. Even the way I dress identifies me.
I remember my twelve- or thirteen-year-old self, listening to Michael Jackson’s “Black or White,” particularly when he sings the line “I’m not gonna spend my life being a color.” I remember Oprah Winfrey talking about how she never thought of herself as a black woman and that she did not preoccupy herself with whether others saw her that way. I promised myself that I would never consider myself a black woman. I would not identify as black. Ten years after that promise – I must have been around eighteen – and after a long period of transformation, I learned that no matter how much I insisted on denying my blackness, my skin would still affirm it, my experience and my upbringing would affirm it, all the times I was treated as a servant or as “low class” would affirm it.
I was ten years old when my mother first straightened my hair with chemical treatments and forced me to apply whitening creams to my face before going to school. I still remember the way my scalp burned from the chemicals and how the smell of my scorched hair lingered for weeks, resurfacing every time I took a bath. I remember all the experiments my mother tried on my hair to make it softer; her attempts to transform me. Maybe to make my experience less black, maybe because she wanted me to resemble her: to be a lighter shade, rather than the deeper black of my father’s family. Every act of harassment I was exposed to, every time someone on the street assumed I did not understand Arabic, and every day I hated my color and my skin affirmed that I was a black woman – no matter how much I tried to establish the opposite.
I remember my eighteenth birthday. I gazed at myself in the mirror and asked myself for the first time: “Why can’t I be black and beautiful? What about the beautiful black models?” I examined my chemically treated locks and saw the coils pushing out at the roots. I decided then to cut off the chemically treated strands, and I did. Yet I still made weekly appointments at the hairdresser because I had no idea how to style my curly hair. I repeated the experiment at twenty-one. This time, I learned what to do with my hair from the internet. My whole household revolted when I cut it. My mother refused to take me with her on family visits. She said the sight of me with my short curly hair “embarrassed her.”
These two experiences with my hair tell the tale of my relationship to my skin color over time. Now, as I write these lines, fiddling with my short curly locks, like Michael Jackson in the eighties, I feel reconciled to my color and my experience. I refuse to be reduced to my skin, but I’m no longer in denial. I love my skin, and I embrace it. It is a part of who I am, despite the many troubles it has caused me. Today I remember Oprah Winfrey’s words and the deep impact they had on me as a teenager, and I realize they did not express the self-love I thought I heard in them. They were the height of a culture of self-hatred, imposed by a culture of whiteness; a racialized hatred that distinguishes us from the white man and places us on a lower rung, to the point where we completely reject and deny who we are.
I have now realized that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Neither the hatred of my color that I was raised with—at home, in school, and even through the television, with all its black stars and supermodels with light skin and soft hair—nor my denial of my color and my decision that it does not represent me will stop me from being exposed to racism. It will not bring me peace of mind, because I will never be white, no matter how much skin-bleaching cream I apply. Accepting my color, as a part of me and my identity, helps me distinguish between those who deal with it as just one part of my experience, and those who can see nothing but that part of me and include me among their friends only to prove that they are progressive and not racist. I know I will continue to encounter both types, as well as people who will reject me for my skin color altogether. I now learn more about myself and feel more comfortable in my skin every day. My relationship with my hair has improved after nearly two years of not straightening it. Some days are better than others, but, in the end, I love it and I think, for not being burned every three months, it loves me too.
Hoda Salem is a student in Ain Shams University Law School. She wrote this piece in the context of a workshop on intersectionality organized by the Egyptian feminist collective Ikhtiyar.
Rahma Bavelaar is a PhD candidate in Anthropology based in Cairo.