It is hard to know where to begin when discussing xenophobia in Egypt. I am an Egyptian American, meaning that my father is Egyptian and my mother American. Although having lived in Egypt most of my life, my looks took on the fair skin and colored eyes of my mother (which is not a bad thing to me at all). But as a result, even when I am holding my Egyptian national ID in front of me, one might still ask me if I am Egyptian.
My whole life this has been an issue and the only difference now (after the start of the Jan 25 Revolution) is that it is just a bit more extreme. Now by definition, the usual curiosity or the yelled “Welcome to Egypt” cannot be considered xenophobia (maybe more of general lack of diversity in one’s society) but there has been a general trend of negative attitudes towards foreigners which I myself feel on occasion.
Some of the stories about how people have expressed this xenophobia is written in a earlier post titled A Letter To Egypt. I won’t bother with repeating any of those. However, since the beginning of the July 8 sit-in in Tahrir, I have also faced a lot of comments and rudeness. Right before the sit-in began, an official statement was released announcing that there would be foreign infiltration of the event and whether this affected people or not, I don’t know, but I have been hearing a lot of comments. I have been called both a spy and an agent indirectly, I have had people swear rudely as I passed (this has been reported by several of my other foriegn friends), I have had many people look at me in disgust and say that I was a “foreigner” as though that is the worse most despicable thing to be. And when I respond as any Egyptian (or foreigner) should with frustration or defense, they get angry, offended and start yelling or shouting. On Friday, July 8 I saw one street kid just shouting nonsensical sounds at a foreigner as she passed by him. I gave him a good scolding and then later told the people watching how disgusting it was of us Egyptians to treat our source of income in such disregard and no respect.
The last story I’ll tell is of this little street kid that came up to a friend and I and asked for food. He was hungry and just wanted to eat. I remembered that I had a cheeseburger in my bag back at our tent so I told him to come with me. As we walked, the little tyke decided to delve into politics and came to the grand conclusion that it was the foreigners causing all our problems. That’s when I reminded him that those foreigners and tourists are the reason why our families working in tourism have jobs in general and how now, when those foreigners leave, our families don’t have jobs. He had never thought of it that way and was a bit quiet while he began to process this new dynamic I offered him. Once we got to my tent, I then handed him the cheeseburger from MacDonald’s, and I only wish I told him, that tonight, had it not been for a foreign company, his dinner would have been something very different.
It is hard to blame people though, knowing that they have probably never had contact with foreigners. Where they live, they all look alike and rarely does someone come out looking different even in dress and style. But their attitude amazes me when it is extended to even Egyptians that look ‘not like them.’
Then to top it off, this xenophobic attitude is flowing freely in state media and TV. The government and SCAF continually use it as a means to control people and we, in a more than gullible manner, fall for it every single time. State TV is another issue though that is much more messed up then just their assisting in the growing xenophobic problems in Egypt. It deserves a whole post or two.
However, I will take this opportunity to take this discussion one step further. This xenophobia is not only a phenomenon among the lower uneducated classes (although it is strongly predominant) but extends even in the middle and upper classes in just a different form. Some of the activists and other middle and upper class Egyptians have a predominant attitude that anything American or foreign is biased and thus faulty and can never be used for the benefit of our own country. Although I am accepted among my group of activists and friends, I constantly hear comments disregarding research because it was done by Americans or rejecting a trainer because he is European and by endlessly poking fun at someone who speaks English instead of Arabic. They sometimes justify their actions by saying they are worried that people might call them agents and they worry about their image. The other commonly heard justifications are how these western or foreign democracies have hurt people and damaged countries and are evil, so we need to remove ourselves from it. (Not like our track record is better or even as good, but regardless, it’s a real issue that people speak about).
It seems strange that we are trying to isolate ourselves from the past and proven democracies of the world out of some strange fear of our image among the ‘people.’ It is also strange that we choose to despise these other countries for their mistakes and forget that we are in the process of fighting a much more corrupt and evil system.
My brother, David Mikhail, in an email to an Egyptian colleague as they were discussing America and the general Egyptian rejection of them, quotes, “…there are several democratic success stories in the world Egypt should look to for guidance. Despite the many problems in the USA, the founding fathers did happen to get a lot right, and to fail to glean any value from them would be an opportunity lost. But, unfortunately, I have found a deep rooted sentiment here against the influence of ‘el ajanib.’”
Our deliberate rejection of the outside world will be just as dangerous to our revolution as the acceptance of SCAF. Knowing that ‘the world is flat’ (Book by NY Columnist Thomas Friedman) and engaging in global discussion and learning, while maintaining a healthy measure of nationalism and pride in ones country and identity is essential to our success. I hope to see the day when we welcome diversity and love all people, when we learn from those who have hurt us (Western and foreign countries), and learn not to live in fear but instead expand our horizons of knowledge and learning.
These are just a few of the many qualities that underlie the Egyptian Revolution. Equality; the very core of a democracy and of freedom.
Special thanks to Abdel-Rahman Hussein (@ElFoulio), writer for Al Masry Al Youm English, who in asking some questions helped spark this post. His article is called Unleashed by the old regime, xenophobia persists. You should check it out.