Thank you, Chike, for the tag. Shahira again does an excellent job at being an honest reporter and dissident since before the Arab Spring (she was internationally known after resigning from state-run TV in the wake of the Spring in early 2011, openly stating that the station was spreading gross lies. At that time, under Mubarak, you could easily be jailed for an indiscriminate time, possibly lose your life, by the state over such a statement).
Harvey, I appreciate your comment about dividing identity into places or states, which is very distant from connecting to actual land, as a failing institution of modern identity mythology. I notice it as much in Egypt as I do in the U.S. If you allow me, I will return to this comment as a progressive phenomenon at the end of my rant here with more examples. But first I will provide some collective and personal history from Egypt, because I do wish to clarify through my experience how failure of this border-defined mythology does not necessitate that an Egyptian does not identify with being African. Much to the contrary for a sizable minority there who are black, olive, or even pale. I’m an example of that.
Much of the history about the Pan-Arab invasion in the 70’s, the dubious fascist yet neoliberal status of Mubarak and his always doubted intentions (leading to everyday torture. I know someone who was tortured by his police force to give away information on possible neighboring Islamists. Well, some know folks who were tortured for playing guitar, or for being gay, or for being too Muslim. It’s a common story in Egypt). Much of that history is summarized so well here by Shahira, and so I will skip to two pieces of augmenting collective history here that may form a bigger picture with this article, then some personal stories of Africanness in my family.
In elementary school, the “history” books in Egypt teach of the multiple invasions and colonizations that took place to its land and culture. Greek, Ottoman, French, British, Israel (the shortest invasion which supposedly barely fulfilled its agenda of occupying half of Egypt instead of just Sinai), and teachers even add the military and economic colonization of America to Egypt right now. However, when it comes to the Muslims invading Egypt, marginalizing local spiritual traditions, somewhat tolerating Jews and Christian Copts yet being quite merciless with local tribal traditions, well the history book called it an “opening.” The book clearly stated that it was a military operation, that it was led by a warrior called Amr Bin El Aas, but somehow this one invasion is called an “opening” – supposedly from the “ignorant age,” what orthodox Sunni Muslims tend to call any pre-Islamic ages of any territory.
I wonder how this event would have been recorded before the rise of Nasser to power in the 70’s. Now a bit more about Nasser, whom I heard was himself an Islamist yet sought to literally kill and eradicate all Islamists after his rise to power. As a military general (my father served under him, and Sadat, and Mubarak), he was quite brutal about uniting all identities in Egypt into being Arab, so as to form a larger military coalition to the point where some suggested that all Arab countries in Africa become one country. Of course, that involves the erasure and marginalization of much local history. What’s funny yet very scary for me is this: when you ask some folks from my father’s generation, probably a bit older, who they think of themselves as, you will find a diversity of opinion. Now think of the age equivalence of baby boomers in the U.S. Dad hates identifying as Arab, which I am actually more open to than him albeit never pursuing this exclusively. Many identify as Egyptian entailing that they are both African and Arab, possibly European. Especially liberals tend to do so. Ahmed Zueil, nobel-prize-winning Egyptian-American scientist, openly identifies as such.
Then you find those who have so much internal colonization – again, we’re talking that same generation – that they just want to erase the African part altogether. And if you remind them of it, you are quickly chastised in an attempt to collectively forget this part of an Egyptian identity and to simply repeat the mantra of being an Arab Muslim until you believe it. Now, the problem with the following generations, which I noticed during my traveling with my moving father back and forth, is that most of them were raised to only believe in being proud Arab Muslim, so much so that the intentional hiding and denying that I sense from the elders is completely forgotten. It is quite sad. It is sadder when one considers that the Pan-Arab movement was considered a liberation effort from European colonization, when in fact it was simply an alternate colonization by Saudi Arabian monetary and political influence – or rather an “opening.” During Mom’s generation, only two or three women in every school wear a head scarf. The equal number in a typical public school in Egypt today do not.
Speaking of my Mom, her father died when she was very young, maybe nine years old. A family rumor later on came round my way, and it was that he committed suicide, literally lit himself on fire. Seeing the dubiously few pictures my family had of him, he was tall, dark, and with a very handsome smile. He was quite African, which explains some of the genetic expressions that I and some family members had. Yet, since that family was majority Turkish, they bore a heavy European complex and reminded myself and other (usually female) cousins incessantly of the “ugliness” of every feature we have that was African. I suppose that’s why the majority in that side of my biological family found it very easy to adopt a heavy Arab identity by the time I was a teen. It’s simply replacing one superiority complex for another, but in a bit of a phobic way that still shows the sign of trauma and of intentionally hiding a memory. Unfortunately, the children only remember what they are told, and that is being an Arab Muslim.
There are phenomenal, liberation-oriented Arab Muslim scholars and artists and folks that I met who are just as critical of everything I reported here as I am, but alas there is a very troubling massive Tea Party-like Arab movement taking over especially Egypt. You will find less of that in North-West-African nations. Most Algerian and Moroccan folks are still very proud of and actively engaged in being African, which is why I personally relate to them. You also ironically find a strong Arab-African alliance with Palestinians, as well as Native American-Palestinian alliances, because of the strong tie of similar experiences of oppression and cleansing.
Funny enough, I connected the most to my sense of African belonging through traveling to America at a young age and through Black identity, philosophy, and art. Everything that was called “ugly” about my hair, my body type, and my musical inclinations, was glorified as beautiful by Janet Jackson. Moreover, as an immigrant, I found that I related the most to my Black friends, to Black literature in school, to Hip Hop, such that I found the most understanding and empathy and growth for me as this new American. In college, Womanism simply explained and fulfilled the conditions of my life the very most. Then, I found out about Egyptian feminists through that study, and that was surreal. I also found artists like Suheir Hammad who identified as both Palestinian and Black, and that was equally surreal and affirming.
To bring it home, Harvey, yes I believe that geographical divisions are utterly failing at defining what one will experientially grow into and adopt as an identity, same with genetics deciding someone’s race or gender. But to focus on national borders: more and more of us, I believe, are becoming increasing of the mixed experience, or the Borderland experience as Anzaldua describes it. Egyptians used to smoothly and easily see themselves that way. Many mixed-race or -culture folk today feel that way. I feel that we need to look more closely into the subjective experience of any identity as always entailing more than the ascribed label, even if one chooses that label to self-identify. What two Black folk would describe as being Black may be quite different, and a healthy and investigative culture that comes out of the margins, in my view, is one that enables those differences to interact meanwhile co-creating the common groundings of solidarity and support that enable for the commonalities and differences, even dissidence, to exist. A marginalized culture that disavows dissidence is just as dangerous of re-creating the conditions that led to its marginalization in the first place. I can go into countless examples as to why this is a warning sign that resonates in my consciousness today as an Egyptian-American.
Since the 70’s, Arabism and Islamism have been doing the same damage by eradicating difference within and outside of themselves, thus doing a disservice to both, as is Zionism in Israel, Christian Conservatism and [homogenized] White Supremacy in America, the romantic movements of Nazi Germany, and so on. Even the most oppressed, violated, and marginalized groups are susceptible to excusing this shadow, or at least that is always my fear and caution. Even with some harsh reprimands that I found among well-intentioned activist communities, I tried to be a reminder of allowing for dissidence and never developing too strong an ego so as to tip it over into reverse superiority, into excusing that other inferior peoples need to pay with their blood for one’s collective suffering or oppression. It’s very hard to talk about it without being demonized yourself, especially as a mixed person. A mixed-heritage, -gender, -class, or -ways-of-knowing person usually bears the knowledge of patterns and trends that show how “insiders” and “outsiders” may bear more similarities to each other than not, because you are a half-insider to multiple social worlds, and that is a scary knowledge to bear.
One pattern I noticed is: whether it comes from a position of privilege or from a position of oppression attempting to rise to privilege simply by re-versing the roles of oppressor and oppressed. It has always tore me apart how some of the very Jewish folk that suffered from Nazi cleansing are behind the same cleansing happening in Palestine now. (!!) Some Arabs suffering from post-colonial trauma seem to have the same idea, funded by Arab and European money that goes into oil and weapons. It really scares me, because it means that eventually all who disagree with the massive social psychosis will end up leaving their native land even more, leading to a larger exodus again for those who remember, identify with, or strongly honor what is to them outside of being simply “Arab Muslims” [usually Sunni Muslims. As a Sufi Muslim living in Egypt, I could not expose this mystic orientation without being doubted as an Egyptian, literally!)
Besides some or all Middle-Easterners now possibly reversing early signs of this collective madness that seem to try to rise right now, which is … shaking me to the bone, the last collective I can think of that I pray and hope never ever repeats the same homogenizing mistake is African cultures and identities and lands. This is where I would very much appreciate you all’s feedback, especially as Black social philosophers from different parts of the world in the SYBP network. How does one create an African unity and solidarity, the world over, that does not require one to subjugate or erase their local Africanness, with all the intersectionalities and mixes and uniquenessthat this would entail, to be trusted, supported, celebrated and defended?
I understand there are personal risks in raising this question, and I am willing to learn from critiques to the question itself, as well as to me asking this question, as I am willing to learn from answers to the question. I feel that as an African person, as an Egyptian, as an American, and as a human being (a planetary identity that has as many differences in approaching and defining it as well, especially in reaction to the dark trend of homogenization of difference under its banner as usually defined by the privileged tier), I feel that I have a strong stake in posing this question in community and discussing the repercussions of exploring it. I feel that it is part of my responsibility, especially bearing the knowledge, cautions, and hopes from my experience as an Egyptian during a time of significant change and tumult.
Thank you for visiting my new blog!
I travel between the narratives and magics of poetry, scholarship, activism, art, and meditative practice. I decided to share my bilingual (English-Arabic) transformations with the online community via this blog, under a pseudonym that visited me upon a star while I felt the deep weight of the challenges and gifts I encounter as an Egyptian-American and a journeying human being.
I am also very interested in an honest, informed, mythological-to-scientific, across-cultures, and always loving discussion on gender, romance, erotic ways of knowing, and human rights in light of sexual/loving practice. I always welcome your response.
Guided by a star in a vast, expanding sky, way up there in the roof of my heart, I write and speak this page. Then share it with you. I hope you enjoy it.