I took this photo in 2009 on a visit to Cairo. It struck me as an image of Africa.
Most Westerners think of Egypt as Middle Eastern, Mediterranian, Arabic and Muslim, but not African. Ask a native of Egypt and he will likely say proudly he is a “descendant of the pharaohs,” Arab rather than African.
Yet Egypt certainly experienced practices that shaped most of Africa, such as Western intervention (by the U.S. CIA), European colonialism (mostly British) and foreign rule (by Ottomans and briefly, the French).
Shahira Amin did a piece for CNN’s “Inside Africa” in 2007 and an essay on Egyptian identity in 2012 and offers a good analysis. Of all the Egyptians he interviewed, none consider themselves to be Africans. First, he points out that Northern Africa is often not considered truly African:
For centuries, the Sahara Desert has been viewed as a vast impenetrable barrier dividing our continent into two distinct areas : Northern “white” and sub-Saharan “black” Africa. The countries south of the Sahara have long been considered authentically “African” while those to the north have been perceived as Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Islamic.
While most anthropologists refute this perception of Africa as “inaccurate”, it has nevertheless, influenced the way people think about the continent and our region in particular. Apparently, it has also impacted the way Egyptians view themselves.
Many Egyptians are oblivious to their “African-ness “, failing to identify themselves as Africans. When confronted with the reality of their African roots, some Egyptians are stunned, others reluctant to acknowledge the fact.
Though I hate to admit it, we are a racist people. African refugees living in Egypt often complain of discrimination and verbal and physical harassment on the streets. Egyptians look down on darker-skinned sub-Saharans as their “inferiors,” they claim.
Historian Jill Kamel confirms this, explaining that it may be attributed to the fact that across generations, Egypt’s elite community was made up mostly of lighter-skinned Egyptians whereas the underprivileged Egyptians were those toiling under the hot sun to earn their bread. “Egyptians have thus come to associate fair skin with elitism,” she said.
This may be the result of British colonialism and Ottoman (Turkish) rule in Egypt, a form of internalized oppression. Or these attitudes could be tribal in origin.
Amin concludes that Egyptians must learn to embrace and celebrate their entire heritage:
“If we hope to revive our glorious past and re-create the Egypt that was once a melting pot of cultures and a crossroad of civilisations, we must celebrate our diversity and take pride in our roots: African, Mediterranean or Arab. It is this mix that makes us who we are: Egyptians.”