My African Dream

I’ve got an identity for every finger on my hands. Muslim, Arab, Egyptian, American, Marylander, North African, Middle Eastern, African, Alexandrian, Upper Egyptian, and even Zamalekawy. But there is one in particular that I’d like to focus on with this post, and unless you decided not to read the title of this post, you already know what that is.

Here’s the truth. There was once a time when I didn’t even consider myself African. Growing up in America, Africa and all things that were associated with Africa, were often tied to skin color. I was not black. So in my eyes, that was all I needed to know. I was not African.

And its an odd conclusion to have come to. My family can’t trace their roots anywhere else. Neither of my parents’ families has any history, known ancestors, or cultural connection to another part of the world. As a matter of fact, I was the first person from either family to have been born outside the continent.

But I grew up in America, as an American. And right away, you learn what it means to be African and American. It means you’re black. I never had a problem with that, it however, confuse me when my family identified as African. I just never came to understand that I didn’t have to see Africa through the eyes of the Europeans. I didn’t have to see Africa from their point of view. Africa is a diverse continent with hundreds, if not thousands, of ethnic groups. Twenty-five percent of Africans aren’t black, and here’s some new information: black isn’t a race in Africa. Africans are Zulu and Wolof. Berber and Coptic. Nubian and yes, even white.

As I learned more about Africa, I loved it more and more. This beautiful homeland of my ancestors. This diverse land of natural beauty, and cultural brilliance. But as I began to embrace my African identity, I realized that my African people, had a problem embracing it.

My family is Egyptian. While my family members identify as Africans, a large number of Egyptians, along with many other North African ethnic and pan-ethnic groups, don’t. Culturally, linguistically, and physically, they had more in common with Western Asia. They identified with the Arabs, with the Turks. With India and Pakistan, more than they did with Africa. They embraced Asia, and ignored Africa. They welcome people from West Asia, particularly the Arabs, into their lands as their brothers. And they saw the darker skinned Africans as foreigners.

This way of thinking, this colonialist mentality is a problem that we have in North Africa. A problem that is causing great issues in our societies. We were separated by the Europeans. They taught us we were different, and we saw ourselves as better than others.

There is only one way to describe this.

Wrong.

We turned our back on our people, our brethren and our ancestors. For Europe. Our colonial masters. We wanted so badly to be like the Europeans, that we lost all that made us unique. And while this is a problem in the North, it is also a problem among many sub-Saharan (and I don’t like that term) nations as well. There have been ethnic genocides carried out in the name of European colonialism. When an ethnic group in Rwanda is told by the Europeans that they are better than their compatriots, and for them to believe this, beginning a long story of oppression that ends in genocide, what are we to do? When borders drawn by the French and the British have you all emotional that you begin to hate your brother and sister who just happened to be on the other side, how are we to move forward?

We are not Europe. We should not strive to be Europe. But we can take a good example from Europe, when there is one to be taken.

I dream of an African Union. One, unified Africa. The borders drawn on Africa’s lands are not African borders. They are European, and they are remnant of colonialism. They should not define us. Color should not define us. We are a diverse collection of tribes, speaking thousands of languages. Rich in our history and great in our traditions. I don’t believe in Nationalism, but I do believe in love. In now way will I ever be an African nationalist, but I love Africa more than I can describe. And I want us to realize that together, we are a powerful and beautiful people. That no one is better than anyone else because of some European borders, or a skin tone. That we can one day live for the same goal.

We don’t have to be like this.

We can be so much more than this.

 

A Movie and A Longing

It’s been almost exactly seven years since I was last in Egypt. My relationship with the country is an odd one. I have no childhood memories there, I have no childhood friends there, and I wasn’t born there. It’s where my parents are from. Yet I do have my own memories in Egypt.

I moved there when I was in high school. I remember joining a local soccer team, and although I was not very good, I made some amazing friends while falling in love with a new sport. I got to experience my extended family, and fight with them over trivial things. I watched Egyptian movies, and got annoyed at Egyptian dramas. The food was much better than the US, no doubt about that, but the internet was unbearably slow. Streets weren’t that safe, but I don’t think I ever felt more threatened in Alexandria than in Baltimore. It was just something about the country that called out to me, and I did feel a connection to a homeland I never realized I had. I never meant to say goodbye to Egypt, because I always meant to return. Not as a tourist, but as an Egyptian. I lived my year. I learned the language. I met my family. But it wasn’t enough for me.

I always planned to return to Egypt when I graduated. But fate had other plans for both, me and Egypt. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 changed everything. Not for me, but for my circumstances. While I still longed to return, the gates of Egypt had been shut. Egypt went under military rule. Islamist rule. Military rule again. I was drafted into the military, even though under Egyptian law it wouldn’t even be legal for a foreign citizen to serve. The likeliness of my arrest and forced enlistment into the military became a real concern. The years passed. One, two, three, four. I graduated, with a degree in Political Science. I decided to go forward with my plans to travel, and got on a plane from the U.S to Taiwan.

Six years had passed, and Egypt was now fighting ISIS. Libyan weapons were being illegally sold. Journalists and foreign workers were being arrested. An Italian student was killed, presumably by the government, and as Egypt’s president became more maniacal, Egypt became more unbalanced.

Its been seven years now.

Yesterday, interestingly, I went to watch an Egyptian movie at a downtown theater. The movie was from 2009.

While I had never seen the movie before, I recognized a lot of the actors. The language, the inner jokes that the audience didn’t get. I was last in Egypt around that time, and this movie that I had never seen before, had me feeling homesick. Not the content of the movie. Just watching Egyptians from that time. Their interactions, their concerns. The building political tension for the revolution none of them knew was coming. Truth is, I follow Egyptian media, and I watch a lot of Egyptian television today. But it was the time period that got me. A time before the conflict, before ISIS, before Syria. Before the world had gone mental. A time I could remember, when moving to Egypt was a realistic possibility. When you could walk home and buy hawawshi without having to wonder if there is some dog in your dinner. Before fans got killed in football stadiums, when you could yell at the TV and complain about how Zamalek was the most annoying club on the planet.

I’m not going to write my thoughts on the movie. That doesn’t matter. All I got from that experience was a reminder. Our time is so short. Often times we make plans, but we are no masters of fate. Its hard for me to believe that its been seven years. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Egypt, and if I do return, I don’t know in what capacity. But I do realize now just how much I miss it. And it makes no sense. It is honest to God a miserable country to live in. Absolutely miserable. The water is polluted, the hospitals are understaffed, the schools are overcrowded, the government is corrupt, the streets are littered with trash, the cars are broken, traffic laws are nonexistent, the internet is unbearable slow, and the police are less friendly than the gangs. But that’s the weird thing about Egypt. You really have no reason to love it. You just do.

The Curse of the American

You wanna know something interesting about me? I was born an immigrant. My parents are Egyptians, and they had been doing a lot of traveling before I was born. It just so happened that I was born while they were living in Saudi Arabia, a nation notoriously infamous for how bad it treats immigrants. Now, having no actual Arabian blood and no Saudi relatives meant one thing: I could not become a Saudi citizen. Instead, it was Egypt that granted me a passport and citizenship.

And so I was born an Egyptian, outside the borders of the Egyptian republic, but not really inside anyone else’s borders either. Saudi Arabia doesn’t like foreigners joining their local culture. You’ll never belong, if you were never one to begin with.

Well, lucky for me, I don’t remember much of Arabia. My family moved to America in 1998, and they’ve been there ever since. In America, my family had a home. They got jobs, they sent us to school, and they made friends with people from diverse backgrounds. My earliest memories are in Maryland, in the US, but it wasn’t until 2004 that my family became American citizens. From birth to citizenship, I spent my entire life as an immigrant. The one country that would recognize me was a country I had little connection to, outside of family. I had an accent when I spoke the language. I didn’t understand the culture, often offending people by accident, but it was an identity I embraced. It was the only one I had.

“Where you from Retrieverisk?”

“I’m EGYPTIAN.”

“Yo thats cool! You ever been to the pyramids?”

“Err…no.”

“Abu Simbel?”

“No.”

“Aswan?”

“No.”

“Where you even born in Egypt?”

“No.”

“Do you speak the language?”

“Not really.”

“Who was the first president of Egypt?”

“….” (For the record it’s Muhammad Naguib.)

I embraced it, but I often ended up embarrassing myself. I knew nothing when it came to Egypt’s history and culture. I even confused Egyptians and Arabs, thinking them to be the same thing. But any real Egyptian can tell you, there is a pretty big difference. Thing is, I was Egyptian in name and blood alone.

America was a different story. I never really felt that American as a kid. I kind of always stood out, and as I said earlier, I embraced that. But I knew everything there was to know about America growing up. I was easily the best history student in my grade. I remember being accused by another student that I studied to show off. But in reality, I studied because I enjoyed history. And American history was so…action-packed that I couldn’t help but read. I was the only kid in my grade that knew who Aaron Burr was. What he did, where he was from. That citizenship test my parents were given? I could have passed that easily. I never felt American but I did feel a connection to America. It was weird, because I wasn’t one of the American people, but America was different than the Americans in my mind. America was where I went to school, where I made friends. America was my history books, my memories. But I was still an Egyptian. And after 2004, that line became remarkably difficult to walk.

In 2004, my family finally became American citizens. After years of traveling around, my family had found themselves a home. A welcoming home that took them in and accepted them as their own. And here is where things get weird, right. Because its not easy to go to sleep one night as an Egyptian, come home to your parents celebrating our new country, and then go to sleep as an American. Its an odd feeling, and it challenged everything I had accepted about myself. Was I still an Egyptian..was I more American than Egyptian…was I more Egyptian because of the way I looked? What made me Egyptian? What made me American?

Its the curse, and the blessing, of someone with a foot in two different identities. Its the challenge of balancing two different identities, turning your cultural conflict into one unique identity.

There was really only one way to solve this problem. I had lived most of my life in America accepting my identity as an Egyptian. I had to experience Egypt.

And nothing makes you realize just how American you are, than when you are in North Africa. Five minutes driving through Egyptian traffic and it hits you.

“Dude. You’re from MARYLAND.”

Thing is, Egypt is a different…everything to America. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. They’re just different societies. I moved to Egypt. I offended so many Egyptians, and I returned to America. Here was my reality: Egyptians didn’t really give me the space that they would give a foreigner when it comes to learning Egyptian culture. I should have known it all before arriving. If he looks like us, has one of our names, and has his roots in Alexandria, then he isn’t a foreigner. I was seen as a native son. And a native son shouldn’t act like an American.

But nevertheless, everything became clear to me. Of course I was Egyptian. Of course I belonged here. This is where everything I know came from. All those ridiculous stories that I learned growing up, they weren’t unique at all. Apparently, all Egyptians went to the same school of story telling.

“When I was your age we had to cross the Nile and fight the British to get to school.”

My mom’s favorite sayings that made no sense:

“A dog’s tail will never be straight.”

“They told the liar to swear and he laughed.”

And my personal favorite:

“Wait until your dad gets home.” (Nothing happened when dad got home.)

Apparently none of those were unique either, and they were as common as hummos among the Egyptian people.

It was all familiar and strange. A return home, and a new adventure. A cultural awakening.

The familiar made me understand my connections. How I was Egyptian. And it made me understand how I was American. When it came to my beliefs and ideas. Things I valued, the way I viewed the world. Where I felt most at home.

Maryland was the one place that best resembled a home. I’m more Marylander than American or Egyptian. I always felt like a guest in Egypt. And I never really identified with any of the other 49 states in the US.

All my life I’ve been an immigrant in one way or another. I was born an immigrant, to immigrant parents. We immigrated to America, where I was always more Egyptian than American. I immigrated to Egypt, where I was more American than Egyptian. And here I am. I finally understand who I am. And it doesn’t matter what passport I hold, because its not a piece of paper that makes me Egyptian, and its not a piece of paper that makes me American. Its the memories and the friends. The experiences, the history. Its a feeling of home, a feeling of connection.

I’m an Egyptian from Maryland.

Its a curse, but its a blessing as well.

The Evils of Arabia – Saudi Arabia is not our friend

Saudi Arabia is not our friend. They are not our allies. And I’m not referring to the United States. Time and again, the United States has proven that we are not a country in the market for democratic reforms, we have no problem committing war crimes and allying ourselves with war criminals. That’s not what I mean.

I’m referring to us, the general human population, those of us who desire peace and equality. Those who want to see the end of ISIS, the rise of peace in a troubled region. To those of us who care about such things, know that Saudi Arabia is not our ally. We cannot put our faith in the family that has ruled with an iron fist for decades.

The president of the Untied States, Donald Trump, was just visiting Saudi Arabia. He talked about the evils of Iran, the terror of Iran, and the regime that spreads darkness over in Persia. Ironic thing is, he was giving that condemnation of Iran from the only country in the Middle East with a worse government. A government more cruel, more authoritarian, less human. Saudi Arabia is a country where woman still cannot drive, where they are treated as a sub-human species. Immigrants from poor countries are offered no rights, living in constant abuse and in slave like conditions. The Saudi government is responsible for a genocide against people of Yemen. Human rights violations occur nearly everyday in that poor country. Saudi Arabia funds dictatorships around the region, one of the biggest example being Egypt. They have fueled a maniac dictator in Egypt, they chose to shelter the Tunisian dictator after his fall in during the Tunisian revolution. They propped up the Bahraini king, protect him when his nation rose up against his rule. These are not the people you want to put your hopes in. These are not your saviors.

There is something else incredibly annoying about Saudi Arabia as well. Somehow, and I’ll never for the life of me understand this, Saudi Arabia is being portrayed as the voice of “moderate” Islam in the fight against terror. Saudi Arabia – where they use Islam to ban women from driving. During his speech in Riyadh, Donald Trump told the Muslims to “drive out” the extremists from their lands.

Are you kidding me.

You were speaking in RIYADH. That’s Arabic for THE CAPITAL OF THE EXTREMISTS. Saudi Arabia is where extremism thrives. No amount of oil money changes the fact that these people are not who you want to lead the fight against extremists. These are not a great alternative.

Which brings me to the Muslims. Muslims who put their faith in Saudi Arabia and its king ought to wake up and see the reality of this family. This family uses your faith to kill their political opponents, police people’s lives, and perhaps most damaging of all: they’ve destroyed Mecca and Medina.

Mecca, the birth of the Islamic faith is now a booming Saudi business. Ancient and historical Arab and Muslim heritage sites have been destroyed to make way for hotels.

Imagine the Egyptians tearing down the Sphinx to make way for a hotel. Or the Chinese saying, “We got a lot of Great Wall. We’ll get rid of this part here, and we’ll build a casino!” The Saudi government actually throws away your Muslim heritage sites, to make money. From Dar al Arqam, the first Muslim school, to the homes of Abu Bakr and Khadija.

They destroy Muslim historical heritage sites, and they follow that up by sending imams to preach the message of the King, from inside the heart of Islam’s holiest sites. Preaching the faith of the royal family. This is not who we are as Muslims, because Salman doesn’t represent us. He can’t represent us. Any Imam that PRAISES Salman, who kills the innocent, oppresses those who live under him, and denies people their HUMAN RIGHTS, then he is no Imam for me to follow.

There is a famous story that is well known in the history books of Muslims. There was once a moment when the Imam, Omar ibn al Khattab, gave a sermon where he famously made a mistake. A woman in the audience stood up and criticized him, sparking outrage from the people in attendance. Omar, who was the ruler of the empire at that time, stopped them saying “she is correct, and I am wrong.”

In Salman’s country, he is never wrong. His family defines what it is to be a Muslim. They don’t speak for me, and they should never be accepted as the voice of Islam.

Long live the King.

Nationalism is the biggest threat to freedom and democracy in Egypt

The Egyptian revolution was a brief, three week period in the seven millennia of history that Egypt proudly claims. A three week period that brought forth a new hope that Egyptians can actually live in a free and democratic society. That being born in Egypt would no longer condemn you to a lifetime of service to the government. And for a while, that hope and that belief lived.

We are now seven and a half years removed from those three weeks, and Egypt is further away from being a free and democratic state today, than it was when the uprising began. Egypt took one step forward seven years ago, but it has since taken a hundred back. The final outcome after three weeks revolution, three years of riots, elections, deaths, and division, was that the commander of the armed forces took over the government. He staged an unconvincing election, where he won over 90% of the vote.

The Egyptian media demonizes all who speak out against him, all who suggest that his power should be reeled in, and even those who criticize Egypt’s uncomfortable deals with radical and extreme regimes such as Saudi Arabia. Egypt is a mess. There is no economic freedom, no press freedom. The education, healthcare and infrastructure is lagging behind other developing African nations. And yet, of all the things holding Egypt back, nothing compares to the monster that is Egyptian nationalism.

In a lot of ways, nationalism has served Egypt well. Nationalists tend not to care about religion, or political affiliation. Egyptian nationalist coalitions often include people from the right, such as Amr Moussa and people from the left, such as Hamdeen Sabahi. Muslims and Christians, men and women.

Besides that, Egypt has historically been able to avoid falling into the same conflicts that inflict her neighbors in Libya, Sudan, and the Middle East. There isn’t really a conflict of identity, as Egypt is an ancient nation, and most everyone living in Egypt identifying as an Egyptian, and usually a bit too proud of being one. This isn’t the case in Iraq, where your religious sect and ethnic group comes first. In Libya, your loyalty is to the tribe first, your region second, and Libya third. So my argument isn’t that nationalism is evil. It’s often been a great thing for Egypt. But it’s killing away any hopes of a democratic future.

Here’s the reasoning behind this. Egypt is run by the military. The Egyptian military does everything from construction, to cooking, to owning multiple football clubs. It is often said that Egypt is not a state with a military, but a military with a state. The military owns the country, and as such, history. Often times the people who know the least about Egypt’s modern history, are the Egyptians themselves. Ask any Egyptian to name all the presidents of their country, and they usually start with Gamal Abdel Nasser. As such, the military is synonymous with the nation. Any critic of the Egyptian military is a direct insult to Egypt. Thus, the people in power, the people responsible for the economic crisis, for the massacres of political opponents and the selling of Egyptian territory to foreign leaders, are the very people who cannot be criticized. Egyptian nationalism is centered around loyalty to the military.

During the coup attempt in Turkey last summer, the Egyptian media were celebrating the rise of the Turkish military to power. Upon finding out that the coup had failed, one Egyptian commentator, a man by the name of Ahmed Moussa, went on to say how Erdogan was a bad leader because he wouldn’t share power with the military. Now I’m no fan of Erdogan, but this line angered me. He won’t share power with the military. It’s such a simple line, but it explains a common mentality that Egyptian share. This is normal.

It’s normal for the military to run the nation. Education, construction, healthcare, infrastructure, football, the presidency. It’s normal for the military to own and run everything, but shoulder no blame for any setbacks or failures.

Any those who criticize the military, are enemies of Egypt.

Long live the republic.