On Egypt; the Racist Country We Love

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Mar 29 2014

Mahmoud Omar *                                 (Translation: Saqer Almarri)

After six failed attempts that always resulted in my return to Gaza, I managed at the seventh attempt to enter Egypt. The State Security took away my passport and gave me a yellow paper instead of it, which I kept with my high school diploma and some family pictures in the only bag I had. After exiting from the last gate at the border crossing, I bought a Vodaphone SIM card from a young Sinai man who was angered when I considered him, in good will, that he was an Egyptian. He looked at me with a look that may have not intended to be a deep look and said, “I’m not an Egyptian! I’m a Bedouin!”

After three years, I left Cairo for London, Mubarak was deposed, SCAF’s rule has ended, Muhammad Morsi won the elections, then Sisi kicked him off his seat. We had placed a picture of Sisi on our last apartment’s door in Wust El Balad [Downtown Cairo] for various reasons: for laughs, and to avoid suspicions from the neighbors. We had noticed that our plan to make everyone believe that we were Jordanians, not Palestinians, had begun to fail.

I had a brown mid-sized travel bag when I was leaving. I had placed in it my belongings, mementos, and questions that were far heavier than the twenty kilograms that was measured by the weight scale at the check-in desk of British Airways. In the taxi that took me to the airport with two of my friends, we listened to two songs that described Egypt in all its contradictions. Muhammad Muneer’s Bilad Tayyebah, and Anushka’s Teslam Al Ayadi.

In the airport, the police officer who stood by the boarding gate took my new passport in his hand. I had spent so much effort trying to get the new passport after the revolution that it felt like I was exorcising my soul out of my body, all this was because the passport taken by the State Security was lost. I could not find it in any of the State Security offices in Cairo. The officer asked me where I was going. He expressed astonishment that a Palestinian from Gaza was going to London. He looked at me quite suspiciously, “Is there nothing on you?” I put my hands in pockets and pulled out 10 pounds, which I gave him. The Arabic expression, “Concluded with a perfume” doesn’t apply to Egypt. In the Egypt that I know, the expression has to change to: “Concluded with a bribe”.

I had not spent much time in Egypt before I realized two issues that fought over the part of my heart that was taken by Egypt: I had fallen in love with this country, but I also had fallen into the trap that was constructed by the authorities which prevented it from reciprocating this love, or even offering any respect to me. In one of my errands, going from Zamalek to Wust El Balad, the taxi driver found out, while we chatted a little, that I was a Palestinian. He said, “We have a saying, ‘If one of your fingers is a Palestinian, then cut it off’.” I responded to him in a neutral tone, “Why would you say that?” Within me, I was wishing I could put my diplomacy aside, and poke his eye out.

These desires: to poke a driver’s eye out, or to spit in the face of the landlord who “does not rent to Palestinians” in 6 October, or to think of killing the university professor who accuses Palestinians of all car thefts in the country. They did not remain with me for a long time. As time passed by, and as I began to understand the complexity of the situation in Egypt, along with the serious shittiness in the hearts and minds of a great number of the people, I began to understand that it what was much bigger than all of us. It was the state.

It is possible to find a lot of racist prejudice among many Egyptians towards Palestinians especially, and generally towards all that isn’t Egyptian, Sunni, or male. However, what the Egyptians as a people have, in terms of a space, is nothing but a product that is easily marketable in the light of a broken society, a pitiful economy, and processes of reproducing “authentic” Egyptian myths and nonsense. The producer, the mothership of all this, is not the hearts of Egyptians, nor their minds. It is the machinations of the state’s media, and the strength of the “deep” state that distorts, misinforms, lies, and legalizes oppression and discrimination.

The security handling of the Palestinian, and treating all Palestinians on Egyptian soil as a potential danger to national security is not the policy of today, or yesterday. This policy has been fixed and applied for decades and decades. This policy has acquired its political and national dimensions after the signing of the Peace Treaty with Israel. Of this policy, the Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein spoke when he arrived in the Egyptian capital’s airport in 1972 assuming that the country would welcome him with open arms, instead security agents detained him for hours and hourse until he wrote: “I stand here in complete humiliation,/ in the airport of Cairo./ If only I was a prisoner/ In the prisons of Nazareth”.

Along with the security handling, there’s preventing people from entering the country, taking passports away, regular meetings with the State Security and State Intelligence, preventing Palestinians born of Egyptian mothers from gaining citizenship, and a massive amount of media distortions and lies that ebbs and flows, but never stops. I still remember clearly the issue of Al Masry Al Youm that exclusively published a phone conversation between a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and another of Hamas, where the Hamas member said, “We’re behind the Museum and we have slingshots.” When nonsense like this becomes frontpage news in the most important private Egyptian daily, I ask, “Is there enough walls for us to bang our heads against?”

It does not end there. Some well-known Egyptian activists said, (You see here that the pathetic distortions reaches even the “Revolutionary Youth”) “The Palestinians were guarding the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Muqattam.” What is their evidence? That armed individuals among the guards of the headquarters were shooting guns, and hitting people with their bullets! How can an Egyptian shoot a gun and hit a person? If he uses a pistol competently then he is a Palestinian, isn’t that right? Let’s remember also that the Gaza Palestinians have a plan to overtake Sinai, after they had “sold off their land”, and that the Qassam Brigades opened all the prisons during the revolution, and the cutting off of the electricity and gas from Cairo, because “it all went to Gaza”.

I remember very well my discussions with Jordanian friends, before the revolution and after it. They would always complain about the hopelessness of the Egyptian bureaucracy, or the lack of trustworthiness of taxi drivers, or how Egypt is a country that’s “not quite right in the head”. This, of course, is despite that their Jordanian passports protects them from the coldness of Egyptian racism. They had their confidence scratched and had lost their sense of superiority after they had moved from Jordan or a Gulf country, where Egyptians are a minority that are often subject to discrimination, to Egypt; the country that is full of Egyptians!

They concluded the line of complaints that they cannot wait for that moment when they finish their studies and leave this hopeless country, and head to Cairo airport with their passports in hand. Some of them even said they would really unbuckle their belts, take down their underwear so that they piss on Umm El Dunya until they unburden themselves before the aircraft left the Egyptian airspace. They were laughing, and I was too.

But I had no desire to piss on Egypt when I boarded the British Airways flight to London. I felt very sad, because I wasn’t leaving Egypt in a normal way. I was running away from Egypt. I was running away from its corrupt police, its ever-present army, and its twisted laws. I was running away from its traffic, newspapers, sexual harassment, its bridges, its yellow sun, its constant fail at making Salim’s nice cup of coffee.

I was running away from its constant racism for Palestinians in offices of the State Security, government institutions, in its airports and border crossings, in its media and banks, even in a significant number of writers, progressives, leftists, and revolutionary activists. I was also running away from those who still thought of Palestine the way Gamal Abdelnasser or Hassan Al Banna thought of it. These few people used to wear the Kuffiyah all day every day and ask often about the strength of the Popular Front, or the resurgence of the Palestinian Left, or knows the song “Fi Sabilillah Namdi”, and says that their life’s wish is to pray in Al Aqsa Mosque that is corrupted by the “Jews”.

But why, after all this running, that I treat anyone whose dialect is Egyptian as if they’re a lost treasure? Why was I upset when Ghana was won over Egypt’s football team? Why do I continue to test myself constantly on the names of the streets in Zamalek, Muhandiseen, Wust El Balad, and Garden City? Why do I curse London’s calm grayness and wish that I can have a cup of coffee at Al Nadwa Al Thaqafeyya’s Café to smoke half a pack of cigarettes before I head to Al Kehlawi to eat some livers, and end my day with some beer in Al Hurreya?

Perhaps because I love Egypt. But my heart that loved Egypt so much continues to insist, at the same time, to forget Egypt. It’s tongue comes out to me to say, “Do you love her you idiot? She doesn’t love you back! She doesn’t even remember you, and won’t remember you again. Only if you stood at her door for long, she’ll just throw you into her labyrinths again.” It’s as if this cursed heart would smoke a pipe, and cross its legs to tell me if I argued that I lived happily in Umm El Dunya, “Oh how in Egypt there is much to laugh about… But it is laughter in the form of weeping.”

Mahmoud Omar, a Palestinian writer, and blogger of Biography of a Refugee.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East